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U.S. commander in Afghanistan gets more authority

General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, walks during a visit to the Afghan border with Pakistan, near Spin Boldak in Kandahar Province, southern Afghanistan, March 4, 2010. REUTERS/Peter Graff

General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, walks during a visit to the Afghan border with Pakistan, near Spin Boldak in Kandahar Province, southern Afghanistan, March 4, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Peter Graff

OTTAWA (Reuters) – U.S. General David Petraeus said on Thursday he had expanded the authority of his top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to give him operational control over virtually all American forces in the country.

Officials in Washington said the move was part of an effort to further streamline the military hierarchy in Afghanistan.

McChrystal commands U.S. and NATO troops there — except for U.S. Special Operations forces and prison guards who run detention facilities and answer to Petraeus, they said.

Special Ops have come under scrutiny since a NATO airstrike late last month killed 27 Afghan civilians. U.S. officials say Special Ops called in the strike.

McChrystal has sought to curtail the use of air power, arguing that civilian deaths hurt a campaign to win over the local population and defeat Taliban insurgents.

Speaking to a defense conference in Ottawa, Petraeus said he had ordered that “all U.S. forces, less a handful, be placed there under General McChrystal’s operational, not just tactical, control.”

As head of U.S. Central Command, Petraeus oversees wars in Afghanistan as well as Iraq.

He said his order consolidating command under McChrystal was issued within the past week after “considerable discussion … within the U.S. Department of Defense.”

Petraeus did not say which handful of forces would not be covered by the order.

“This is a significant development. It will provide General McChrystal authorities that I never had as the commander in Iraq — though I wish I had them — and that his predecessors never had in Afghanistan either,” Petraeus said.

McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy emphasizes seizing population centers and avoiding combat in built-up areas whenever possible to avert civilian deaths. The number of civilians killed by NATO troops has fallen since he took command in mid-2009.

(Writing by Adam Entous; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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