Petraeus becomes ill during hearing on Afghan forces and withdrawal date

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, fell ill at the witness table during a Senate hearing Tuesday and had to be escorted from the room. He later returned and agreed to continue testifying Wednesday.
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Lawmakers pressed Gen. David H. Petraeus on Tuesday to explain why Afghanistan's security forces were not assuming more of the burden for the war there and to assess whether President Obama's July 2011 deadline to begin U.S. troop withdrawals was feasible.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, paused uncomfortably before answering a question from Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) about his "best personal judgment" on the deadline. "In a perfect world," he responded, "we have to be very careful with timelines." He then offered a "qualified yes" that the 2011 date could be met, assuming conditions were right.

But just as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the ranking Republican on the panel, was criticizing the "arbitrary" withdrawal date, the hearing was abruptly suspended when Petraeus slumped in his chair and passed out at the witness table.

"Oh, my God," someone shouted. Petraeus appeared to be unconscious for several seconds as aides bent over him and Levin banged the gavel. He eventually rose and slowly walked to a side door leading to an anteroom, where he was seen by a Senate physician, drank fluids and ate a banana.

Petraeus returned to the chamber after half an hour, joked that he had not been trying to avoid McCain's questions, and said he had been dehydrated. Levin said that he was overruling the general's desire to continue the hearing and that they would resume on Wednesday, when Petraeus is also scheduled to appear, with Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, before the House Armed Services Committee.

Both Obama and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates telephoned Petraeus soon after the episode, and White House spokesman Bill Burton said Obama reported that he was "doing great." After a more extensive checkup by Senate doctors, Petraeus returned to work, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.

Petraeus, treated last year for prostate cancer, is often described as a driven workaholic and is a physical fitness buff. Many officials shun liquids before lengthy testimony to avoid having to excuse themselves during hearings.

Defense officials insisted that Petraeus's pause before confirming his support for Obama's withdrawal strategy had more to do with his physical condition than any disagreement with the White House.

Obama set the July 2011 date last fall, even as he decided to vastly increase the U.S. troop commitment, as a way of pressing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to improve governance and Afghanistan's own security forces. Gates succeeded at the time in persuading the president to base the size and pace of withdrawal on circumstances on the ground. But it has remained a subject of controversy and concern among senior military officers in the Pentagon and Afghanistan, who say it would embolden the Taliban leadership to hunker down and wait out the U.S. assault, while sowing doubts about the U.S. commitment in the minds of Afghan leaders.

Petraeus resisted a similar withdrawal timeline in 2007 when he commanded U.S. forces in Iraq. He finally agreed, he said Tuesday, "based on a projection of conditions that would be established." In Afghanistan, he said, "we are assuming that we will have those kinds of conditions that will enable [a drawdown] by . . . July 2011. That's the projection. And that is what again we have supported."

Senators also questioned progress in expanding the size and capabilities of Afghan security forces, whose eventual takeover from U.S. troops is the basis of what Gates has called America's "exit strategy." When Levin asked how many Afghan troops were deployed in the Helmand River valley and in Kandahar, where U.S. forces are concentrated in slow-moving offensives against the Taliban, Petraeus said he would have to supply the answer later.

The military's system for rating Afghan military units according to their ability to operate independently of U.S. forces is under investigation by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, who is expected to issue a report next month. Military experts have suggested that the system, which counts equipment and training rather than capabilities in the field, is deeply flawed and gives a false reading of Afghan competence.

Adding to the administration's difficulties in Afghanistan, the House on Tuesday again put off consideration of the White House's requested supplemental war funding for this year as members disagreed over whether to add unrelated budget requests to the bill.

Staff writer Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.

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