Gen. David Petraeus Nod Reopens Issue of Withdrawal Deadline

Gen. David Petraeus Nod Reopens Issue of Withdrawal Deadline

Gen. David Petraeus is likely to win Senate confirmation as the top US commander in Afghanistan. But the hearing could reopen a debate on strategy, especially the 2011 planned troop drawdown.

Washington – In a rare show of support from both sides of the aisle, lawmakers today backed President Obama’s decision to remove Gen. Stanley McChrystal as top US commander in Afghanistan – and predicted a swift confirmation of Gen. David Petraeus to replace him.

But the Senate confirmation hearing, expected early next week, sets up a high-profile venue to reopen a debate on the strategy to end the nine-year war, notably President Obama’s commitment to begin a drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan by July 2011.

The president and top Senate Democrats today dismissed concerns that policy disagreements were a factor in the decision to relieve General McChrystal.

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“I don’t make this decision based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal, as we are in full agreement about our strategy. Nor do I make this decision out of any sense of personal insult,” said President Obama in a Rose Garden statement.

“The disagreement is over personnel and personalities, not over policy. That’s important,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, in an afternoon press briefing.

But critics say that the president’s July 2011 deadline is, in fact, ambiguous and could (or must) shift, depending on the situation on the ground.

Pressed on this point, Sen. Levin said that conditions on the ground will affect the pace, not the startup of the drawdown.

General Petraeus supports both parts of the administration’s Afghan strategy: that additional troops be surged to Afghanistan by end of the summer and that there will be reductions in US troop levels beginning July 2011, Levin said. That date is “the essential way to get the Afghans to focus on the need to transition to take responsibility for their own security,” he added.

But others on the panel say they will use next week’s confirmation hearings to challenge recent White House assurances that the mid-July 2011 deadline is “etched in stone.” Republicans and Independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut say that the president has also committed to a drawdown that will be “conditions based.”

“I’m convinced that we can succeed in Afghanistan with the leadership and the talent of the young men and women who are serving, but we have to send the message that we will do whatever is necessary in order to achieve success,” said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services panel, in a press briefing on Wednesday. “The withdrawal of US troops must be based on conditions at the time, not on an arbitrary date.”

While there is little doubt that General Petraeus will be confirmed – and quickly – the questions raised during the confirmation hearing could reopen rifts in Democratic ranks just as the party is gearing up for midterm elections expected to be tough on incumbents.

“There’s a risk to the White House in these confirmation hearings,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. “From Day 1, hearings like this have the potential to open questions ranging from what the exit strategy is to what the military strategy is. These are all open questions that the White House does not want to confront or bring to the national spotlight.”

Such rifts run through the White House – Vice President Biden and supporters were cool to President Obama’s surge – and within Democratic ranks.

“The massive, open-ended military operation in Afghanistan will cost a hundred billion dollars this year with no end in sight. Meanwhile, al Qaeda continues to operate and recruit around the world,” said Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, in a statement on Wednesday. “After nine years, it is time to give the American people, as well as the people of Afghanistan, a timetable to end this war so our nation is better able to focus on the global threat posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates.”

Last month, Senator Feingold picked up 18 votes on a measure to mandate a nonbinding timetable to end US deployment in Afghanistan, including three of the top four Senate Democratic leaders – Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois, Charles Schumer of New York, and Patty Murray of Washington.