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Gen. Philip Breedlove took charge Monday as NATO’s top military officer, leading the 28-nation alliance at a time when its chief task will be overseeing the end of the military campaign in Afghanistan.

Breedlove, who also assumed command of U.S. European Command on Friday, replaces Adm. James Stavridis as the new Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

“Within the borders of our Alliance we enjoy unprecedented levels of stability, but beyond our frontiers there is uncertainty and insecurity,” Breedlove said during a speech at his new headquarters in Mons, Belgium, according to excerpts made available by public affairs officials. “As SACEUR my first and enduring priority will be to ensure that NATO remains vigilant and prepared to meet the challenges and threats of the future with agile, capable, and interoperable military forces.”

At the top of Breedlove’s agenda will be managing NATO’s transition from a combat mission in Afghanistan to a supporting role focused on training Afghan forces. Alliance officials say Afghan troops are already in the lead in most of the country, where, despite a massive 12-year effort by NATO, Taliban insurgents remain firmly entrenched.

With NATO’s combat troops expected to depart at the end of 2014, Afghan troops will be put to the test against a Taliban force looking to retake territory lost during a recently concluded U.S.-led surge that began in 2010.

Citing an increasingly capable Afghan military and lack of public support for the Taliban, outgoing SACEUR Stavridis, who is slated to retire later this summer, has said he believes there is little chance of the Taliban retaking control of Afghanistan.

“So, the Taliban don’t have the military capability, they don’t have a civilian society that will welcome them and they don’t have the political capital to take over Afghanistan,” Stavridis said in a recent interview with Stars and Stripes. “If I were in the Taliban, I would be very interested in how to come in from the cold.”

Afghanistan is just one challenge for NATO, which in 2011 led the air bombardment over Libya that resulted in the fall of strongman Moammar Gadhafi. With defense budgets on the decline in Europe, Breedlove will undoubtedly play the traditional SACEUR role of arm twister as he attempts to persuade allies to invest more in their own defense. A growing cyber security threat, managing military relations with Russia and streamlining NATO’s command structure also will be areas of focus for Breedlove.

In a final posting on his blog, “From the Bridge,” Stavridis also advised his replacement to be prepared for possible action on Syria.

“Keep a close eye on NATO’s south-eastern border,” Stavrdis wrote. “Be ready on Syria if called upon.”

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen presided over Monday’s change of command, which made Breedlove only the third Air Force officer to hold the position first established in 1951.

“You will quickly realize that the local community is very proud of its association with SHAPE,” Fogh Rasmussen said, according to a NATO news release. “And I would like to thank Belgium and the people of Mons, for the hospitality and friendship they provide to all the NATO staff who work here.”

Vandiver.john@stripes.com

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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