Gen. Petraeus' collapse is a grim metaphor for the prospects of the Kandahar offensive.
Sen. Levin has long emphasized the need to accelerate training of the Afghan army so that we can turn the fighting over to them. But in his opening statement today, he wondered why the Pentagon has deployed just 2,600 U.S. troops to the training mission—only half the number needed in that role. He also complained that the NATO allies have deployed none of the 750 troops that they'd committed to help train Afghan soldiers. (One NATO adviser told me recently that the International Security Assistance Force—the NATO command that's running the multinational operation in Afghanistan—is "massively dysfunctional.")
When President Obama decided late last year to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, he also said that he would start to withdraw them in July 2011. How many he'd withdraw, and how long he'd continue the mission, would depend in good part on a strategic assessment to be written this December by Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
If the situation doesn't improve much between now and then, the assessment is likely to be very bad. Under those circumstances, one can expect Petraeus or McChrystal to enter the Oval Office and say, "Mr. President, we believe that three more brigades should do the trick." This is what generals tend to do. But Obama doesn't seem inclined to take the gamble.
In The Promise, his excellent account of Obama's first year in office, Jonathan Alter describes the last of the president's national-security sessions on Afghan-war strategy. His top military advisers—Gen. Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—have just assured Obama that, with 30,000 extra troops, they can recapture the momentum against the Taliban and start turning the fight over to the Afghan army by the summer of 2011. Alter continues:
"Good. No problem," the president said. "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right? ... I'm not asking you to change what you believe, but if you don't agree with me that we can execute this, say so now …"
No one said anything.
"Tell me now," Obama repeated.
"Fully support, sir," Mullen said.
"Ditto," Petraeus said.
Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, read aloud this passage in this morning's hearings and asked Petraeus if it was true. Petraeus declined to comment on conversations in the Oval Office, but he said he supported the president's policy, adding the usual caveat about "conditions on the ground."
It was probably a coincidence, but a few minutes after this exchange, a little less than an hour into the hearing, Petraeus had his fainting spell and left the room along with his colleagues. Upon returning to the witness table about 20 minutes later, he said that the light-headedness stemmed from dehydration. "It wasn't from McCain's questioning, I assure you."
The general said he wanted to proceed with the hearing, but Levin, who said he'd discussed the matter with other committee members, called a recess and said the hearing would resume Wednesday morning.
So will all the troubles with this war.
AP Video: Gen. Petraeus Collapses
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images.