Gen. David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to assume command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan that he would recommend delaying a large-scale withdrawal if security conditions on the ground are untenable. President Obama has called for drawing down troops starting in July 2011.
At his confirmation hearing to replace ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Petraeus also said he would recommend delaying a large-scale withdrawal if security conditions on the ground are untenable. He called the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan "enduring."
Petraeus is expected to be confirmed quickly. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in his opening remarks that the committee could render its decision by the end of the day.
"When confirmed, you will bring highly experienced leadership and a profound understanding of the president's strategy in Afghanistan, which you helped shape as commander, U.S. Central Command," said Levin (D-MI).
Obama tapped Petraeus to lead U.S. forces in Afghanistan after McChrystal was pushed out last week for disparaging remarks about White House officials in a Rolling Stone profile. McChrystal has announced that he will retire from the Army.
The hearing was less an examination of Petraeus' qualifications for the job than a review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and how Petraeus will carry it out. The general promised to "look very hard'' at the rules of engagement governing troops in Afghanistan.
McChrystal was criticized, including by some of his own troops, for putting too many limits on firepower to protect the lives of civilians. Petraeus said he considers it a "moral imperative to bring all assets to bear'' to protect U.S. and Afghan troops. "Those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation," he added.
Republicans and Democrats sparred over the wisdom of the July 2011 deadline to begin bringing forces home. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the committee, said the date was based on outdated assumptions about the war's progress.
"If the president would say that success in Afghanistan is our only withdrawal plan whether we reach it before July 2011 or afterward, he would make the war more winnable and hasten the day when our troops can come home with honor, which is what we all want,'' said McCain.
Levin said the 2011 date "imparts a necessary sense of urgency to Afghan leaders about the need to take on principal responsibility for their country's security.''
Republicans say they want assurances that troops will only leave next year if security has improved. Obama has said troops will begin to leave, but the pace and size of the withdrawal will depend upon conditions.
The hearing was reminiscent of Petraeus' testimony in 2007 during the throes of the Iraq war, when public support for the military campaign was waning. On Tuesday, anti-war protesters in the audience quietly held up signs that read "New General, Old
War'' and "Stop Funding the War.''
But the mood among lawmakers was considerably more upbeat, with Republicans and Democrats alike praising Petraeus.
"You are an American hero, and I believe you will be quickly and overwhelmingly confirmed,'' said McCain.
Levin urged Petraeus to send more Afghan security forces to the south, where U.S. troops are fighting a major offensive. If there are some 120,000 Afghan army troops, NATO can put more than the 7,250 Afghans in Kandahar now.
"Having the Afghan army in the lead in operations in Kandahar is the insurgency's worst nightmare,'' Levin said.
Petraeus is expected to continue McChrystal's strategy in Afghanistan in large part because it is based on Petraeus' own ideas about beating an insurgency. That plan calls for increasing troops to bolster security, while limiting the use of firepower to win the support of the local population.
While congressional leaders praised Petraeus for his work in Iraq and his acumen for fighting a complex counterinsurgency, they also want to know how soon it will be before there's good news on the war.
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