General David Petraeus, the most celebrated military leader of his generation, stepped down as US commander in Afghanistan on Monday after a checkered year at the helm of what is America’s longest war.
At a ceremony in Kabul, General Petraeus passed the baton to John Allen, a former subordinate who made his name in Iraq by striking tribal alliances considered integral in reversing Al Qaeda’s momentum after years of appalling violence.
General Petraeus, credited with reversing a spiral towards civil war in Iraq, took over in Afghanistan on July 4, 2010, and is leaving the military to take over as director of the Central Intelligence Agency as part of a wider shake-up of senior US security officials.
General Allen, who was promoted to a four-star general before the handover, becomes the first Marine to serve as head of the US-led war effort in Afghanistan.
General Petraeus oversaw a surge of tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan in a last-ditch bid to reverse a nearly 10-year Taliban insurgency and although he has claimed some progress, violence remains at record highs.
He is leaving after a week in which Afghan President Hamid Karzai saw his younger brother and a key aide assassinated at their homes, and as NATO began transitioning areas of the country to Afghan control.
Washington has now started to draw down troop numbers under a controversial timetable, which General Petraeus has admitted he did not recommend, that has attracted widespread criticism for being too fast to hold onto tentative gains.
Flanked by the top US military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, top US Marine General James Mattis, NATO commander General Wolf Langheld and his replacement, General Petraeus handed over his role in a passing of flags.
Celebrated in Washington for turning around the war in Iraq, his legacy in Afghanistan, however, has been less clear.
Violence across Afghanistan in 2010 hit its worst levels since the Taliban were ousted by US-led Afghan forces in 2001, with civilian and military casualties hitting record levels, and this year has followed a similar trend.
UN statistics released last week show that 1,462 civilians died in the first six months of 2011, an increase of 15 percent, and putting this year on track to be the deadliest in a decade.
“We should be clear-eyed about the challenges that lie ahead,” General Petraeus said at a ceremony to mark the change of command of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to General Allen.
General Petraeus warned of a tough fight ahead, referring to Taliban and Al Qaeda hideouts in neighboring Pakistan, which are subject to a covert and escalating CIA drone war.
“There is nothing easy about such a fight, especially when the enemy can exploit sanctuaries outside the country,” he said.
On Monday, three NATO soldiers were killed in a bomb attack in eastern Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan, the military announced.
The outgoing commander praised the nearly 150,000 foreign troops serving in Afghanistan and credited his successor General Allen as “the right man for the job”.
“You and our Afghan partners have arrested the momentum from the enemies of the new Afghanistan... You have taken away from the insurgency important areas in the former Taliban heartland,” he said.
Last Tuesday’s killing of Ahmed Wali Karzai, probably the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan and younger half-brother of the Afghan president, has also been considered a threat to US gains against the Taliban in Kandahar.
Last night’s killing of one of his closest allies, Jan Mohammad Khan, a former governor of southern Uruzgan province, in a raid on his Kabul home has been seen as another loss for the president.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for both killings.
General Petraeus took charge in Afghanistan in extraordinary circumstances after US President Barack Obama sacked his predecessor, Stanley McChrystal, over scathing remarks to Rolling Stone magazine about the US administration.
He is leaving at a time of great change in US personnel on Afghanistan. The US ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, is being replaced by another former Iraq veteran, Ryan Crocker, and General Petraeus’ predecessor at the CIA, Leon E. Panetta, has recently replaced Robert M. Gates as US defense secretary.
On the job, General Petraeus oversaw his trademark counter-insurgency teachings which were deemed to have been so successful in Iraq, backed by a buildup of more than 30,000 extra American troops, now due to go home by the end of 2012.
But although the military is seen to have inflicted heavy casualties among the Taliban, particularly in the south, it has struggled to harness a tribal “awakening” of the type so instrumental in Iraq.
Efforts to broker peace talks with insurgent leaders or woo Taliban fighters have yet to produce a major breakthrough.
Afghan Defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, at the ceremony, praised General Petraeus’ contribution to Afghanistan as “unprecedented” but warned against a hasty drawdown of foreign forces.
The killings of Khan and Wali Karzai, as well as a Taliban attack on the Intercontinental hotel in Kabul last month that left 21 dead, have fuelled doubts about the readiness of Afghans to manage national security.
General Petraeus is expected to begin his new job at the CIA in September.
(Sara Ghasemilee, a senior editor at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)