POLITICS
06/29/2010 12:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Petraeus Supports July 2011 Timetable, Sends Faint Signal On Strategy Change

In Michael Hastings's report on the war in Afghanistan and General Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone magazine, the reporter brought to light a significant point of friction between U.S. troops and McChrystal -- "McChrystal may have sold President Obama on counterinsurgency, but many of his own men aren't buying it."

Despite the tragedies and miscues, McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It's "insurgent math," as he calls it - for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. "For a while," says one U.S. official, "the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a 'civ cas' incident." The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There's talk of creating a new medal for "courageous restraint," a buzzword that's unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military.

But however strategic they may be, McChrystal's new marching orders have caused an intense backlash among his own troops. Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. "Bottom line?" says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers' lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing."

So one of the things to watch for today was whether General David Petraeus was going to signal a shift in strategy or a change to the current rules of engagement. Whatever signal is being sent seems to be muted. Here's David S. Cloud at the Los Angeles Times:

Petraeus, who was directly involved in formulating the current strategy as head of U.S. Central Command, did not signal any immediate change of direction in his statement. But he noted that some U.S. soldiers have complained about rules of engagement and tactical rules set by McChrystal aimed at preventing civilian casualties.

"Those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation," Petraeus said, noting that since he was nominated for the command position he has spoken about the issues with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials, who long have complained about civilian casualties.

"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. They should know that I will look very hard at this issue," Petraeus said.

He added, however, that he would continue McChrystal's emphasis on reducing civilian casualties.

On the other hand, over at Danger Room, Spencer Ackerman reads the tea leaves a little differently, noting that Petraeus pledged to "look very hard" at McChrystal's directives:

So, to send a new signal to those troops, Petraeus called it a "moral imperative" to allow troops "all the support they need when they are in a tough situation." He said discussed it with the Afghan leadership over the last few days and indicated that he secured their "full agreement" for that principle. While Petraeus didn't specifically promise a change in the rules or their application, that's a pretty strong indication that a change is in the works when Petraeus gets to Kabul -- something Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the committee, indicated he wanted to see the Senate ensure happens before the July 4 holiday.

So while no one should expect Petraeus to abandon population-centric counterinsurgency -- "we cannot kill or capture our way out of an industrial-strength insurgency," he said, so you don't get it twisted -- "we will continue to pursue relentlessly the enemies of the new Afghanistan in the months and years ahead."

The other thing to watch for, of course, was how Petraeus would respond to questioning from Senator John McCain over the projected July 2011 drawdown date. As we noted earlier, Petraeus very rapidly dispensed with the notion that any July 2011 decision would be based on anything other than "conditions on the ground." However, as Ackermen reports, under questioning from McCain, Petraeus managed to provide grist for both sides of the timetable spat. McCain will probably make use of Petraeus's admission that "neither [Petraeus] nor any other military officer I know recommended setting the July 2011 date". That said, Petraeus dovetailed back a few minutes later, saying, "Not only did I say I supported [the July 2011 timetable], I said I agreed with it."

So, not "recommended," but nevertheless supported. Petraeus would add, "I think the campaign plan is sound".

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