Washington, DC – An hour into testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. David H. Petreaus collapsed and was escorted from the ground-floor auditorium by his aides, who were sitting behind both Petreaus and his colleague, Hon. Michele A. Flournoy, undersecretary of defense.
Petreaus, who is the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, returned to the auditorium after 20 minutes, apologizing to the committee for the disturbance, and jokingly added, “It wasn’t Senator’s McCain’s questions.” The general claimed dehydration, and said he was ready to continue to with the committee’s questions, but was overruled. Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) said he and his fellow senators appreciated Petreaus’ willingness to continue, but called the meeting adjourned, saying, “we all feel better doing it this way.”
Prior to Petreaus’ collapse, the general was in the middle of the first round of questions by the committee members that resembled a volley of carefully chosen answers that did not fit the questions with the forthrightness Senators Levin and McCain (R-Arizona) were seeking. The exchanges were quick, with both senators focusing on whether the United States would be able to withdraw troops beginning July 2011, or if it were a milestone from which the country may need to walk away.
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Although McCain’s question round could be considered tense, it was in line with the exchange between Levin and Petreaus minutes before.
In the Levin exchange, the senator had to repeat his question – Will the Afghan Army be ready to take charge by July 2011?, several times, because the general’s answer – lumping the civilian police force’s ability to take over its responsibilities along with the current capabilities of the Afghan forces – failed to fall in line. Unlinking the two required several rounds of questioning from the senator, who finally got the general to outline areas of expertise: Afghan Army forces, the general said, are capable of leading lower-level “presence patrols,” whereas what he called “high-end” operations, such as reconnaissance and intelligence needed to be handled by non-Afghan forces because, according to the general, Afghan forces lacked the experience. The general also said non-Afghan forces were also needed for what he called “challenging scenarios” such as Marja.
To this Levin asked, not missing a beat, “Do you continue to support the July 2011 date?”
Petreaus responded, “I support the policy of the president.”
Unsatisfied, Levin pressed, asking if, in the general’s professional judgment, withdrawal was the right move. Unwilling to budge, Petreaus asserted the president’s position is a nuanced one, dependent upon local conditions. “Mr. Chairman, we have to be very careful with timelines. We went through this in Iraq, as you will recall,” he said, adding, “we are assuming that we will have those kinds of conditions that will enable that.”
Senator McCain’s questions were met with similarly calibrated responses. McCain repeatedly called the 2011 benchmark “arbitrary” and said the deadline “obviously sends a message to our friends and our enemies that we are leaving.” The senator also quoted from Jonathan Alter’s book, “The Promise,” citing quotes attributed to the general in which he is claimed to have told President Obama that a drawdown of forces would begin next year, regardless of local conditions. “There’s a disconnect between the comment you just made to the chairman and what’s depicted here,” McCain said. Petreaus answered by saying it was inappropriate to comment on past conversations.
The general then noted that he based his comments on the president’s West Point speech from December. In this speech, Petreaus said, it is clear “July 2011 is not the date where we race for the exits,” but a date of vetting and assessment.
Testimony will resume Wednesday morning. General Petreaus is also scheduled to testify before the House Armed Services Committee that same afternoon.