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?'"
A senior Defense official said Gates' last day on the job will be June 30. White House officials hope Panetta can get Senate confirmation in time to take over at the Pentagon the next day.
Petraeus, however, is expected to remain in command in Afghanistan until fall. The delay is meant to give Allen, who commanded Marine forces in Iraq but has not served in Afghanistan, time to familiarize himself with the mission there.
"We have laid this out in a way that we believe will provide a seamless transition in each of these positions," said a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to preempt Obama's official announcement Thursday. "No gaps, no disruptions in the continuity of policy."
The official said Panetta wasn't keen on leaving the CIA. But the White House is clearly counting on him to find major cuts in the Defense budget. Obama recently rolled out a plan to cut $4 trillion from the nation's deficits over the next 12 years — a proposal that relies heavily on reductions in military spending.
Managing relations with Karzai will be a key challenge for Crocker, who served across the Middle East and South Asia from 1971, until stepping down as ambassador to Iraq in early 2009. In addition to reopening the U.S. Embassy in Kabul after the ouster of the Taliban, he served as ambassador to Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon.
The White House official said the personnel moves won't affect plans to draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The Obama administration's strategy is to begin a withdrawal of forces in July, and the plan will proceed apace, the official said.
"The president has laid out our strategy for Afghanistan and Leon Panetta's role is to implement that strategy, working with Gen. Allen and Ambassador Crocker," the official said.
With hard fighting anticipated, however, it is not clear yet how many troops will be withdrawn this year or how quickly.
Gates and Petraeus have generally favored a relatively small initial reduction in the nearly 100,000- strong U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, arguing that taking too many troops out too quickly will jeopardize fragile security gains seen in part of the south.
Vice President Joe Biden and some of Obama's political advisors are said to favor sharper reductions sooner. At the CIA, Panetta has not been an influential player in administration debates about troop levels in Afghanistan, but several administration aides said that he is viewed as supporting Biden's view that the U.S. could accomplish its goals with a smaller footprint.
Even if Gates and Petraeus manage to stave off deep troop cuts in July, they will no longer be able to press that case in the future.
"I think we don't know yet what Panetta is going to advocate on Afghanistan," said Stephen Biddle, an Afghanistan specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But we do know that the two primary advocates for a large footprint effort in Afghanistan were Gates and Petraeus, and they will no longer be able to argue that position."
Times staff writer Ken Dilanian contributed to this report.