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Petraeus: Strategy won't change, but rules of engagement might

By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 29, 2010

WASHINGTON — The presumed new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan on Tuesday promised to re-examine tactics and mission rules when he takes over, but also vowed to lawmakers that the underlying strategy and American commitment in the region will not change.

Gen. David Petraeus, nominated by the president last week after the dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said while the overall counterinsurgency strategy will not be changed under his watch in Afghanistan, some of the rules of engagement might. In recent months, troops have complained bitterly about limitations set by McChrystal on when airstrikes can be used, where troops can patrol and when they can respond with deadly force.

Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee that limiting civilian casualties will remain a top priority for U.S. forces, but that he is sympathetic to troops' concerns about tactical limits.

“They (troops) should know that I will look very hard at this issue,” he said. “I see it as a moral imperative to bring all assets to bear to protect our men and women in uniform and the Afghan security forces with whom ISAF troopers are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder. Those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation.”

The commander said his goal in reviewing the rules of engagement will be to “find that balance” between force protection and limiting civilian casualties, but he also praised work done by McChrystal in balancing those challenges over the last year.

Petraeus insisted that the transition will not jeopardize the military mission in Afghanistan, where the total number of U.S. troops has tripled in the last year.

“Together with our Afghan counterparts, we will continue to pursue relentlessly the enemies of the new Afghanistan in the months and years ahead,” he said. “The commitment to Afghanistan is … an enduring one, and neither the Taliban nor our Afghan and Pakistani partners should doubt that.”

Members of the committee hinted that the confirmation was merely a formality. Two hours after the hearing ended, the committee approved his nomination, and he will likely be confirmed by the full Senate before the end of the week. As head of U.S. Central Command, Petraeus currently oversees the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and was tapped to ensure minimal disruption in the change of command.

Lawmakers sparred with Petraeus and each other over the July 2011 deadline set for the start of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the timeline “imparts a necessary sense of urgency to Afghan leaders” that they must eventually provide their own security.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called it a “harmful” message which has left “Americans confused, allies discouraged and our enemies encouraged.”

Petraeus said the timeline was not developed by military officials, but he supported the idea before Obama publicly announced it last December. He said any withdrawal would be based on military assessments of security in the region, but Afghan officials have already responded to the timeline by better mobilizing their military and social efforts.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil