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U.S. Central Command leader Gen. David Petraeus is surrounded by staff after appearing to collapse Tuesday while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
U.S. Central Command leader Gen. David Petraeus is surrounded by staff after appearing to collapse Tuesday while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Evan Vucci/AP)

WASHINGTON — Gen. David Petraeus was on the defensive from the start on Tuesday morning, peppered with questions from senators about nearly every aspect of the war in Afghanistan, before his testimony was cut short by a fainting spell that left him briefly slumped over at his seat.

Petraeus turned out to be fine, but the episode brought to a halt a heated debate over the slow pace of progress in Afghanistan. Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., had already posed skeptical questions to the U.S. Central Command leader about progress in training the local security forces and whether the U.S. will be in position to transfer power to the Afghans by July 2011.

“The news from Afghanistan in recent weeks has been largely negative,” said Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Levin noted that last week was the bloodiest this year for NATO forces in the country. He also cited mixed reports on long-term success in Marjah and a delay in a planned Kandahar offensive.

Petraeus assured the committee that progress, while slower than expected, was happening.

“There will be nothing easy about any of this,” Petraeus said. “Indeed, I noted several months ago during my annual posture hearing that the going was likely to get harder before it got easier. That has already been the case, as we’ve seen recently.”

Roughly two dozen NATO servicemembers were killed last week and a U.S. helicopter was shot down. A suicide bomber killed more than 40 civilians at a wedding.

“But it is essential that we make progress in the critical southern part of the country,” Petraeus said, “the part where, in fact, the 9/11 attacks were planned by al-Qaida during the period when the Taliban controlled it and much of the rest of the country.”

Levin particularly criticized the slow pace of training Afghan forces as “unsatisfactory.”

“What is disturbing and hard to comprehend, however, is that the training mission still does not have enough trainers,” he said.

Levin said only 2,600 of the required 5,200 trainers had arrived.

McCain said he was “deeply concerned” about the entire war effort and pounced on President Barack Obama’s continued focus on starting the transfer of security to Afghans in July 2011.

“It’s convincing the key actors inside and outside of Afghanistan that the United States is more interested in leaving than succeeding,” McCain said.

“With ongoing difficulties in Marjah, a delayed offensive in Kandahar, growing concerns about the Afghan government, troop commitments still lagging from NATO, and the final units of our own surge not set to reach Afghanistan until the first of September, it now seems increasingly clear that hoping for success on the arbitrary timeline set by the administration is simply unrealistic,” McCain said.

Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, acknowledged the timeline concern in her opening statement.

“Transition does not mean abandonment or withdrawal,” she said. “We are committed to serving Afghanistan for the long term and we will not walk away.”

But the international presence cannot continue a combat role “indefinitely,” she added.

Levin asked Petraeus outright if he supported the timeline, and after a long pause the general’s response was so measured that Levin asked again, “Is that a qualified ‘yes”, qualified ‘no’ or a non-answer?”

“A qualified ‘yes’,” Petraeus answered.

McCain pounced on the fissure, accusing Petraeus of a “disconnect” between his reported assurances to Obama that the military would meet the July 2011 withdrawal, and the war commanders’ current assessment that more time is needed to achieve so many key objectives.

“I’m not sure it’s productive to comment on conversations that took place in the Oval Office,” Petraeus said.

But he added, pointing to Obama’s West Point speech in December, saying “July 2011 is not the date that we head for the exits.”

Asked pointedly if the U.S. will meet that target based on projected conditions, Petraeus said “I do believe that that will be the case.”

President Obama called Petraeus from Air Force One on his way back from Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., to check on the general. "Sounds like he was just a little dehyrdated," White House spokesman Bill Burton said.

Obama's remarks to the cheering troops only skimmed Afghanistan, delivering his oft-repeated line: "I will not hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests. But I will also never risk your lives unless it's absolutely necessary."

When Burton later was asked about the Senate line of questioning Petraeus faced, he said, "We're in the middle of the height of violence season in that country. We're constantly reviewing where things stand ... But at this point we feel we are on pace to hand over the safety and security of the country of Afghanistan to the people of Afghanistan."

McCain was still peppering Petraeus with questions when the general mumbled and then slumped forward, putting his forehead down on the table. When he lifted his head, he appeared disoriented. After sipping from a glass of water, he stood up, looked around and walked out of the room.

“Just got a little light-headed from dehydration,” Petraeus later told Stars and Stripes in an e-mail. “Doing fine.”

Petraeus returned to the room about 20 minutes later, after being checked out by doctors. He insisted he could continue.

“It wasn’t Senator McCain’s questions, I assure you,” he said.

Levin, however, would not proceed.

“I have consulted with your colleagues,” Levin said. “We’re going to overrule you.”

The committee plans to reconvene at 9 a.m. Wednesday, before Petraeus’ scheduled afternoon appearance before the House Armed Services Committee.

Stars and Stripes reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.

baronk@stripes.osd.mil

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