WASHINGTON - The July 2011 deadline for beginning U.S troops withdrawals from
Afghanistan "is the beginning of a process, not the date when the U.S.
heads for the exits," Army Gen. David H. Petraeus told senators Tuesday.
At a hearing on his nomination to take command of the U.S.-led effort in
Afghanistan, Petraeus emphasized his support for the deadline set by
President Obama, but he also reiterated that the pace of any U.S.
withdrawals next year should be "responsible" and determined by
conditions on the ground at the time, according to remarks prepared for
delivery at the hearing.
His careful explanation reflects the ongoing tension between the
military, which is concerned that a withdrawal that takes place too
rapidly could jeopardize efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, and some
within the Obama administration, who favor a rapid drawdown and a shift
to a smaller military footprint.
Petraeus was chosen last week by Obama to take command in Afghanistan
after the previous commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, was fired over
comments he and his several aides made in a Rolling Stone article.
Petraeus is expected to be easily confirmed, perhaps later this week.
He offered a mixed assessment of the progress of the war, predicting
that violence would get worse in coming months but asserting that the
U.S. and its allies have made progress in Helmand province and other
"My sense is that the tough fighting will continue; indeed, it may get
more intense in the next few months," Petraeus said. "As we take away
the enemy's safe havens and reduce the enemy's freedom of action, the
insurgents will fight back."
Petraeus, who was directly involved in formulating the current strategy
as head of U.S. Central Command, did not signal any immediate change of
direction in his statement. But he noted that some U.S. soldiers have
complained about rules of engagement and tactical rules set by
McChrystal aimed at preventing civilian casualties.
"Those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are
in a tough situation," Petraeus said, noting that since he was nominated
for the command position he has spoken about the issues with Afghan
President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials, who long have
complained about civilian casualties.
"I am keenly aware of concerns by some of our troopers on the ground
about the application of our rules of engagement and the tactical
directive. They should know that I will look very hard at this issue,"
He added, however, that he would continue McChrystal's emphasis on
reducing civilian casualties.
McChrystal recently announced that an operation in and around the
southern city of Kandahar would take several months longer than
expected. Petraeus pointed to another U.S. brigade scheduled to deploy
to the area soon, as well as to an expanding effort by special-forces
troops to kill and capture Taliban leaders and an effort to recruit and
train more Afghan police for the area.
"The combination of all these initiatives is intended to slowly, but
surely, establish the foundation of security," he said.
A major challenge he faces will involve pulling together efforts that
have sometimes suffered from poor cooperation between the military and
civilians, and between the U.S. and its allies, including the Afghan
"We can achieve such unity of effort because we have done it before,"
his prepared statement said, referring to his experience in Iraq, during
which Petraeus enjoyed a close relationship with then-U.S. ambassador
Crocker was one of the first people Petraeus called after being
appointed, Pentagon officials said. However, the two spoke generally
about the mission and Crocker is not expected to join Petraeus in Kabul.
In addition, to Karzai, Petraeus said he had talked in recent days with
U.S. Special Representative Richard C. Holbrooke, U.S. Ambassador Karl
Eikenberry and others in Kabul. He gave no indication that he would
recommend that Obama replace the civilians running the U.S. effort.
"I will seek to contribute to such teamwork and to unity of effort among
all participants," he said.
Several longtime Petraeus allies are already deeply involved in the
effort in Afghanistan, including Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who is
running the effort to train Afghan army and police.
That effort, Petraeus said, is "now broadly on track, for the first
time, to achieve overall approved growth goals and to improve Afghan
security force quality." But he noted that Afghan police remain a
concern and that "considerable work" needs to be done to reduce high
attrition rates in the police and "to develop effective leaders."
At the beginning of his statement, Petraeus paid tribute to McChrystal,
whose abrupt removal last week left the U.S. effort in limbo at least
temporarily, until Petraeus arrives. McChrystal is expected to retire.
Petraeus noted that McChrystal had run the special operations effort in
Iraq while Petraeus was in command there. "The surge in Iraq would not
have been possible without Gen. McChrystal's exceptional leadership of
our special mission unit forces there," he said.