KABUL, Afghanistan — "We are in this to win," Gen. David Petraeus said Sunday as he took the reins of an Afghan war effort troubled by waning support, an emboldened enemy, government corruption and a looming commitment to withdraw troops even with no sign of violence easing.
Petraeus, who pioneered the counterinsurgency strategy he now oversees in Afghanistan, has just months to show progress in turning back insurgents and convince both the Afghan people and neighboring countries that the United States is committed to preventing the country from again becoming a haven for al-Qaida and its terrorist allies.
"We are engaged in a contest of wills," Petraeus said as he accepted the command of U.S. and NATO forces before several hundred U.S., coalition and Afghan officials who gathered on a grassy area outside NATO headquarters in Kabul.
Petraeus, widely credited with turning around the U.S. war effort in Iraq, said the Taliban and its allies are killing and maiming civilians — even using "unwitting children to carry out attacks" — in an attempt to undermine public confidence in the Afghan government and the international community's ability to prevail.
"In answer, we must demonstrate to the people and to the Taliban that Afghan and international forces are here to safeguard the Afghan people, and that we are in this to win," he said.
Continual discussion about President Barack Obama's desire to start withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011 has blurred the definition of what would constitute victory. That, coupled with the abrupt firing of Petraeus' predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a move that laid bare a rift between civilian and military efforts in the country, has created at least the perception that the NATO mission needs to be righted.
June was the deadliest month for the allied force since the war began, with 102 U.S. and international troops killed. Progress in stabilizing Taliban strongholds in the south has been slow, support for the war is waning in America and foreign capitals, and doubts persist about the Afghan government's willingness and ability to fight corruption.
"After years of war, we have arrived at a critical moment," Petraeus said. "We must demonstrate to the Afghan people — and to the world — that al-Qaida and its network of extremist allies will not be allowed to once again establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan from which they can launch attacks on the Afghan people and on freedom-loving nations around the world."