WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate unanimously voted on Wednesday to confirm David Petraeus as commander of the troubled Afghan war, pinning U.S. hopes on the four-star general who helped turn around the conflict in Iraq.
Petraeus, seen by some analysts as President Barack Obama’s last, best hope to salvage the Afghan mission, won full support from both Obama’s Democrats and opposition Republicans after the previous commander was sacked one week ago. He was confirmed in a 99-0 vote on the Senate floor.
The support for Petraeus came despite growing anxiety in both parties about an unpopular war, in which casualties are rising ahead of November U.S. congressional elections.
“Regardless of who is in command, the president’s current strategy in Afghanistan is counterproductive,” Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat, said after voting in a favor of Petraeus, whom he stressed was “clearly qualified” for the job.
Lawmakers are also frustrated and angry over reports of corruption in Afghanistan’s government. Hours after Petraeus was confirmed, lawmakers in a House of Representatives subcommittee voted to block $3.9 billion in aid to Kabul because of news stories about corruption and donor aid leaving the country.
Petraeus, credited with pulling Iraq back from the brink of all-out sectarian warfare as commander there until 2008, played down hopes of a quick turnaround in Afghanistan after nine years of war during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
He also said he would reassess restrictive rules of engagement that critics say put U.S. units at unnecessary risk in an attempt to protect Afghan civilians.
Obama praised the Senate for the swift confirmation, saying it will help “ensure we do not miss a beat in our strategy to break the Taliban’s momentum and build Afghan capacity.”
The Taliban launched a deadly raid on Wednesday against NATO’s biggest air base in eastern Afghanistan, adding to a death toll that has made June the bloodiest month of the war.
More than 100 foreign forces have been killed in June and more than 320 have died so far this year.
Obama had fired the previous commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, for disparaging civilian leaders in a magazine report.
It was the biggest military shakeup of Obama’s presidency and Petraeus became the third U.S. commander to hold the post since Obama took office in 2009.
Petraeus was set to depart for Brussels later on Wednesday to confer with NATO members before heading to Afghanistan, where he could assume command as early as Sunday, officials said.
NATO allies have supported Obama’s pick. Liam Fox, Britain’s defense secretary, on a visit to Washington, called Petraeus a “gifted leader.” But he also said allied nations should prepare war-weary publics for a spike in casualties.
He also warned NATO nations against prematurely withdrawing forces, saying this risked sparking civil war, destabilizing Afghanistan and its nuclear armed neighbor Pakistan.
Three U.S. allies, Canada, the Netherlands and Poland, have announced plans to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan.
Republicans backing Petraeus voiced concern that Obama was sending a signal the United States was ready to wrap up the war by announcing a July 2011 date to start withdrawing U.S. forces, based on conditions on the ground.
“No one follows an uncertain trumpet,” Senator John McCain, who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election, said in remarks on the Senate floor. “To announce a date for withdrawal, is to announce a date for defeat.”
Democrats say the date is critical to flag a sense of urgency after a long and costly war, signaling that Afghans need to quickly ramp up their security forces for an eventual handover.
“It is (the Afghan) army that must take the lead for the sake of success in Afghanistan. That is what setting this date is all about,” said Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But Richard Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, emphasized that the speed of the withdrawal would be dictated by conditions on the ground.
“Some will start withdrawing in July next year -- the size and the pace and scope to be determined by the president,” Holbrooke told the PBS Newshour program.
A House subcommittee voted on Wednesday to block $3.9 billion in aid that the Obama administration sought for Kabul because of recent news reports of corruption there and billions in cash being flown out of the country.
The panel’s chairwoman, Representative Nita Lowey, said the aid could be reconsidered once the panel has held hearings this summer to review Kabul’s actions to fight corruption -- and can ensure U.S. dollars are not diverted.
Lowey also wrote to U.S. government auditors asking them to audit all U.S. aid to Afghanistan from the last three years.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder met Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on Wednesday to discuss tackling corruption, applauding steps taken so far but saying “much work remains to be done.”
Additional reporting by Adam Entous, Andrew Quinn and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Jonathon Burch in Kabul; Writing by Phil Stewart, editing by David Alexander and Xavier Briand