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Obama Names Panetta As New Defense Secretary, Petraeus To Head CIA

  • RFE/RL

CIA chief Leon Panetta (left) and General David Petraeus

CIA chief Leon Panetta (left) and General David Petraeus

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama has named General David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, to be the new head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and has made agency chief Leon Panetta his new secretary of defense.

The reassignments have been prompted by current Defense Secretary Robert Gates' plans to step down from the post he has held since 2006.

Obama made the announcement on April 28 in an appearance at the White House that included Gates, Petraeus, Panetta, Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and national security adviser Tom Donilon.

"I've worked closely with most of the individuals on this stage and all of them have my complete confidence. They are leaders of enormous integrity and talent who have devoted their lives to keeping our nation strong and secure, and I am personally very, very grateful to each of them for accepting these new assignments," Obama said.

Petraeus, who assumed his Afghan command in June 2010, is slated to retire from the military and begin work at the CIA in September, pending confirmation in the Senate.

Analysts say the 58-year-old Petraeus will bring unique experience to the CIA, after years as a military commander in Iraq and Afghanistan who has used the agency's intelligence reports in tactical and strategic decisions.

In 2003, then-Major General Petraeus was the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, which saw fierce fighting in the early days of the Iraq invasion. Upon reaching Mosul, Petraeus led the division in operations that built security and stability, took measures to improve the economy, facilitated local elections, and launched more than 4,000 construction projects. The nation-building approach reportedly earned him the nickname "King David" among some Iraqis.

Fighting The 'Greatest Adversary'

Obama said Petraeus would be just as determined to help the CIA challenge the United States' greatest adversary.

"Even as he and the CIA confront a full range of threats, David [Petraeus's] extraordinary knowledge of the Middle East and Afghanistan uniquely positions him to lead the agency in its effort to defeat Al-Qaeda," Obama said.

Nevertheless, Petraeus will be confronted by unfamiliar issues in his new role, including cybersecurity, North Korea, and Iran's nuclear program.

Obama announced that Petraeus's replacement in Afghanistan will be Lieutenant General Allen, was a commander in Iraq's western Anbar Province during 2006 and 2007 when Sunni tribal leaders switched sides and began helping U.S. troops fight Al-Qaeda -- a development that U.S. military leaders say helped turn around the war.

Allen is the current deputy commander of U.S. Central Command.

Obama also announced that Ryan Crocker, who has served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon, will replace Karl Eikenberry as the top U.S. diplomat in Kabul.

Analysts say the personnel change will be received well in Afghanistan because Eikenberry has had strained relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. military leaders during his two-year tenure.

The overhaul comes during what some are calling a make-or-break year in the Afghan war, as more responsibility is transferred to Afghan forces and as Washington seeks to recalibrate its foreign policy in the Arab world.

Petraeus gave his backing to his replacement, Allen, as well as to Crocker.

"As I return to Afghanistan tomorrow, I do so with a sense of guarded optimism about the trajectory of the mission and the exceptional civil-military team the president will nominate to lead that effort," Petraeus said.

"Indeed, I can think of no two individuals better suited than General Allen and Ambassador Crocker to build on the hard-fought gains that ISAF and Afghan troopers and their civilian colleagues have achieved over the past year."

Military Strategy Concerns

But there is some concern that the personnel shuffle could prove disruptive to the White House's military strategy.

Gary Schmitt, who was executive director of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board during Ronald Reagan's second term in office, and is now director of the Program on Advanced Strategic Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says he worries that "this will be the fourth commander of the ISAF mission that President Obama has [had]."

"As fine as some of those generals have been, that kind of turnover can't help but be disruptive, because when a general comes in he has a different style [and] a different demeanor and everybody has to adjust. So that kind of turnover is not healthy for a war effort," Schmitt said.

Obama expressed confidence that current CIA Director Leon Panetta will make a strong defense chief.

Panetta is viewed as particularly skilled at eliminating wasteful spending at the Pentagon, much as he helped lower the federal budget deficit in the 1990s as former President Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff.

Obama has tasked the Department of Defense with reducing its budget by hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming years.

While he said maintaining the country's military might was "job one," Panetta described the United States as facing "a time for hard choices."

"It's about ensuring that we are able to prevail in the conflicts in which we are now engaged, but it's also about being able to be strong and disciplined in applying our nation's limited resources to defending America," Panetta said.

The White House said it hoped to get Panetta confirmed by the Senate in time so that Gates can retire at the end of June.

written by Richard Solash
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