KABUL, Afghanistan — America's Afghan and international allies embraced the choice of Gen. David Petraeus to run the war in Afghanistan, hoping the architect of the Iraq surge will seamlessly pursue the strategy laid down by his predecessor and smooth over divisions that led to his dismissal.
By naming Petraeus, President Barack Obama managed to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal without derailing the mission at a critical juncture in the war, when casualties are rising and public support in the West is waning.
Still, the jury is out on whether the counterinsurgency strategy that Petraeus used to turn around the Iraq war will show results in Afghanistan by July 2011, when Obama wants to begin withdrawing U.S. troops. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]
The split between the U.S. civilian and military team in Afghanistan has not disappeared with McChrystal's departure. Those fissures, laid bare in disparaging remarks to Rolling Stone magazine, led to McChrystal's dismissal Wednesday.
Petraeus inherits myriad challenges. Among them:
— Eighty international troops have died so far this month, making June the deadliest month of the nearly 9-year-old war.
— A major offensive in Helmand province earlier this year has yielded mixed results. McChrystal himself acknowledged that the security campaign already under way in neighboring Kandahar province is going more slowly than expected.
— While NATO has worked hard to train a growing number of Afghan soldiers and police, their ability to go it alone without their more skilled NATO partners at their side has yet to be tested.
The politically savvy Petraeus probably would have a better shot at convincing Obama that the strategy needs more time and slow the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Petraeus helped train the Iraqi army and is on a first-name basis with defense officials in capitals that provide troops to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.
Initially, NATO leaders in Brussels played down the Rolling Stone article, which suggested that powerful players in the Obama administration still disagree on the unproven U.S. counterinsurgency strategy of routing the Taliban, securing major population centers, bolstering the Afghan government's effectiveness and rushing in aid and development.
They were relieved when Obama selected Petraeus, who pioneered the same basic counterinsurgency strategy when he commanded U.S. forces in Iraq.
"The strategy continues to have NATO's support and our forces will continue to carry it out," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement. "We will stay for as long as it takes to do our job."
Some critics have questioned whether a strategy aimed at bolstering the Afghan government can ever succeed in a country with ethnic divisions and a history of tribal rule.
"The situation in Afghanistan is in obvious disarray and it's not because of personnel. It's because of policy," said U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. "The frustration expressed by McChrystal and his aides highlights the failure of our current policy in Afghanistan."
Despite those doubts, there is simply not enough time to recraft the strategy before Obama's July 2011 withdrawal date.
"This is not the time for a new commander to come in to rethink strategy," said Malcolm Chalmers of Britain's Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.
The prospect of having to deal with a third NATO commander in little over a year was an unwelcome prospect for Afghan leaders, who had spent months building rapport with McChrystal, the lanky commander who had become President Hamid Karzai's most trusted U.S. partner.
They had expressed hope that Obama wouldn't fire McChrystal, but in the end, internal U.S. politics trumped their desires.
"Gen. McChrystal was a fine soldier and a partner for the Afghan people," Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said. "But we believe Gen. Petraeus will also be a trusted partner."
Omar said the Afghan leadership hoped replacing McChrystal would not impede progress in the war.
"We know Gen. Petraeus. He knows the country. He knows the strategy," Omar said. "He is the most informed person and the most obvious choice for this job."