The 101st Airborne Division, which took command of the U.S. mission in eastern Afghanistan earlier this week, will preside over a crucial period in which additional forces could be brought in to fight a resurgent Taliban along the Pakistan border.

This week, France pledged to send up to a battalion of new troops to Afghanistan, with some officials saying they would be put in the eastern part of the country, freeing up more U.S. troops to fight in the south. And, in comments to reporters this week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates predicted an escalation of U.S. troops — already at their highest point since the war began — in Afghanistan within the next year.

In a ceremony on the 101st day of 2008, the 101st Airborne commander pledged to continue the work done by the outgoing 82nd Airborne command.

“We pledge to work together with our Coalition and Afghan partners in an effort to build a strong government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan … to improve the quality of life for the people of Afghanistan who have seen too much violence and terror over the last 30 years,” Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser said.

The area the division will command includes a population of around 9 million people and is roughly the size of the states of Georgia and South Carolina combined. The rugged, mountainous region is rife with militants who move back and forth in the border region to mount attacks.

The border stretches for some 450 miles and seven ethnic groups live along the area.

According to Maj. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the outgoing commander of Regional Command-East, access to basic health care in the area has increased to nearly 80 percent of the population and that there are now 8,000 more schools and 140,000 more teachers in the area.

“All of that is a large investment in a prosperous future for Afghanistan,” Rodriguez said.

The 101st Airborne, based out of Fort Campbell, Ky., has deployed some 7,200 soldiers from the division’s headquarters, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade and 101st Sustainment Brigade to Afghanistan as part of CJTF-101.

The division’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd Brigade Combat Teams are currently in Iraq.

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