Predicting "tough fighting" ahead, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus vowed to review rules of engagement to ensure U.S. troops aren't handicapped on the battlefield and left open the prospect of delaying troop withdrawals as he breezed through Senate confirmation hearings as President Obama's nominee to lead the war in Afghanistan.
Less than a week after Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal resigned after making disparaging remarks about his civilian bosses, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved Gen. Petraeus to replace him as commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. The full Senate likely will confirm Gen. Petraeus in coming days.
In his opening testimony, the four-star general said that "protecting the [Afghan] population inevitably requires killing, capturing or turning the insurgents." But he also pledged to continue what he called the "emphasis on reducing the loss of innocent civilian life to an absolute minimum in the course of military operations."
Some U.S. forces in Afghanistan have complained that the rules of engagement have left units vulnerable to attack. Gen. Petraeus said he would seek a balance between minimizing casualties and protecting soldiers in the battlefield.
But he also said that some problems may stem from how the rules of engagement, or the procedures for when U.S. soldiers can fire their weapons, are interpreted at the ground level.
In response to a question from Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, Gen. Petraeus said, "First of all, if I could, just to be precise, it's really about the implementation of the rules of engagement and the tactical directive, both of which I think are fundamentally sound. I think, I don't see any reason to change them in significant ways.
"Rather, what we do need to do is make sure that the intent behind those, the intent being to reduce the loss of innocent civilian life in the course of military operations to an absolute minimum — that's an imperative for any counterinsurgents. We must achieve that," Gen. Petraeus said.
Gen. McChrystal worked closely with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to assure him that U.S forces were working hard to minimize casualties. In the Rolling Stone magazine profile that was the cause for his forced resignation, Gen. McChrystal mused that the military should bestow medals for showing restraint on the field of battle, a medal for not firing one's weapon.
Gen. Petraeus said he too had been in contact with Mr. Karzai three times in the past week, including a conversation with the Afghan leader on the way to the hearing.
"In fact, in the past few days, I have had a good discussion with [Mr.] Karzai on this topic, noting that, if confirmed, I would continue the emphasis on reducing loss of civilian life in the course of operations to an absolute minimum, while also ensuring that we provide whatever assets are necessary to ensure the safety of [International Security Assistance Forces] and Afghan forces when they are in a tough spot," he said.
Gen. Petraeus and others in the military pushed hard last fall to continue the Afghanistan war as a counterinsurgency campaign that focused on protecting the Afghan population from the Taliban and other insurgents, while building credible local government institutions and police to eventually provide security for the population once U.S. and NATO forces leave.
During his question and answer session, Gen. Petraeus said he did not recommend setting a withdrawal date of July 2011.
Gen. Petraeus said that the July 2011 date should be interpreted as a period to begin the transition to the local Afghan institutions, not as a drop-dead date to start the exit from Afghanistan.
The only fireworks came when Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, sharply questioned Gen. Petraeus about whether he agreed with White House suggestions that the pullout will occur on schedule, no matter what Afghanistan looks like in a year's time.
"Somebody needs to get it straight without doubt what the hell we're going to do in Afghanistan," Mr. Graham said.
In an interview with The Washington Times, Jack Keane, a retired four-star general and confidant of Gen. Petraeus, said the rules of engagement in Afghanistan "are there to establish a conceptual framework with specific guidelines on how to fight a war in a particular place."
"The center of gravity in a normal conventional war where armies are fighting each other is the enemy. In a counterinsurgency conflict the center of gravity is the people. As such, all combat operations are weighed against the impact on the people," Gen. Keane said. "In fact, we will accept a degree of risk to our soldiers in counterinsurgency that at times is greater than what we would experience in a conventional campaign."
He added that he suspects that, as orders make their way down the chain of command, the troops sometimes "make the rules of engagement in practice more restrictive than the original intent."
Gen. Keane said he expects Gen. Petraeus would work to get everyone in the Afghanistan theater on the same page in terms of the overall counterinsurgency strategy.
"The decisions on who lives and who dies are made at the lowest levels of the military in these conflicts, not by colonels or generals," he said. "These are young junior officers and young sergeants. Gen. Petraeus will do everything he can to get everyone on the same page.
"I watched him personally do it in Iraq. He will do the same thing in Afghanistan, so everyone knows what the mission is and how we intend to accomplish it. As such he will clear up the issues associated with the [rules of engagement]."
As for Gen. McChrystal's comments, Gen. Petraeus suggested that the infighting between U.S. military and civilian officials responsible for Afghanistan policy would end. Several times throughout the hearing, Gen. Petraeus said he had been in close contact with Karl W. Eikenberry, the top diplomat in Afghanistan, who sparred with Gen. McChrystal.
Gen. Petraeus said the two planned to meet in Brussels this week to confer with NATO officials before flying together to Kabul.
Gen. Petraeus became chief of U.S. Central Command after his time in Iraq. In that job, he oversaw both wars but had no direct battlefield responsibility. The Afghanistan job is technically a step down, albeit one that came at the direct request of the commander in chief.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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