Frenchman makes history at NATO supreme command

13th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

Abrial is the first non-American to hold one of NATO's two supreme allied commander posts -- an elevation Mattis described as "historic" and a sign France had returned "lock, stock and barrel" to the heart of alliance.

Norfolk -- A French air force general made NATO history last week by becoming the first non-American to assume a supreme command post.

At a landmark ceremony aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower moored off Norfolk, Virginia, Stephane Abrial became head of Allied Command Transformation, replacing outgoing US marine general James Mattis.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who attended the ceremony, hailed Abrial's appointment as "a significant milestone for the Atlantic alliance."

Abrial is the first non-American to hold one of NATO's two supreme allied commander posts -- an elevation Mattis described as "historic" and a sign France had returned "lock, stock and barrel" to the heart of alliance.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy reintegrated France back into NATO at a summit in April after a four-decade hiatus, but also sought a role for his country and for Europe as a whole in the alliance's command structure.

The historic command change also comes as the alliance is at a crossroads. Rather than focusing on Cold War security, as it did in its early days, troops from the 26-nation coalition today focus largely on counter-terrorism and peacekeeping.

They are fighting a rising Al-Qaeda-backed Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, protecting United Nations' food ships from pirates operating off the coast of Somalia and training police in Iraq.

Last year, NATO forces helped train and airlift African Union troops into Darfur and in 2007 they flew relief supplies to earthquake victims in Pakistan.

The US 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," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said.

"We look forward to working with General Abrial as he pursues NATO reform goals in his role."

The position Abrial is assuming is also a reflection of the alliance's changing mission.

Created in 2002, the post is intended to streamline efforts to integrate the military forces of the alliance and better prepare NATO to deal with challenges posed by terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cyber-defense and climate change.

The growth of the alliance has also become one of its greatest challenges, creating important internal divisions -- especially about plans to incorporate Ukraine and Georgia over Moscow's protests.

Abrial, who turned 55 this week, was born in the village of Condom, France.

He graduated from France's Air Force Academy in 1973 and earned his fighter pilot wings in 1976. He also had a year-long stint as an exchange cadet at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado.

Much of his career has been spent overseas, including as a flight commander north of Munich, Germany and as a detachment commander in Greece in the 1980s.

He spent time at NATO headquarters in Brussels during the 1990s before rising to become chief of staff of the French Air Force in July 2006.

He will be based in Norfolk, home to the Norfolk Naval Base, the world's largest with 78 ships and 133 aircraft.

His assumption of the post is a historic milestone, especially given France's contentious relations with the alliance in years past.

President Charles De Gaulle left NATO in 1966 amid displeasure over the perceived reliance by major European powers on American military power in the post-World War II era.

In his handwritten note to then-US president Lyndon Johnson announcing the move, De Gaulle also said NATO's military headquarters and US personnel could no longer be based on French territory.

Some 43 years later at a NATO summit in April, Sarkozy reversed that decision and France officially returned to the alliance's command fold in June.

Abrial takes over the supreme commander position from Mattis, a marine general who remains head of the US Joint Forces Command. He had served in the NATO role for a little less than two years.


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