JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — 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's 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.
"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.
The United States has about 32,000 troops in Afghanistan, compared with more than 150,000 in Iraq. NATO allies have about 30,000 in Afghanistan.
Gates flew to Jacksonville and then visited nearby King's Bay naval station across the border in Georgia. He went aboard a nuclear ballistic missile submarine, the USS Rhode Island, and met with sailors.
At his change-of-command ceremony, under bright sunshine on the shores of a glistening Tampa Bay, Petraeus pledged to push for more than military solutions to the conflicts and instability of the greater Middle East.
The four-star commander underlined the many problems facing not only Iraq and Afghanistan but also other countries in his new area of military responsibility.
"As we have all seen in recent years, addressing these challenges requires comprehensive approaches to employ the whole of our government's capabilities," Petraeus said, alluding to his effort, during 20 months as the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to involve more fully the State Department and other agencies.
"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. So the way ahead will be difficult," he said.
His first trip as chief of Central Command, starting Saturday, was to include a stop in Pakistan, a U.S. ally threatened with financial ruin, torn by an Islamic insurgency and armed with nuclear weapons.
Petraeus took command from Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who had filled in as the acting Central Command commander since March when Adm. William Fallon stepped down sooner than the Pentagon had expected. Dempsey, who is about to rising in rank to four-star general and assume command of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, made light of his stand-in role over the past seven months.
"I guess my acting career is over," he quipped.
Petraeus, who is widely credited with engineering a turnaround in Iraq after it approached the brink of all-out civil war in 2006, has spent the past several weeks — since returning from Baghdad in mid-September — preparing for an encore, albeit on a larger stage.
In his remarks at the change-of-command ceremony, Gates heaped praise on Petraeus but also appeared to allude to the fact that the general has acquired hero-like status.
"It's hard to find much more to say about General David Petraeus," Gates told an audience that included members of Petraeus's and Dempsey's West Point class of 1974.
"He is the preeminent soldier-scholar-statesman of his generation and precisely the man we need in this command at this time," he said. "Under his leadership, our troops have dealt our enemies in Iraq a tremendous blow. Now he will take aim at our adversaries in Afghanistan and lead security-capacity efforts throughout the Middle East, the Gulf, and Central Asia, while working with our partners to counter a range of national and transnational threats."
Petraeus, 55, did three tours of duty in Iraq, starting in 2003 as commander of the 101st Airborne Division. Later he spent more than a year heading the organization responsible for training Iraqi security forces.