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Petraeus returns to Senate to health scare quips, serious war talk

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
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  • Petraeus blamed dehydration for Tuesday faint
  • Defends "roller-coaster" progress of Afghan war
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  • Afghan conflict now longest U.S. war

Washington (CNN) -- Gen. David Petraeus was back before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday and looking well a day after a mid-hearing faint postponed his previous appearance.

Senators were quick to resume their questioning of Petraeus, the chief of U.S. Central Command, over the progress of the war in Afghanistan. But before the questioning began, Petraeus -- whose command over sees the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- joked with the committee about the Tuesday incident, which was heavy replayed on cable television networks and online.

"Thank you for the opportunity for a redo hearing after I demonstrated yesterday the importance of following my first platoon sergeant's order 35 years ago to always stay hydrated," he said. "I'll try to remember that in the future."

Petraeus told reporters Tuesday that he collapsed at the hearing because he was dehydrated. Witnesses at Congressional hearings often try to curtail liquids in order to endure the long sessions, and Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, said yesterday that the general had also skipped breakfast.

"I do thank the committee as well for the chocolate chip cookies that were in the anteroom before this session," Petraeus said Wednesday.

Video: Petraeus hydrated for hearing

Petraeus was being questioned by the committee's ranking Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, when he fell ill on Tuesday. After McCain finished his questions Wednesday, Petraeus was welcomed back by Sen. Joe Lieberman, who compared Petraeus to pro soccer players who have been known to go from writhing in pain on the ground to running around fit as a fiddle in a matter of moments.

"Your recovery time was very impressive yesterday. I thought it was at World Cup levels. And the coach may want to add you to the team roster before Slovenia later in the week," the Connecticut indepdendent joked.

But light-hearted comments about Petraeus's health quickly shifted to the important matters about the war in Afghanistan, now the longest war in U.S. history. Lieberman asked why Petraeus could sound so positive about the war in comments to the committee while Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander on the ground, is sounding notes of caution.

"The conduct of a counterinsurgency operation is a roller-coaster experience. There are setbacks as well as areas of progress or successes," Petraeus replied. "But the trajectory in my view has generally been upward, despite the tough losses, despite the setbacks."

Several senators on the committee pressed Petraeus on the issue of the July 2011 date Obama has set for the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Critics have said some in Afghanistan see the date as when the U.S. will abandon the war effort there, but Petraeus disagreed.

"It is important that July 2011 be seen for what it is: the date when a process begins, based on conditions; not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits," Petraeus told the committee. "Moreover, my agreement with the president's decisions was based on projections of conditions in July 2011. And needless to say, we're doing all that is humanly possible to achieve those conditions."

McCain, a vocal critic of the president's actions in Afghanistan, has been one of the loudest critics of the July date. Despite Petraeus' insistence that any removal of troops would be based on conditions on the ground, McCain called it a signal to insurgents of a U.S. withdrawal.

"Your statement seems to contradict what the president of the United States continues to say, what his spokesperson said -- that July of 2011 was, quote, etched in stone," McCain said.

Petraeus also answered a question about the Pakistan military's commitment to fighting the Taliban who are often based in that country.

"They do realize, I believe, senator, you cannot allow poisonous snakes to build a nest in your backyard with the understanding that those snakes will only bite the neighbor's kids because sooner or later they will turn around and bite your kids," he said.

The general addressed the recent revelation about the high value of the untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan. The U.S. Geological Survey report says that there is iron, copper, gold and lithium in ample supply in Afghanistan. It estimated the minerals, if mined, could be worth $1 trillion -- but Petraeus made clear that it would take a lot of effort to turn those mineral deposits into cash.

"These geological surveys and other documents were all pulled together," he said. "And I think people realized the magnitude of the mineral resources that exist in Afghanistan, recognizing the enormous challenges to actually turning those into wealth, and income and so forth for the people -- revenue --but nonetheless recognizing the extraordinary potential that is there."