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New U.S. commander pushes faltering Afghan war effort
KABUL (Reuters) - The United States' top field commander arrived in Afghanistan on Friday to take charge of the faltering war, pledging to tackle the nine-year-old Taliban insurgency with a strategy he successfully pioneered in Iraq.
General David Petraeus landed a day after his appointment was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and just hours after the U.S. House of Representatives approved $33 billion in funding for a troop surge he hopes will turn the tide of the war.
An amendment demanding an exit timetable from Afghanistan failed, but got 162 votes -- the biggest anti-war vote in the House on Afghanistan to date.
Petraeus's appointment could be a last throw of the dice for Washington to end an increasingly costly conflict that is draining Western budgets as they emerge from one of the worst global recessions in history.
A formal change-of-command ceremony will be held on Sunday.
The surge will bring to 150,000 the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan just as the new strategy takes root. It entails tackling the Taliban in their strongholds while relying on the government to simultaneously improve local governance and development.
The Taliban showed on Friday just how capable they are of operating outside their traditional strongholds by launching a daring commando-style raid on the office of an American company that provides logistical support for U.S. government aid in relatively peaceful Kunduz, in the north.
A Briton, German, Filipino and two Afghans were killed in the pre-dawn attack, provincial officials said, as well as the six insurgents who mounted the raid.
Also on Friday, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that Petraeus now commands said two service members had died after separate insurgent attacks in the south and east.
TURN THE TIDE
Petraeus, who wrote the U.S. army's field guide on waging a counter-insurgency, used the tactics to help turn the tide of the Iraq war and the strategy was introduced to Afghanistan earlier this year by former commander General Stanley McChrystal.
McChrystal was sacked last week after he and some aides disparaged senior administration officials in a magazine profile.
While Petraeus has pledged to continue with the same strategy, he told NATO chiefs in Brussels on Thursday that some operational tactics would be reviewed -- including air strikes on suspected Taliban hideouts.
The issue came to a head last year after a series of air attacks killed scores of civilians -- including 140 in one incident -- but McChrystal's arrival was credited with vastly reducing collateral damage.
Petraeus said on Thursday that any tactics that raised the possibility of more soldiers being killed needed to be reviewed.
More than 1,800 foreign troops have died in Afghanistan since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001 -- including more than 100 last month, the bloodiest since the war began.
"I have a moral imperative as a commander ... to bring all force that is available when our troopers -- and, by the way, our Afghan partners -- are in a tough position," he told NATO chiefs.
The last two weeks have thrown an especially harsh light on the war effort, with new reports of corruption in President Hamid Karzai's government and the change in command of foreign forces.
Doubts have also been raised over the commitment of the government to push governance and development alongside the military drive, and also the ability of Afghan forces to take over responsibility for security.
At the same time, Karzai has been wooing the Taliban with a series of modest peace overtures, all have which have been rejected by the hardline Islamist movement, which insists all foreign forces must leave before they will end the insurgency.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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