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.
General Petraeus: 'Moral Imperative' to Protect U.S. Troops
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.
McCain praised McChrystal as an American hero of "unrivaled integrity" whose leadership of covert operations against al Qaeda in Iraq will "earn him an honored place in our history."
Levin and McCain also took time to praise Holly Petraeus for her sacrifice in having her husband serve away from home for so long.
"I want to thank her personally for her commitment and her sacrifices along the way," Levin said. "Her understanding of your doing your patriotic duty as you see it is truly inspiring. '
In a comment that brought some laughs and made both the Petraeus' smile, McCain said, "On behalf of our entire committee, we think you made a wise decision to accept a blind date more than 34 years ago with a young cadet."
ABC News' Huma Khan contributed to this report.