Afghan war is first task for Panetta

When President Obama announces troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, he will do so with a more natural ally headed to the Pentagon. 

CIA Director Leon Panetta was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday as the successor to Robert Gates, one of the most respected Defense secretaries in history. 

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In Panetta, a former budget chief under President Clinton, Obama will have a new leader at the Department of Defense during a period expected to be characterized by budget cuts and troop withdrawals. 

Obama is expected to announce the withdrawal of 10,000 troops from Afghanistan during his Wednesday-night speech, though some reports suggest that figure could run as high as 30,000.

Panetta must lead the military in gracefully withdrawing those troops while preserving U.S. objectives, and he must do so amid a fierce reelection battle for Obama.

Panetta is the first Democrat to head the Pentagon in 14 years. 

“Panetta is in a tough spot on Afghanistan, because he must represent military views to the White House without undermining the president’s prospects for reelection,” said Loren Thompson, a defense expert at the Lexington Institute. 

“With many voters eager to see sizable troop withdrawals from the long-running war, Panetta will have to tread lightly in articulating military objections to an early pullout.”

While Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, added political weight to Obama’s administration, he didn’t always see eye to eye with the White House. 

Obama didn’t accept Gates’s advice to take out Osama bin Laden with an air strike, and instead sent a team of commandos into Pakistan. And though Gates publicly backed the $400 billion in national-security cuts Obama desired last year, he did so only after the president agreed to a Pentagon-led comprehensive review to identify where the cuts would be made. 

On Afghanistan, Gates offered the president different options, but it is unclear whether he supports large troop withdrawals from the country. Gates on Monday did say the president must consider public fatigue with the war in Afghanistan as he decides how many troops to keep in that country. 

Panetta is expected to clash with lawmakers as he implements an Afghan troop drawdown that experts predict will keep Obama’s current strategy for the country in place well into 2012. 

The president’s plan will at least partially remove some of the forces that represented a surge in troops ordered by Obama in December 2009. The surge was designed to put enough U.S. forces in place in enough parts of Afghanistan to make the counterinsurgency work.

Defense experts used words like “gradual” and “conditions-based” to describe the manner in which the administration is likely to bring troops home. 

Nathan Freier, a former Army officer who was a Pentagon strategic planner, expects the president will put in place a drawdown plan that keeps enough combat troops there over the next year to “essentially keep the current strategy in place … well into 2012.” That kind of gradual reduction “buys them some time” to “give maximum ability to the strategy that’s responsible for the progress that’s been made over the last nine months,” said Freier, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

 However, a gradual reduction is unlikely to sit well with the growing number of lawmakers from both parties who feel the Afghanistan conflict is too expensive and unlikely to produce a clear military victory. This sentiment has grown since the death of Osama bin Laden, whose terrorist attacks from Afghanistan sparked the conflict in the first place. 

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on Tuesday said at least 15,000 troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan, 

Several hawkish House Republicans, including Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), have begun talking privately about their collective shift on Afghanistan, a GOP aide told The Hill. Once outspoken proponents of keeping a large number of U.S. forces there until the mission is clearly accomplished, these Republican members now favor a large drawdown and a shift toward a counterterrorism-based strategy, the aide said.

Republican candidates for president, including GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, have also called for a quick withdrawal of troops.

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Hunter is “thinking about” a total U.S. footprint of between 15,000 and 20,000 forces, the Republican staffer said.

“Time is running out … and once you lose public support, things become really difficult,” the aide said, summarizing Hunter’s thinking.

 Even as CIA director, Panetta played his cards close to the vest on how large a U.S. force should be in Afghanistan. 

Publicly, Panetta has signaled he is in line with Gates, saying at a hearing that the two “generally walk hand in hand on these matters.”

Some lawmakers, led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), oppose a large troop drawdown and argue U.S. counterinsurgency strategy is “on the verge of success.”

Graham said the U.S. has superior “values” to its Taliban and al Qaeda foes, and with a little more time, those values will win the day.

Just where Panetta stands on both troop withdrawal numbers, as well as the proper strategy and tactics for the Afghan mission, remains “the great unknown,” according to Freier.

“He probably shares Vice President Biden’s misgivings about strategy in Afghanistan, and he doesn’t have a deep affinity for joint force priorities,” one defense source said.

Biden and other senior Obama administration officials have long supported a smaller U.S. military force in Afghanistan that would conduct counterterrorism operations. That kind of strategy would feature more strikes against Taliban and al Qaeda targets, and less nation-building.