Change In Personnel, Not Mission

Members of the 505th Parachute Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division
An attempted rocket attack against the U.S. base in Kandahar demonstrates that the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban is not over, the new commander of the American task force in southern Afghanistan said Wednesday.

Col. Michael S. Linnington took over as commanding officer of the 3rd brigade, 101st Airborne, one day after four rockets were fired at the base just outside the southwestern provincial capital.

"We took the rocket attack very seriously and took measures," Linnington said. "There is still a threat. If there was no threat we wouldn't be here...there are attacks to be conducted in the future and we hope to prevent them."

Two of six rockets aimed at the base struck within two miles of the Kandahar airport's runway, apparently the intended target. Two other missiles fell short and two failed to fire. They were found by a Canadian patrol.

As many as 3,000 troops from the elite 82nd Airborne Division are heading overseas this summer, to replace air assault soldiers from the 101st Air assault Division. Most of them are going to Afghanistan, although some are slated for Uzbekistan.

Most Fort Bragg, N.C., soldiers had been on the sidelines of Operation Enduring Freedom since Sept. 11, except for Special Forces soldiers who operated in small groups to stalk the enemy.

"It's an honor and an opportunity to help get rid of this threat," said Lt. Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 3rd battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. His 600 to 800 troops will be the first wave to depart later this month.

Meanwhile, the German government Wednesday approved keeping some 1,100 German soldiers in the international security force for Afghanistan for another six months. The Cabinet decision requires parliamentary approval.

It makes good on a pledge by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder during a visit to the German base in Kabul last month. He said the force remains necessary to provide security for the post-Taliban government led by Hamid Karzai as it seeks to rebuild the war-ravaged country.

Linnington said his job was to conduct combat operations "to prevent those attacks from happening and to try and find those people responsible prior to them initiating them."

He said the U.S.-led coalition's mission had not changed following the pullout of some Pakistani troops assisting with operations on their side of Afghanistan's porous border for possible deployment to the Kashmir area due to tensions with India.

"Our mission here remains the same. We're here to defend the airfield and to conduct future combat operations as required and we're prepared to do that," Linnington said. "We're prepared to conduct an operation tomorrow if we have to."

Schweitzer said his soldiers were excited to go to Afghanistan, but "it's a tempered excitement. This is serious stuff and they are taking it seriously."

"We've been on pins and needles since Sept. 11," said maintenance technician Rick Ledbetter, a warrant officer assigned to the division, but not a member of the 505th.

The operation will be known as Task Force Panther, after the winged panther featured on the regiment's crest.

Col. James Huggins, commander of the 505th, said the troops would provide security, collect intelligence, process detainees and assist with humanitarian relief as well as make combat patrols.

"The 101st has done an exceptional job in a very austere country," said Huggins, like Schweitzer already dressed in tan desert camouflage uniforms instead of the green style usually worn at Fort Bragg.

When the 82nd troops arrive in Afghanistan, more than half the approximately 7,000 U.S. troops in the area will be from North Carolina bases.

The change-of-command ceremony installing Linnington was attended by Kandahar provincial Governor Gul Agha and Afghan military officials. Agha's offices were the target of a bomb attack last week that injured one man. Attack helicopters flew overheard during the short ceremony.

It was the brigade's first command change during combat since the Vietnam War. Known as Task Force Rakassan, the 3rd brigade is based in Fort Campbell, Ky.

"Our work is not done...We will continue to send this great combat team into harm's way, into combat," said Maj. Gen. Richard Cody, who commands the 101st Airborne.

Col. Frank Wiercinski, the outgoing Rakassan commander, asked troops to continue the "fight of our generation."

"You are in a combat zone, you continue to fight," Wiercinski said. "Keep up the fight of our generation to rid the world of this scourge. You are the high moral high ground."