KABUL (Reuters) - The nine-year war in Afghanistan has reached a critical stage, U.S. General David Petraeus said on Sunday, as he formally took command of the 150,000-strong NATO-led force fighting a growing Taliban insurgency.
“We are engaged in a tough fight. After years of war we have arrived at a critical moment,” Petraeus told guests at a change-of-command ceremony at the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul.
“We all recognize the threat that the Taliban, al Qaeda and the other associated syndicate of extremists pose to this country, this region and to the world,” he said. “We are in this to win.”
Petraeus was last week appointed to lead all foreign forces in Afghanistan after his predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal, was dismissed for insulting remarks he and aides made about the U.S. administration in a magazine interview.
The shift comes as the Taliban are at their strongest since being overthrown in 2001, and with ISAF casualties mounting daily. Suicide bombers and insurgent fighters also attacked a U.S. aid contractor’s office in northern Kunduz last week, killing five people and wounding dozens more.
Petraeus, wearing camouflage fatigues and speaking near a marble column dedicated to ISAF troops killed in the Afghan campaign, told senior commanders and several Afghan ministers his appointment signaled a change in command, not strategy.
Despite last month being the bloodiest yet for international troops, he said gains were being made in the increasingly difficult war and a pushback by insurgents had been expected ahead of an offensive by U.S. and NATO troops on Taliban strongholds in the country’s south.
“Nothing has been easy in Afghanistan,” he said. “However, we can all take heart from the progress that has been made on the security front and beyond.”
New Afghan interior minister Besmillah Mohammadi said after watching Petraeus take command that U.S. troops and Afghan police had killed 63 Taliban fighters during a two-day sweep in the restive southern Helmand province.
Petraeus landed in Kabul on Friday after his appointment was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives approved $33 billion in funding for a troop surge he hopes will turn the tide of the war.
The surge will bring to 150,000 the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan just as a new strategy takes root. It entails tackling the Taliban in the south while relying on the government to improve local governance and development.
“We must demonstrate to the Afghan people and to the world that al Qaeda and its network of extremist allies will not be allowed to once again establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan,” Petraeus said, calling again for unity between the government and international forces.
Petraeus accepted ISAF and U.S. command flags on a small lawn and under tight security, watched over by rooftop snipers and with several top commanders arriving in a convoy of helicopters for a low-key ceremony coinciding with U.S. Independence Day.
His appointment could be a last throw of the dice for Washington to end an increasingly costly conflict that is draining budgets of Western nations as they emerge from one of the worst global recessions in history.
He is charged with not only winning the war against a growing Taliban insurgency, but also with starting a promised withdrawal of U.S. forces from July next year as Afghan security forces assume more control of the country.
Nearly 1,900 foreign troops have died in Afghanistan since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001 — including more than 100 last month, the deadliest since the war began.
German NATO commander General Egon Ramms paid tribute to McChrystal’s efforts against the Taliban, but said Petraeus was the “first choice for ISAF” given his deep counter-insurgency experience and the many challenges now facing the country.
“There was not the slightest concern about mission command about the unexpected developments of the last 10 days,” Ramms said.
With Petraeus’ appointment and a conference in Kabul in coming weeks called to review progress in the country and chart a way forward, Ramms said the international community was signaling it was not beating a path to Afghanistan’s exits.
Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton