The man Gates calls one of the greatest battle captains in American military history made the rounds today ahead of his Senate confirmation hearings next week. Before he is confirmed he will have to answer questions about the July 2011 date President Obama has set for beginning a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Thursday the president was at pains to explain what that date means.
"We didn't say we'd be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us," said Mr. Obama. "What we said is we'd begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government is taking on more and more responsibility."
Defense secretary Gates says everyone at the Pentagon agrees with that.
"We are all on board for beginning this process of gradual process of draw down in July of 2011," said Gates. "That is the president's decision and that decision stands as far as all of us are concerned."
Petraeus wasn't answering questions ahead of his confirmation hearings but his spokesman said, "One of his areas of focus will be on improved civilian-military relations and unity of effort," an obvious reference to the Rolling Stone magazine article in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his aides openly disparaged the civilian members of the president's Afghan team.
Chairman of the joint chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, who had recommended McChrystal for the top job in Afghanistan, described his reaction when he saw the article.
"Honestly when I first read it, I was nearly sick," said Mullen. "It made me literally physically…I couldn't believe it. I was stunned."
Thursday the president seemed to rule out, at least for the time being, any further changes in his Afghan team.
"I am confident that we've got a team in place than can execute," he said. "Now, I'm paying very close attention to make sure that they execute."
And Gates, who initially favored allowing McChrystal to stay on, revealed it was the president himself who came up with Petraeus.
"It was the president who first raised Petraeus' name and it immediately to me answered a lot of the concerns that I had," said Gates.
Those concerns are about the time that would be lost while a new commander learned the battlefield and got to know the key leaders of the Afghan government.
"It was evident that there was only one general officer who was in the position to move in with hardly a missed beat and continue with this campaign," said Gates.
Gates acknowledged the campaign has turned into a longer, tougher slog than originally planned.
"I do not believe we are bogged down," he said. "I believe we are making some progress. It is slower and harder than we anticipated."
When Petraeus took over in Iraq he said it would be hard but not impossible. Gates says the same holds true for Afghanistan.
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