KABUL: The US general charged with winding down NATO's war in Afghanistan after more than a decade of fighting took command of all foreign forces in the country on Sunday, as his predecessor declared the transition to local forces constituted ''victory''.

''This insurgency will be defeated over time by the legitimate and well-trained Afghan forces that are emerging today, who are taking the field in full force this spring,'' said the outgoing commander, General John Allen, at a modest ceremony to mark the change in leadership.

''Afghan forces defending Afghan people, and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory, this is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.''

The first challenge for his successor, General Joseph Dunford, will be to speed up the final transfer responsibility for security to the Afghan police and army, putting them in control across the country this northern spring, before the handover planned for late summer.

That shift in control will help pave the way for all NATO forces to head home by the end of next year, leaving Afghans to fight the Taliban alone. A small number of US soldiers may stay behind to train Afghanistan's military and to hunt down suspected al-Qaeda members along the border with Pakistan but the US has explicitly said they would not take on the domestic insurgency.

General Dunford is expected to be the last of more than a dozen NATO and US commanders of the International Security Assistance Force since the Taliban was toppled in 2001. The hardline Islamist group then launched an insurgency that has lasted ever since.

General Dunford has long been friends with General Allen, who has been the longest-serving NATO commander in Afghanistan, spending nearly 19 months fighting a powerful insurgency and grappling with a string of diplomatic challenges.

Despite high levels of violence across much of Afghanistan, and precarious security even in areas where Western nations risked soldiers' lives and lavished hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to help prop up the central government, General Allen said he had more optimism than when he arrived, because of the growing strength of Afghan security forces.

''Frankly, looking back on that day … I did not have the sense of optimism that I have now, as I stand here before you today. The optimism and the very real sense of knowing that we will be victorious,'' General Allen said.

He conceded it would be hard to define the end of a war expected to continue long after most foreign soldiers return home.

''Our victory here may never be marked by a parade or a point in time on a calendar when victory is declared,'' General Allen said in a few sentences of advice to his successor.

General Dunford is a Boston native who served in Iraq and has degrees in international relations and development.

His new job has earned a reputation as a poisoned chalice.

Two of his last four predecessors were fired. The seeds of destruction for the career of a third, General David Petraeus, appear to have been laid in Afghanistan, where a close friendship with the woman who later became his lover first flourished.

Guardian News & Media