Commander visits U.S. troops in Afghanistan

The commander of NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan spent Christmas Eve visiting U.S. troops Tuesday at bases across the mountainous region to bring them holiday greetings and gifts for a few lucky soldiers.

Maj. Gen. James C. McConville, who commands troops in the volatile east near the Pakistani border, told troops that they were “bringing a gift to the Afghan people — you’ve given them an opportunity. Now it’s up to them to take it.”

McConville thanked the troops and told them that thanks to them “a lot of Americans will wake up tomorrow and have a peaceful day, and that’s thanks to you.”

The general also delivered presents in the form of special Army coins to troops who’d completed three or more deployments.

Kevin Vaughn from Detroit, Mich., said he’s missing his wife and three children this Christmas — the fourth that he’s been away during his five deployments.

“I hope it’s the last time, but I’m not sure,” Vaughn said. “It’s hard to sit here and say ‘happy holidays’ from afar, but as a family we try to deal with it.”

The U.S.-led NATO coalition is rapidly drawing down its numbers in Afghanistan ahead of the end of its mission next year. Since March, McConville has closed 54 bases in the east, leaving just 11, plus a coalition presence at six Afghan facilities.

Across the country, there are about 87,000 coalition troops, 50,000 of them American, and that number is expected to be halved by early next year. Last year there were nearly 150,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan.

In an interview aboard a Black Hawk helicopter flying between bases, McConville said that during the holidays he wanted to especially thank the troops’ families.

“The soldiers chose to be here. Their families didn’t, and they’ll be waking up Christmas morning without their husbands, fathers, mothers or wives,” McConville said.

But, he added: “We can’t forget that the enemy’s not celebrating Christmas.”