KABUL, Afghanistan, (AP) – 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 world that al-Qaeda 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.”
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.”