Gen. David Petraeus took the helm at Central Command on Friday, assuming responsibility for U.S. military operations not only in Iraq — where he is widely credited with leading a historic turnaround — but also in Afghanistan, where American fortunes appear darker.
The promotion also puts him at the forefront of U.S. efforts to deal with Pakistan, an ally in the war on terror as well as a country threatened with financial ruin, torn by an insurgency and armed with nuclear weapons.
In bright sunshine along the shores of a glistening Tampa Bay, Petraeus took charge of Central Command from Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who had headed what is arguably the military's most important war-fighting command since March, when Adm. William Fallon retired after barely one year in the post.
"The way ahead will be difficult," Petraeus said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, presiding at the change-of-command ceremony, praised Petraeus and thanked Dempsey.
Praised for 'strategic vision'
"Marty has more than held the fort," Gates said, adding that he deserves credit for employing a "strategic vision and pragmatism," while making the welfare of his troops his highest priority.
Of Petraeus, the defense secretary said, "He is precisely the man we need at this command at this time."
Although most of the troops under his command are in Iraq or Afghanistan, Petraeus plans to visit Pakistan on his first trip after being sworn in. Pakistan's leaders are struggling to balance their own domestic pressures with Washington's demands that they do much more to stamp out Taliban and al-Qaida havens in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
Less than two months ago, Gates was in Baghdad to see Petraeus hand off to Gen. Ray Odierno as the top American commander in Iraq.
Petraeus spent 20 months leading a turnaround in Iraq from what many saw as the brink of all-out civil war to the beginnings of a perilous peace. He also led troops in the initial invasion in 2003 and spent more than a year heading the organization responsible for training Iraqi security forces.
Iraq will be a key part of Petraeus' broader responsibilities at Central Command, which manages U.S. military relations with nearly two dozen countries in an area stretching from Egypt, across the Middle East to Central Asia. The region is at the heart of the American-led war on terror.
Petraeus is fond of saying that the struggle in Iraq has been long and hard — and is not yet finished. And he has said that the war in Afghanistan is likely to prove an even longer and harder struggle.
Pakistan presents challenge
But Pakistan presents an entirely different dimension of difficulty, as captured by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he said in June that any future terrorist attack on the United States probably would originate in Pakistan's western tribal regions. So while prevailing in Iraq and Afghanistan are considered important, Pakistan may pose a bigger immediate threat.
"Dealing with Pakistan, where America's mortal foe al-Qaida is nestled alongside the Taliban, is clearly the most pressing problem we face," Bing West, a retired Marine and former assistant secretary of defense, wrote in National Interest, the journal of international affairs and diplomacy.
Although he'll have no ground troops in Pakistan, other than a very few performing behind-the-scenes tasks like training Pakistani troops, Petraeus has already made clear that he sees it as a war front. In a sense it is an extension of the war in Afghanistan, now in its eighth year.
The al-Qaida network led by Osama bin Laden — driven out of Afghanistan by U.S. forces in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington — has managed to develop closer ties to Pakistani militants, providing the terrorists with safe bases in the mountainous tribal areas along the border. That has led to more cross-border attacks on American and U.S.-backed Afghan forces, leading the Bush administration to send more troops and to review its strategy.
Petraeus has been studying how he might apply some of the counterinsurgency tactics from Iraq to the war in Afghanistan. And he has made clear that Pakistan will likely be a different case altogether.
"Pakistan is going to do this on their own," he said at the Heritage Foundation on Oct. 8. "They have a very keen sense of sovereignty."
In an interview in Washington this week, a senior Pakistani official said his government is crafting a more comprehensive strategy for fighting the insurgency, which is now regarded as the gravest threat facing the government. It will be carried out in cooperation with the U.S., but not on a U.S. timetable, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"We are going to run this," the official said.
How much patience the next U.S. president will have to wait for Pakistan's plan to bear fruit will be a key question. The Bush administration in recent months has accelerated the use of unmanned aircraft to attack known or suspected insurgent targets in remote border areas inside Pakistan.
Petraeus arrives at Central Command with what might be seen as an extraordinary burden of high expectations, after his achievements in Iraq and his emergence as trusted voice on war strategy.
He almost didn't arrive at all. Gates originally figured he would move Petraeus from his Baghdad post to the less stressful job of commanding U.S. and NATO forces in Europe. But when Adm. William Fallon abruptly and unexpectedly announced in February that he was retiring after just one year heading Central Command, Gates switched gears and decided he needed Petraeus in that post.
Since late March, when Fallon stepped down, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey has filled in as acting commander of Central Command. He returns to his previous slot as deputy commander and later will move to command U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, a four-star position.