General David Petraeus today said he’s concerned the U.S. military’s rules of engagement in Afghanistan are too restrictive and putting American forces at risk.
General Stanley McChrystal, in an effort to curb civilian casualties, issued directives that sharply curtailed the use of lethal force. Civilian casualties are down, yet some troops have charged that the restrictions make them more vulnerable.
U.S. and allied soldiers in Afghanistan are dying at the fastest pace in the war, now nine years old and the longest in U.S. history.
“I am keenly aware of concerns by some of our troopers,” Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said he discussed the issue with President Hamid Karzai and other top Afghan officials “and they are in full agreement with me.”
“Those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation,” Petraeus said as the committee opened a hearing on his nomination to succeed McChrystal as head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Petraeus praised McChrystal for his “contributions in leading the coalition endeavor in Afghanistan over the past year.”
McChrystal reoriented U.S. strategy and built “the organizations needed to carry out a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign,” said Petraeus, who now commands U.S. forces throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.
President Barack Obama dismissed McChrystal last week for remarks disparaging administration officials that were published in Rolling Stone magazine. Spokesman Robert Gibbs today said the White House wants the general to keep his four-star rank in retirement.
Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told Petraeus he supports his nomination, and Senator John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the committee, told the general: “You’re an American hero, and I’m confident you will be quickly and overwhelmingly confirmed.”
The committee, by a voice shortly after the hearing ended, gave its approval to the nomination and sent it to the full Senate for confirmation. Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate will vote at about noon tomorrow.
Taliban Remains Strong
Petraeus will lead a force of 142,000 U.S. and allied troops who are in the midst of a possibly decisive offensive to push Taliban insurgents out of their heartland of Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan.
Petraeus said the Taliban, even with their losses, “continue to show an ability to adapt and respond” to NATO’s changes in tactics.
“The size and intensity of the insurgency has increased in proportion to” NATO’s expansion, he said. The Taliban’s “increasing ability to project its influence” in the south, southwest and east “indicates the Taliban suffer no shortage of manpower,” Petraeus said. “They likely believe they will be able to maintain their current strength and possibly grow.”
Petraeus sought to assure lawmakers that the president’s planned drawdown of U.S. forces in July 2011 would be “based on conditions on the ground” and he would have a voice in the decision. Obama “assured me that he expects and wants me to provide forthright advice,” he said.
“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,” he said.
“It is going to be a number of years before Afghan forces can truly handle the security tasks in Afghanistan on their own,” Petraeus said. “The commitment to Afghanistan is necessarily, therefore, an enduring one.”
Disagreement Over Timetable
Levin and McCain, in their opening statements, disagreed over the wisdom of setting a date.
That strategy worked in Iraq and will work in Afghanistan, Levin said. It “imparts a necessary sense of urgency to Afghan leaders.”
McCain said he “would argue it is having the opposite effect: It is causing Afghan leaders to hedge their bets on us.
“This is not only making the war harder; it is making the war longer,” McCain said. “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.”
Petraeus said Karzai realizes the need to reconcile the ethnic divisions which have hamstrung efforts to create a strong national government and that this goal is possible.
“It is within the capacity of the Afghan people to see themselves as Afghans first even before” their ethnic or tribal identity, he said in response to a question from Evan Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana.
Relations with the Afghan president have been strained by this issue and by Karzai’s efforts to strike a peace deal with the insurgents and possibly reintegrate some into the Afghan military.
While the Obama administration has voiced support for the strategy, it is banking on military offensives in southern Afghanistan to weaken the Taliban fighters and let Karzai negotiate from a position of strength.
The Afghan government’s reconciliation program has the “primary challenge” to “identify the right incentives and provide the necessary resources to ensure the effective and sustained reintegration of these fighters,” Petraeus said.
“Not every insurgent fighter will need to be reintegrated,” Petraeus said. “Under the right circumstances, many will simply desire to stop fighting and return home, though we do not have a reliable estimate of this number.”