KABUL, Afghanistan – America’s top diplomat in Kabul jokingly handed NATO’s new commander Gen. David Petraeus an access badge to the U.S. Embassy on Saturday, a symbolic gesture of a new partnership in the troubled U.S. management of the Afghan war.
The smiles and declarations of synergy came as Petraeus prepared to formally assume command today of a 130,000-strong international force at a time of rising casualties and growing doubt about how much can be achieved before July 2011, when President Barack Obama wants to begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
Petraeus called for troops and civilian staff employees to work together, saying: “In this important endeavor, cooperation is not optional.”
“Civilian and military, Afghanistan and international, we are part of one team with one mission,” Petraeus told about 1,700 invited guests, including Afghan government and military and police officials gathered at the U.S. Embassy for a pre-Fourth of July celebration marking American independence.
They were Petraeus’ first public comments since he arrived Friday night to take command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He said he would work to improve coordination between troops on the battlefield and civilians trying to bolster the Afghan government and improve the lives of the people.
His message to the Afghans in the audience: “Your success is our success.”
Petraeus, widely credited with turning around the U.S. war effort in Iraq, faces rising violence and growing doubts in Washington and other allied capitals about the effectiveness of the counterinsurgency strategy, which the general himself pioneered.
June was the deadliest month for the allied force since the war began in October 2001, with 102 deaths, more than half of them Americans. Britain’s Ministry of Defense reported that a Royal Marine was killed on Thursday in southern Afghanistan – the fifth international service member killed this month.
Later, Petraeus met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Karzai asked Petraeus to review international contracts for private security companies to help keep money from flowing out of the country. According to the statement, Petraeus told the president that he would begin his job by emphasizing “unity, accountability and transparency.”
U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry underscored the message of cooperation and said the U.S. was “committed for the long term” because a stable Afghanistan, free of extremist threats, would help ensure security in the United States.
Eikenberry had frosty relations with former NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who told Rolling Stone that he felt “betrayed” by the ambassador’s opposition last year to a request for a substantial increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Eikenberry’s opposition to Obama’s decision to send 30,000 U.S. reinforcements to Afghanistan – based on doubts about Karzai’s reliability – was contained in diplomatic cables leaked in Washington, a move McChrystal suspected was aimed at protecting the ambassador if the war effort failed.
Eikenberry called Petraeus a “great friend” and handed him an access pass to the heavily guarded embassy across the street from NATO headquarters in Kabul.
“Welcome aboard. You are welcome at this embassy 24-7,” Eikenberry said.