WASHINGTON // Gen David Petraeus was yesterday approved by a Senate committee to take over the war in Afghanistan after telling legislators that victory in the country is achievable. Appearing at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen Petraeus said that despite setbacks and climbing casualty figures, the war is following a "generally upward" trajectory.
"In the face of tough fighting, we must remember that progress is possible in Afghanistan," said Gen Petraeus, who now faces a full Senate vote expected this week. It was the decorated general's first appearance on Capitol Hill since Barack Obama asked him to take over for his protégé, Gen Stanley McChrystal, who was fired last week by the president after he disparaged administration officials in an article in Rolling Stone magazine. Gen Petraeus, who is best known for authoring the US counterinsurgency manual and helping to turn the tide of the war in Iraq, voiced strong support for the revamped war plan, calling it "sound", and he assured legislators that the leadership shakeup would cause minimal disruption.
"This is more about executing now than it is about redesign," he said. Gen Petraeus reiterated his support for Mr Obama's plan to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011. But he stressed the US commitment would be an "enduring one" and the pace of the reduction would depend on conditions on the ground. "We will need to provide assistance to Afghanistan for a long time to come," he said, adding that it would take "a number of years" before Afghan forces could assume total control of the country's security.
The withdrawal timeline has become a source of mounting concern in Washington. Democrats worry that the administration is not fully committed to a meaningful reduction by the July 2011 date, which, they say, is a necessary marker to ensure the war is not open-ended. Republicans, meanwhile, worry that the timeline sends a message that the United States is not fully committed to the fight. Carl Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the July 2011 date "imparts a necessary sense of urgency to Afghan leaders about the need to take on principal responsibility for their country's security".
However, John McCain, the committee's ranking Republican, called the withdrawal timeline "harmful" and "unrealistic". The Obama administration, for its part, has offered conflicting statements on the expected pace of the withdrawal. The vice president, Joe Biden, is quoted in Jonathan Alter's recent book, The Promise, as saying, "In July of 2011, you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out, bet on it." But in remarks at the G20 Summit in Toronto on Sunday, Mr Obama stressed that the July 2011 deadline was intended to "begin a process of transition". "That doesn't mean we suddenly turn off the lights and let the door close behind us," Mr Obama said.
Some legislators have grown increasingly frustrated by the lack of clarity. In the House, anti-war Democrats seeking greater assurances that Mr Obama plans to see through the withdrawal have threatened to postpone a vote on a spending bill that would fund the war for the next fiscal year. In a particularly sharp exchange at yesterday's hearing, Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said he believed the withdrawal timeline was little more than a political gesture meant to appease liberal Democrats.
Gen Petraeus, the most prominent general in the country, was chosen, in part, for his political adeptness and his ability to manage the concerns of a polarised Congress. He will take command of the nine-year-old war at a critical juncture, as troops embark on a major operation in Kandahar province that he has described as the most important of the war. The general told the Senate panel that he expects a tough fight in the coming months, preparing legislators and the public for a potential rise in the number of US casualties. Fifty-five US troops were killed in Afghanistan this month, according to icasualties.org, making it the deadliest month of the year and the second deadliest since the war began.
Still, Gen Petraeus highlighted some examples of success, including improvements in Afghan civilian life and the completion of some infrastructure projects. He also characterised the Nato and Afghan co-operation in the town of Marja, which progressed slower than expected, as a victory. "Six months ago we could not have walked through the market in Marja as I was able to do with the district governor there two months ago," he said.
Gen Petraeus promised to "look very hard" at the rules of engagement governing troops in Afghanistan. His predecessor, Gen McChrystal, was criticised by some rank-and-file troops for placing too many restrictions on the use of force as part of an effort to reduce the number of Afghan civilian casualties. Gen Petraeus said he sees it as a "moral imperative to bring all assets to bear" to protect US and Afghan troops and added that ground forces "must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation."