Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday welcomed David Petraeus as the new chief of Central Command with responsibility for America's two wars, saying he hopes the general will help bring needed coherence to the U.S. and allied strategy in an increasingly volatile Afghanistan.
Gates presided at Petraeus' change-of-command ceremony at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla. He later told reporters traveling with him to Jacksonville that Petraeus faces many new challenges after winning wide praise for rescuing a failing Iraq war strategy.
Petraeus spent 20 months as the top U.S. commander in Baghdad. Now he will oversee U.S. military operations across the Middle East – from Egypt to the Persian Gulf – as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“The military strategy throughout Afghanistan, with our coalition partners, needs greater coherence,” Gates said in an interview aboard his plane after stopping in Jacksonville to visit a nearby Navy submarine base.
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“I think Gen. Petraeus can help Gen. McKiernan in doing that,” Gates said, referring to David McKiernan, the American general who is commander of the NATO-led security force in Afghanistan.
Several reviews of the Afghan war strategy are under way, including one led by the White House and another, broader study by Petraeus; Gates said Petraeus will need time to pull the results of those together to achieve more coherence.
Gates called for the fastest-possible further expansion of Afghanistan's military and police forces, saying that is the long-term solution to its problems on the security, economic and political fronts.
He said he hopes the next administration in Washington sends the extra U.S. troops that McKiernan has said he needs – upwards of 20,000 combat and support soldiers – in 2009. But he also offered a word of caution about getting drawn too deeply into a conflict with more American ownership.
“We would be making a terrible mistake if this ends up being called America's war,” he said, adding that it is imperative that the Afghans be made to realize that the United States is there only to help.