Petraeus Takes Step Toward Confirmation

Gen. David Petraeus testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. He has been picked to be the top commander for the war in Afghanistan, and if confirmed by the Senate, will inherit a challenging mission — and a tight deadline to achieve it.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today, General David Petraeus took a big step toward becoming the commander in charge of the war in Afghanistan. The Senate Armed Services Committee voted overwhelmingly to approve his nomination to the post. He'll replace General Stanley McChrystal, who was fired last week for comments he and his staff made about members of the Obama administration.

Petraeus told the committee he supports the current war strategy, including the president's goal to start drawing down U.S. troops by July of next year.

NPR's Rachel Martin has more details.

RACHEL MARTIN: General David Petraeus knew he had the job before the official interview had even started.

Unidentified Man #1: You're an American hero, and I am confident that you will be quickly and overwhelmingly confirmed.

Unidentified Man #2: Thank you and good luck. We're all depending on you.

Unidentified Man #3: General Petraeus, I can't tell you how much it means to all of us that you're willing to do this.

MARTIN: Between the thank-yous and high praise, there were some tough questions about the war strategy for General Petraeus, mainly the July 2011 timeline the president has set to begin taking some U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. Time and again, the general restated his position that he supports the president's policy.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican doesn't support the timeline and pushed Petraeus on the issue.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): The vice president's been quoted as saying about this particular topic, come July, we're going to begin leave in large numbers, you can bet on it. Is his view of the policy correct?

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Central Command): Well, first of all, I've heard Secretary Gates...

Sen. GRAHAM: That that's an accurate statement. That that is an...

Gen. PETRAEUS: I've heard Secretary Gates...

Sen. GRAHAM: Excuse me. Excuse me.

Gen. PETRAEUS: ...state that he never...

Sen. GRAHAM: Excuse me, sir, let me ask my question. Is his statement, if accurate, does that make sense in terms of what you think the policy to be?

MARTIN: The debate here is over how many and how fast American troops might leave next summer. The vice president apparently suggested they'd leave in large numbers and fast. When Petraeus did get to respond to Senator Graham, he sidestepped the question, describing an encounter with Biden last fall.

He said the vice president told him he supports the current strategy, including the idea conditions on the ground would dictate the pace of withdrawal. The general then added...

Gen. PETRAEUS: I'm hosting Vice President Biden for dinner tonight at our quarters in Tampa. And so, again, we have another opportunity to continue that conversation.

MARTIN: There will be plenty more to talk about. The general described some of the challenges for the senators. Training Afghan security forces is high on the list.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Helping to train and equip host nation forces in the midst of an insurgency is akin to building an advanced aircraft while it is in flight, while it is being designed and while it is being shot at. There is nothing easy about it.

MARTIN: General Petraeus wrote the counterinsurgency doctrine that's now being put to the test in Afghanistan and said he has no immediate plans to recommend changes. But he did say he will reevaluate the rules that define when U.S. troops can fire on suspected insurgents.

He said these rules of engagement are supposed to reduce the risk of killing civilians. But Petraeus says that doesn't mean U.S. troops should have to fight with their hands tied behind their backs.

Gen. PETRAEUS: When they're in a tough spot, it's a moral imperative that we use everything we have to ensure that they get out of it.

MARTIN: Time and again the senators' questions circled back to when and how Petraeus plans to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. He said that on one hand, the July 2011 deadline sends a message to the Afghan government: Don't take the U.S. for granted.

Gen. PETRAEUS: On the other hand, again, you have to make sure that the enemy does not interpret that as that moment whereas we've said the United States is heading for the exits, looking for the light switch to turn it off because we're out of here, because that is not accurate.

MARTIN: It's the kind of balancing act General Petraeus has performed before, as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. This time he'll have to accept what is technically a demotion in order to get the chance to do it again in Afghanistan.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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