Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the ranking Republican on the committee and a staunch opponent of the timetable, argued today that the "July 2011 date is so harmful" because it will lead Afghan leaders "to hedge their bets on us." He added that the deadline looks "unrealistic," because it was based on optimistic assumptions made in December.
McCain stressed that the slow progress in Afghanistan does not mean the war effort there is failing.
"It just means that we need to give our strategy the necessary time to succeed. We cannot afford to have a 'stay the course' approach to starting our withdrawal in July 2011 when the facts on the ground are suggesting that we need more time," he said.
Today, Petraeus told senators the strategy in Afghanistan had "appropriately focused on protecting the population," and he highlighted a reduction in the number of civilian casualties since McChrystal's counterinsurgency tactical directive was undertaken.
In an effort to reduce the number of civilian casualties from NATO airstrikes that had provoked anger among Afghans, McChrystal's directive emphasized caution in their use and placed restrictions on when military airstrikes could be used. It also required that entry into Afghan houses should only be done in partnership with Afghan security forces.
While welcomed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the directive has drawn concern from some in the U.S. military who feel that it has tied the hands of American and NATO forces and placed them at greater risk when responding to Taliban attacks.
At a Pentagon briefing last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that as a new commander, Petraeus would have the flexibility to assess his new command and make whatever changes might be necessary. However, Mullen also said that did not "portend changes" with the tactical directive, noting that Petraeus had been involved in approving them as the head of U.S. Central Command.
Petraeus said he would continue that emphasis but added that "securing the people does not, however, mean that we don't go after the enemy; in fact, protecting the population inevitably requires killing, capturing or turning the insurgents."
Petraeus and senators on the committee thanked Gen. Stanley McChrystal for his service. McChrystal, who had led U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan for a year, was ousted after disparaging comments made by him and his aides were published in an article in Rolling Stones magazine.
In his testimony, Petraeus praised McChrystal for the "impressive vision, energy and expertise to the effort there" during his command over the past year.
"He made a huge contribution to the reorientation of our strategy and was a central figure in our efforts to get the inputs right in Afghanistan -- to build the organizations needed to carry out a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign, to get the right leaders in charge of those organizations," Petraeus said.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, the Armed Services Committee chairman, also thanked McChrystal for his service.
"Fate takes strange bounces at times, and working through them with dignity and honor, as has General McChrystal, is a hallmark of leadership and character," Levin said.