Gen. David Petraeus told Congress on Tuesday he is weighing a major break with the policy of his predecessor over rules for engaging enemy fighters in Afghanistan.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his worthiness to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan, Petraeus said, "I see it as a moral imperative to bring all assets to bear to protect our men and women in uniform. Those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation."
He added, "I mention this because I am keenly aware of concerns by some of our troopers on the ground about the application of our rules of engagement. ... They should know that I will look very hard at this issue."
Petraeus, who is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate later this week, warned the committee that fighting will intensify before it gets better. That grim forecast comes as combat deaths for the United States and its allies in Afghanistan reached an all-time high in June, with 101 NATO troops killed so far this month, including 55 Americans, according to icasualties.org. "The going inevitably gets tougher before it gets easier," Petraeus said.
American and NATO soldiers have been openly contemptuous of McChrystal's orders -- which had been embraced by the Obama administration -- to take greater risks with their safety in order to assure fewer civilian casualties.
That policy was seen as a key part of a counterinsurgency strategy that would win Afghan civilian support. The policy reached its apotheosis with a recommendation for a medal rewarding "courageous restraint" in not firing at the enemy while in danger, an idea later rejected.
The hearing became a high-profile debate between those who back President Obama's plan to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan in July 2011 and those who feel announcing a pullout date is a mistake.
The general said he believes the drawdown should be based on how ready Afghan security forces are to provide security, and he warned that "we'll need to provide assistance to Afghanistan for a long time to come."
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the committee, asked Petraeus whether there was ever a recommendation by the military to announce the withdrawal date.
Petraeus said "there was not." But he went on to say that he supported the president's decision.
The drawdown date -- which critics say is being used by Taliban leaders as a propaganda tool to recruit more insurgents -- has been opposed by a number of U.S. military officers. But supporters say it is necessary to force the Afghan government to take control of their own security needs.
Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said support for the war is fading and that the date "imparts a sense of necessary urgency to Afghan leaders."
But many in the region have seen the announced pullout date as a major mistake. "The "administration's withdrawal date was music to the ears of the militants and terrorists. This sends the wrong signal," Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi said earlier this year.