We are calling on General Petraeus at a critical moment for the war in Afghanistan. I agree with the president that success in Afghanistan is "a vital national interest," and I support his decision to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy, backed by more troops and civilian resources. This is the only viable path to true success — which I would define as an Afghanistan that is increasingly capable of governing itself, securing its people, sustaining its own development and never again serving as a base for attacks against America and our allies. In short, the same results we are slowly seeing emerge today in Iraq, thanks in large part to the work of General Petraeus and the forces he commanded.
Before heading out to Iraq three years ago, General Petraeus told the Armed Services Committee that the mission was "hard but not hopeless." I would characterize our mission in Afghanistan the same way. Afghanistan is not a lost cause. Afghans do not want the Taliban back. They are good fighters, and they want a government that works for them, and works well. And for those who think the Karzai government is not an adequate partner, I would remind them that, in 2007, the Maliki government in Iraq was not only corrupt; it was collapsed and complicit in sectarian violence. A weak and compromised local partner is to be expected in counterinsurgency. That is why there’s an insurgency. The challenge is to support and push our parters to perform better. That is what we are doing in Iraq, and that is what we can do in Afghanistan. But — we need to make it clear that, as long as success in Afghanistan is possible, we will stay there to achieve it.
I appreciate the president’s statement last week that July 2011 is a simply date to "begin a transition phase" to greater Afghan responsibility. And for those who doubt the president’s desire and commitment to succeed in Afghanistan, his nomination of General Petraeus to run this war should cause them to think twice. I know that General Petraeus will do everything in his power to help us succeed in Afghanistan. I know that if he believes he needs something he does not have, or if he thinks that changes should be made to our war effort, he will not hesitate to offer his best professional military advice to the president and to Congress. I am encouraged that this is the man the president has given his confidence. And I believe this should be an opportunity for the Senate to join together, on a broad bipartisan basis, not just to support the nomination of General Petraeus, but to demonstrate to the Americans we represent, as well as to our friends and allies abroad, that we are fully committed to the success of our mission in Afghanistan.
We must give General Petraeus every opportunity to succeed in his new command. And I believe that means stating clearly that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan must be determined solely by conditions on the ground. What we are trying to do in Afghanistan, as in any counterinsurgency, is win the loyalty of the population — to convince people who may dislike the insurgency, but who may also distrust their government, that they should line up with us against the Taliban and al Qaeda. We are asking them to take a huge risk, and they will be far less willing to take that risk if they think we will begin leaving in a year. In a news report yesterday, one U.S. Marine described the effect of the July 2011 date on the Afghans she encounters: "That’s why they won’t work with us," she said. "They say you’ll leave in 2011, and the Taliban will chop their heads off."
In addition to being harmful, the July 2011 withdrawal date increasingly looks unrealistic. That date was based on assumptions made back in December about how much progress we could achieve in Afghanistan, and how quickly we could achieve it. But war never works out the way we assume. Secretary Gates said last week, "I believe we are making some progress. [But] it is slower and harder than we anticipated." I agree. Marjah is largely cleared of the Taliban, but the holding and building is not going as well as planned. Our operation in Kandahar is getting off to a slower and more difficult start than expected. The performance of the Afghan government over the past seven months is not as even or as rapid as we had hoped. Some of our key allies plan to withdraw their forces soon, and it looks increasingly unlikely that NATO will meet its pledge of 10,000 troops.
None of this is to say that we are failing, or that we will fail, in Afghanistan. It just means that we need to give our strategy the necessary time to succeed. This is all the more essential now with General Petraeus assuming command, pending his confirmation. He has proved that he can lead our forces to success. He has proved that he can work effectively with local partners in counterinsurgency. He has proved that he is an ideal partner for our many allies and friends, who are so critical to success in Afghanistan. In short, David Petraeus has proved that he is a winner, and we need to give him every opportunity and remove every obstacle so that he can help the United States and our allies to win in Afghanistan.
General Petraeus has my full support, and I urge my colleagues to vote to confirm his nomination, so he can take up his new mission as soon as possible.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.