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 areas.
“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,” Petraeus said.
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 government.
“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 Ryan Crocker.
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.