NATO took command of southern Afghanistan from the United States on Monday and the new commander of the push to pacify the insurgency-wracked region vowed that he would not fail millions of Afghans seeking peace and stability.
An American soldier holding the flag of the U.S.-led coalition walked out of a tent shading U.S., European and Afghan officials from the baking sun, and was replaced by a soldier with the banner of the new, NATO-led force.
U.S. Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry transferred command to British Lt. Gen. David Richards, telling the audience at the dusty airfield outside the main southern city of Kandahar that, "The United States will not leave Afghanistan until the Afghan people tell us the job is done."
The NATO alliance's southern deployment includes some U.S. troops, effectively making Lt. Gen. Richards the first non-U.S. general to command American forces in combat operations, officials said.
"I hope and believe the huge significance of this renewed international commitment will not be lost on the majority who yearn for peace, stability and increased prosperity we came here to deliver," Richards said. "These millions of people should be reassured that they will not be let down."
The ceremony took place against a backdrop of continued violence. A bomb blast intended for a provincial governor killed eight people at a mosque service. And officials said that more than 30 Taliban had been killed in clashes Sunday, most in southern provinces where NATO has taken command
About 8,000 mostly British, Canadian and Dutch troops have deployed in southern Afghanistan as NATO's International Security Assistance Force expands its presence from the more stable north and west of the country.
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 killed hundreds of people — mostly militants — since May.
"Those few thousand who oppose the vast majority of Afghan people and their democratically elected government should note this historic day and should understand they will not be allowed to succeed," Richards said.
Taliban-led rebels have stepped up attacks this year, sparking the bloodiest fighting in over four years and threatening Afghanistan's slow reconstruction and democratic reform after a quarter-century of war.
The insurgents have escalated roadside bombings and suicide attacks, mounting brazen attacks on several small towns and district police stations — a tactic rarely seen in the previous four years.
NATO hopes to bring a new strategy to dealing with the Taliban rebellion: establishing bases rather than chasing militants. It is also wants to win the support of locals by creating secure zones where development can take place.
But questions remain whether it can quell the violence enough to let aid workers get to work in a lawless and impoverished region, where about a quarter of Afghanistan's huge opium crop is grown.
Another challenge for NATO will be to stem what Afghan and some Western officials say is cross-border infiltration of militants from neighboring Pakistan.
"The war on terrorism began here in Afghanistan and it continues today. We must never forget that," he said.
He told the ceremony, attended by Afghan officials, and officers and diplomats of nations who have contributed to the NATO force, that the international community, too, must remain "fully committed."
The U.S.-led coalition now is focusing its attention on eastern Afghanistan, where al Qaeda and Taliban also are active.
The U.S.-led coalition first deployed in Afghanistan nearly five years ago to unseat the hard-line Taliban regime for harboring Osama bin Laden.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said the increase in NATO forces would not mean a cut in the support from the United States, which he thanked for its contribution in bringing "peace and security to a war-torn nation."
NATO conducted aerial combat operations during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, but has yet to conduct major ground combat operations since being founded in 1949 as a deterrent against the Soviet bloc.
The takeover in the south follows three days of intense fighting that left more than 50 Taliban and eight others dead.
A bomb planted in a car exploded near a mosque Monday in Farmay Adha, an area 12 miles south of the Nangarhar provincial capital of Jalalabad, killing eight, including five police and three children, officials said. Sixteen others were wounded.
Thousands of mourners had gathered in and around the mosque to mark the death of Younis Khalis, a former mujahedeen commander and Islamic hard-liner, who died July 19.
The provincial police chief, Gen. Abdul Basir Solangi, blamed the Taliban for the bombing, which he believed was aimed at Nangarhar provincial Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai, who drove away from the mosque minutes before the explosion.
Sherzai escaped a May 3 assassination attempt when a bomb planted in a jeep exploded outside his office.
Some 200 Afghan forces killed 23 Taliban insurgents Sunday in raids on two hide-outs near the Helmand provincial town of Garmser, which Taliban forces overran and briefly took control of earlier this month, police said.
Another 10 insurgents were killed Sunday while fighting Afghan troops in clashes in southeastern Paktika province, and four were detained. Four militants died in separate explosions while planting bombs in southern Kandahar province.
Coalition and Afghan troops killed 20 militants on Saturday in southern Uruzgan province, where some 1,500 Dutch troops have deployed.
On a visit to Afghanistan on Sunday, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said many Taliban fighters were crossing from Pakistan to stage attacks, and urged Pakistan to step up efforts to stop them.
Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in its war on terrorism, says it does all it can to patrol the porous Afghan border.