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General Petraeus and General McChrystal: same policy, different face?

While the strategy remains the same, will the deft touch of General Petraeus reorient key relationships among leaders in Afghanistan?

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For the moment, continuity in strategy seems assured, though analysts say there are likely to be some delays as Petraeus leaves his job as head of the US Central Command and heads towards Afghanistan. While his new post is technically a demotion, as the commanding general for Afghanistan he’ll be right in the heart of a crucial foreign priority and have a chance to build on a reputation forged when he presided over the turnaround in Iraq.

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Karzai trusted McChrystal most

Afghan politicians and diplomats here say McChrystal was probably the US official that Karzai liked and trusted the most. The general had taken Karzai on a number of trips around Afghanistan this year to show that America was behind him and to get the president engaged in providing services and addressing the corruption – much of it to the benefit of senior politicians and police – that plagues the country.

We had hoped this would not have happened, but the decision has been made and we respect it," said Karzai spokesman Waheed Omer. Karzai “looks forward to working with his replacement."

To be sure, working with Karzai has proven difficult in the past, not least because of US doubt and anger about the fraud involved in his reelection. Mr. Eikenberry was scathing about Karzai in a diplomatic cable leaked in November 2009.

“President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner,” he wrote, saying that the counterinsurgency strategy hinged on a government able and willing to work towards the same goals. “Yet Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden whether defense, governance or development.”

Will Petraeus be more leery and cautious of Karzai than his predecessor? That’s one change that’s possible.

Will Petraeus bring back Burger King for the troops?

Others may come in the realm of troop conduct and living conditions. McChrystal recently had Burger King and other US fast-food joints removed from large US bases, arguing that such morale builders were non-essential. The move was deeply unpopular among troops. Large bases under Petraeus in Iraq had as many amenities for soldiers as could be reasonably provided.

Another change that troops would like to see is a relaxing of rules of engagement (ROE) that have made it difficult to receive permission to shoot back, particularly the use of mortars and other indirect fire on the Taliban.

The restrictions are rooted in the belief that avoiding civilian casualties does more to win the fight in the long run. Combat troops hate them, since it puts them at greater risk of death, and they’ve been backed up by a number of retired officers.