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Petraeus takes over Central Command

The former top Iraq commander will now oversee the region, and Afghanistan is set as his main challenge.

November 01, 2008|Julian E. Barnes | Barnes is a Times staff writer.

Macdill Air Force Base, Fla. — The most important task for Gen. David H. Petraeus, installed as head of U.S Central Command, will be developing a single coherent strategy for Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Friday.

Petraeus took command of Centcom and was given responsibility for overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at a ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa.

He was the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Now, as the top regional commander, Petraeus will continue to oversee that war, but at Centcom, his most urgent task will be helping to craft a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan.

"Under his leadership our troops have dealt our enemies in Iraq a tremendous blow," Gates said. "Now he will take aim at our adversaries in Afghanistan."

Later in the day, during a news conference aboard his plane, Gates said that Petraeus would have to find a way to weave together various ongoing military reviews of the Afghanistan war into a single strategy as well as better coordinate various reconstruction efforts.

"We've got four or five different strategies going on right now. At some point all of that has to come together and we need to have one coherent plan that everyone signs up for," Gates said.

The conflict in Afghanistan has grown more violent this year and in its closing days, the Bush administration has initiated a broad strategy review, led by the National Security Council. The Joint Chiefs of Staff also have a planning effort underway, designed in part to present options to the next administration. Petraeus is working on his own plan for Afghanistan. In addition, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is engaged in a strategic planning effort.

For all the efforts, a crucial question concerns the number of troops needed. President Bush has announced that an additional Army brigade, about 3,500 soldiers, will head to Afghanistan early next year. But U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have said that they need as many as 20,000 more troops.

Gates said he had briefly discussed with Petraeus the appeal from commanders in Afghanistan for three additional brigades. That request has not formally been presented to Gates, but he said he had told Petraeus that he thought it was something the U.S. should "satisfy in the course of 2009."

The Pentagon chief sounded skeptical about the need for more troops beyond those brigades and said U.S. allies were unlikely to send more troops.

"What I would like to see and I think what everybody would like to see is the most rapid possible further expansion of Afghan military forces," Gates said, "because this needs to be an Afghan war and not an American war and not a NATO war."

Currently there are plans to expand the Afghan army to 135,000 troops. But Gates, citing Iraq's much larger police and army, said far more security forces would be needed for Afghanistan.

Petraeus leaves today for his first trip to the region in his new role, stopping to confer with officials in Pakistan and other countries that fall under Central Command.

During the change of command ceremony here, Petraeus offered little insight into his plans. Returning to a theme common to the military, he said the United States must embrace comprehensive approaches to find new answers for a range of problems -- insurgencies, piracy, weapons proliferation and sectarian conflict.

"This is necessary not just to resolve pressing short-term issues but to address over time the underlying conditions that give rise to such serious security challenges," Petraeus said.

He is taking over from Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who had served as acting head of Central Command and will now lead the U.S. Army's Training and Doctrine Command. Dempsey was placed in charge of Centcom after the March resignation of Navy Adm. William "Fox" Fallon.

Fallon was forced out of his job after news articles about him portrayed him as at odds with the Bush administration. The exit forced an early reshuffling of the top jobs.

Although Petraeus was quickly nominated to replace Fallon, it was the better part of a year before the Army general left his Iraq command.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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