The nomination of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus to take over command of the war in Afghanistan headed toward quick Senate confirmation after he played down differences Tuesday between military and civilian officials over the July 2011 deadline for the start of U.S. troop withdrawals.
Petraeus made clear during a three-hour confirmation hearing that he was wary of withdrawing large numbers of U.S. troops too quickly, and did not rule out prospects that he would ask President Obama for additional troops if security conditions worsen.
"There will be an assessment at the end of this year, after which undoubtedly we'll make certain tweaks, refinements, perhaps some significant changes," Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The committee approved his nomination Tuesday afternoon, and the full Senate is expected to today.
Petraeus was chosen last week by Obama to take command in Afghanistan after the previous commander, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, was fired over comments he and his several aides made in a Rolling Stone magazine article. McChrystal will retain his four-star rank when he retires from the military, the White House said Tuesday. The decision means he will earn about $149,700 per year before taxes in military retirement pay.
As the general credited with turning around U.S. fortunes in Iraq, Petraeus has a stature unmatched by any other military officer of his generation, which has assured him easy confirmation. But he is also one of the few military officers whose views Obama will have difficulty disregarding during the debate next year over how quickly to shrink the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan.
Petraeus acknowledged that it had not been the military's idea to set the July 2011 withdrawal deadline. Nonetheless, he affirmed his support for the date, though he stressed that he saw it mainly as a way to convey a sense of urgency to the Afghan government.
Petraeus, who was directly involved in formulating the current strategy for the region as head of the U.S. Central Command, did not signal any immediate change of direction in his statement. But he noted that some U.S. soldiers have complained about rules of engagement and tactical rules set by McChrystal aimed at minimizing civilian casualties.
While the rules are "basically sound," Petraeus said, he implied that some lower-level commanders may have been overly restrictive in approving airstrikes, artillery support and other actions aimed at assisting ground troops.