WASHINGTON — Gen. David Petraeus cautiously endorsed President Barack 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.
Petraeus, the emergency replacement following the sacking of the previous commander, told a Senate panel that Obama wants him to provide unvarnished military advice. Petraeus has previously said that he would recommend putting off any large-scale withdrawal if security conditions in Afghanistan can't sustain it. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]
Obama has said troops will begin to leave in July 2011, but that the pace and size of the withdrawal will depend upon conditions.
Petraeus reminded the Senate Armed Services Committee that the president has said the plan to bring some forces home next summer isn't a rush for the exits. 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.
"My sense is that the tough fighting will continue; indeed, it may get more intense in the next few months," Petraeus said. "As we take away the enemy's safe havens and reduce the enemy's freedom of action, the insurgents will fight back."
The Senate was expected to swiftly confirm Petraeus, star of the Iraq surge, to return to battlefield command. Petraeus planned to leave Wednesday for an expected confirmation by NATO in Brussels on Thursday, then arrive in Kabul by Friday.
The decorated general is on a mission to convince a war-weary Congress that he's the man to turn around the war in Afghanistan and mend the military's tattered relations with civilian leaders.
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. [Check out editorial cartoons about the Afghan War.]
He ticked off numerous conversations he has had with White House officials, international allies and others since Obama's surprise announcement last Wednesday that he had tapped Petraeus to take over.
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.
McChrystal was criticized, including by some of his own forces, for putting too many limits on firepower to protect the lives of civilians.
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. 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," said McCain.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, sharply questioned Petraeus about whether he agreed with suggestions by Vice President Joe Biden that the pullout would not be based on conditions. According to reports, Biden has said that large number of troops will start pulling out of Afghanistan in July 2011, adding "you can bet on it."
Petraeus, who is hosting Biden for dinner Tuesday night at his headquarters in Tampa, Fla., said that he was only aware of Biden having expressed support for the president's policy.
The answer didn't seem to satisfy an animated Graham.
"Somebody needs to get it straight without doubt what the hell we're going to do in Afghanistan," Graham said.