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Stronger U.S. role likely in Afghanistan

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Mr. Gates, who for months appeared unenthusiastic about making changes to the convoluted command structure in Afghanistan, will also approve changes in which the current NATO commander, Gen. David McKiernan – an American – will also report directly to US Central Command in Tampa. Fla. Currently General McKiernan reports through a NATO chain of command, which has stymied the American efforts to focus combat operations in the south.

"They are laying the necessary groundwork so that the really painful but necessary decisions will fall to the next administration – including the US taking over in a significant way," says one Republican aide on Capitol Hill.

Initially a symbol of what an American-led coalition could do in the days after the attacks in September 2001, the mission in Afghanistan began to falter a couple years ago as the Taliban exploited the ineffectiveness of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission there.

Now, American and some allied nations recognize the need for a definitive combat role in the southern sector, including Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where the violence is some of the worst. But the effort to right the approach has been hamstrung by a lack of troops and a bifurcated command structure in which, unlike the mission in Iraq, no single commander is really in charge.

In Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus is the sole commander and thusly can "shape the battlefield" using his own counterinsurgency strategy.

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