Are U.S. troops to begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011 or not?
That was the root of a strong, ideological disagreement that erupted around the nomination of Gen. David Petraeus to be the next commander of the war in Afghanistan, replacing Gen. Stanley McChrystal after the Rolling Stone controversy.
Praise for the general was virtually an afterthought. No disagreement there, as the Senate unanimously confirmed the general, 99-0 on Wednesday.
Democrats, led by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-MI, took the moment to argue that a withdrawal of combat troops must begin on the date set by the president, July 2011, or the Afghans will not have the sufficient motivation to train and equip an Army and police force to defend their own country.
Levin quoted Petraeus as agreeing with him. The chairman, echoing comments he often made during the Iraq war, said, " If (Afghans) know the Afghan Army is large and they know it's on their side, they will take the risks to tell the Army where the bad guys are."
But the GOP, led by the committee's top Republican, John McCain of Arizona, disagreed, and took out their Iraq talking points, too.
Saying that the enemy cannot know there is a date certain when troops will head for the exits, else they will root in and wait, McCain pleaded, "We must give General Petraeus every opportunity to succeed, and I believe that that means stating clearly that the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan must be dictated solely by conditions on ground."
To the very last minute before the vote, Levin and McCain squabbled, to the point where Levin had run out of time allotted to speak and was denied extra time by McCain to rebut. The chairman said he would put his follow-up in the congressional record.
For his part, President Obama has said the withdrawal will begin in July 2011, but he also stipulated that the size and tempo of that withdrawal will depend on conditions in Afghanistan. Gen. Petraeus, in front of the Armed Services Committee on Tuesday for his confirmation hearing, agreed.
The date, Petraeus said, is one "when a process begins, in which reductions of U.S. forces must be based on the conditions at the time, and not a date when the U.S. heads for the exits."