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New US Commander Takes Over at Key Moment

  • Al Pessin

A new commander has taken charge of U.S. forces in Europe, and will take command of all NATO forces on Thursday, as the alliance makes a new push to bring stability to Afghanistan.

It was the first time a naval officer took command of U.S. forces in Europe, as Admiral James Stavridis replaced General John Craddock. After the ceremony, the admiral told reporters about his goals for the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

"We need to pursue policies in Afghanistan that put the defense and the security of the Afghan people at the center of our efforts, all of our efforts, our allied efforts, our U.S. efforts, and so on, because that is the key to dealing with an insurgency," he said.

As the U.S. European and NATO military chief, Admiral Stavridis will command troops from all services and all alliance countries. In his last post, as commander of all U.S. forces in Latin America, he built a reputation as a military leader who makes use of civilian capabilities to build broad relationships with friendly nations.

Stavridis said that fits with the mission in Afghanistan, where the measurements of success, what the military calls 'metrics,' have more to do with civilian issues than battlefield successes.

"The metrics are not body counts," he said. "The metrics are everything from road building to agricultural improvements to improvements in counter-narcotics to schools, all of those are the metrics that are most important here."

Admiral Stavridis was reluctant to discuss specifics just a few minutes after taking command, but he said this when asked whether he would be seeking more NATO troops for Afghanistan.

"I am very interested in finding additional and alternative ways that the allies can contribute," he said.

That fits with the approach U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has taken for the past year, recognizing that while the United States is nearly doubling its troop level in Afghanistan most NATO countries are not willing to send more combat troops, although they may be willing to send trainers or equipment or money.

Gates attended the ceremony in Stuttgart.

"Our nations are again engaged in a war whose outcome and duration is uncertain. But I am confident we will summon the will and courage to do what we must in Afghanistan," he said.

The top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen also attended the ceremony. On his way to Stuttgart, Mullen told reporters on his aircraft this change-of-command completes his new leadership team for Afghanistan, with Stavridis joining the head of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, and the new U.S. and NATO commander in Kabul, General Stanley McChrystal.

"We all recognize that this is the team. It is sort of, Mullen, Stavridis, Petraeus, McChrystal, that must move this forward militarily. And we are very committed to doing that. And I am very comfortable with the relationships that everybody has in that regard," he said.

The relationships are important because responsibility for the war in Afghanistan is split between General Petraeus, who is responsible for all U.S. military activity in the Middle East and Central Asia, and Admiral Stavridis, who, as NATO commander, will have ultimate responsibility for the majority of U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan.

The complex arrangement has caused some confusion in the past, and Admiral Mullen says these new commanders will need to work together at a critical time, with the new U.S. strategy being implemented, more troops arriving and, he says, increasing attacks by insurgents as the summer fighting season in Afghanistan gets into full swing.

"They have gotten more sophisticated each year, sort of picking up from that point of view. But a huge difference this year is clearly the troops that we have there. We could not clear and hold in the South last year. Now, we will be able to do that," he said.

Mullen said the European Command / NATO assignment requires the "most deft touch" of all the major U.S. commands, the kind of skill needed to deal with dozens of countries trying to fight a difficult and far-away war.