By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 5, 2010; A07
KABUL -- Seizing the flags of U.S. and NATO forces Sunday morning, Gen. David H. Petraeus formally took hold of the war in Afghanistan and began the daunting task of turning around an ever more deadly and unpopular conflict.
In a ceremony on the tree-shaded lawn in front of NATO headquarters in Kabul, Petraeus assumed command from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who was fired last month after a magazine quoted him and his staff making critical remarks about Obama administration officials.
A general with a sterling reputation for military creativity and political acumen, Petraeus, 57, struck a determined tone in his remarks to fellow officers, foreign diplomats and Afghan officials, insisting "we are in this to win."
"We're engaged in a contest of wills. Our enemies are doing all that they can to undermine the confidence of the Afghan people," he said.
Before he mentioned the Taliban, Petraeus described those enemies as "al-Qaeda and its network of extremist allies," harking back to the justification for invasion nine years ago. He said his mission is to demonstrate to Afghanistan and the world that the extremists "will not be allowed to once again establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan from which they can launch attacks on the Afghan people and on freedom-loving nations around the world."
"We must demonstrate to the people and to the Taliban that Afghan and [U.S. and coalition] forces are here to safeguard the Afghan people, and that we are in this to win," he said. "That is our clear objective."
Rather than promising sweeping changes, Petraeus praised the work of McChrystal and said he would look, as any new commander should, for places "where refinements might be needed." The military strategy for Afghanistan, which Petraeus helped formulate in his previous position as head of the U.S. Central Command, will remain focused on protecting Afghanistan's people and shoring up its troubled government.
One of the growing problems McChrystal faced was reducing civilian casualties while not leaving his troops hamstrung by restrictive rules of engagement. In his speech, Petraeus affirmed the goal of reducing "the loss of innocent civilians to an absolute minimum," while not hesitating "to bring all assets to bear to protect you and the Afghan forces with which you are fighting shoulder to shoulder."
In a letter to NATO soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan, a gesture he also made when he took over command of U.S. troops in Iraq in 2007, Petraeus wrote, "We must never forget that the decisive terrain in Afghanistan is the human terrain."
"Protecting those we are here to help nonetheless does require killing, capturing, or turning the insurgents. We will not shrink from that; indeed, you have been taking the fight to the enemy and we will continue to do so," he added.
Petraeus ended by saying, "I pledge my total commitment to our mission as we work together to help achieve a brighter future for a new country in an ancient land."