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Associated Press
U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, center, receives a flag, after taking over as new commander of NATO in Afghanistan.

New commander takes helm in Afghanistan

– Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford took charge of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan on Sunday as the coalition enters its final stretch of the more than 11-year-old war.

The new commander faces daunting challenges, including making sure Afghan government forces are ready to take control and orchestrating the withdrawal of foreign forces during the next 23 months.

Dunford, who will likely be the last commander of the U.S.-led international military coalition, succeeded Marine Gen. John Allen, who oversaw the buildup of governmental security forces and dealt with a series of setbacks – from Qurans burned at a U.S. base to a spike in deadly insider attacks that killed international troops.

“Today is not about change, it’s about continuity,” Dunford said during the handover ceremony at the coalition’s headquarters in Kabul. “What’s not changed is the growing capability of our Afghan partners, the Afghan national security forces. What’s not changed is our commitment. More importantly, what’s not changed is the inevitability of our success.”

The change in command comes at a critical time for President Obama, who might use Tuesday’s State of the Union address to announce a timetable for pulling out the remaining American combat forces by the end of 2014 and plans for a residual U.S. force post-2014.

Dunford faces the challenge of overseeing the drawdown of about 100,000 foreign troops, including 66,000 from the United States, and helping the Afghans counter insurgent groups, including the Haqqani network, that show no sign of compromise.

Dunford also must help Afghanistan secure its next presidential election in 2014 – the first ballot since the U.S. invasion that will not include President Hamid Karzai as a candidate.

“Much work lies ahead,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the ceremony, which was attended by senior Afghan and U.S. military officials. Karzai did not attend.

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