NATO forces officially took command of security operations in southern Afghanistan from the U.S.-led coalition force, as the country faces its worst violence since the Taleban regime was ousted in 2001. NATO will sharply increase its forces in the country, in one of the toughest missions the alliance has taken on since its creation.
The official hand over ceremony took place in the southern city of Kandahar, the Taleban's traditional stronghold in southern Afghanistan.
The United States transferred authority for security operations to NATO, which now commands eight-thousand mostly British, Dutch and Canadian troops in the region.
NATO commander Lieutenant General David Richards said the new deployment represents a significant step toward securing the insurgency-wracked area. "I hope and believe that the huge significance of this renewed international commitment will not be lost on the majority who yearn for peace, stability and the increasing prosperity we came here to deliver," he said.
Violence throughout the country is surging and the Taleban-led insurgency appears to be gaining momentum.
A powerful car bomb in eastern Afghanistan killed at least eight people, including three children and seriously injured several others. Local officials say Taleban insurgents likely planned the attack.
NATO says it is deploying an additional eight-thousand troops to Afghanistan by mid-August to help improve security.
General Richards said he expects NATO to maintain military operations in the region for at least three to five years.
U.S. officials have also repeatedly said the NATO takeover in the south does not mean America's role in Afghanistan would be diminished.
Speaking to reporters, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry said the United States will continue to play a key role in security operations as a leading member of the NATO alliance.
He also stressed that U.S. troops will still maintain their own separate counter-terrorism strike force. "The War on Terrorism began here in Afghanistan and it continues today. We must never forget that ... and I can assure you the United States will fulfill its pledge to the Afghan people," he said.
The United States has more than 20-thousand troops in Afghanistan. NATO says it will have an equal number by the end of the year.