By David Alexander
KABUL, Feb 10 (Reuters) - U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford took control of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan on Sunday, in an elaborate ceremony for the commander who is expected to oversee the withdrawal of most foreign troops by the end of next year.
Dunford takes over from U.S. Marine General John Allen, who ended a 19-month tour which was arguably one of the most difficult periods in the war, now in its eleventh year.
"Today is not about change, it's about continuity. What has not changed is the will of this coalition," Dunford told a crowd of foreign and Afghan officials in the barricaded headquarters of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Afghan President Hamid Karzai was absent from the change of command ceremony despite receiving an invitation from ISAF. A spokesman for Karzai declined to comment on his reason for not attending.
Allen, who directed ISAF's transfer of most security across the country to the Afghan army and police, delivered an emotional speech directed largely at Afghans, stressing their role in taking over all security by the middle of the year.
"Afghan forces (are) defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory. This is what winning looks like," Allen said from a podium covered in an Afghan rug to enthusiastic applause.
The White House said last month it would nominate Allen as NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, after the Pentagon cleared him of professional misconduct over emails to a Florida socialite linked to a scandal that led his predecessor, David Petraeus, to resign as director of the CIA. (Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Robert Birsel)