Petraeus warmly received at CIA confirmation hearing

Gen. David Petraeus listens during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee June 23, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Gen. Petraeus will become the director of the Central Intelligence Agency if confirmed.
Alex Wong

"Mission Accomplished" it isn't, but General David Petraeus is moving on with flying colors anyway.

Less than 24 hours after President Obama announced a large-scale withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, the outgoing commander of the operation defended his bid to become director of the CIA before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Thursday.

"Twice [Petraeus] has led our forces out of the jaws of defeat and on to victory," said Senate Homeland Security chairperson Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), referring to the general's oversight of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. "That's something that to my knowledge, no one else in history can match."

Obama's announcement Wednesday night that 33,000 troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by next September — just before election time and at the tail end of the annual fighting season — played a major role in the proceedings athough questions from the 15 committee members and two ex officio members were generally cordial and often laden with praise.

But committee chairperson Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was the first of several senators to ask Petraeus about any rift between himself and the President, who reportedly made the drawdown decision over the commander's objections. Petraeus disputed reports that he had advocated a counterinsurgency campaign in the eastern part of the country that would have kept many of those troops in country through the end of 2012.

"It is our responsibility to salute smartly and to do everything as ordered," Petraeus said. "Only the President of the United States can assess all of the considerations."

He steadfastly deferred to Obama's judgement several times, downplaying any conflict between his own recommendations and those pursued by the Commander-in-Chief. Petraeus architected the surge in Iraq in 2007 and another in Afghanistan in December 2009, building a reputation for administering sound advice.

But Petraeus, known for his counterinsurgency strategy and a "hearts and minds" approach to nation building, must now adapt to an executive policy geared toward scaling down American military presence.

Feinstein expressed glimpses of an ideology that has become associated with Vice President Joe Biden as she described statements made by Afghan President Hamid Karzai comparing NATO forces to "trespassers and occupiers.

"You have the automatic reaction, Feinstein said. "'Why the heck are we here then?'"

Petraeus' diplomatic reply: "We need to think about walking a mile or a kilometer in [Karzai's] shoes in the Hindu Kush [mountains]."

(Read GlobalPost’s series "The Last Fighting Season" for an exclusive interview with Petraeus and an in-depth look at how the four-star general sees the lay of the land this summer as he prepares to exit the battlefield and take the helm of the C.I.A.)

Several senators also wanted to know about how Petraeus would adapt to an intelligence role after serving in a military role for so many years.

"Let me reassure you," Petraeus said. "When I am in the Situation Room with the President, I will strive to present the agency position. I will also remain keenly aware that I am the leader of an intelligence agency rather than a policy-making organization."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V) wondered if Petraeus' military decoration would make him inaccessible to his new subordinates at the CIA.

"I wanted this job," Petraeus replied. "This wasn't something that was a month or two or three in the making. I'm taking off the uniform that I've worn for 37 years to do this job in the right way." 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked whether Obama's drawdown would make it more difficult for Petraeus' successor in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. John Allen, to complete the mission as American allies remove troops also in a "domino effect."

After some mild badgering by McCain, Petraeus conceded that there would be some "new challenges."

Other concerns raised included the continued threat of Al Qaeda in the Middle East and North Africa, the Arab Spring, detention and interrogation techniques for terror suspects, the rise of China, cybersecurity, and the U.S. relationship with Pakistan.

The general noted sacrifices made by Afghan soldiers fighting the Taliban, whom he said are dying at a rate of three to every one U.S. or NATO soldier. He also mentioned that thousands of Pakistani civilians, soldiers and police have died in anti-terror operations in the last two years.

Petraeus would be replacing Leon Panetta, who was unanimously approved by the Senate on Tuesday as the new Secretary of Defense. Petraeus, lauded as an American hero and the "epitome of what a leader should be," is expected to be easily approved also and would assume the role in September. Feinstein said the committee was targeting a full Senate confirmation vote by July 4.