Petraeus Slumps At Hill Hearing On Afghanistan

Gen. David Petraeus testified Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the situation in Afghanistan. About an hour into the hearing, Petraeus fell ill, slumping onto the witness table. While it was not serious and the hearing will continue Wednesday, the session got off to a contentious start with many questions about the president's plan to withdraw troops in July 2011.

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A hastily called Senate hearing on the worrisome situation in Afghanistan ended even more abruptly today when the main witness collapsed. It was General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, and it appears he briefly fainted. The hearing was then suspended. But even in the short time the hearing was under way, it quickly became clear that some lawmakers are looking for an exit from the longest war in American history.

Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA: General Petraeus seemed well aware of growing apprehension about how things appear to be going in Afghanistan. The recent military offensive on the southern city of Marjah was bloody and inconclusive. Another offensive on nearby Kandahar has been delayed until September. Afghan President Hamid Karzai just fired two security officials highly trusted by the U.S. and one of them says Karzai's lost faith in the ability of the U.S. and NATO to succeed in Afghanistan.

Still, Petraeus insisted that President Obama made the right decision sending 30,000 more U.S. troops this year to that war.

G: None of this is easy or without considerable challenges. However, the mission is, as the members of this committee clearly recognize, hugely important to the security of the region and of our country. In view of that, we are obviously doing all that we can to achieve progress toward accomplishment of our important objectives in Afghanistan, and we are seeing early progress as we get the inputs right in that country.

WELNA: And Petraeus was not alone in making that case.

BLOCK: Our overall assessment is that we are heading in the right direction in Afghanistan.

WELNA: That's the undersecretary for defense policy, Michele Flournoy. She said the number of Afghanistan's 130 districts that are either sympathetic or neutral toward the Afghan government went from 60 last year to 73 this year.

BLOCK: This and other indicators suggest that we are beginning to regain the initiative and the insurgency is beginning to lose momentum. That said, the outcome is far from determined. And these are still early days for the administration's new strategy.

WELNA: But what committee chairman Carl Levin wanted to know was whether Genral Petraeus was sincere in his support for President Obama's policy of beginning troop withdrawals in July of next year.

BLOCK: Does that represent your best personal professional judgment?

G: In a perfect world, Mr. Chairman, we have to be very careful of timelines.

WELNA: Levin pressed further.

BLOCK: Do I take that to be a qualified yes, a qualified no, or just a non-answer?

G: A qualified yes, Mr. Chairman.

BLOCK: Thank you. Senator McCain.

WELNA: Unlike Levin, Arizona Republican John McCain's biggest concern was that U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan too soon.

BLOCK: Believe we can begin a drawdown in July of 2011 under the projected plans that we have?

G: That is the policy and I support it, senator.

WELNA: That answer clearly was not what McCain wanted to hear.

BLOCK: I think you are one of America's great heroes but I continue to worry a great deal about the message we are sending in the region about whether we're actually going to stay or not and whether we're going to do what's necessary to succeed, rather than set an arbitrary timeline. And the best way to...

WELNA: At that moment, McCain stopped talking. Petraeus had slumped down onto the witness table. Aides who surrounded him then escorted the general out of the hearing room. He was back about a half hour later saying he was ready to finish the hearing.

G: A little bit light-headed there. I - it wasn't Senator McCain's questions, I assure you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WELNA: But Chairman Levin overrode Petraeus and insisted on putting off the rest of the hearing until tomorrow.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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