WASHINGTON — In a major national security reshuffle, President Barack Obama is sending CIA Director Leon Panetta to the Pentagon to replace Robert Gates, a widely praised Bush holdover, and replacing Panetta at the spy agency with Gen. David Petraeus, the high-profile commander of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Obama’s changes, expected to be announced at the White House on Thursday, also will include a new ambassador and war commander in Afghanistan. However, they don’t signal any major adjustment in the president’s Afghan strategy or the fight against violent extremism.
The moves cement a planned drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in July and allow Obama to replace Gates, a Republican, with a Democrat with partisan credentials. That appointment also diminishes speculation that Petraeus might become a Republican presidential challenger in 2012.
In the largest change, Gates would step down after managing the turnaround of the Iraq war under President George Bush and the expansion of the Afghanistan war under Obama. He told top Pentagon staff Wednesday that he had recommended Panetta as his successor six months ago.
Gates plans to retire on June 30, officials said, and the White House hopes to win Senate confirmation for Panetta before then. Petraeus would remain in his battlefield job for a few months while the first of the approximately 100,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan withdraw. Petraeus plans to retire from the Army before assuming the CIA job in the fall, officials said.
Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen will move from his post as deputy commander of U.S. Central Command in Florida to take over the Afghan campaign, and veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker will become U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, officials said.
All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the changes had not yet been announced by the White House.
The appointments point to a stay-the-course approach in national security strategy over its next two years, especially in two key areas: the war in Afghanistan in what is expected to be a make-or-break year, and the counterterrorism fight in Pakistan.
Allen and Crocker will be charged with managing a gradual lessening of the U.S. role and a transition to Afghan leadership. Petraeus would take the helm at the CIA against the backdrop of a fractious relationship with Pakistan, which wants a greater say in U.S. counterterrorism actions in Pakistan’s frontier regions.
“The White House is maintaining broad continuity,” said John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security and member of the Defense Policy Board. “Everyone who is coming in are all current in the game. They’ve been working these issues.”
Panetta and Petraeus already have worked closely together and have spent time with military and intelligence leaders in both countries.
A U.S. official who confirmed Panetta’s move to the Pentagon said the White House chose him in large part because of his extensive experience in the field during his time as CIA director. The official said Panetta had traveled more than 200,000 miles, to more than 40 CIA stations and bases, and more than 30 countries.
Panetta has also won praise within the CIA by famously winning a showdown at the White House with the former director of national intelligence, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, over who would choose station chiefs overseas. He also argued against the prosecution of CIA employees for their use of enhanced interrogation techniques like water boarding against al-Qaida suspects during the Bush administration. Congressmen praised him for reaching out to their intelligence committees, traveling to Capitol Hill for monthly coffee sessions to rebuild trust.
“The pros are that he is experienced in politics, the Hill, the budget and intelligence,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. “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,” or with extensive experience with the uniformed military.
Panetta presided over the greatly expanded use of unmanned, armed Predator and Reaper drones aimed at militant suspects in Pakistan.
Petraeus is no stranger to coordinating battle by drone. He has helped push for a quadrupling of drones in Afghanistan, both armed and as surveillance platforms to gather intelligence.
Panetta’s experience as a former director of the White House Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton administration will come to the fore, said Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment.
Gates has come up with $400 billion in cuts to the defense budget for the next 10 years, and Obama has asked him to come up with $400 billion more, a task that will now fall to Panetta, if he is confirmed for the job.
Panetta “knows how OMB works, knows the inner workings of the budget process at the White House,” Harrison said. “So I think he will be better equipped to negotiate DOD’s top line budget than any of the other candidates.”
Despite speculation that Obama might choose Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to succeed Gates at the Pentagon, Clinton took herself out of the running in numerous public declarations. She also has made it clear she intends to retire from government when her current service as secretary of state ends.
Petraeus, who took over as Afghanistan war commander last June, had been expected to leave that post before the end of this year. He would bring a customer’s eye to the CIA job as one of the key people to use intelligence provided by the agency and the military during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Petraeus is credited with helping build a relationship in Iraq with the CIA and the military’s elite counterterrorism unit, the Joint Special Operations Command, that led to a tripling of missions against al-Qaida of Iraq and other militant groups.
Before his departure, Petraeus is mapping the phased drawdown of roughly 30,000 forces Obama added to turn around the stalemated Afghan fight last year. Petraeus says battlefield gains have allowed that withdrawal to begin but cautions that the Taliban are far from beaten.
He has said he will present Obama a menu of options for a drawdown from the current level of 104,000 U.S. troops.
The president is expecting choices of how many troops, how fast, and with what associated risk, with the assumption that the faster the withdrawal the greater the risk, according to two senior administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the war strategy.
The White House is already leaning toward a significant drawdown, with an ideal goal of reaching presurge levels of roughly 70,000 troops by early next year, one U.S. official said, but the pace is dependent on how U.S. troops weather the Taliban fighting season, which has only just started.
Petraeus’ replacement, Allen, was one of the key commanders who implemented the Sons of Iraq program in Anbar province, which was credited with drafting former militants into cooperation with the coalition. That program is similar to the nascent Afghan local police program, a sort of armed neighborhood watch sanctioned by and paid for by the Afghan government, that U.S. officials believe could be key to securing remote parts of Afghanistan and enabling a faster U.S. departure.
There will also be a wholesale change on the diplomatic side in Kabul, with other top officials at the Kabul embassy leaving their posts along with current Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Among others departing will be Anthony Wayne, the deputy ambassador, and William Todd, the embassy’s director of development and economic affairs, who coordinates all nonmilitary U.S. assistance to Afghanistan, one official said.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Lolita C. Baldor and Robert Burns contributed to this report.