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Key Senate Panel Approves Petraeus For Afghan Command

  • RFE/RL

U.S. General David Petraeus testifies at his Senate hearing to become commander of the International Security Assistance Force and commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan on June 29.

U.S. General David Petraeus testifies at his Senate hearing to become commander of the International Security Assistance Force and commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan on June 29.

A U.S. Senate panel has given President Barack Obama's choice of commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan its full backing, clearing the way for confirmation by the full upper house later this week.

General David Petraeus's approval by the Senate Armed Service Committee was never in doubt. At a June 29 confirmation hearing, the 57-year-old revered military leader told lawmakers that he plans no major change in strategy in the nine-year-old war.

"I was part of the process that helped formulate the president's strategy for Afghanistan, and I support and agree with his new policy," Petraeus said. "During its development, I offered my forthright military advice, and I have assured the president that I will do the same as we conduct assessments over the course of the months ahead. He, in turn, assured me that he expects and wants me to provide that character of advice."

Petraeus was chosen last week to replace General Stanley McChystal, who was relieved of his command in a surprise shakeup that stunned Washington.

Obama summoned McChrystal to the White House on June 23 to answer for critical comments he and his staff made to a "Rolling Stone" reporter about several top administration officials, including Vice President Joseph Biden and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry.

Other Questions

The selection of Petraeus, who is credited with favorably turning the tide of the war in Iraq and has since been serving as the head of U.S. Central Command, has been universally praised.

But the leadership switch has raised questions about whether the U.S. strategy of "clear, hold, and build" -- which was adopted after two lengthy White House reviews -- would change.

Obama has set a date of July 2011 to begin withdrawing troops, which critics in Congress say imposes an artificial deadline on coalition military goals.

Leading the opposition to a date-certain withdrawal is Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) who today said the plan was based on outdated assumptions about the war's progress.

McCain said he wants Obama to "say that success in Afghanistan is our only withdrawal plan -- whether we reach it before July 2011 or afterward."

Petraeus assured lawmakers that the July date would be just "the beginning of a process" that would ultimately be based on conditions on the ground and restricted to the 30,000 "surge" forces Obama ordered to the fight last December.

The U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, he said, is an "enduring one," and the enemy shouldn't think otherwise.

"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, and neither the Taliban, nor Afghan and Pakistani partners should doubt that."

Growing Constraints?

Petraeus's nomination to take over command in Afghanistan comes as support for the war in the United States and among U.S. allies has been dropping. As violence has spiked, troop casualties have increased at a rapid rate, with several days recording coalition force death tolls in the double digits.

Petraeus acknowledged that the security situation remains "tenuous" but said coalition forced have "achieved progress in several locations."

But he also admitted that there are limitations to how quickly and effectively Afghan forces can be trained to take over the fight, and said building up local governance in the face of what he called an "industrial strength insurgency" remains a challenge.

"My sense is that the tough fighting will continue. Indeed, it may get more intense in the next few months," Petraeus said. "As we take away the enemy's safe havens and reduce the enemy's freedom of action, the insurgents will fight back."

One of McChrystal's central operating strategies was to limit the use of firepower in an effort to reduce civilian casualties, which in recent years has begun to undermine the coalition's efforts to persuade local populations to support it, and not the insurgency.

But that philosophy -- of easing up on the enemy in favor of protecting civilians -- has been harshly criticized by troops who say it hinders their ability to wage an effective counterinsurgency.

Petraeus said the effort to protect the population is "of considerable importance" and noted that in the last three months "the number of innocent civilians killed in the course of military operations has been substantially lower than it was during the same period last year."

But he also promised to "look very hard" at the rules of engagement.

Diplomatic Challenge

In addition to a brutal insurgency and dropping allied support, Petraeus will inherit command of the war as diplomatic relations between Kabul and Washington hit another rocky patch.

Afghanistan's top prosecutor this week accused U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry of threatening to remove him from his post if he fails to move against an Afghan banker allegedly involved in fraud.

Attorney General Mohammad Ishaq Alko told reporters on June 29 that Eikenberry had violated "diplomatic ethics" by ordering him to have the banker arrested.

Alko questioned whether "diplomatic ethics allow the attorney general of a country to be threatened in such a manner" and added that his office did not have enough evidence against the banker, Rafiullah Azimi to jail him.

Azimi was allegedly involved in a corruption case linked to a former minister who escaped an arrest warrant and now lives in Britain.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said it had no comment on the allegations.

Transparency International rates Afghanistan as one of the world's most corrupt countries. The White House has long pressed Karzai to take a hard stand against it, with limited success.

On June 28, "The Washington Post" revealed the results of an investigation that found that billions of dollars in international aid money is being regularly shipped out of Kabul on scheduled commercial flights, packed into suitcases.

The report led a member of Congress, Representative Nita Lowey, to block billions of dollars in scheduled aid to the country, saying she would not give "one more dime" until Afghan President Hamid Karzai takes strong steps to tackle corruption.

written by Heather Maher, with agency reports