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French General Takes Over Key NATO Command In U.S.

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Wednesday, French Air Force General Stephane Abrial made history by becoming head of Allied Command Transformation (ACT), within months of France reintegrated back into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) after a four-decade absence.

He is the first non-American to assume a supreme command post in NATO. He is also the first European to command NATO's U.S. headquarters in its 60-year history.

It also means that France and the United States will be working more closely together than they have in decades.

At a change of guard ceremony held aboard U.S. aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, moored at Norfolk, Virginia, General Abrial took over charge of NATO's only strategic command in North America from U.S. Marine Corps General James Mattis.

General Mattis, who remains head of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, said the replacement is a sign France had returned "lock, stock and barrel" to the heart of the alliance.

55-year-old Abrial's ascendance comes just six years after the then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the objections of France and Germany to the Iraq war as the grumblings of "old Europe."

Abrial's accession to the strategic top post is the result of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's decision last spring to bring his nation back into NATO's military structure 43 years after his predecessor, Charles de Gaulle, pulled France out of the alliance.

With some 3,000 troops, France is among the top five contributors to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is currently going through a very difficult phase of terrorist attacks, despite the presence of more than 1,00,000 foreign troops from 42 countries under the commands of the NATO and the United States.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was among an international audience of 800, including troops, officers, defense chiefs and ambassadors from across NATO's 28 member states, who attended the ceremony. He called Gen Abrial's appointment "a significant milestone for the Atlantic alliance."

Addressing a news conference later, Rasmussen acknowledged that the Alliance's Afghan operation is not going as well as he would like.

"We are not making progress fast enough," he told reporters, citing the rising Taliban-inflicted NATO casualties and allegations of election fraud.

The U.S. State Department congratulated Abrial on assuming the post. "France, a founding member of the Alliance and a significant contributor to NATO operations across the globe, is a key partner of the United States in pursuit of transatlantic security goals," said Ian Kelly, a State Department spokesman. "We look forward to working with General Abrial as he pursues NATO reform goals in his role," he added.

As one of NATO's two supreme allied commanders, General Abrial will oversee NATO military reforms at his Norfolk naval base HQ, the world's largest, with 78 ships and 133 aircraft stationed there.

Created in 2002, the Command focuses on the integration and modernization of NATO forces to meet new challenges such as terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and cyber-warfare, reports say.

Gen Abrial earned his fighter pilot wings in 1976 and became French Air Force chief-of-staff in 2006. He had earlier spent time at the NATO headquarters in Brussels and as a flight commander in Germany.

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