Gen. Petraeus confirmed as new US Afghan commander

by Susan Cornwell and Adam Entous, Reuters

Posted at Jul 01 2010 01:06 AM | Updated as of Jul 01 2010 08:07 PM

WASHINGTON DC, United States - The Senate voted unanimously on Wednesday to confirm David Petraeus as the new commander of the troubled Afghan war, pinning U.S. hopes on the four-star general who helped turn around the conflict in Iraq.

Petraeus, seen by some analysts as President Barack Obama's last, best hope to salvage the Afghan mission, won full support from both Obama's Democrats and opposition Republicans after the previous commander was sacked one week ago. He was confirmed in a 99-0 vote on the Senate floor.

The support for Petraeus came despite growing anxiety in both parties about the direction of an unpopular 9-year-old war, in which casualties are rising ahead of November U.S. congressional elections.

Petraeus played down hopes of a quick turnaround in his confirmation hearing on Tuesday and said he would reassess restrictive rules of engagement that critics say put U.S. units at unnecessary risk in an attempt to protect Afghan civilians.

"I know General Petraeus will do everything in his power to help us succeed in Afghanistan," said Republican Senator John McCain, addressing the Senate floor. "This is not the time for debate over the strategy."

McCain, along with many Republicans, has voiced strong disapproval of Obama's July 2011 date to start a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Democrats have said the date is critical to show a sense of urgency after a long, costly war and to send a signal to Afghans that they need to ramp up their security forces for an eventual handover.

Warning of spike in casualties

In a reminder of the fierce fight ahead, the Taliban launched a deadly raid on Wednesday against NATO's biggest air base in eastern Afghanistan, adding to a death toll that has already made June the bloodiest month of the war for foreign forces.

Soaring U.S. and NATO casualties already have undercut public support for the war in the United States and Europe. Three close allies -- Canada, the Netherlands and Poland -- have announced plans to withdraw combat forces.

Petraeus, in his confirmation hearing, called the war a "contest of wills" in which the Taliban aimed to chip away Western resolve.

Britain's defense secretary, on a visit to Washington, called Petraeus a "gifted leader." He warned allies against prematurely withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and said they should prepare war-weary publics for a spike in casualties.

"We are likely to see an increased number of ISAF (coalition) casualties over the summer," said Liam Fox, secretary of state for defense, on a visit to Washington.

Obama nominated Petraeus after firing the previous commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, last week for disparaging civilian leaders in an explosive magazine report. It was the biggest military shakeup of Obama's presidency.

Writing by Phil Stewart, editing by David Alexander and Bill Trott