Petraeus takes over Afghan fight, vows to win it

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Gen. David Petraeus boldly declared “we are in this to win” Sunday as he took command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan at a time of skepticism over a counterinsurgency strategy he himself pioneered and confusion over goals in an increasingly violent war.

Petraeus has just months to show progress in turning back an emboldened enemy and convince both the Afghan people and neighboring countries that the U.S. is committed to preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for al-Qaida and its terrorist allies.

Continual discussion about President Barack Obama’s desire to start withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011 has blurred the definition of what would constitute victory. That coupled with the abrupt firing of Petraeus’ predecessor, a move that laid bare a rift between civilian and military efforts in the country, has created at least the perception that the NATO mission needs to be righted.

As he accepted the command, Petraeus took a stab at clarifying the goals.

“We are engaged in a contest of wills,” he told several hundred U.S., coalition and Afghan officials who gathered on a grassy area outside NATO headquarters in Kabul. By killing and maiming civilians — even using “unwitting children to carry out attacks” — the Taliban and their allies are trying to undermine public confidence in the Afghan government and the international community’s ability to prevail, he said.

“In answer, we must demonstrate to the people and to the Taliban that Afghan and international forces are here to safeguard the Afghan people, and that we are in this to win,” Petraeus said on the Fourth of July, U.S. Independence Day. “That is our clear objective.”

Petraeus, widely credited with turning around the U.S. war effort in Iraq, arrived in Kabul on Friday facing tough odds: slow progress in stabilizing Taliban strongholds in the south; waning support for the war both in America and foreign capitals; ongoing concern about the Afghan government’s willingness and ability to fight corruption; and 102 deaths of U.S. and international troops last month. That made June the deadliest month for the allied force since the war began.

When announcing the 2011 target, Obama was careful to say that any pullout decisions would be based on improved security. Yet that caveat has often been forgotten.

Obama’s timetable has provided the Afghan government the impetus to implement reforms and bolster governance deeper into the provinces. But it also fueled fears in Afghanistan that the U.S. commitment was fading in the almost 9-year-old war.

In recent months, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been shoring up relations with neighboring Pakistan and making overtures to the Taliban to lay down their arms and join with the government. The uncertainty created the conditions for rumors to spread that Karzai had met with leaders of the al-Qaida-affiliated Haqqani network — a story that the Karzai government called baseless.

“After years of war, we have arrived at a critical moment,” Petraeus said. “We must demonstrate to the Afghan people — and to the world — that al-Qaida and its network of extremist allies will not be allowed to once again establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan from which they can launch attacks on the Afghan people and on freedom-loving nations around the world.”

Early in his 10-minute speech, Petraeus praised his predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was dismissed last month for intemperate remarks he and his aides made to Rolling Stone magazine about Obama administration officials — mostly on the civilian side. In an effort to move past the rifts between the civilian and military camps, Petraeus reiterated the message he delivered Saturday at the U.S. Embassy: “Cooperation is not optional.”

The new commander said everyone had worked hard during McChrystal’s tenure in Afghanistan to carry out an effective civilian-military counterinsurgency, one that Petraeus pioneered in Iraq.

“The progress made in recent months — in the face of a determined enemy — is in many respects the result of the vision, energy and leadership he (McChrystal) provided,” Petraeus said.

Petraeus said the change in command meant a new face, not a new policy or strategy: The protection of the Afghan people would remain the focus of the military mission. He stressed the importance of avoiding civilian casualties but suggested he would examine policies “to determine where refinements might be needed.”

That suggested he would review — or at least refine — the implementation of rules under which NATO soldiers fight, including McChrystal’s curbs on the use of airpower and heavy weapons if civilians are at risk. Some troops have complained such restraint puts their own lives in danger and hands the battlefield advantage to the Taliban and their allies.

“Protecting those we are here to help nonetheless does require killing, capturing or turning the insurgents. We will not shrink from that,” Petraeus wrote Sunday in a memo to his troops. But he added that when they got into tough situations, NATO must “employ all assets to ensure your safety, keeping in mind, again, the importance of avoiding civilian casualties.”

Petraeus also sought to counter skepticism, even defeatism, that was on display last month during hearings in Washington when lawmakers challenged Pentagon assertions that progress was being made in the war.

He acknowledged that the fight in Afghanistan has been grueling, but insisted progress had been made: 7 million Afghan children in school compared with fewer than 1 million a decade ago; child immunization rates at 70 percent or higher; new roads; and bustling economies in several cities.

The Associated Press