US General David Petraeus made his public debut today as commander of the Afghan war, celebrating US Independence Day in one of the most heavily guarded places in the country. The four-star general, who arrived in the Afghan capital on Friday, faces a tough task to bring peace and secure a face-saving exit for allied troops fighting the Taliban, observers say. Replacing the sacked US General Stanley McChrystal, Gen Petraeus has said the war in Afghanistan, now well into its ninth year, is likely to get tougher before significant improvements are seen. Gen Petraeus called for a united effort in the Afghan war as he made his public debut. "This is an effort in which we must achieve unity of effort and common purpose. Civilian and military, Afghan and international, we are part of one team with one mission," he said. "On this important endeavour, cooperation is not optional," Gen Petraeus added. The four-star general, who arrived in the Afghan capital Kabul on Friday, wore military fatigues as he attended the celebration of US independence Day at the heavily guarded American embassy. Appearing relaxed and personable, he stood in a receiving line with ambassador Karl Eikenberry, greeting some of the 1,700 Afghan cabinet members, diplomats, and development workers who were guests on the embassy lawn.
He arrives as deaths of US and NATO soldiers are touching record highs in intensified fighting, along with questions about the wisdom of committing such huge resources in manpower and money to what could yet be a lost cause.
His appointment as commander of the 140,000 US and NATO troops in Afghanistan has been welcomed by local officials, including the president Hamid Karzai, who is increasingly seen in the West as a loose cannon. But analysts urged Gen Petraeus to make immediate adjustments to rapidly turn around a war seen as bogged down to the Taliban's advantage. "Petraeus must change the fundamental strategy of the war against the Taliban," said a parliamentarian Ahmad Behzad.
"A change in the leadership of foreign forces can only be effective if we see more serious steps taken against terrorists," he said. Gen McChrystal's reputation had suffered from the failure of foreign forces to secure the poppy-growing district of Marjah, in southern Helmand province, in a massive operation launched in February, said a political analyst Haroun Mir. A planned escalation in operations against the Taliban in Kandahar province, the militants' heartland, had been postponed to September, Mr Mir noted, adding: "And we don't know if it will ever go ahead."
Despite assurances from US President Barack Obama, and Gen Petraeus, that the change of command does not mean a change in strategy, the general has already hinted some tweaks could be in the air. Troops have complained that Gen McChrystal's "courageous restraint" rule, aimed at minimising civilian casualties, prevents them from properly defending themselves _ thus contributing to the spike in casualties.
A total of 102 foreign soldiers died in June, almost triple the May toll and far outstripping the previous highest monthly figure of 77 in August. So far in 2010, more than 320 troops have died, compared to 520 for 2009, with a British soldier becoming the latest casualty on Thursday. *AFP