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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Karzai Worried About U.S. Change Of Command, Petraeus Takes Over

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Afghans See Change In U.S. Command As A Threat To Safety

Gen. David H. Petraeus has said there will be no major shift in war strategy. But with McChrystal gone, Afghans worry about the dangers of coming into contact with the foreign forces in their midst.

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan —
It can be a split-second decision, or one that plays out over long and agonizing hours: to kill or not to kill.

"Rules of engagement" is the dry, legalistic term for the visceral battlefield calculus of when and whether to use deadly force to counter threat, real or perceived. Across Afghanistan, these rules serve as the marching orders that govern Western troops' daily encounters with Taliban fighters -- and color dealings with Afghan civilians.

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who on Sunday formally took command of Western forces here, must decide in the coming weeks or months whether to recalibrate the stringent rules of engagement laid down last summer by his predecessor, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who recently resigned over remarks that laid bare a dysfunctional civilian-military relationship.

Of Petraeus' early command decisions, this will be among the most closely watched, not only by ordinary Afghans, but by his own troops in the field. So far, he has struck a delicate balance in public remarks about the issue.

At his Senate confirmation hearings last week, Petraeus said he foresaw no major shift in strategy in the Afghan war. But he has made clear that even if the rules of engagement do not change, the nuances of how they are implemented will get a close new look.

Assuming command on Sunday, Petraeus told his troops that while civilian safety remains a critical consideration, "as you and our Afghan partners on the ground get into tough situations, we must employ all assets to ensure your safety."

It was a remark intended to reassure those in the field that the safeguarding of Afghans was not to come at the expense of military lives.

When McChrystal took over as commander in June 2009, foreign forces in Afghanistan were the accidental cause of nearly as many civilian deaths as were the insurgents, who often deliberately put noncombatants in harm's way.

McChrystal set out to change that, and was credited with bringing about a substantial drop in the proportion of civilian casualties suffered at the hands of NATO's International Security Assistance Force and its Afghan allies.

Under the procedures put in place last summer, commanders could not fire on buildings or other sites where they had reason to think Afghan civilians might be present unless their own forces were in imminent danger of being overrun. And even then, they were told to break off engagements and withdraw rather than risk harming noncombatants.

Few in or outside the military contested McChrystal's underlying premise that civilian deaths caused by the West are highly counterproductive because they galvanize public fury and thus help bolster support for the Taliban. Alienating the townspeople and villagers who live in battle zones flies in the face of the U.S.' counterinsurgency strategy — one that bears the stamp of not only McChrystal but Petraeus himself, and is centered on winning Afghan hearts and minds.

For months there has been grumbling in the ranks that the rules of engagement sometimes hamper the ability of Western troops, who include nearly 100,000 Americans, to defend themselves, let alone move aggressively against a determined enemy.

In the heat of battle, the restrictions can diminish to the vanishing point the American advantages of superior firepower and technology, some field commanders say, thus leaving small units particularly vulnerable.

The change of command in Afghanistan has civilians worried that it will make it even more dangerous to come into contact with the foreign forces in their midst. Already, many motorists freeze with anxiety at the sight of a Western convoy or when coming up on a military checkpoint, fearing they will be taken for would-be suicide attackers and shot.

Civilian casualties have been a particularly sensitive issue between the Western coalition and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Petraeus has already given Karzai his personal pledge that preventing civilian deaths will continue to be a top priority, presidential aides said.

Sunday, though, brought a fresh reminder that for civilians, the insurgency usually poses the greatest threat to life and limb.

In southern Afghanistan's restive Helmand province, Afghan security forces were summoned to deal with an urgent threat: a bomb that had been planted on a donkey — the ubiquitous beast of burden here — in a bazaar in the district center of Musa Qala.

As the explosive device was being disabled, another bomb affixed to a motorcycle went off elsewhere in the bazaar, said provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi. Four people, some of them said to be young children, were killed and about six others were wounded.

General Petraeus Formally Takes On Troubled Afghan War

Gen. David Petraeus formally assumed command of the 130,000-strong international force in Afghanistan on Sunday, declaring "we are in this to win" despite rising casualties and growing skepticism about the nearly 9-year-old war.

During a ceremony at NATO headquarters, Petraeus received two flags — one for the U.S. and the other for NATO — marking his formal assumption of command.

He said it was important to demonstrate to the Afghan people and the world that al-Qaida and its extremist allies will not be allowed to once again establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan from which to launch attacks on the United States and other countries.

"We are in this to win," Petraeus told a crowd of several hundred NATO and Afghan officials at the ceremony held on a grassy area just outside coalition headquarters. "We have arrived at a critical moment."

Petraeus succeeded Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was fired last month for intemperate remarks he and his aides made to Rolling Stone magazine about Obama administration officials who were mostly on the civilian side.

"Upfront I also want to recognize the enormous contributions of my predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal," Petraeus said. He said the progress made reflects McChrystal's "vision, energy and leadership."

Petraeus said the change in command did not signal a radical shift in McChrystal's strategy of making the protection of the Afghan people the focus of the military mission.

"Recent months in Afghanistan have seen hard fighting," he said. "As we press on in our vital mission, we must continue our efforts to reduce the loss of innocent civilians to an absolute minimum."

But Petraeus said he would examine the policies "to determine where refinements might be needed."

In a message to his troops, Petraeus said he would "not hesitate to bring all assets to bear to protect you and the Afghan forces with which you are fighting shoulder to shoulder."

That suggested he would review the rules under which NATO soldiers fight, including McChrystal's curbs on the use of airpower and heavy weapons if civilians are at risk. Troops have complained such restraint puts their own lives at risk and hands the battlefield advantage to the Taliban and their allies.

Speaking before Petraeus, German Army Gen. Egon Ramms, commander for the Allied Joint Force Command, also praised the work of McChrystal, saying he took the coalition "forward at a very difficult time."

"We wish Stanley McChrystal well," Ramms said.

Ramms lamented the deaths of civilians due to military operations by coalition forces, but said people should not forget the Afghan citizens who died at the hands of insurgents whose actions are "unlawful."

Deadly month

In southern Afghanistan, four civilians were killed and five others were wounded Sunday by a remote-controlled bomb set up on a motorcycle in a bazaar in Musa Qala, said Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman for Helmand province. At the time of the blast, police were busy defusing another bomb planted on a donkey, Ahmadi said.

On Saturday, a civilian was killed in a roadside bomb explosion in Tagab district of Kapisa province and another civilian driving a car was killed when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Khash Rod district of Nimroz province, the Ministry of Interior said Sunday.

June was the deadliest month for the allied force since the war began in October 2001 with 102 deaths, more than half of them Americans. Britain's Ministry of Defense reported that a Royal Marine was killed Thursday in southern Afghanistan — the fifth international service member killed this month.

Since arriving here Friday evening, Petraeus has sought to make cooperation between the civilian and military parts of the international mission a top priority.

Petraeus, widely credited with turning around the U.S. war effort in Iraq, faces rising violence and growing doubts in Washington and other allied capitals about the effectiveness of the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, which the general himself pioneered.

Later Saturday, Petraeus met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Corruption was one of the issues the two discussed, according to a statement issued by the presidential palace. Karzai used the meeting to complain about what he said were "baseless" allegations made by U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York, who suggested Afghan government officials had misused or pocketed donor funds, Karzai's office said.

Karzai asked Petraeus to review international contracts for private security companies to help keep money from flowing out of the country. According to the statement, Petraeus told the president he would begin his job by emphasizing "unity, accountability and transparency."

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Sources: LA Times, MSNBC, Google Maps

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