General Stanley McChrystal has officially taken over as the new commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The Obama administration is counting on the four-star general to implement a new and ambitious strategy to turn the tide against a relentless and bloody Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
General McChrystal comes to Afghanistan with a tall order from President Barack Obama.
First on the list: change the way U.S. and NATO forces relate to the Afghan people, who are distrustful of repeated incidents of civilian casualties during military operations.
The general referred to that goal at a low-key ceremony during which he formally took on his new duties Monday in Kabul. In short, he said winning the war in Afghanistan depends on civilian support.
"The Afghan people are at the center of our mission. In reality, they are the mission. We must protect them from violence, whatever its nature. We must respect their religion and traditions," he said. "Each of us, from rifleman to regional commander, from village to city, must execute our mission with the realization that displaying respect, cultural sensitivity, accountability and transparency are essential to gaining the support and trust of the Afghan people."
General McChrystal takes over at a time of heightened violence in Afghanistan. His forces are facing are facing an increasingly emboldened, virulent and agile enemy capable of carrying out attack after attack unabated. In fact, U.S. and NATO military commanders say insurgent violence rose nearly 60 percent between the first six months of this year, compared to last year - the highest level of violence since 2001 when the Taliban government was ousted by U.S. led forces.
There are other goals the Obama administration has set for itself in Afghanistan, as it deploys 21,000 additional troops and trainers to Taliban strongholds in the south and east. Along with protecting local Afghans and reducing violence are new efforts to cut off the funding of the Taliban and other Afghan insurgents.
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke spoke of a new thinking on the issue during a recent visit to Pakistan. Holbrooke says the long-held notion that Afghanistan's illicit opium trade is the main source of funding for the insurgency is simply not true. And, he says U.S. policy is going to reflect that reality.
"If the drugs ended tomorrow, it would not have a major effect on the Taliban source of funding," said Holbrooke. "And, that's one of the reasons the United States is going to downgrade crop eradication as part of its policies in Afghanistan. We're going to upgrade interdiction. We're going to upgrade our efforts to go after the main drug traffickers. But we want to focus on where the money really comes from."
Hobrooke admits is a very complicated and difficult problem to address. He says efforts to make progress in that area, include adding a member of the U.S. Treasury Department to his staff to focus exclusively on the source of Taliban funding.
Paul Burton is the director of policy at the International Council of Security and Development. He says the new Obama war strategy, which also includes a major rehaul of civilian development projects, sounds like a hopeful change from the past. Still, Burton is cautious about how it will all play out, given the enormity of the task.
"It's a tremendously complex patchwork of initiatives that are now being sewn together by Western military commanders and Afghan political figures," said Burton. "It's one that is going to unfold with increasing urgency, over the next year or so."
Added to the mix of challenges facing the new U.S. and NATO commander are the dynamics of Afghanistan's August presidential election. It will be the country's second since the overthrow of the Taliban, who are promising even more violence to disrupt the polls.