U.S. forces are set to take over command of NATO operations in southern Afghanistan by the autumn, The Times of London has reported.
In a story Thursday, the newspaper reported that the current command structure, which rotates annually among Britain, the Netherlands and Canada, with a permanent U.S. deputy commander, will be replaced by two division-sized commands of about 30,000 troops each in the southeast and southwest.
The current system reflects the three main troop contributors when NATO forces moved into southern Afghanistan — taking over from a small U.S.-led force there — in 2006. But the size of the British, Dutch and Canadian forces already have been dwarfed by the arrival of 21,000 U.S. troops last year — with 18,000 to 20,000 more American troops expected to be deployed to the region this year.
The new structure also would reflect other realities. The Netherlands, which has 2,160 troops in Afghanistan, is scheduled to begin pulling out of Uruzgan province in August and leave completely by the end of the year. Canada, which has 2,830 soldiers in the country, plans to end its combat mission in Kandahar province starting in July 2011, with all forces out by the end of next year. However, senior officials from both countries have suggested publicly that their troops might continue to serve in the 42-nation NATO-led coalition in another role.
The Times reported that British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, who took command of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan last November, will remain in his post until the fall, when the new command structure is in place.
British defense officials are debating whether to push for a rotating command in what is to become Regional Command Southwest, according to the report. The new command will include Helmand province, where more than 9,000 British troops are serving alongside more than 10,000 U.S. Marines, the report said. By the time the new command becomes operational, those numbers will grow to 10,000 and 20,000, respectively.
The British Ministry of Defence had no comment, the Times wrote. The newspaper reported that Carter issued a statement saying that he expected 20,000 more troops to be deployed to southern Afghanistan, but that no decisions had been made on how the commands would be organized.
Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan, said that no decisions had been made by NATO on the command relationships in the southern part of the country.