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General Petraeus Taking Over U.S. Central Command

Petraeus walks by a map of what will be his area of responsibility.
General David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander who oversaw the "surge" operations that have helped to stabilize Iraq, is taking on an even broader assignment.

He is becoming the new head of U.S. Central Command, a role that makes him responsible for U.S. military policy across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, and the Gulf region.

The change-of-commander ceremony at the U.S. military's Central Command headquarters in Florida comes less than two months after U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Baghdad to see Petraeus hand off his duties as the top field commander in Iraq.

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman said a key task for Petraeus will be his reviews of U.S. counterinsurgency tactics, not just in Iraq but also in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said he expects Petraeus to visit the region shortly.

'Can't Kill Our Way Out'

Edelman also told RFE/RL he expects Petraeus will stress that military operations alone are not an effective counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan.

"I don't want to prejudge the outcome of [Petraeus'] assessment. But he has certainly said several times -- and I think Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates and I agree -- that we can't kill our way out of this problem," Edelman says. "It is a problem that does requires not just a military side. It requires governance -- the extension of effective governance by the government in Kabul and by local authorities. So it is going to take the civilian side and it is going to take some political dimension."

Indeed, Petraeus -- a soldier-scholar with a doctorate from Princeton University -- has been called a hero by some people in the United States because of his role in stabilizing Iraq.

In testimony to the U.S. Congress last month, Petraeus said improved security in Iraq is not only the result of increased U.S. troop numbers there, but also because Sunni tribal leaders have been brought into the fight against Al-Qaeda along with some 135,000 Iraqi government troops.

But now, analysts say Petraeus and the next U.S. president will face some tough decisions about whether to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq further in order to free them up to go to Afghanistan.

Edelman says that whatever course the Pentagon takes, U.S. military planners will have to better understand the local politics within Afghanistan in order to reach out to tribal leaders there.

"While some of the elements of tribal engagement that were used in Iraq -- like the Anbar Sheiks and the Sons of Iraq -- may be relevant to Afghanistan, it will have to be applied with some care," Edelman says. "But clearly, engaging tribal leaders and making accommodations and bringing over those who can be reconciled from the other side is important."

'Each Insurgency Is Different'

At the same time, Edelman says, Petraeus is aware of the differences between the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"General Petraeus is always very careful to say, rightly, that based on his great work drafting up the counterinsurgency field manual -- the "Army-Marines Corps Field Manual on Counterinsurgency Operations" -- that each insurgency is different and has its own specific characteristics," Edelman says. "And there are big differences between Iraq and Afghanistan that everybody needs to bear in mind. Iraq is a very urban society. It was fundamentally an urban insurgency even in a place like Anbar [Province], where it was centered in places like Fallujah and Ramadi.

"In contrast, I think, in Afghanistan it is largely a rural insurgency. And the level of economic and social development in the two countries is extremely different. Afghanistan is a much more challenging environment in many ways."

Critics of Petraeus' promotion say it is highly unusual for a U.S. field commander to be moved directly from a combat zone into the top job at U.S. Central Command.

The critics say one risk is that Petraeus will be in charge of reviewing his own recent policies in Iraq. They argue that a more independent review of U.S. military strategy could be more beneficial to the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign.