The Obama administration’s reshuffling of its national security team lifts much of the uncertainty that has hung over both the military and the CIA since Robert Gates made clear he planned to leave the Pentagon this summer.
But the bureaucratic shuffling—which involves naming CIA Director Leon Panetta as Gates’ replacement and Gen. David Petraeus as the new head of the CIA—will have even larger implications for the unpopular Afghan war.
Gates and Petraeus were the architects of the current U.S. strategy for the conflict, which boosted U.S. troop levels to record highs while putting in place a counterinsurgency campaign designed to blunt the Taliban’s battlefield momentum while extending the reach of the fragile Afghan government. The two men argue they’ve made gains, particularly in the former Taliban strongholds of southern Afghanistan, but public support for the war is falling in both the U.S. and Afghanistan as casualties continue to climb. On Wednesday, an Afghan officer opened fire in Kabul’s well-fortified airport, killing eight American troops and one U.S. civilian employee. It was the highest one-day U.S. death toll in nearly three years. All told, 152 NATO troops have died in Afghanistan so far this year, including at least 107 Americans.
Panetta, along with Lt. Gen. John Allen, who will replace Petraeus, and Ryan Crocker, who is heading to Kabul as U.S. ambassador, will now be the key players in the administration’s ongoing debates about how many of the 30,000 surge troops to bring home this summer and whether to modify the overall American war strategy. The Obama administration is already signaling it wants to withdraw more troops from Afghanistan than Petraeus prefers, and the three men are likely to recommend some significant policy changes.
The drone war inside Pakistan, for instance, is virtually certain to accelerate in the months ahead. Panetta has privately told other senior officials he doesn’t believe the Taliban can be defeated militarily while they have access to safe havens in neighboring Pakistan, according to people familiar with the conversations. As CIA chief, Panetta has used unmanned aerial drones to carry out record numbers of strikes on targets there, turning the agency into the leading player in the fight against Pakistan’s insurgent networks. Bill Roggio of Long War Journal, a Web site that analyzes CIA operations in Pakistan, said the number of drone strikes has climbed from 35 in 2008, the year before Panetta assumed the job, to 117 in 2010 and 21 already this year. Roggio estimated that the drone attacks have killed more than 1,448 people, spurring widespread public anger inside Pakistan but eliminating significant numbers of dangerous militants.
“The main effort against al-Qaida and its allies is taking place in North Waziristan, and the CIA have been the ones bringing the fight to them,” Roggio said. “Obama took office promising to take the fight into Pakistan, and Panetta has helped him keep that promise.”
In another shift, the White House’s new war council will devote more attention to repairing Washington’s tattered relationship with President Hamid Karzai. The Afghan leader publicly criticizes the U.S.-led coalition at virtually every opportunity, infuriating senior American officials. Late last year, Karzai demanded the United States limit its use of targeted raids against suspected militants, leading Petraeus to tell Afghan officials that Karzai was threatening the success of the entire war effort and leaving the commander’s own position “untenable,” according to a military official with direct knowledge of the meeting. Petraeus's relationship with Karzai has never fully recovered. The Afghan leader has also cut all of his ties with current U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.
The White House hopes that replacing Petraeus and Eikenberry with Allen and Crocker will help stabilize that relationship. Both Allen and Crocker have experience working with difficult foreign leaders. As the top military commander in western Afghanistan, Allen oversaw the “Anbar Awakening,” which led thousands of Sunni tribal fighters to turn their guns on al-Qaida. Crocker, for his part, persuaded Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to abandon his pro-Shia policies and order a risky armed crackdown on the country’s Iranian-backed Shia militias, boosting Maliki’s standing in both Baghdad and Washington.
In Afghanistan, Crocker is also expected to launch a new push to revitalize the Karzai government’s on-again, off-again peace talks with the Taliban. Crocker has frequently stated that the Afghan conflict would ultimately require a political settlement rather than a pure military victory. “We need to bring the hammer down to show our adversaries that they are not having a walk in the park, change their logic and their calculations, and then see who’s ready to stop shooting and start talking,” Crocker told NPR last summer.
But retired Army Col. Pete Mansoor, a military historian at Ohio State University who served as Petraeus's executive officer during the Iraq surge, told National Journal that “simply getting new people into Kabul to intercede with Karzai won’t somehow turn him into a reliable partner of the U.S.”
Gates will retire from the Pentagon on June 30 and a White House official said the administration hopes Panetta would be confirmed in time to assume the helm there on July 1. Petraeus will likely remain in Afghanistan through the summer, typically the country’s most violent time period, and replace Panetta at the CIA in early September. The official also said Petraeus, one of the most decorated generals in recent U.S. history, would retire from the military when he assumes his CIA post.