Petraeus: 'We are in a contest of wills'

Gen. David Petraeus, who officially took command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan on Sunday, told troops that all assets will be employed to ensure their safety in tough war fighting situations.

Petraeus, however, stressed in a letter sent to troops soon after he assumed command that the international security assistance force must continue the emphasis on reducing civilian casualties to “an absolute minimum.”

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“We must never forget that the decisive terrain in Afghanistan is the human terrain,” Petraeus wrote. “Protecting those we are here to help nonetheless does require killing, capturing or turning the insurgents. We will not shrink from that; indeed you have been taking the fight to the enemy and we will continue to do so. Beyond that, as you and your Afghan partners on the ground get into tough situations, we must employ all assets to ensure your safety, keeping in mind, again the importance of avoiding civilian casualties.”

During his recent Senate confirmation hearing, Petraeus pledged that he would review the military’s rules of engagement in Afghanistan. He called the protection of U.S. troops his “moral imperative.”

In a counterinsurgency campaign, such as the one under way in Afghanistan, there is an inherent tension between fighting a war and protecting and winning over the civilian population.

The previous commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, placed restrictions on U.S. air strikes and artillery in Afghanistan, limiting the circumstances that allow troops under fire to call for fire support. Those rules of engagement have cut down on civilian casualties, but have been strongly criticized by American troops who say those rules have made the fight more dangerous.

McChrystal resigned in the aftermath of controversial comments made in a Rolling Stone magazine article. President Barack Obama swiftly picked Petraeus, the former head of Central Command and McChrystal’s boss, to take the reins in Afghanistan.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Sunday said that the U.S. military’s rules of engagement have hurt troop morale in Afghanistan and said that he hoped that Petraeus will clarify them as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Petraeus, during his command ceremony in Kabul and in his letter to the troops, cautioned that the U.S. and international forces are serving in Afghanistan “at a critical time.” 

“We are in this to win. That is our clear objective,” Petraeus said during his assumption of command speech before military officers, diplomats and Afghan officials at the NATO headquarters in Kabul.

“We are engaged in a contest of wills. Our enemies are doing all that they can to undermine the confidence of the Afghan people,” he added.


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