He said these achievements also are important as he prepares to “provide options and a recommendation to President Obama for commencement of the drawdown of the U.S. surge forces in July.” He referred to Obama’s Dec. 1, 2009, speech at the U.S. Military Academy in which he pledged to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 at a pace to be determined by conditions on the ground.
In addition, Petraeus said, “the progress achieved has put us on the right azimuth to accomplish the objective agreed upon at last November’s Lisbon Summit, that of Afghan forces in the lead throughout the country by the end of 2014.”
The general’s comments come amid declining U.S. support for the Afghanistan war effort, which began in the fall of 2001 following al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans now say the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth fighting.
In an opening statement at Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that in view of the poll, the next few months could be “decisive” as winter turns to spring and NATO forces “face a renewed Taliban offensive to retake territory lost on the battlefield.”
McCain, the top Republican on the committee, said the United States “needs to be exceedingly cautious about the withdrawal of U.S. forces” starting in July. “We should not rush to failure, and we should cultivate strategic patience,” he said.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, said the success of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan depends on the growth and capability of the Afghan security forces. He pointed to what he called a hopeful sign in “the increasing support of the Afghan people” for their security forces. He agreed that this spring’s fighting season could be an “acid test” as the Taliban tries to reverse recent losses.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) lamented the decline in U.S. popular support even though “we are succeeding in the Afghan war.” He attributed such sentiments more to continuing frustration over the domestic economy than to the actual situation in Afghanistan, and he said that “we have to remind the American people why we are in Afghanistan, why it’s worth it, and we are succeeding.”
In response to questions, Petraeus said he has not yet decided on the scope of the withdrawals that are to begin in July. But he expressed support for the concept of starting the drawdown then because “it undercuts the narrative of the Taliban that we will be there forever” and sends a message of urgency to the Afghan government.