The man tapped to lead U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan is on his way to an easy confirmation in the Senate. But Gen. David Petraeus faced difficult questions before a Senate panel Tuesday, including concerns about a rules-of-engagement policy there that has limited civilian casualties but that critics say may be putting U.S. soldiers at risk.
"I am keenly aware of concerns by some of our troopers on the ground about the application of our rules of engagement and the tactical directive," Petraeus. "They should know that I will look very hard at this issue,"
Petraeus cautiously endorsed President Barack Obama's exit plan for the Afghan war, but any withdrawal would be gradual and conditions-based, and left himself room to recommend changes or delays.
Among the most sensitive and important to the troops he commands and to supporters of the military at home will belaid down by Petraeus' predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, that stress saving civilian lives but sometimes leave U.S. forces at greater risk.
Those rules, issued a year ago, helped make McChrystal a hero among many Afghans because they brought down the number of civilian casualties blamed on the NATO-led force. The rules were issued at a time of a rising tide of public anger over Afghan civilians killed by mistake in airstrikes and by heavy weapons such as cannons and mortars.
Down in the ranks, however, the rules are widely perceived as too restrictive, playing into the hands of the Taliban who appear keenly aware of the regulations. Some troops believe the rules cost American lives and force them to give up the advantage of overwhelming firepower to a foe who shoots and melts back into the civilian population.
At a Pentagon news conference last week, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hinted about possible changes in the rules when asked about troops who feel "they're being asked to fight with one hand tied behind their back."
"Any, Gen. Petraeus included, will go in, assess his command, and what it is going to take to achieve the mission," Mullen said, adding that the general "certainly has the flexibility to make changes that he thinks are necessary."
"We must remain committed to reducing the loss of innocent civilian life to an absolute minimum," Petraeus told the committee. "I will remain committed - continue the commitment that Gen. McChrystal made in this area." But he said he would look to ensure that policies were being applied consistently by commanders in the field.
But Mullen also said that doesn't "portend changes" in the rules. He noted that Petraeus, who was McChrystal's boss, is "very aware of the tactical directive" and was involved in approving it as commander of the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The counterinsurgency strategy, which the military calls COIN, is based on protecting civilians and weaning them away from the insurgents.
According to a U.N. report, at least 2,412 civilians were killed last year - a 14 percent increase over 2008. But the percentage of those deaths caused by international and Afghan government forces dropped from 39 percent in 2008 to 25 percent last year, the U.N. said.
The U.N. attributed much of that decrease to the directive issued by McChrystal, who was dismissed this week for disparaging remarks that he and his aides made about senior members of the Obama administration to Rolling Stone magazine.
Petraeus said he sees it as a "moral imperative to bring all assets to bear" to protect U.S. and Afghan troops. He said "those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation."
Addressing the other overarching issue of Tuesday's hearing, Petraeus reminded the Senate Armed Services Committee that the president has said the plan to bring some forces home in July 2011 is not a rush for the exits. In his opening remarks, Petraeus did not explicitly endorse the withdrawal plan, although he has done so before.
The July 2011 date will be the "beginning of a process, not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits and turns out the lights," Petraeus said in his opening statement, echoing the president's recent remarks. "We will need to provide assistance for Afghanistan for a long time to come."
But, "My sense is that the tough fighting will continue; indeed, it may get more intense in the next few months," Petraeus said. "As we take away the enemy's safe havens and reduce the enemy's freedom of action, the insurgents will fight back."