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Petraeus: Afghan Forces Not Ready to Take the Lead on Security

June 29, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: The Senate Armed Services Committee today endorsed the president’s choice of General David Petraeus to lead U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The nomination goes now to the full Senate.

Today’s vote, however, followed a hearing that focused more on war policy than on war personnel.

President Obama’s choice to run the war in Afghanistan received fulsome praise at his confirmation hearing today.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: You’re an American hero.

GWEN IFILL: And in his opening statement, General David Petraeus said the task in Afghanistan remains clear.

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS, Commander, U.S. Central Command: We cannot allow al-Qaida or other transnational extremist elements to once again establish sanctuaries from which they can launch attacks on our homeland or on our allies.

Achieving that objective, however, requires that we not only counter the resurgent Taliban elements who allowed such sanctuaries in the past. We must also help our Afghan partners develop their security forces and governance capacity so that they can over time take on the tasks of securing their country and seeing to the needs of their people.

GWEN IFILL: But, if there was little debate about the president’s choice to succeed ousted Commander Stanley McChrystal, there remains considerable disagreement about the policy he is expected to execute, which includes reducing U.S. forces in Afghanistan one year from now.

Petraeus, Defense Secretary Gates, and the president have all said the July 2011 deadline would only be the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We did not say that, starting July 2011, suddenly there would be no troops from the United States or allied countries in Afghanistan. We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us. We said that we’d begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government is taking on more and more responsibility. That is the strategy that was put forward.

GWEN IFILL: Today, Petraeus emphasized the notion of that transition phase.

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS: It is going to be a number of years before Afghan forces can truly handle the security tasks in Afghanistan on their own.

The commitment to Afghanistan is necessarily, therefore, an enduring one, and neither the Taliban nor Afghan and Pakistani partners should doubt that.

GWEN IFILL: But several Republicans continued to warn against setting timetables of any kind.

Arizona Senator John McCain:

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: What our friends and enemies in Afghanistan and the region need to hear is that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan will be determined solely by conditions on the ground.

If the president would say that success in Afghanistan is our only withdrawal plan, whether we reach it before July 2011 or afterwards, 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.

GWEN IFILL: Democrats, like Carl Levin of Michigan, said some kind of timetable is essential.

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich., Armed Services Committee chairman: That July 2000 11th date imparts a necessary sense of urgency to Afghan leaders about the need to take on principal responsibility for their country’s security. We saw an Iraqi importance of setting dates as a way of spurring action.

General Petraeus has said that he agrees with the president’s policy setting that July 2011 date, and indeed he told me that if he ceases to agree, that he would so advise his commander in chief which, of course, he has a responsibility to do, as a military commander.

GWEN IFILL: But Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said the administration has sent mixed messages.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: The vice president’s been quoted as saying about this particular topic, come July, we’re going to begin leaving in large numbers. You can bet on it. Is his view of the policy correct?

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS: Secretary Gates has said, I believe in testimony, that he never heard Vice President Biden say that remark either, so, for what it’s worth.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, that — it’s worth a lot, because he’s saying one thing to one person allegedly and he’s saying another thing to you, and they don’t reconcile themselves, and that is exactly my point.

It depends on who you seem to be talking to, because a lot of liberal people in this country are being told directly and indirectly we’re getting out beginning July 2011. How fast, I don’t know, but we’re beginning to leave.

And somebody needs to get it straight, without doubt, what the hell we’re going to do come July, because I think it determines whether or not someone in Afghanistan is going to stay in the fight.

GWEN IFILL: For now, that fight is still a struggle. Control of the southern district of Marjah remains uncertain, despite a U.S.-Afghan offensive there months ago. And the planned offensive in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar has been delayed.

Even in Kabul, security is shaky. Just today, an Afghan man working for the United Nations was shot and killed in his vehicle at a busy traffic circle in the Afghan capital not far from the U.S. Embassy and an American military base.

And in a new report, the special investigator general for Afghanistan now says U.S. officials have overestimated the ability of the Afghan military and police units. The assessment, released last night, says the rating system the military uses to judge the effectiveness of Afghan troops has not provided reliable or consistent assessments of their abilities.

Petraeus conceded, the ground war is likely to escalate.

GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS: Indeed, it may get more intense in the next few months. As we take away the enemy’s safe havens and reduce the enemy’s freedom of action, the insurgents will fight back.

GWEN IFILL: The general plans to arrive in Afghanistan by next week to take hands-on control of the war’s execution.

We will have more on Afghanistan later in the program. And, tomorrow night, we will have a newsmaker interview with Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan.