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Afghan War Hearing in Senate Postponed After Petraeus Collapse

June 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next to Afghanistan: new concerns in the war zone and a brief scare in a Washington hearing room.

Margaret Warner has the story.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: Whether we’re going to do what’s necessary to succeed, rather than set an arbitrary timeline.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator John McCain was just ending a set of tough questions to General David Petraeus when the U.S. Central Command’s chief appeared to pass out.

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich., Armed Services Committee Chairman: We’re going to recess now for a few moments.

MARGARET WARNER: Petraeus left under his own power and returned a short time later, saying he had been dehydrated.

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS, commander, U.S. Central Command: A little bit lightheaded there. I — it wasn’t Senator McCain’s questions, I assure you.

MARGARET WARNER: But Committee Chairman Carl Levin suspended the hearing until tomorrow.

Petraeus had opened his testimony by assuring the senators that some progress is being made in Afghanistan, as U.S. forces there build to 100,000 by late August.

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS: None of this is easy or without considerable challenges. We are obviously doing all that we can to achieve progress, and we are seeing early progress as we get the inputs right in that country.

MARGARET WARNER: But he was met with skepticism. Levin asked why more Afghan forces weren’t taking the lead, as the coalition prepares to retake the southern Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Are they capable, General, of leading most of these operations where — you call high-end operations? Do — are there enough Afghan troops capable of leading those — quote — “high-end operations”?

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS: What I think is probably more relevant would be more of the standard activities. The standard patrols, I think they have the capability to do and are doing it. But, when you get into the more challenging scenarios, certainly in the difficult operations in Marjah, U.S. forces ended up leading the bulk of those.

MARGARET WARNER: Petraeus gave a qualified yes when asked if he still supports the president’s July 2011 timeline to begin drawing down U.S. troops. Senator McCain homed in. He quoted from a recent book that described a 2009 meeting among the president, Petraeus, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: The president said, “If you can’t do the things you say in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?”

“Yes, sir,” in agreement. “Yes, sir” — Mullen.

I guess, maybe, could you clarify the difference between what you just said and what is quoted in the book that are direct quotes?

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS: What I would come back to is what the president said at West Point. July 2011 is not the date where we race for the exits. It is the date where, having done an assessment, we begin a process of transition of tasks to Afghan security forces, based on conditions.

MARGARET WARNER: Today’s testimony comes against the backdrop of discouraging news from the Afghan war front. Four months after a coalition offensive in the southern city of Marjah, there’s no functioning local government, and the Taliban are re-infiltrating the city.

Coalition commander Stanley McChrystal announced last week the long-planned summer offensive in Kandahar will be delayed for months. In Kabul, days after winning a mandate from an Afghan peace council to pursue reconciliation with the Taliban, President Hamid Karzai fired two top cabinet officials trusted by the U.S., Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh.

Later, Saleh told The New York Times that Karzai is looking to cut deals with the Taliban and Pakistan because he no longer believes the U.S.-led coalition can succeed. American officials say they were heartened Sunday when Karzai won local support for the Kandahar push.

HAMID KARZAI, president of Afghanistan (through translator): Everyone should stand with us in this operation. Will you cooperate with us?

MARGARET WARNER: But June is on pace to be the deadliest month of the year for the allies. Forty-four NATO troops have been killed so far, at least 27 of them American.