General David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that Nato faces an "industrial strength insurgency" in Afghanistan and indicated that as the next top commander there he would consider "certain tweaks, refinements, perhaps significant changes" to get to the point where a withdrawal of US forces can begin.
The deadline first set by President Barack Obama of July 2011 for beginning the process of bringing American troops home was a top talking point at hearings to confirm Gen Petraeus as the new commander in Afghanistan in the wake of the sacking last week of Gen Stanley McChrystal for ill-judged remarks he made to a magazine.
After hearing his testimony, members of the panel unanimously voted to approve Gen Petraeus in his new post and the full US Senate is expected to confirm him formally before the end of this week. Gen McChrystal has meanwhile agreed to retire from the US Army; he is expected to keep his four-star general rank, however.
The continuing drama in Washington coincided with a first visit by the new UK Defence Secretary, Liam Fox. "There is no doubt that last week was a tough week but it is clear from my meetings today that both of our governments have the determination to see the job through," he said after talks with his US counterpart, Robert Gates.
While there was never any doubt that Gen Petraeus would be confirmed – his status in Washington was cemented after he engineered the military turn-around in Iraq – it was also inevitable that some Republicans would take the opportunity to highlight the issue of the withdrawal dateline. Exactly what Mr Obama meant when he first announced it remains somewhat obscure, almost certainly by design.
The date, Gen Petraeus said, indicated the "beginning of a process" only and at the outset would apply only to the 30,000 US troops that are part of the surge authorised by the President last year. He also warned of a steep hill ahead, both in fighting the Taliban and in getting Afghan forces to the point where they could secure national security.
He acknowledged concerns expressed by the US troops over restrictive terms of engagement imposed by Gen McChrystal to limit the numbers of civilian casualties and hinted he may make changes. "I am keenly aware of concerns by some of our troopers about the application of our rules of engagement and the tactical directive," he added. "They should know that I will look very hard at this issue."
Suggesting that he himself sees some wiggle-room in the 2011 deadline, he told senators it had been announced in part to put pressure on Afghanis, as well as for domestic reasons. "It was also meant for audiences in Kabul, [to tell them] that we will not be there forever."
But some Republicans accused the White House of deliberately fudging what the deadline will mean. "It depends on who you seem to be talking to," said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. "Somebody needs to get it straight what the hell we're going to do in July."