Washington: Gen. David Petraeus cautiously endorsed President Barack Obama`s exit plan for the Afghan war on Tuesday, leaving himself room to recommend changes or delays as he interviewed for the job of commander of the stalemated war.
Petraeus, the emergency replacement following the sacking of the previous commander, told a Senate panel that Obama wants him to provide unvarnished military advice. Petraeus has previously said that he would recommend putting off any large-scale withdrawal if security conditions in Afghanistan can`t sustain it.
Obama has announced that some US forces will begin coming home next summer.
Petraeus reminded the Senate Armed Services Committee that the president has said the plan to bring some forces home in July 2011 isn`t a rush for the exits. In his opening remarks, Petraeus did not explicitly endorse the withdrawal plan, although he has done so before.
He said the US commitment to Afghanistan is "enduring," and that it will be years before the Afghan security forces can fully take over.
The committee is expected to quickly vote to confirm Petraeus, star of the Iraq surge, to return to battlefield command. The full Senate is expected to follow suit this week, and Petraeus could be on the job by next week.
The decorated general is on a mission to convince a war-weary Congress that he`s the man to turnaround the war in Afghanistan and mend the military`s tattered relations with civilian leaders.
Petraeus pledged to cooperate with all his civilian counterparts and bosses. Disparaging remarks about civilian war chiefs sank the previous war commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Petraeus also promised to "look very hard" at the rules of engagement governing troops in Afghanistan, if confirmed as the war`s next top commander.
McChrystal was criticized, including by some of his own forces, for putting too many limits on firepower to protect the lives of civilians.
Petraeus said he sees it as a "moral imperative to bring all assets to bear" to protect US and Afghan troops. He said "those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation."
That suggests some tweaks to the restrictive rules may be in the offing. Petraeus also endorsed the overall war strategy that prizes protecting people over attacking the enemy.
Republicans and Democrats sparred over the wisdom of the July 2011 deadline to begin bringing forces home. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the committee, said the date was based on outdated assumptions about the war`s progress.
"If the president would say that success in Afghanistan is our only withdrawal plan — whether we reach it before July 2011, or afterward — he would make the war more winnable and hasten the day when our troops can come home with honor, which is what we all want," said McCain.
Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the 2011 date "imparts a necessary sense of urgency to Afghan leaders about the need to take on principal responsibility for their country`s security."
Republicans say they want assurances that troops will only leave next year if security has improved. Obama has said troops will begin to leave, but the pace and size of the withdrawal will depend upon conditions.
The hearing was reminiscent of Petraeus` testimony in 2007 during the throes of the Iraq war, when public support for the military campaign was waning. On Tuesday, anti-war protesters in the audience quietly held up signs that read "New General, Old War" and "Stop Funding the War."
But the mood among lawmakers was considerably more upbeat, with Republicans and Democrats alike praising Petraeus.
"You are an American hero, and I believe you will be quickly and overwhelmingly confirmed," said McCain.
Levin urged Petraeus to send more Afghan security forces to the south, where US troops are fighting a major offensive. If there are some 120,000 Afghan army troops, NATO can put more than the 7,250 Afghans in Kandahar now.
"Having the Afghan army in the lead in operations in Kandahar is the insurgency`s worst nightmare," Levin said.
Petraeus is expected to continue McChrystal`s strategy in Afghanistan in large part because it is based on Petraeus` own ideas about beating an insurgency. That plan calls for increasing troops to bolster security, while limiting the use of firepower to win the support of the local population.
While congressional leaders praised Petraeus for his work in Iraq and his acumen for fighting a complex counterinsurgency, they also want to know how soon it will be before there`s good news on the war.