WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is overhauling his national security team with both foreign policy challenges and domestic politics in mind, but the personnel moves chiefly illustrate an effort to build a team that can regain the initiative on the unpopular war in Afghanistan.
By moving CIA Director Leon Panetta to the Defense Department, Obama is installing someone who has voiced concerns about the large U.S. military operation in Afghanistan just as the White House begins internal deliberations over how quickly and how many U.S. troops can come home.
In putting Gen. David Petraeus at the helm of the CIA, Obama is placing his most successful military commander in charge of a spy service that hunts suspected al-Qaida 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 Gen. John Allen, a highly regarded Iraq war veteran who now is deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, is slated to become the new commander in Afghanistan.
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.
All the nominees are expected to easily win Senate confirmation.
Under Petraeus, the military has given cautiously upbeat assessments of progress in Afghanistan, citing efforts targeting mid-level Taliban commanders. U.S. intelligence agencies have been skeptical of claims of progress.
Heavy fighting is expected to pick up again in Afghanistan as winter ends, 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 Kabul International Airport. The Taliban claimed the pilot was an insurgent infiltrator.
Days earlier, in what the Taliban declared a major success, nearly 500 prisoners escaped a Kandahar prison.
The high-level shakeup also reflects domestic political considerations, including Obama’s determination to make deep cuts in the Pentagon budget just as the 2012 presidential campaign gets under way.
In Panetta, 72, the White House has chosen a reliable political ally and a deficit hawk to replace the more independent Robert Gates, a Bush administration holdover who has resisted White House efforts to cut the defense budget.
A Democratic Party insider, Panetta is a former U.S. representative from California who was 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 congressional lawmakers from both parties.