KABUL, Afghanistan — Gen. David Petraeus relinquished command Monday of the fight against the Taliban-led insurgency as the slaying of another prominent pro-government Afghan cast a further pall over the process of turning over the country's security to Afghan forces.
Petraeus, who was tapped as the new CIA director, passed the leadership of the 130,000-strong International Security Assistance Force to Marine Gen. John Allen at a ceremony in the ISAF's tightly guarded headquarters in central Kabul.
Allen declared his intention "to maintain the momentum" of Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy, which hinges on military operations, improved governance and bigger Afghan security forces, all aimed at pushing insurgent leaders into talks on a political settlement to the decade-old war.
The strategy, however, remains a work in progress shrouded in deepening uncertainty.
A "surge" of 33,000 additional American soldiers last year has secured parts of the Taliban's strongholds in the south. But bloodshed nationally is at a record high, and popular ire at the U.S. and the Afghan government is rising.
So, too, are fears for the future, fueled by an American troop drawdown that began this month as part of a process of transferring full responsibility for the country's security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
"Any wavering of the resolve or premature drawdown and exit strategy will put in jeopardy all that we have achieved," Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak warned in a speech at the change-of-command ceremony.
President Barack Obama — facing stiff opposition to the war, budget woes and a tough re-election battle — ordered a first-phase withdrawal by next summer of the 33,000 surge forces even though Petraeus and other senior U.S. commanders urged that the reduction extend through December 2012.
Allen told the troops, foreign diplomats and Afghan officials assembled in the ISAF compound, "We will continue to set the conditions for and support the process of transition." But, he acknowledged, "There will be tough days ahead, and I have no illusions about the challenges we will face."
Petraeus, who'll take over at the CIA for Leon Panetta, the new defense secretary, used similar language.
"Even as we note the hard-fought progress of the past year and commence the transition process, we should be clear-eyed about the challenges ahead," he said.
Petraeus noted that the Taliban and allied groups continue to "exploit" sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan, whose refusal to move against them has contributed to the most serious U.S.-Pakistani tensions since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
The sense of gloom grew with Sunday's assassination of Jan Mohammed Khan, a power baron from the southern Taliban stronghold of Uruzgan province. He died in an assault by two gunmen on his Kabul home that also claimed the life of an Uruzgan lawmaker and a police officer.
Khan, an adviser to President Hamid Karzai and a former Uruzgan governor, was slain less than a week after Karzai's half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was killed in his home in southern Kandahar province by his security chief. The slain Karzai, who reportedly was on the CIA's payroll and ruthlessly enforced security in the south amid allegations of drug trafficking and corruption, was the head of the provincial council.
The two are among five powerful Afghans who've been assassinated since January in attacks claimed by the Taliban. It remains unclear whether all were the work of the main guerrilla group, which has intensified a campaign of killings and intimidation of Afghan officials and civilians even as it suffers serious losses to U.S.-led military operations.
Martine Van Bijlert, an expert with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, noted that the five slayings all occurred inside the victims' security rings, sending tremors through the warlords and tribal leaders on whom President Karzai and his U.S.-led foreign backers depend to help maintain stability.
"The impact on morale is on the political elite. It's very big," she said. "Regardless of who did it and how . . . it makes the key armed figures really nervous. They've seen this whole series of people being taken out with what looks to be inside help in secure compounds."
Defense Minister Wardak said he expected Petraeus' "broad intellect, his unmatched experiences and knowledge of the ground realities will make him a counterbalance to all those shortsighted, politically inspired isolationists and the groups of Beltway bandits and U.S. national security councils."
Even as Petraeus passed the baton, violence flared around the country. Three ISAF troops died in eastern Afghanistan. The ISAF declined to disclose their nationalities, but most of the soldiers in the region that borders Pakistan are American.
At least 11 Afghan police, including a senior commander, reportedly died during the day. Four were killed by a homemade bomb in Kandahar and the remainder died in a Taliban attack on a checkpoint in Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, news reports said.
The attack in Lashkar Gah came a day before Afghan security forces were due to assume responsibility for the city's security.
(Zohori is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011