BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- The U.S. military is giving more control to the new general taking charge in Afghanistan, freeing up its own highest-level officials back in the United States as Washington considers the next step in the war on terror.
When Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill takes command here next month, Bagram will become the headquarters of the ground war in Afghanistan, officials said Monday.
That means McNeill will report directly to Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. -- the nerve center for the U.S. military in Central Asia and the Middle East. That's a step closer than Bagram's current commander, Maj. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, who has worked through Camp Doha, a U.S. base in Kuwait.
Bagram's upgrade to headquarters status will allow Central Command to pay more attention to U.S forces in the rest of its wide theater, from Central and South Asia to the Middle East -- including Iraq -- and the Horn of Africa.
"It frees up (Camp Doha) to do what they normally do, which is plan for everything else in the CENTCOM area of responsibility," Maj. Bryan Hilferty, the U.S. spokesman at Bagram, said Monday.
Not forgetting abut Iraq
The decision comes as the Bush administration considers whether to launch military action in Iraq in order to topple President Saddam Hussein.
President Bush said last week that he has no plan for invading Iraq on his desk. However, administration officials are divided over how to deal with the threat seen to be posed by Saddam: Some officials advocate military action, some covert action, others continued diplomatic efforts.
By placing command of the war under a three-star lieutenant general, rather than a two-star general, the military is also giving more power to the commander in the field. That could streamline the decision-making process.
McNeill will be the point man for running the fight in Afghanistan against the remains of its former Taliban rulers and the al-Qaida terror network.
The move puts "the man responsible on the ground. Franks will now have one man he can turn to on Afghanistan," Col. Roger King, spokesman for McNeill's 18th Airborne Corps.
Members of the 18th Airborne -- now numbering about 300 -- have been at Bagram for several weeks, repairing a war-damaged building once used by the Soviets and preparing it as headquarters for what will be called Coalition Joint Task Force-180. McNeill arrived at the base last week. The new headquarters is expected to take command Friday or over the weekend, King said.
American soldiers first moved into Bagram in late November, soon after the hardline Taliban militia fell in Kabul. It was the staging ground for Operation Anaconda, a pitched battle in March between coalition forces and al-Qaida and Taliban fighters massed in a corner of eastern Afghanistan.
Since then, the hunt for al-Qaida and the Taliban has become more complicated. Fighters have split into small groups, lying low and crossing the porous border into Pakistan. U.S. special forces and other coalition troops -- based at Bagram and in the southern city of Kandahar -- have focused their search in the region of Khost and Gardez, near the Pakistani border, and in the mountains of central Afghanistan.
For the time being, the coming of McNeill's command is not expected to mean any acceleration or deceleration of the campaign, officials say.
"I don't think you'll see any change in the way the war is prosecuted," Hilferty said.
In coming months, U.S. forces in Afghanistan will see troop rotations, with around 3,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division arriving to relieve 101st Airborne soldiers who have been there since January, Pentagon officials have said.
But the total number of around 7,000 American troops in Afghanistan will remain the same. While tactical assets will remain about the same, McNeill -- with his larger headquarters -- will have more intelligence and communications capabilities, King said.
McNeill will have "a tighter command relationship" with other nations in the coalition and a "wider span of control," Hilferty said. Operations currently not under Hagenbeck's command will be grouped under McNeill's headquarters -- including U.S. Special Forces training the new Afghan military and humanitarian assistance.
"It consolidates control," Hilferty said.