Image: Barack Obama
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
President Barack Obama is considering both how many U.S. troops to bring home next month and a broader withdrawal plan to give Afghans control of their security in 2014.
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updated 6/21/2011 8:58:01 AM ET 2011-06-21T12:58:01

President Barack Obama's long-awaited decision on how many troops to bring home from Afghanistan this summer is overshadowing an impending change of arguably equal importance to the course of the war: the departure from Washington and Kabul of senior U.S. leaders with years of experience in managing the conflict.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has presided over the Afghanistan and Iraq wars for 4 1/2 years, is retiring next week. The top two American generals in Kabul — David Petraeus and David Rodriguez — are due to leave for new assignments as early as July. Also departing in July is retired Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul who in 2006-07 served as the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

They will be replaced by men with military and national security resumes but less direct experience in Afghanistan.

Video: President to outline Afghan withdrawal plans (on this page)
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This changing of the guard is not intended to steer the administration's Afghan war policy in a new direction. Yet a fresh set of eyes and ears could lead to new advice to the White House on how to wind down 10 years of conflict in the country that provided haven to al-Qaida prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It coincides with Obama's decision, to be announced Wednesday, on how to fulfill his promise to begin a withdrawal of U.S. forces in July. He made that pledge in December 2009 when he announced he was ordering an extra 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in an effort to reverse the momentum of the Taliban insurgency.

The goal remains to turn over Afghan security responsibility to the Afghans by the end of 2014. Between now and that target date, all U.S. and other foreign troops are to be out of the country.

Gates said during a visit to Afghanistan earlier this month that it's too soon to adjust strategy, even taking into account the impact of the May 2 killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

Image: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
Jim Young  /  REUTERS
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates answers questions on the Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2012 budget request before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense on Capitol Hill, June 15, 2011.

Gates also has cautioned against a rapid drawdown of U.S. forces. He has argued that more time is needed to pound the Taliban to the point where its leaders will feel compelled to engage in serious peace talks. On the other hand, the administration knows the U.S. public is weary of war — its human and financial costs. So spelling out a significant withdrawal plan could provide Obama with a political boost heading into the 2012 elections.

Leon Panetta, the CIA director who is expected to win Senate confirmation Tuesday to succeed Gates as Pentagon chief on July 1, has not been expansive in public about his views on Afghanistan. Panetta is to be replaced as head of the spy agency by Petraeus, who will retire from the Army to take that job if confirmed by the Senate.

Gates, Petraeus and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman who will retire Oct. 1, have been among the administration's strongest advocates of a troop-intensive approach to the war. Their departure could create a shift in the balance of war advice within the administration, says Stephen Biddle, a defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations who has periodically advised U.S. commanders in Kabul and Baghdad.

"You're replacing people that had a very distinct perspective and were very effective proponents of that view," Biddle said in a telephone interview Monday. It's unlikely, he said, that the incoming team — headed by Panetta — will be as unified in its views or as effective in promoting them.

"You might reasonably expect that the (troop) drawdown will be faster and deeper than it would have been" if Gates and the others had stayed on, Biddle said.

Taking Petraeus' place as commander of all U.S. and NATO forces will be Marine Lt. Gen. John R. Allen, assuming he is confirmed by the Senate. He has not served in Afghanistan but has extensive knowledge of the conflict from his nearly three years as deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the war.

Rodriguez, the Army lieutenant general who serves as the No. 2-ranking commander in Afghanistan, is returning to the U.S. this summer to take an Army four-star assignment. No U.S. general has spent more time in Afghanistan, and he is widely credited with implementing an effective anti-Taliban offensive over the past 18 months. He is to be replaced in Kabul by Army Lt. Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, who commanded U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan in 2009-10 and most recently has served as commander of the Army's 1st Corps.

Biddle thinks the new personalities will provide a fresh opportunity to mend the nearly broken relationship with President Hamid Karzai, who has repeatedly and publicly rebuked the U.S. for taking an overly muscular approach to the war. In recent speeches, Karzai has said the U.S. is in danger of becoming an occupying force and threatened to take unspecified "unilateral action" against international forces that conduct air strikes.

Eikenberry in particular has had rocky relations with the Afghan president. On Sunday he publicly reproached Karzai for painting American forces as occupiers and enemies. Eikenberry's successor, Ryan Crocker, knows Karzai; he reopened the U.S. Embassy in Kabul after the 2001 toppling of the Taliban regime.

"The fact that all the (U.S.) personnel are changing at about the same time gives you about as good an opportunity as you're going to get to try to reengineer the way we interact with Karzai," Biddle said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: President to outline Afghan withdrawal plans

  1. Closed captioning of: President to outline Afghan withdrawal plans

    >> president obama is expected to announce a major speech tomorrow. his decision on how many u.s. troops to withdraw from afghanistan next month. "the washington post " reports the president's decision will set the draw-down schedule for the 23,000 surged troops he sent to afghanistan last year. according to "the post" commanders, the surge succeeded in clearing certain parts of afghanistan . although the president has not made a final decision yet, he will likely remove all of the troops since the end of 2012 . the announcement comes since the relationships stalled between the u.s. and the taliban. hillary clinton will discuss afghanistan and pakistan on thursday. it comes as a new poll conducted for "the hill" shows that 72% of voters believe the united states is involved in too many foreign conflicts and should bring the troops home. only 16% agree with current troop levels. it's a big story . a lot of good things to talk about today. and you wrote about this in your politico speech, which we'll read later.

    >> jonathan, what's the president do tomorrow?

    >> i think he's going to announce that he's following through what he said at west point where he gave the big afghanistan speech and set out the deadline. he's mindful that the american people are war weary. especially a war we talked about at this table for a long time now, ten years involved in this conflict with really no end in sight. at some point, the troops are going to have to come home. it's a matter of how quickly do you pull them out? whether one of the concern is that, okay, fine, you pulled the troops out of zbab, but what is the impact on pakistan? that's sort of the silent topic there that no one is really focused on.

    >> 5,000 troops, 10,000 -- what does the president have to do? if the president announces he's going to draw down 5,000 troops, then, we go from having 100,000 to 95,000 there.

    >> some people want to get out faster, cough up a hairball. i think, you know, he's going to, i think, it seems like the debate here is that he's going to pull out all of the troops from the surge by the fall of 2012 . then the question is how fast does that happen on what timetable? and the pentagon is pushing the notion that he should do it as slowly as possible. e d then do the 5,000 option and winter and keep the rest there until next autumn. joe bide b is saying let's get these guys, the 30,000, which is what it is, get them out as quickly as possible. i think there's a chance that what the president will do is what he did at west point. the decision the last time which is to say i'll pull out all 30,000 by the fall of 2012 and leave the timetable up to the commanders in the field. and that is, i think, going to frustrate people who wab nt to see more decisive.

    >> isn't that drum beat you've heard from the people in the press to the president's own party and the people on capitol hill , he can't take 5,000 troops out. the drum beat will get louder.

    >> coming up, former advisor, dr. brzez eensk ix. first, to bill karins with a check on the forecast.

    >> summer winds up at 6:15 p.m . east coast today. a bigtime thunderstorm for the dallas-ft. worth area. if you're the dallas area, especially downtown dallas , give yourself another 20 minutes and then head outside after the storms are over with. as far as the northeast, we're not seeing the worst of it. we'll continue to watch the storms as they push through during the day. the showers heading down to pittsburgh and philadelphia as we go across the afternoon, we'll continue the showers and the storms from dc to baltimore and philly. dry in new england. you're watching " morning joe " brewed by starbucks.

    >>> former utah governor john huntsman. there's a picture of him

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