WASHINGTON — Army Gen. David Petraeus' reputation as a political operator was on display during his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, deflecting worries that the administration's Afghanistan strategy was off course and marked by divisiveness.
Petraeus is a chief architect of the current strategy, and his performance on Capitol Hill, where the Senate Armed Services Committee endorsed his nomination to lead U.S. troops in Afghanistan, demonstrated that he'll bring a change in personality and political tenor when he takes command in Kabul. Whether a change in tone is enough to salvage the U.S. effort there remained unclear, however.
President Barack Obama nominated Petraeus, who's currently the leader of the U.S. Central Command and the most-celebrated counterinsurgency fighter of the Army, to replace ousted commander Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was canned after a Rolling Stone article quoted his aides and him making derogatory comments about top administration officials. On Monday, McChrystal told the Army that he intends to retire from the military.
In his appearance Tuesday, Petraeus, 57, showed not a hint of the schism between the military and civilian leadership over Afghan policy that was the context for McChrystal's and his aides' comments.
McChrystal once called Vice President Joe Biden's call for a more narrow effort in Afghanistan "shortsighted," but Petraeus refused to tackle senators' questions Tuesday about Biden's commitment to the U.S. effort.
Instead, Petraeus told the Senate about a conversation he had last week at the White House in which Biden pledged his support after a meeting with the president.
"The vice president grabbed me and said, 'You should know that I am 100 percent supportive of this policy,' " Petraeus said. "And I said that 'I am reassured to hear that. Is it OK to share that with others?' "
While McChrystal refused to consider changing rules of engagement intended to reduce civilian casualties despite complaints from troops that the rules also were endangering them, Petraeus said he'd re-examine the directive. "I will look very hard at this issue," he said.
Whereas McChrystal's staff griped repeatedly about the administration setting a July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing, Petraeus said he supported it, even as he conceded Tuesday that the administration — not the military — first proposed the deadline, which goes against the principles of counterinsurgency.
Petraeus also promised a more cordial relationship than McChrystal's with his civilian counterpart, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry. Petraeus said he and Eikenberry would meet with NATO allies in Brussels and arrive together in Kabul once he took command.
Petraeus warned that the situation could get worse before it gets better.
"My sense is that the tough fighting will continue; indeed, it may get more intense in the next few months," he told the committee.
During his yearlong tenure as Afghan commander, McChrystal launched an offensive in the southern Afghan city of Marjah; weeks later, Taliban fighters moved back into parts of the town and McChrystal called Marjah a "bleeding ulcer."
On Tuesday, Petraeus said the outcome in Marjah was predictable and improving. The coalition "has achieved progress in several locations" so far this year, he said, including Helmand province, which includes Marjah.
Several lawmakers charged that the administration had been dishonest about the significance of the deadline, assuring Afghan President Hamid Karzai that it would be based on conditions while telling the American public that a large-scale withdrawal was certain by the deadline.
"It depends on who you seem to be talking to," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "Somebody needs to get it straight without doubt what the hell we are going to do come July (2011) because I think it determines whether someone in Afghanistan is going to stay in the fight."
Not that Petraeus' answers mattered much to the outcome of the hearing. Early in the hearing, committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asserted that Petraeus' confirmation was certain, and by Tuesday afternoon, the committee had approved sending his nomination to the Senate floor without dissent.
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