- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 29, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — Gen. David Petraeus cautiously endorsed President Obama’s exit plan for the Afghan war on Tuesday, leaving himself room to recommend changes or delays as he interviewed for the job of commander of the stalemated war.

Gen. Petraeus, the emergency replacement following the sacking of the previous commander, told a Senate panel that Mr. Obama wants him to provide unvarnished military advice. Gen. Petraeus has previously said that he would recommend putting off any large-scale withdrawal if security conditions in Afghanistan can’t sustain it.

Mr. Obama has announced that some U.S. forces will begin coming home next summer.

Gen. Petraeus reminded the Senate Armed Services Committee that the president has said the plan to bring some forces home in July 2011 isn’t a rush for the exits. In his opening remarks, Gen. Petraeus did not explicitly endorse the withdrawal plan, although he has done so before.

He said the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan is “enduring,” and that it will be years before the Afghan security forces can fully take over.

The committee is expected to quickly vote to confirm Gen. Petraeus, star of the Iraq surge, to return to battlefield command. The full Senate is expected to follow suit this week, and Gen. Petraeus could be on the job by next week.

The decorated general is on a mission to convince a war-weary Congress that he’s the man to turnaround the war in Afghanistan and mend the military’s tattered relations with civilian leaders.

Gen. Petraeus pledged to cooperate with all his civilian counterparts and bosses. Disparaging remarks about civilian war chiefs sank the previous war commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Gen. Petraeus also promised to “look very hard” at the rules of engagement governing troops in Afghanistan, if confirmed as the war’s next top commander.

Gen. McChrystal was criticized, including by some of his own forces, for putting too many limits on firepower to protect the lives of civilians.

Gen. Petraeus said he sees it as a “moral imperative to bring all assets to bear” to protect U.S. and Afghan troops. He said “those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation.”

That suggests some tweaks to the restrictive rules may be in the offing. Gen. Petraeus also endorsed the overall war strategy that prizes protecting people over attacking the enemy.

Republicans and Democrats sparred over the wisdom of the July 2011 deadline to begin bringing forces home. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the committee, said the date was based on outdated assumptions about the war’s progress.

“If the president would say that success in Afghanistan is our only withdrawal plan — whether we reach it before July 2011, or afterward — he would make the war more winnable and hasten the day when our troops can come home with honor, which is what we all want,” Mr. McCain said.

Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, said the 2011 date “imparts a necessary sense of urgency to Afghan leaders about the need to take on principal responsibility for their country’s security.”

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