New Afghan war commander facing uphill battle
US General David Petraeus makes his public debut on Saturday as commander of the Afghan war, celebrating US Independence Day in one of the most heavily guarded places in the country.
The four-star general, who arrived in the Afghan capital on Friday, faces a tough task to bring peace and secure a face-saving exit for allied troops fighting the Taliban, observers say.
Replacing the sacked US General Stanley McChrystal, Petraeus has said the war in Afghanistan -- now well into its ninth year -- is likely to get tougher before significant improvements are seen.
He arrives as deaths of US and NATO soldiers are touching record highs in intensified fighting, along with questions about the wisdom of committing such huge resources in manpower and money to what could yet be a lost cause.
He was set Saturday to join US diplomats and guests on the lawn of the sprawling US embassy in Kabul -- reportedly Washington's biggest mission worldwide -- to mark the Fourth of July.
His appointment as commander of the 140,000 US and NATO troops in Afghanistan has been welcomed by local officials, including President Hamid Karzai, who is increasingly seen in the West as a loose cannon.
But analysts urged Petraeus to make immediate adjustments to rapidly turn around a war seen as bogged down to the Taliban's advantage.
"Petraeus must change the fundamental strategy of the war against the Taliban," said parliamentarian Ahmad Behzad.
"A change in the leadership of foreign forces can only be effective if we see more serious steps taken against terrorists," he told AFP.
McChrystal's reputation had suffered from the failure of foreign forces to secure the poppy-growing district of Marjah, in southern Helmand province, in a massive operation launched in February, said political analyst Haroun Mir.
A planned escalation in operations against the Taliban in Kandahar province, the militants' heartland, had been postponed to September, Mir noted, adding: "And we don't know if it will ever go ahead."
Despite assurances from US President Barack Obama, and Petraeus himself, that the change of command does not mean a change in strategy, the general has already hinted some tweaks could be in the air.
Troops have complained that McChrystal's "courageous restraint" rule, aimed at minimising civilian casualties, prevents them from properly defending themselves -- thus contributing to the spike in casualties.
A total of 102 foreign soldiers died in June, almost triple the May toll and far outstripping the previous highest monthly figure of 77 in August.
So far in 2010, more than 320 troops have died, compared to 520 for 2009, with a British soldier becoming the latest casualty on Thursday.
Petraeus conceded this week that troops were unhappy with the rules of engagement, which limit air strikes and artillery and mortar fire, but he denied he planned changes.
He told a news conference after meeting NATO ambassadors in Brussels on Thursday: "I have a moral imperative as a commander... to bring all force that is available to bear when our troopers, and by the way our Afghan partners, are in a tough position."
As the architect of the counter-insurgency strategy that helped quell the civil war in Iraq, and which had been largely applied to Afghanistan under McChrystal, Petraeus was "the right man for the job", a military official said.
But he noted that the general's arrival coincides with growing calls for talks with Taliban leaders, a timetable for withdrawal and intensifying pressure on Karzai to build the country's own security capacity as well as cracking down on endemic corruption.
Petraeus's relationship with Karzai would be central to his success, analysts and diplomats said, noting that McChrystal nurtured Karzai as "commander in chief" and improved his ties with Washington.
"Being able to work with an Afghan partner is key to this war," said Kabul University law lecturer Wadir Safi.
"Otherwise, given the present situation, if 10 Petraeuses come and go, nothing is going to change, especially when he plans to start withdrawing in July 2011."
The scale of the task facing the 57-year-old Petraeus and the troops under his command was underlined just hours before he arrived in Afghanistan when Taliban militants stormed a US aid organisation, leaving five people dead.
© 2010 AFP