South Asia

What tactics for new US commander in Afghanistan?

Gen David Petraeus holds a flag during the assumption-of-command ceremony in Kabul on 4/7/2010
Image caption 'We are in this to win,' said Gen Petraeus (pictured with the flag) at his assumption-of-command ceremony

As US General David Petraeus assumes command of the international force in Afghanistan, the BBC's Quentin Sommerville looks at the tactics he intends to deploy to win the battle against the insurgents.

Appointed by President Obama; approved by the US Senate and Nato's North Atlantic Council; the only thing left for Gen David Petraeus to do was to assume command.

That final approval came when he received the US and Nato military colours in Kabul at the weekend. The 130,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan now have a new boss, and there are already plenty of clues about how he intends to command them.

In his speech, he reiterated the words of President Obama - that his appointment was a change in personnel, not a change in policy.

That policy is counter-insurgency, unconventional warfare, of which David Petraeus is the master.

He wrote, or at least co-wrote, the army's counter-insurgency manual, in which he explains that this kind of campaign means more than just fighting on a battlefield.

It requires, in the words of the manual, "soldiers and Marines to employ a mix of both familiar combat tasks and skills more often associated with non-military agencies, with the balance between them varying depending on the local situation".

In Afghanistan, that means more troops surging into the country, with the support of special forces, while at the same time focusing on training the Afghan National Army to enable them to take eventual control (something the general has already admitted is many years away).

Grumbling in the ranks

It also means soldiers holding their fire.

In a policy known as "courageous restraint", troops must try to minimise civilian casualties, even if it means incurring greater casualties. The thinking is that the fewer civilian casualties, the easier it is to win the support of the Afghan people. Gen Petraeus regards it as a solemn duty.

But it has led to much grumbling in the ranks. Some 102 foreign troops were killed in Afghanistan in June alone, the deadliest month since fighting began. Soldiers complain that they cannot fire on the Taliban because the rules of engagement are too restrictive.

In his assumption-of-command speech, the general makes reference to the need for "refinements" to his strategy; courageous restraint will likely be tweaked.

He will not abandon the policy but, according to senior sources, he is keen to see it properly implemented, as he believes that some units are interpreting its rules too cautiously.

One of the great successes of his predecessor, Gen Stanley McChrystal, was the relationship he built with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government. There is a nervousness among some that Afghanistan's foreign partners are in a hurry to leave.

Gen Petraeus has already been shifting the tone. "We are in this to win," he said on Sunday. Those words have been echoed by Western leaders, who are attempting to reassure President Karzai that the international commitment to Afghanistan is long term.

Gen Abdul Rahim Wardak, who attended Gen Petraeus's assumption-of-command ceremony, says winning the war will take time.

Image caption Building up the Afghan army is a key priority

"I think there will be a requirement of patience on the part of everybody. Also, the will of the international community, as well as the will of the Afghan people, shall remain unbroken. I think we will see definitely the results, but it will take some time," he said after the ceremony.

The general has also said he will work more closely with political and civilian partners in fighting the war. This was not a dig at Gen McChrystal - Rolling Stone magazine's runaway general was often at odds with his diplomatic partners - but a recognition that disunity had become too evident among the war's leadership.

And it may seem an unlikely role for a general, but David Petraeus is expected to take on a campaigning role in reminding the Afghan people of the improvements to life since the end of Taliban rule.

It was almost an incongruous note in his speech at the weekend, when he said: "Cellphones are ubiquitous in a country that had virtually none during the Taliban days, though the Taliban seeks to deny their use."

The aim is to show that not all aspects of life in Afghanistan have worsened since the war began.

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