Petraeus Hearings: Easy Confirmation, Difficult Task

  • Share
  • Read Later
Spencer Platt / Getty Images

General David Petraeus

General David Petraeus always wanted to go back before the Senate Armed Services Committee for a third confirmation hearing. But he was hoping it would be for a promotion to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — not a demotion to run one of two wars he oversees as chief of U.S. Central Command. But that's what was happening on Tuesday morning, when Petraeus returned to testify before the panel he fainted in front of two weeks ago, several days before precision-guided munitions disguised as a Rolling Stone profile blew up the career of General Stanley McChrystal.

In some ways, the hearing will echo much of what Petraeus told the Senate and House Armed Services Committees recently, as nervous lawmakers sought his calm demeanor to soothe their heebie-jeebies over a war that increasingly seems bogged down. Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate panel, said on Monday that it is likely to zero in on two key questions: How firm is President Obama's July 2011 date to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and why isn't the Afghan military doing more to defeat the Taliban?

While Obama and his camp are somewhat leery of Petraeus — there was a whiff of desperation when they tapped him to succeed McChrystal on June 23 — the stakes couldn't be higher. When Bush signed off on Petraeus' plan for the Iraq surge, the President was near the end of his second term. This time around, Obama is wondering if he can win a second term, and Petraeus suddenly looms large in his re-election hopes.

Over breakfast with reporters covering the Defense Department on Monday, Levin said the coming battle for Kandahar will be key to determining two things: the success of the U.S. surge in Afghanistan and whether Obama can stick to his target of beginning to pull U.S. troops out next July. While the President said on Sunday that there is "a lot of obsession" over the date, Levin said Obama's decision to set it "was critically important toward maintaining the support of the American people for a war which has gone on so long."

The day Petraeus fainted — due to what he called a combination of dehydration and jet lag — he told Levin's panel that the deadline wasn't firm. "July 2011 is not the date where we race for the exits," Petraeus said on June 15. "It is the date where — having done an assessment — we begin a process of transition of tasks to Afghan security forces" that may permit some U.S. troops to come home.

Levin warned that the delay in launching the U.S.-led offensive on Kandahar — the Taliban's stronghold — as well as mounting U.S. casualties are triggering "a fraying of that support" among Democrats. Levin also grumbled that Afghan troops represent less than half of the forces being prepped to take Kandahar. "The success of the mission is dependent upon the Afghan military growing in number and growing in capability," he said, adding that he expects Petraeus will win confirmation easily.

In response to a likely line of questioning on Tuesday, Petraeus will make it clear that he embraces McChrystal's curbs on the use of U.S. firepower in order to reduce Afghan civilian casualties. While GIs have complained that such restrictions put them at risk, Petraeus recently told the panel "we will drop a bomb anywhere, at any time, if our troopers' safety is in jeopardy."

Two Marines are among those most likely to be chosen to succeed Petraeus as chief of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the world's most turbulent region, stretching from Egypt to Pakistan. They include his deputy at Centcom, Lieut. General John Allen, and James Mattis, a four-star general who is wrapping up a tour as head of U.S. Joint Forces Command, which oversees the Pentagon's push for multiservice cooperation. As for McChrystal, he informed the Army on Monday that he planned to retire.

In the meantime, Petraeus is being hailed by Republicans — and grudgingly by many Democrats — for his success in bringing an uneasy peace to Iraq following the 2007 surge of U.S. troops under his command. But those laurels have largely wilted, and he now has to start a fresh track record in Kabul. Unlike in Iraq, where Petraeus wrote and then implemented a counterinsurgency strategy, he'll have to work off the war plan McChrystal devised for Afghanistan.

Granted, as McChrystal's boss and mentor, Petraeus' fingerprints are all over the existing strategy. But taking command just as the Afghan surge of 30,000 additional troops is nearly complete — and the U.S. troop presence nears 100,000 — is more difficult than being there for the launch. "He did very well in Iraq," Levin said Monday, "and I am hopeful that he will be able to do the same thing in Afghanistan."