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Obama moves to shuffle top security posts

Petraeus will be the new CIA chief, replacing Leon Panetta who is being tapped to take over at the Pentagon when Robert Gates steps down. Also, former Ambassador Ryan Crocker will return to Kabul.

April 27, 2011|By David S. Cloud and Peter Nicholas, Los Angeles Times
  • U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, left, and CIA Director Leon E. Panetta are at the center of a reported major shakeup in U.S. national security leadership.
U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, left, and CIA Director Leon E. Panetta are… (Reuters )

Reporting from Washington — President Obama is overhauling his national security team with both foreign policy challenges and domestic politics in mind, but the personnel moves illustrate an effort chiefly to build a team that can regain the initiative in the unpopular war in Afghanistan.

By moving CIA director Leon E. Panetta to the Defense Department, Obama is installing someone who has expressed concern about the large U.S. operation in Afghanistan just as the White House begins internal deliberations over how quickly and how many U.S. troops can come home.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus will take the helm of the CIA, as Obama places his most successful military commander in charge of a spy service that hunts suspected Al Qaeda leaders and other militants in Pakistan's remote tribal regions, often with airstrikes by the agency's fleet of drone aircraft. U.S. officials say militants based in the tribal areas destabilize both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama also has lured veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker, a regional specialist who reopened the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in 2002 and served as ambassador to Iraq, out of retirement to return to Afghanistan, where he will try to smooth relations with President Hamid Karzai. Marine Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, a highly regarded Iraq war veteran who currently is deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, is slated to succeed Petraeus as the new commander in Afghanistan.

All the nominees are expected to easily win Senate confirmation.

Members of the new national security team are expected to play major roles as the administration starts an initial drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, which Obama has pledged will begin in July. The United States is also withdrawing the last of its forces from Iraq this year, while supporting the growing NATO air campaign against Moammar Kadafi's regime in Libya, and navigating a volatile security landscape in the Middle East.

Under Petraeus, the military has given cautiously upbeat assessments of progress in Afghanistan, citing efforts targeting mid-level Taliban commanders. However, U.S. intelligence agencies have been skeptical of claims of progress.

Heavy fighting is expected to pick up again in Afghanistan with winter's end, and recent events are an indication of the challenges ahead. On Wednesday, eight U.S. troops and an American contractor were killed by a veteran Afghan military pilot who fired on trainers during a meeting near the Kabul airport. The Taliban claimed that the pilot was an insurgent infiltrator.

Days earlier, in what the Taliban declared a major success, nearly 500 prisoners escaped from a prison in Kandahar city.

The high-level shake-up also reflects domestic political considerations, including Obama's determination to make deep cuts in the Pentagon budget just as the 2012 presidential campaign gets underway.

In Panetta, 72, the White House has chosen a reliable political ally and a deficit hawk to replace the more independent Robert M. Gates, a Bush administration holdover who has resisted deep cuts to the Defense budget.

A Democratic Party insider, Panetta is a former U.S. representative from California and has served as chairman of the House Budget Committee. As head of the Office of Management and Budget, he helped the Clinton White House pass hard-fought budget bills. He has maintained good relations with lawmakers from both parties.

"The pros are that he is experienced in politics, the Hill, the budget and intelligence," said Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank. "The cons are that he is not generally known as a classic defense strategist or planner in terms of deep familiarity with operational concepts of war."

And by sending Petraeus, 58, into the secret world of intelligence, Obama has effectively sidelined a potentially potent administration critic during the presidential election cycle. The CIA chief rarely even appears in public, except on Capitol Hill.

Much of Petraeus' time will be focused on Pakistan, where he will preside over the CIA's drone attacks. Pakistani officials have sought to curb U.S. operations there, and relations plummeted after the arrest of a CIA contractor who shot and killed two Pakistanis.

He has dealt extensively with Pakistani officials, however, and often praised their cooperation despite grumbling from other U.S. officials that Pakistan was failing to crack down on militants.

Petraeus, who is expected to retire from the Army, may find a frosty reception at the CIA, however. In addition to the agency's skepticism over gains claimed by the military in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he also was top commander, the civilian agency has rarely worked well under military chiefs.

"The building tends not to like directors in uniform," said Mark Lowenthal, a former top CIA official. "The question becomes, 'Whose side are you on?'"

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