Gen. David Petraeus, renowned for his role in the Iraq war, will take over from Gen. Stanley McChrystal as top US commander in Afghanistan, US President Obama announced Wednesday, signaling that the administration will not shift its Afghan policy.
AFP - By choosing an architect of the Afghan campaign to take over as commander in Kabul, President Barack Obama on Wednesday signaled his war strategy will not change, even amid troubling signs of potential failure.
General David Petraeus will bring political savvy and a vaunted reputation to the job, but he inherits a mission full of risks for the United States and his own legacy.
"He clearly has the most stature and credibility of any commander in the military," said Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security.
"That goes a long way, but you also have to deal with the expectations that accompany it," he told AFP.
Petraeus, renowned for his role in the Iraq war, offers Obama the prospect of a smooth transition at the helm in Afghanistan, after General Stanley McChrystal was forced to step down for disparaging remarks about the administration.
As head of the regional Central Command, Petraeus has been deeply involved in shaping the war effort in Afghanistan and Obama made clear his decision marked a change in personnel but "not a change in policy."
Although Petraeus enjoys a near rock star status among troops and in Washington for his role in the Iraq war, the task in Afghanistan is daunting and time is short.
Obama has promised a gradual withdrawal of US troops will begin by July 2011, even though a surge of 30,000 troops will not be complete until September.
In Iraq in 2007, Petraeus had about nine months to show some progress in the war. In Afghanistan, he has a shorter window, as the White House plans an assessment of the war by December.
"There's not a huge amount of time on the Washington clock," Fontaine said.
Petraeus will be under pressure to show progress quickly, at a time of rising casualties and mounting anxiety in Congress that the war against the Taliban could be a fruitless quagmire.
In recent weeks, military officers acknowledged the outcome of a much-touted offensive in Helmand province has proved disappointing, while a pivotal operation in Kandahar has had to be postponed.
In testimony before Congress last week, Petraeus suggested the 2011 target date would not trigger any major pullout, implying a large US force could remain for years.
He said mid-2011 "is not the date when we look for the door and try to turn off the light, but rather a date at which a process begins."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai's corruption-tainted government meanwhile threatens to undermine any military progress on the ground.
"Our biggest problem in Afghanistan is the government we are supporting there, and it isn't clear to me what Petraeus can do about that," author and journalist Thomas Ricks wrote on his Best Defense blog.
At Kabul headquarters overseeing the NATO-led force, Petraeus will quickly face a crucial decision as to when to launch larger-scale operations around Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban.
"I think Kandahar is the crux of it," said Michel O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.
Obama is also banking on Petraeus' political skills and experience to help repair broken relations with the military's civilian counterparts in the State Department and White House, which became toxic under McChrystal, Fontaine said.
"On the civilian side, I do think you have at least the potential for an improvement in the civilian military ties," he said, citing Petraeus' cooperation in Iraq with the US ambassador in Baghdad.
Analysts say Petraeus will also have to decide the pace of training for Afghan security forces, considered vital to an eventual exit for coalition troops.
He will have to balance the need to rapidly expand Afghan forces while ensuring the soldiers and police can hold their own in combat, a problem that initially undermined US efforts in Iraq.
In drafting a revised strategy, Petraeus has played a role in scaling back US ambitions in Afghanistan, opting for what commentators call "Afghan good enough" instead of a nation-building ideal.
Even with less elaborate goals, public patience for the war -- now in its ninth year -- is running out on both sides of the Atlantic.
But last week, Petraeus tried to appeal for patience at a senate hearing.
"The conduct of a counterinsurgency operation is a roller-coaster experience. There are setbacks as well as areas of progress or successes," he said.
"But their trajectory, in my view, has generally been upward, despite the tough losses, despite the setbacks."
Date created : 2010-06-24