US General Petraeus hands over command in Afghanistan amid wave of attacks

US General David Petraeus, the new director of the CIA, officially handed over command of US- and NATO-led troops in Afghanistan at a time of increasing instability.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
The outgoing US and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, salutes during a changing of command ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 18. Gen. John Allen took over command of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan on Monday from Petraeus.

US Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, officially relinquished command of international forces here to US Marine Gen. John Allen in a ceremony in Kabul on Monday. Unlike with his departure from Iraq, Petraeus leaves his successor a war that is far from over.

Also unlike with the handover in Iraq, Petraeus’s legacy here is unsettled even a day after the gradual process of transferring security to Afghan forces began. The policies that some herald as major achievements in stabilizing the country are the same policies that many observers say risk creating an element of insecurity: chief among them, the Afghan local police program, increased night raids, and airstrikes that reportedly led to the killing or capturing of hundreds of insurgents.

“We have reached an important juncture in our combined campaign. You and our Afghan partners have wrested the momentum from the enemies of the new Afghanistan in much of the country,” said Petraeus at the ceremony, citing gains in the south and a decrease in the number of insurgent attacks compared with last year. “Even as we note the hard-fought progress of the last year and commence the transition process, we should be cleareyed about the challenges that lie ahead.”

The handover ceremony was far more low-key than it was nearly three years ago in Iraq. Then, Petraeus was credited with turning around the Iraq war. Though his successor there, Gen. Ray Odierno, warned of a “fragile” situation ahead, the event took place in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces amid a festive atmosphere. Odierno was the fourth American commander in Iraq but the first to take over while the situation was improving.

In Kabul, Petraeus officially transferred command to Allen on base outside the International Security Assistance Force headquarters building. The night before the ceremony, a member of parliament and a prominent Afghan politician were killed by a suicide bomber inside the politician’s home in a secure area of the city. A week earlier, President Hamid Karzai’s half brother was shot in his home.

After only a year in command, though, many analysts agree that Petraeus's reputation will likely remain unaffected.

“Those who wanted to portray him as a larger-than-life magician whose very touch would turn problems to gold may have a harder time making that case now, it’s true. But for those of us who always viewed him as a mere mortal, yet an extraordinary mortal, what he has done in Afghanistan, while not transformative, has been impressive in its own right,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Taking command of troops in Afghanistan was technically a demotion for Petraeus, who led the US Central Command after Iraq. However, when US Gen. Stanley McChrystal was fired after making controversial remarks in a Rolling Stone article, President Obama asked Petraeus to take command of troops in Afghanistan.

Despite the fanfare that continues to surround Petraeus, Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project, suggests that the relative brevity of Petraeus’s Afghan command may indicate some high-level displeasure with his performance here.

“Obama moving him to the CIA so quickly is a result of Obama's dissatisfaction with the war, and to me at least was a fairly noticeable snub,” says Mr. Foust.

What Afghans think about Petraeus

Afghans offer similarly mixed reviews of Petraeus. Many of those in political circles were aware of his reputation before he assumed command of Afghanistan and hoped the popular commander would bring an end to years of war.

Though many Afghans say they were pleased with select security gains that took place under Petraeus’s command, they also expressed umbrage about his increased use of night raids. Even though NATO-caused civilian casualties reportedly decreased under Petraeus, many Afghans were also displeased with his political handling of the issue.

“They didn’t switch the focus to combating roots of terrorism. During his command, they were still looking for terrorists here, but the main source of terrorists is in the tribal areas of Pakistan,” says Mohammed Naeem Lalai Hamidzai, a member of parliament from Kandahar and head of the internal security commission.

Pakistan and Petraeus

In his new position as CIA director, Petraeus is likely to continue to shape the war. In his farewell address, without specifically naming Pakistan, he pointed to the difficulty of defeating an insurgency that can establish havens outside the country.

“Where, as commander in Afghanistan, his territory stopped at the Afghan border, even though he interacted fairly regularly with the Pakistani military; as the director of the CIA his territory is global and in this particular part of the world I think he’s going to be able to affect and influence events much more in an Afghanistan-Pakistan single theater outlook than he was able to do as a military commander in Afghanistan, where he was bounded by his territorial limits,” says David Barno, who commanded US and international forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

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