A major reorganization of allied forces in Afghanistan will centralize both American and other foreign troops under the direct command of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the senior U.S. and NATO commander in the theater.
The move, which will further boost McChrystal's authority, came as his boss, Gen. David Petraeus, predicted 2010 will be a difficult year and that the fighting in Afghanistan will "likely get harder before it gets easier." He told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee he expects American forces to reverse the momentum gained by the Taliban.
Vice Adm. Greg Smith, the top military spokesman in Afghanistan, said the reorganization would integrate most of the 20,000 U.S. troops currently serving in the eastern part of the country under separate command, known as Operation Enduring Freedom, into the 100,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
NATO officials stressed that this will create a streamlined and simplified command structure, since both forces already are under McChrystal's operational control.
Smith said the new structure was not an attempt to rein in Special Forces operations, which have been blamed for causing many civilian casualties in recent months. But McChrystal has made it a high priority to avoid civilian deaths since local resentment sparked by such attacks has been a key factor in swelling the ranks of the Taliban insurgency.
"We're out hunting and targeting the Taliban every single day, but not (inside the villages) because that will result in civilian casualties," Smith said. "If an armed robber runs into a home, no police in the world will go in and blow up that house."
The new command structure will not require the deployment of any new forces, he said.
"It's just a matter of moving things from one account in the ledger to another," he said. "For the military, we clearly need unity of command so that elements on the battlefield are not working at cross-purposes with each other."
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates approved the reorganization before he visited Kabul last week, Smith said. U.S. Marine Corps personnel, currently under the U.S. Central Command, also will now report directly to McChrystal.
Operation Enduring Freedom, set up after the 9/11 terror attacks, covers Army, Navy and Air Force units involved in anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan, the Philippines and the Horn of Africa.
The International Security Assistance Force was established in 2002 and currently numbers about 100,000 troops - nearly 60,000 of them Americans. About 40,000 new reinforcements, three-quarters of which are from the U.S., are being deployed to Afghanistan.
Smith said that once the reorganization is complete, only small special forces detachments and a prison guard unit will remain outside the NATO command structure.
"NATO did not want to take over issue of detention, which remains in U.S. hands," Smith told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
In Kabul, NATO spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale clarified on Tuesday that the special forces that remain outside of McChrystal's command are a "minute fraction of the total number of forces who are here."
McChrystal will command all special forces except for detainee operations - Task Force 435 - and a small number of other troops, whom he declined to specify. Joint Task Force 435, which has oversight and responsibility for detainee operations in Afghanistan, took over the U.S.-run detention facility near Bagram Air Field in January.
"If there are a number of different units, and they are all in the battle space and they are all reporting to different people, it makes it very difficult to keep them all moving in the same direction," he said.
Smith also said that it was up to the government in Kabul to decide how it wanted to contact the senior leadership of the Taliban to try and reach a negotiated settlement. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has extended an offer to embrace any Taliban insurgents who renounce violence, sever ties with al Qaeda and respect the Afghan constitution.
"There is a strong desire to bring the insurgency to an end by whatever means, and ultimately we think it'll be a political one," Smith said.
The Associated Press reported on Monday that the Afghan government was holding secret talks with the Taliban's No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, before he was captured last month in Pakistan. Three Afghans confirmed the talks to the AP.
On Tuesday, Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, denied any direct talks between the Afghan government and Baradar. He did not deny or confirm indirect talks.