Kabul: Gen David Petraeus formally assumed command of the 130,000-strong international force in Afghanistan on Sunday, telling NATO and Afghan officials "we are in this to win" despite rising casualties and growing scepticism about the direction of the nearly nine-year-old war.
Petraeus received two flags — one for the US and the other for NATO — during a ceremony marking the formal assumption of command.
"We are in this to win," he told a crowd of several hundred NATO and Afghan officials at the ceremony at a grassy area just outside coalition headquarters.
"We are engaged in a contest of wills," he said. "We have arrived at a critical moment."
Petraeus succeeded Gen Stanley McChrystal, who was fired last month for intemperate remarks he and his aides made to Rolling Stone magazine about Obama administration officials who were mostly on the civilian side.
"Upfront I also want to recognize the enormous contributions of my predecessor, Gen Stanley McChrystal," Petraeus said. He said the progress made reflects McChrystal`s "vision, energy and leadership”.
Speaking before Petraeus, Gen Egon Ramms, German Army commander for the Allied Joint Force Command, also praised the work of McChrystal, saying he took the coalition "forward at a very difficult time”.
"We wish Stanley McChrystal well," Ramms said.
Ramms lamented the deaths of civilians due to military operations by coalition forces, but said people should not forget the Afghan citizens who died at the hands of insurgents whose actions are "unlawful”.
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 Defence reported that a Royal Marine was killed on Thursday in southern Afghanistan — the fifth international service member killed this month.
Petraeus has sought to make cooperation between the civilian and military parts of the international mission a top priority.
"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 US 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 US 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 US 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.
Later on Saturday, Petraeus met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Corruption was one of the issues the two discussed, according to a statement issued by the presidential palace. Karzai used the meeting to complain about what he said were "baseless" allegations made by US Rep Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York, who suggested Afghan government officials had misused or pocketed donor funds, Karzai`s office said.
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 he would begin his job by emphasising "unity, accountability and transparency”.
The Saturday gathering was upbeat. A rock band played. Dignitaries sat in tents eating popcorn, hamburgers, and ice cream. The positive tone, however, was dampened by talk of Friday`s attack on a four-story house used by an American aid organisation in the northern city of Kunduz, and the accidental killing of civilians during a raid in the south.
Taliban suicide attackers stormed the house, killing four people before dying in a five-hour gunbattle with Afghan security forces. The pre-dawn attack appeared part of a militant campaign against international development organizations at a time when the US and its allies are trying to accelerate the civilian aid effort to turn back the Taliban.
During the picnic, NATO issued a statement acknowledging the deaths Friday of two Afghan civilians, including a woman, in a joint raid with Afghan troops to arrest a Taliban deputy commander in the Kandahar area.
During the raid, an Afghan man left a compound and "demonstrated hostile intent," NATO said. Troops opened fire, wounding him. When troops entered the compound, they found an Afghan woman dead from stray rounds and another man wounded, the alliance said. One of the two wounded men later died.