Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Gen. David Petraeus testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee during a confirmation hearing to become the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Gen. David Petraeus testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee during a confirmation hearing to become the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
The Senate Armed Services Committee voted Tuesday to support the nomination of Gen. David Petraeus to lead U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan, hours after he told the panel that he backed President Obama's proposed drawdown of troops there 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."
"I was part of the process that helped formulate the president's strategy for Afghanistan, and I support and agree with his new policy," Petraeus told the committee. "During its development, I offered my forthright military advice, and I have assured the president that I will do the same as we conduct assessments over the course of the months ahead. He in turn assured me that he expects and wants me to provide that character of advice."
The committee voted to send his nomination to the Senate, where Petraeus is expected to be confirmed quickly.
"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 Sen. Levin (D-MI), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
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 article. 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.
Petraeus addressed the issue of the drawdown date in his opening remarks. "It is important to note the president's reminder in recent days that July 2011 will mark the beginning of a process, not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits and turns out the lights," the general said. "As he explained this past Sunday in fact, we'll need to provide assistance to Afghanistan for a long time to come."
Born: Nov. 7, 1952; raised in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Recent Experience: Took over as head of U.S. Central Command in October 2008 after serving 19 months as the top American commander in Iraq during the troop "surge" to combat the insurgency there. Led the 101st Airborne Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and capture of Baghdad.
Education: U.S. Military Academy, 1974; Princeton University, master's degree in 1985, doctoral degree in 1987
Source: U.S. Central Command
Levin said the 2011 timetable "imparts a necessary sense of urgency to Afghan leaders about the need to take on principal responsibility for their country's security.'' He 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 send in more than the 7,250 Afghans currently in Kandahar.
"Having the Afghan army in the lead in operations in Kandahar is the insurgency's worst nightmare,'' Levin said.
But a new inspector general's report says the U.S. has overrated the capability of Afghan soldiers and police, despite the fact that the allies have spent about $27 billion training Afghan security forces to take charge of their own defense.
Building the Afghan national army and police is a key part of the counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan, but the report says the U.S. has been using a faulty system to measure the Afghan's progress.
Even under that system, called capability milestones, the Afghan forces didn't do that well: Only 23 percent of Afghan soldiers and 12 percent of the police received high marks. The report also states that even the top-rated army and police units can't operate on their own.
But the U.S. general in charge of training the Afghan army and police criticized the report as outdated and said the military has switched to a better system for rating the Afghans.
Petraeus is expected to continue McChrystal's strategy in Afghanistan in large part because it is based on his 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.
Petraeus took over as head of U.S. Central Command in October 2008 after serving 19 months as the top American commander in Iraq during the troop surge to combat the insurgency there. He led the 101st Airborne Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and capture of Baghdad.
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.
Republicans say they want assurances that the 2011 withdrawal timeline will be contingent on improved security. Obama has said U.S. forces will begin to leave next year, but that the pace and size of the withdrawal will depend upon ground 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,'' McCain said.
Also Tuesday, the White House announced that McChrystal would be allowed to retire from the military at the rank of four stars — despite Army rules that require four-star officers to serve at that rank for three years before getting retirement benefits at that level. McChrystal had been a four-star officer for less than a year before his resignation.
NPR's Corey Flintoff contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press