Kabul, Afghanistan Thirty suspected Taliban were killed on the eve of NATO taking charge of multinational forces in southern Afghanistan in what will be the first time the alliance has conducted land combat operations, officials said Sunday.
A NATO-led force, made up mostly of British, Canadian and Dutch troops, will take over in the south today from a U.S.-led anti-terror coalition that was first deployed nearly five years ago to unseat the hardline Taliban regime for harboring Osama bin Laden.
The mission is considered the most dangerous and challenging in the Western alliance's 57-year history. It coincides with the deadliest upsurge in fighting in Afghanistan since late 2001 that has left hundreds of people, mostly militants, dead.
"In one sense it is historical," said British Lt. Gen. David Richards, the commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
"But also it is important for the world that Afghanistan is not allowed to be tipped back to its pre-9-11 state and allow a Taliban lookalike government with its sympathies to come back into power," he said.
The NATO alliance has conducted aerial combat operations during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s, but it has yet to conduct major ground combat operations since it was founded in 1949 as a deterrent against the Soviet Bloc.
NATO officials say Richards will effectively become the first non-U.S. general to command American forces in combat operations. The alliance's 8,000-strong NATO deployment in the south includes some U.S. troops.
NATO already has troops in the more stable regions of Kabul, the north and west of the country. Most of the forces deployed to the south were moved into the region months back, but until now have operated under coalition command.
The coalition will continue to work in the unstable east of Afghanistan, where al-Qaida and Taliban are also active.
NATO is hoping to bring a new strategy to dealing with the Taliban rebellion: establishing bases rather than chasing militants, and is also hoping to win the support of local people by creating secure zones where development can take place.
But questions remain whether they can quell the violence enough to allow aid workers to get to work in a lawless and impoverished region, where about a quarter of Afghanistan's huge opium crop is grown, and the narcotics trade fuels the insurgency.