Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, acknowledged on Thursday that President Obama had ordered a faster military withdrawal from the country than Petraeus had wanted, but he said he would nevertheless “salute smartly and do everything humanly possible to execute it.”
Petraeus made the comments during a Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination to head the Central Intelligence Agency. Lawmakers from both parties made it clear that they plan to vote in his favor, and Petraeus seems certain to be overwhelmingly confirmed. A four-star general with nearly 40 years in the military, he will retire from the armed forces when he moves to the CIA.
The hearing was dominated by the fallout from Obama’s Wednesday night speech laying out his plan to withdraw 10,000 “surge” troops from Afghanistan this year and to bring the remainder home by the end of next summer, significantly faster than Petraeus had wanted. The commander had urged the president to keep the remaining 23,000 reinforcements in Afghanistan through the end of 2012; White House civilian aides favored withdrawing the troops next spring. Obama, as first reported by National Journal, ultimately rejected both recommendations in favor of a compromise crafted by outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Petraeus said he had provided Obama with multiple withdrawal options and assessments of the risks associated with each drawdown timetable.
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“The ultimate decision was a more aggressive formulation, if you will, in terms of the timeline than what we had recommended,” Petraeus told the lawmakers. “The fact is, there has never been a military commander in history who has had all the forces that he would like to have, for all the time, with all the money, all the authorities, and nowadays all the bandwidth as well.”
The most dramatic moment of the hearing came during a lengthy exchange between Petraeus and Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), a prominent Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and has been pressing Obama to wind down the Afghan war. Levin asked the general whether he would have resigned his post if he disagreed strongly with Obama’s withdrawal timeline.
“I'm not a quitter,” Petraeus said. “I don't think it's the place for a commander to consider that kind of step unless you are in a very dire situation... This is not something where one hangs up the uniform in a final protest.”
The general, echoing comments earlier in the day from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top administration officials, said he understood Obama’s need to balance the military’s requests for more time against other pressing national priorities.
“Each person above me—all the way up to and including the president—has a broader purview and has broader considerations that are brought to bear,” Petraeus said. “The commander in chief has decided and it is then the responsibility, needless to say, of those in uniform to salute smartly and do everything humanly possible to execute it.”
Still, the apparent disconnect between Obama and one of the nation’s most-respected and best-known generals continued to ricochet across official Washington. Gates, in an interview with the AFP news service, said that Petraeus didn’t get his way in the Afghan withdrawal debate but noted that the Afghan reinforcements will have been in the country longer than the surge troops had been in Iraq.
“Obviously, he preferred options that gave more time,” Gates told AFP, referring to Petraeus. “The fact is that a surge is a surge. It's not a permanent increase in the number of troops.… And the reality is, this surge, from the completion of getting it in until it's out, will have been twice as long as the surge in Iraq. “
Petraeus, for his part, signaled that he expected the CIA to maintain its aggressive paramilitary campaign against the remaining members of al-Qaida and other Islamic militants. During his time in Iraq and Afghanistan, Petraeus oversaw a far-reaching restructuring of the historically tense relationship between the CIA and the nation’s elite special-operations forces. The two now work together closely in both countries to hunt wanted militants, and the close coordination has been widely credited with enabling the successful Navy SEAL raid into Pakistan which killed Osama bin Laden.
In a written statement submitted to the committee, Petraeus cited “important progress against al-Qaida in recent months” and promised to “maintain the relentless pressure that has enabled such progress.”
“If confirmed, I will support continuation of the superb cooperation between agency assets and other intelligence-community elements, with the Joint Special Operations Command and other military commands, and with relevant elements of the interagency,” Petraeus wrote, making a rare public reference to the military’s ultrasecret special-ops command. “Needless to say, support for the ongoing efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as for missions in other locations such as Yemen, Iraq, and parts of Africa, will remain critical.”