WASHINGTON (Reuters) - General David Petraeus, tapped to lead U.S. forces in Afghanistan, on Tuesday played down hopes for a swift turnaround after nine years of war and said he would consider tactical changes in the face of escalating violence.
His nomination cleared a key Senate committee in a unanimous vote that showed bipartisan support for President Barack Obama’s new pick to command the war. Obama sacked the last commander, General Stanley McChrystal, for disparaging civilian leaders in an explosive magazine report.
Full Senate confirmation of Petraeus, 57, looked imminent.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus promised greater civilian-military unity of effort to counter what he called an “industrial strength insurgency.”
He planned to reassess restrictive rules of engagement that critics say put U.S. units at unnecessary risk in an attempt to limit fallout on Afghan civilians. Petraeus told the committee that broader changes were also possible depending on a White House review of war strategy in December.
One of the U.S. military’s biggest stars, Petraeus is credited with helping to turn the tide in Iraq. Obama is counting on him to do the same with the unpopular and costly war in Afghanistan that was launched in 2001 after the September 11 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda.
But Petraeus cautioned against assuming that what worked in Iraq would work in Afghanistan, saying progress was slower than expected in the southern heartland of the Taliban insurgency and the task of training Afghan security forces to take over from U.S. troops remained a monumental challenge.
“My sense is that the tough fighting will continue. Indeed, it may get more intense in the next few months,” Petraeus told the committee.
Growing violence this fall could be a liability for Obama’s fellow Democrats, who face congressional elections in November in which Republicans are expected to make gains. Polls show that many Americans are losing patience with the war.
“This is Obama’s last chance,” Arturo Munoz, a security analyst at the RAND Corporation, said of Petraeus, who will be the third general to command the troubled campaign since Obama came to office last year.
Soaring casualties have also sharply undercut public support for the war in allied NATO countries, worrying U.S. policymakers. Canada, the Netherlands and Poland have announced plans to withdraw combat forces and others could follow suit.
Petraeus called the war a “contest of wills” in which the Taliban aimed to chip away Western resolve.
“They can sense concern in various capitals around the world and of course they want to increase that concern,” he said as anti-war activists in the hearing room waved signs that read “No More War” and “New general, Old graveyard.”
Police escorted out some of the protesters.
Obama’s replacement of McChrystal with Petraeus was meant to show he is a commander-in-chief who can take charge and to salvage support for a revised strategy that aims to secure the Taliban birthplace of Kandahar and other major centers.
Petraeus said the Taliban have begun to feel pressure from the extra 30,000 troops that Obama authorized in December but cautioned that the insurgency remained resilient.
While he called the current war plan “sound,” Petraeus also suggested it was not set in stone.
He predicted that, after the White House’s year-end review, there will be “certain tweaks, refinements, perhaps significant changes to get us to that point at which we obviously want to begin these processes ... beginning in July 2011.”
That is when Obama hopes to begin withdrawing U.S. forces.
Petraeus made clear he supported the underlying strategy, including Obama’s July 2011 timeline, which has met fierce resistance from opposition Republicans in Congress.
“We cannot afford to have a stay-the-course approach to starting our withdrawal in July 2011 when the facts on the ground are suggesting that we need more time,” said Republican Senator John McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election to Obama.
The general sought to assure Republicans by saying any drawdown would be based on security conditions on the ground, gradual and limited to the 30,000 “surge” troops. He also made clear to Democrats who support the withdrawal date that the timeline was meant to put pressure on the Afghans to step up.
Raising the standard of Afghan forces to take over from U.S. and NATO troops was a “hugely challenging” task, Petraeus said, comparing it to “building an advanced aircraft while it is in flight, while it is being designed and while it is being shot at.”
“It is going to be a number of years before Afghan forces can truly handle the security tasks in Afghanistan on their own,” he said.
Support for the Afghan campaign among Democrats in Congress has grown increasingly shaky but a top leader said the House of Representatives would vote within 72 hours on $33 billion in emergency war funding that had been held up for weeks.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; editing by Mohammad Zargham