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Petraeus faces daunting challenges

Gen. David Petraeus was widely credited with turning around the Iraq war after he assumed command in January 2007 at a time when the country was spinning into chaos. Afghanistan may well prove tougher.
Image: Richard Holbrooke Hamid Karzai David Petraeus
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, left, talks alongside then-U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus at Kabul International Airport on April 11.Shah Marai / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A weak and troublesome Afghan partner. A war strategy increasingly questioned. Sniping between military and civilian officials. Military deaths at record levels. A deadline to begin withdrawing troops that may come too soon.

Gen. David Petraeus faces daunting challenges when he assumes command in Afghanistan following what by all accounts will be quick approval by the Senate.

Petraeus is no stranger to the role that awaits him. He was widely credited with turning around the Iraq war after he assumed command in January 2007 at a time when the country was spinning into chaos.

Afghanistan may well prove tougher. The country is poorer than Iraq, and the government is weaker. Fighting is scattered throughout much of a large country with formidable terrain rather than focused in Baghdad and a handful of major cities.

There is no sign of a revolt within insurgent ranks comparable to the Sunni uprising against al-Qaida in Iraq that gathered steam as the surge troops arrived. And insurgent havens across the border in Pakistan offer the Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuary beyond the reach of American ground forces, although CIA-run missile strikes have killed numerous key figures in the militant command structure.

Petraeus will need all his formidable skills as a communicator to assure a nervous Congress that the war is on track while explaining to skeptical Afghans and his own troops that the counterinsurgency strategy crafted by him and his predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, can succeed in turning back the Taliban.

He must also find a way to deal with President Hamid Karzai and his ineffectual government, hobbled by corruption and a lack of resources to build effective administrations in areas cleared of Taliban fighters.

Petraeus will be taking command at a critical juncture in the nearly nine-year war. U.S.-led forces are preparing for a showdown with the Taliban in their southern stronghold of Kandahar, which NATO strategists consider the key to controlling the ethnic Pashtun south.

But delays in the Kandahar operation, largely due to public opposition in the city, have raised doubts that the U.S. and its allies can make enough progress by President Barack Obama's July 2011 target date to begin withdrawing American troops.

U.S. soldiers and Marines also complain that the restrictive rules laid down by McChrystal have handed the advantage to the insurgents and put their lives at risk.

The former head of the British army, retired Gen. Richard Dannatt, said NATO forces must put "maximum pressure" on the Taliban so they don't have the option of waiting for the U.S. and its allies to leave.

"What's got to be remembered is these complex and difficult counterinsurgency campaigns always take time," Dannatt told the BBC. "There's a notion of strategic patience."

Petraeus' arrival in Iraq was followed by a sharp rise in combat that made 2007 the deadliest year of the war for the U.S. military with more than 900 Americans killed. Petraeus also made adjustments in the overall Iraq surge plan, shifting forces out of Baghdad to nearby provinces where insurgents had regrouped.

But American and NATO officials have played down talk of any major changes in the overall Afghanistan counterinsurgency strategy — based on protecting civilians and promoting economic development — that Petraeus pioneered in Iraq and McChrystal employed when he assumed command last year.

"This strategy will not change," the chief spokesman for the NATO command, Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, told reporters Sunday.

Any major changes in strategy will require Petraeus to win the trust of Karzai. The Afghan president maintained a close relationship with McChrystal but has had rocky relations with other U.S. officials, notably Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and special envoy Richard Holbrooke.

Karzai had been an outspoken critic of U.S. tactics, including the heavy use of airpower, warning that civilian deaths as a result of those attacks were turning the population against the international coalition.

Working with the mercurial Karzai, who in April threatened to join the Taliban in response to international pressure on his government, is a pillar of the Obama administration's strategy to bolster the Afghan government and security forces to gradually take over the running of the country.

Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general who once commanded troops in Afghanistan, warned last year against sending substantial numbers of troops because Karzai was not a reliable partner. McChrystal said in the Rolling Stone article that led to his dismissal that he felt "betrayed" by Eikenberry.

At the same time, the U.S.-led command had been encouraging Karzai to take ownership of major operations against the Taliban to promote the idea that the international troops are fighting in partnership with the Afghan government rather than as an occupying force.

All that requires someone in the U.S. civilian-military establishment to maintain good ties with Karzai, a role that McChrystal played. Karzai's relationship with Eikenberry and Holbrooke has been strained because of their past criticism of the Afghan president's weak leadership.

Petraeus faced a similar situation in Baghdad — a vacillating Iraqi prime minister and friction with the embassy. Petraeus overcame the challenge, in large part by forging a close relationship with the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who shared the general's strategic vision and passion for jogging.

But with July 2011 only a year away, uncertainty is growing about how many American and NATO forces will remain here after that date.

Former Australian army officer David Kilcullen, who advised Petraeus on counterinsurgency in Iraq, said on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" that the Afghan war has long faced problems.

"What makes them a crisis is the deadline," Kilcullen said. "We've got to fix all these problems by next summer or we're not going to meet the objectives."

Robert H. Reid is AP chief of bureau in Kabul and news director for Afghanistan-Pakistan.