June 29, 2010 -- Gen. David Petraeus today defended President Obama's timetable for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but he also emphasized that he would take a hard look at the tactical directive on the ground issued by Gen. Stanley McChrystal that emphasized a reduction in civilian casualties in military operations, but which some say has put U.S. troops at a disadvantage.
After the dramatic downfall of McChrystal last week, Petraeus, slated to take over command of NATO forces in Afghanistan, was on Capitol Hill today to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The toughest questions Petraeus faced had to do with his level of support for the Obama administration's timetable to begin drawing down troops from Afghanistan in July 2011, and if he intended to maintain McChrystal's tactical directives that emphasized reducing the number of civilian casualties in the battle against the Taliban.
Petraeus, known for implementing a successful counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, expressed his full support for Obama's 2011 timetable but warned that the pullout would be based on a review of the situation in Afghanistan.
He also acknowledged the concerns by some in the military that the tactical directives have limited their fighting response and promised he would look at whether changes might be needed.
"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," Petraeus said. "They should know that I will look very hard at this issue."
Later, Petraeus said he had already communicated to Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he would continue McChrystal's commitment to prevent civilian casualties from "large scale casualty producing devices" like bombs, close air support and attack helicopters.
"That's an area we have to look very closely at. If you drop a bomb on a house, if you're not sure who's in it, you can kill a lot of innocent civilians in a hurry."
He said his main concern that the tactical directive is carried out evenly by U.S. and NATO forces so that some leaders do not make its implementation "more bureaucratic or more restrictive than necessary." Petraues said "when our troopers and our Afghan partners are in a tough spot. … It's a moral imperative we use everything we have to ensure that they get out of it."
Some of his answers before the same committee two weeks ago called Petraeus' support for the 2011 timeline into question.
Petraeus famously passed out during that hearing, but before he did he seemed to have some reservations about the 2011 deadline. He returned the next day, though, to express his full support for the timetable.
Today, Petraeus continued to emphasize that the timetable didn't mean the United States would pull out troops completely.
"It is important to note the president's reminder in recent days that July 2011 will mark the beginning of a process, not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits and turns out the lights," Petraeus said today in his opening statement.
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.