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.
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.
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.