Top US general visits Afghan troops
The top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan has criss-crossed the country, visiting coalition troops on Christmas Day at some of the main battle fronts in a show of appreciation and support in the 10th year of the war against the Taliban.
General David Petraeus started his visit by travelling by helicopter from the capital, Kabul, to the northern province of Kunduz, telling troops with the US Army's 1-87, 10th Mountain Division, that on this day, there was "no place that (he) would rather be than here" where the "focus of our effort" was.
The northern part of the country has seen increased fighting, with the Taliban increasing their attacks as Nato focuses its sights on the militant movement's southern strongholds. Gen Petraeus was briefed on the situation in the region by German Major General Hans-Werner Fritz, the commander of Nato's northern regional command.
Gen Petraeus handed out commemorative coins to troops who had served for three or more years since the September 11, 2001 attacks, and awarded several medals, including three purple hearts. He then went by helicopter over desert mountain peaks to the western province of Farah, where the Italian army's 7th Alpini is stationed.
The US general's visit coincided with one by General Vincenzo Camporini, the Italian chief of defence general staff. Gen Petraeus congratulated the Italian soldiers on the "progress that has been achieved in the first few months that this unit has been here".
Gen Petraeus's next stop was the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in Helmand province, scene of some of the heaviest fighting recently between the Taliban and Nato-Afghan forces.
Marjah has become a symbol of the problems facing Nato troops in Afghanistan. More than 7,000 US-led Nato ground troops launched a night-time invasion of the region of farming hamlets last February to rout insurgents and cut off their income from the drug trade. Nato officials said the effort would pave the way for the Afghan government to move in aid and start delivering public services.
Marine Major General Richard Mills on December 7 declared that the battle in Marjah was "essentially over". But the campaign took longer than Nato officials had hoped, and illustrated the complexity of trying to wrest control of an area where Taliban influence remained strong.
Efforts to create a civilian government in Marjah have been painfully slow, and US troops struggled against roadside bombs and sniper attacks from an enemy that could blend in with the local population.
It is not known when US troops could be withdrawn in significant numbers from Helmand as heavy fighting continues elsewhere in the area, including the Sangin district where Marines took over from British forces.