Washington: The commander of American forces in the Middle East, Gen. David H. Petraeus, appeared to faint briefly during an intense period of questioning Tuesday by senators concerning whether the military could fulfill President Obama's orders to begin pulling troops from Afghanistan in July of next year.
General Petraeus, a long-distance runner, slumped forward toward the microphone where he was seated and was escorted from the Senate hearing room by aides.
He returned about 30 minutes later and was greeted with applause from those in the audience.
"I just got dehydrated," General Petraeus said. Though he indicated he was able to continue his testimony, he was asked to return later in the week.
The general had just completed a serious question-and-answer period with Senators Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, on whether it was possible to meet Mr. Obama's deadline -- and whether it was wise to signal to allies and enemies that American had set a firm date to begin leaving Afghanistan.
General Petraeus had told the senators that "there will be nothing easy" about the mission in Afghanistan and that it "was likely to get harder before it got easier" in securing Taliban strongholds across the south.
"That has already been the case, as we've seen recently," General Petraeus added. "But it is essential that we make progress in the critical southern part of the country, the part where, in fact, the 9/11 attacks were planned by Al Qaeda during the period when the Taliban controlled it and much of the rest of the country."
Senator Levin opened the questioning by pressing General Petraeus on whether he supported Mr. Obama's strategy of announcing a deadline to begin reducing United States forces in Afghanistan in July 2011.
"I support the policy of the president," General Petraeus said.
He stressed that Mr. Obama was seeking to convey two messages with the timeline: one of "enormous additional commitment" of troops, civilian personnel and money, and one "for urgency."
Even so, General Petraeus said, "what happens in July 2011 is the beginning of a process for transition that is conditions-based," and will be a "responsible draw-down of U.S. forces."
Pressed by Mr. Levin as to whether setting such a deadline was in keeping with General Petraeus's "best personal, professional judgment," the general took a long pause before responding that "in a perfect world" the military has "to be very careful with timelines."
Mr. Levin responded ironically that he could not tell whether General Petraeus had given him a "qualified yes," a "qualified no" or a "non-answer."
General Petraeus said it should be considered "a qualified yes."
"There was a nuance to what the president said that was very important, that did not imply a race for the exits, a search for the light to turn off or anything like that," General Petraeus said. "It did imply a need for greater urgency."
Senator McCain directly criticized Mr. Obama's deadline for beginning the withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying it would undermine confidence in the United States -- and undermine chances for success in Afghanistan.
"This obviously sends a message to our enemies that we are leaving, and to our friends that we are leaving," Mr. McCain said. "I continue to worry a great deal about the message we are sending to the region about whether 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."
Both senators said they continued to support the troop "surge" ordered by Mr. Obama, although Mr. Levin in particular urged great speed in turning the mission over to Afghan security forces.