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US Will Not Take NATO Command in Southern Afghanistan

The Pentagon has put an end to talk of expanding the U.S. command zone in Afghanistan to the volatile southern region, announcing an agreement for other nations to command the NATO effort in the area for the next 2 1/2 years. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says the United States has reached agreement with the Netherlands and Britain for those countries to each command the southern Afghanistan effort for a year, starting in November when Canada ends its rotation.

There had been talk of putting an American headquarters in the area, and making the assignment permanent, to bring to bear U.S. counterinsurgency experience gained in Eastern Afghanistan, and in Iraq. In addition, U.S. generals had expressed concern about the NATO plan to rotate the southern command every nine months, which they believe is disruptive.

Morrell indicated the agreement U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates reached with his Dutch and British counterparts is designed to solve that problem by going to 12-month tenures, without installing a permanent U.S. command.

"We believe this new arrangement, and our allies clearly do as well because they have agreed to it, will provide greater predictability, continuity, stability in this volatile but vitally important region of Afghanistan," he said.

NATO and U.S. forces have encountered a resurgent Taliban in southern Afghanistan, fueled by support from allies across the border in Pakistan.

Just a few hours before Morrell announced the agreement for other nations to command the southern Afghanistan effort until November of 2010, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, American General Dan McNeil, told reporters in a video teleconference he believes one nation should be put in permanent command in the region, as has been done in other parts of the country.

"I am in favor of dialogue with the policy-makers and the politicians about the feasibility, and even the viability, of having one country in command in the south, but indeed in command of a multi-national headquarters that fairly represents those stakeholders in the south," he said.

A similar view has been expressed by General McNeil's boss, another American four-star general, John Craddock, the NATO supreme commander. Morrell was asked about the two senior American generals advocating a different approach than the one Secretary Gates just agreed to for the area, which the military calls Afghanistan's Regional Command-South.

"General McNeil and General Craddock are certainly entitled to their opinions in this, but we work with allies in RC-South and throughout the country, and we take their considerations into account," he said.

Morrell also noted that the United States is expected to take a turn commanding the southern Afghanistan region after the Dutch and the British assignments.

That means the United States will not be in command in the key area until more than two years into the expected tenure of General David Petraeus as the head of U.S. Central Command. The command oversees all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, except for the part of the Afghan operation that is run by NATO. Some analysts had hoped General Petraeus might be given more authority in Afghanistan, in order to apply the counterinsurgency experience he gained as commander in Iraq.

The Afghanistan command structure is complicated, with NATO holding nationwide responsibility for counterinsurgency and nation-building, and the United States commanding the NATO eastern region and also separately heading the remnants of the coalition that invaded in 2001 and now primarily hunts for terrorists. U.S. officials have said they are continually looking for ways to streamline the Afghanistan command.