Military leaders try to allay concerns about Afghanistan

Gen. David Petreaus, the head of Central Command, and Michele Flournoy, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, on Tuesday sought to allay growing congressional concerns over the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.

Following some recent military and political setbacks, the Senate and House Armed Services panels scheduled hearings on progress in Afghanistan, particularly in the southern part of that country where military operations are progressing slower than anticipated.

“We are heading in the right direction in Afghanistan,” Flournoy told the Senate Armed Services Committee panel on Tuesday. "We are regaining the initiative, and the insurgency is beginning to lose momentum. That said, the outcome is far from determined.”

Flournoy insisted that fixing the situation in Afghanistan “will require patience, persistence and flexibility.” She expressed “cautious optimism” with regards to a successful outcome of the mission in Afghanistan. Flournoy expressed confidence that the top military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, will be able to show “demonstrable progress” by the end of this year.

Flournoy and Petraeus did not have much time to make a case for the administration’s approach in Afghanistan. The Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday was cut short after Petraeus briefly fainted. Though he quickly recovered, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the panel’s chairman, decided to continue the hearing Wednesday morning.

Levin expressed concern that Afghan army and police personnel are not being trained quickly enough and that the U.S. military too often takes the lead in operations.

Training and equipping Afghan national security forces is “the key to success in Afghanistan,” Levin said. “Today, operations in Afghanistan are excessively dependent on coalition forces."

Before his brief collapse, Petraeus faced some intense grilling, particularly regarding the July 2011 date that President Barack Obama set to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Petraeus emphasized that Obama sought to convey two messages with the July 2011 timeline: one of an “enormous additional commitment” of troops and other resources and one “for urgency.”

Petraeus said that July 2011 is the beginning of a process for transition that is “conditions-based.”

Petraeus created suspense when he paused for what seemed a fairly long time, after Levin asked him whether his statement of continued support for Obama’s policy to set a date for a reduction of U.S. troops represented his best “personal” and “professional judgment.”

“In a perfect world, Mr. Chairman, we have to be very careful with timelines,” Petraeus eventually hedged. “There was a nuance to what the president said that was very important, that did not imply a race for the exits.”

The panel’s ranking member, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), criticized Obama’s deadline for beginning the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“This obviously sends a message to our enemies that we are leaving, and to our friends that we are leaving,” McCain said. “I continue to worry a great deal about the message we are sending to the region about whether we are actually going to stay or not and whether we are going to do what is necessary to succeed rather than setting an arbitrary timeline.”

It was when McCain wrapped up his comments about “an arbitrary timeline” in Afghanistan that Petraeus slumped over and appeared to have briefly fainted. The four-star general quickly regained consciousness and was able to walk out of the hearing room on his own.

Petraeus later returned to the hearing room and joked that he had felt "lightheaded," but that questioning from the panel did not cause the condition.

"I just got dehydrated," Petraeus said.

Levin called the incident “scary,” and said that he had never seen any witnesses faint at one of his hearings.

“I saw how pale he was,” Levin said in a short interview. “That is what really scared me.”

Petraeus has never fainted before, said his spokesman, Col. Erik Gunhus. A doctor checked out Petraeus before he decided to go ahead with the hearing, Gunhus said.

“Gen. Petraeus is feeling much better,” Gunhus said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “Looks like we will continue tomorrow. We have just returned from a weeklong overseas trip to Jordan and London, and I think he was just dehydrated. We are back at work at the Pentagon and executing his afternoon schedule. He will be Ok.”

Petraeus, who is known to be a long-distance runner, revealed several months ago that he was successfully treated for early prostate cancer.