Petraeus Hands Over Command in Afghanistan While Violence Continues

Gen. David Petraeus, the outgoing top commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, formally transferred authority Monday to incoming commander Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen. Several senior Afghan and NATO officials, including U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, attended the change-of-command ceremony in Kabul.

“Throughout, we will keep our eyes on the horizon – the future of Afghanistan,” Allen told the audience, “a nation of free people at peace, governed under its constitution, pursuing economic enterprise and development, in a secure and stable environment free from the extremism and terrorism that has plagued this wonderful country and its people for more than a generation. In the end – together we will prevail.” (CNN)

“It is my intention to maintain the momentum of the campaign,” Allen said at the handover ceremony in the Afghan capital. He acknowledged, however, that the fight won’t be easy. “There will be tough days ahead. I have no illusions about the challenges,” Allen said. (CBC) Before taking over from Petraeus, Allen had been serving as the deputy commander at U.S.Central Command in Tampa, Florida.

He inherits a force that is coming under renewed attack just as NATO prepares to begin the first phase of handing over provincial security to Afghan security forces.

For his part, Petraeus plans to retire from the Army at the end of August and assume the CIA director’s job September 6. “I wanted this job,” Petraeus, 58, said at his Senate confirmation hearing. “I am taking off the uniform I have worn for 37 years to do this the right way.” (CNN)

“We should be clear-eyed about the challenges that lie ahead,” General Petraeus said, adding later: “There is nothing easy about such a fight.” (New York Times)

Dubbed King David for turning around what seemed like a losing battle as top U.S. commander in Iraq before he went to Afghanistan, Petraeus is considered a top general in his era, with Esquire magazine naming him one of the most influential people of the 21st century. He took over in Afghanistan on July 4 last year unexpectedly after a Rolling Stone magazine article prompted the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

“We’ve jokingly said that I went to the White House for the monthly National Security Council meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan with President Obama, and came out with a new job,” Petraeus said. “And that’s not far from the truth.” (CNN)

The U.S. military is losing the architect of modern-day counterinsurgency operations. Petraeus wrote his doctorate dissertation on the lessons America learned in Vietnam. Later, he devised the Army/Marine field manual, challenging the military to think differently about how it relates to the civilian population in dealing with a bloody insurgency.

This week, ahead of his departure, Petraeus assessed the results of his strategy in Afghanistan. “What we have done is implement the so-called NATO comprehensive approach, a civil-military campaign … that does indeed embody many of the principles of the counterinsurgency field manual that we developed back in 2006, and which we employed in Iraq in the surge of 2007-2008,” he said in an interview with NATO-TV. “I think generally, it has borne fruit.” (CNN)

He said it has been a difficult journey, rife with setbacks, but coalition forces have halted the momentum of the Taliban in much of the country and reversed the insurgent hold in restive Helmand province. Petraeus’ experience in working with the CIA counterinsurgency efforts in the field was cited as a reason for his nomination as the spy agency’s director.

Also on Monday, three service members with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force were killed in a blast in eastern Afghanistan. Their deaths bring to 34 the number of international troops who have died in Afghanistan in July.Since the start of this year, 314 coalition soldiers have died in the country.

One of the soldiers killed Monday was a British soldier from 1st Battallion The Rifles. He died in the Nahr-e Saraj district of Helmand province. The soldier was escorting a specialist team to recover a cache of Improvised Explosive Device (IED) components when he was killed by the explosion of another divice nearby. Next of kin has been informed.

Task Force Helmand spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbick said the soldier was killed near Jamal Kalay. He said: “The soldier was part of a foot patrol which had been deployed to assist the recovery of a cache of improvised explosive device (IED) components. As he led the specialist counter-improvised explosive device team to rendezvous with another patrol at the start of the operation, the soldier was fatally injured in an explosion. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.” (BBC) The Ministry of Defence earlier named a soldier killed in Afghanistan on Saturday as 24-year-old Lance Corporal Paul Watkins. An investigation has been launched into his death after reports he was shot by a man dressed in an Afghan national army uniform.

Elsewhere in Kabul, Afghan officials gathered at the presidential palace to pay tribute to the second powerful political figure to be assassinated in less than a week. The politician, Jan Mohammed Khan, was a former governor from the south and a close ally of the president who was gunned down at his home Sunday night. To gain entry, the two killers pretended to be members of Mr. Khan’s tribe, seeking assistance as a tribal leader, Afghan officials said on Monday. Mr. Khan gave one of the men 3,000 Afghanis – about $60 – before they began shooting, the officials said. A member of Parliament was also killed in the attack. Two gunmen in turn were killed by Afghan security forces, though one of them held the police off for nearly eight hours. The police finally set off a bomb in the room inside Mr. Khan’s home where the gunman had taken refuge. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, as they did for the assassination last Tuesday of President Hamid Karzai’s powerful half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was shot dead by a close associate.

There have been fears in Afghanistan that the U.S. decision to draw down its forces could lead to a precipitous withdrawal of other foreign troops. Foreign forces are expected to gradually hand over control of Afghanistan to government forces and end their combat role by the end of 2014.

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