The U.S. four-star general who assumed command Sunday of the nearly 100,000 U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan will be facing the same challenges, particularly in putting in place a viable security apparatus in the country after 2014 amidst continuing threat from militant groups.
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford took over the command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from his fellow U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen at a change-of- command ceremony held here February 10.
"It is a change of command. It is not a change of war strategy. I think the new NATO commander would obviously stick to the same strategy that his predecessors had in the past," a local military expert, retired General Abdul Ghafar Gardezi, told Xinhua.
Gardezi said that the challenges ahead remain as anti- government elements, notably the Taliban, are still determined to make it difficult for the Afghan government to maintain peace and order after the withdrawal of all foreign forces in 2014.
Gardezi, a former Afghan army commander, said that making sure that the Afghan forces are ready to take full control of the country's security apparatus and countering the so-called "green on blue" or insider attacks would be the difficult tasks for Gen. Dunford.
After the Afghan security forces assume the operational lead across the country by spring this year, and ISAF will move into an advisor-support role with a final withdrawal slated for the end of next year.
The Taliban has been waging an insurgency since it was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
Currently there are about 100,000 NATO forces, with nearly 66, 000 of them Americans, stationed in the country but these did not prove to be deterrent enough to stop the Taliban from staging suicide bombings and frontal attacks on government installations.
"Today is not about change, it's about continuity," said General Dunford during the change-of-command ceremony. "I'll endeavor to continue the momentum of the campaign and support the people of Afghanistan as they seize the opportunity for a brighter future."
Dunford will also have to keep the military-to-military relationship between ISAF and the Pakistan military since Pakistan plays a critical role in bringing about peace in Afghanistan.
"Gen. Allen also played a critical role in stabilizing relations with neighboring Pakistan after a series of crises in 2011 had threatened to fracture the partnership with Pakistan," according to a statement issued by ISAF on Sunday.
"Under Allen's leadership, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), what Gen. Allen has called the 'defeat mechanism of the insurgency,' reached their target strength of 352,000 and are now leading the vast majority of operations across the country, " the ISAF statement added.
However, many Afghans fear that their security forces, that still face shortcomings such as lack of heavy weaponry and air power, may not be capable of securing the war-battered country, which was hit by frequent militant attacks even when the bulk of U. S. troops were still present.
Allen, in his latest interview with the local media, said that uncertainty of the Afghan people about their future is biggest concern for him as he leaves the post.
"There is uncertainty right now because we are still in a conflict. And yes, there is uncertainty because we haven't achieved all we would like to achieve in terms of governmental capacity and countering corruption," said Allen, who served since July 2011, making him the longest-serving ISAF commander in the 11- year-old campaign.
Under the U.S. President Barack Obama's withdrawal plan, the last of 33,000 U.S. surge troops deployed to Afghanistan had pulled out of the country in September last year.
The ANSF and NATO troops have completed transition in the first three of five tranches of provinces and districts across the country. The Afghan national security forces took full control of areas where about 75 percent of the population lives.
The U.S. government is set to announce the next phase of NATO troop's drawdown in the coming months.