Reshuffling his national security team at a crucial time, President Barack Obama is aiming for maximum continuity, installing road-tested players steeped in his policies on diplomacy and war.
Obama was to announce Thursday that CIA Director Leon Panetta will replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates when Gates makes his long-planned exit this summer, a senior administration official said. Gen. David Petraeus, the high-profile commander of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will replace Panetta at the CIA in the fall, after helping to manage the first steps of a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Petraeus' job will be filled by Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen, the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations across the Middle East, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran.
Seasoned diplomat Ryan Crocker is being installed as U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan.
The long-pending reorganization is less a shake-up than a rearrangement of a team that the White House believes already has worked well managing the winding down of the Iraq war and the troop buildup in Afghanistan and which now is preparing to begin withdrawing troops from there. Team members also have handled the sometimes contentious relations with Pakistan and other countries.
The administration official emphasized that the aim was to preserve Obama's policies in Afghanistan and elsewhere, not alter them. The official spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of Obama's announcement.
"The White House is maintaining broad continuity," said John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington research organization. "Everyone who is coming in are all current in the game. They've been working these issues."
The changes, which require Senate approval, were set in motion largely by Gates' plans to leave his job midyear. A Republican appointed by then-President George W. Bush, the widely respected defense secretary had wanted to leave when Obama took office, but the president persuaded him to stay on. He's now set to depart June 30, at which point Panetta would replace him.
Panetta, too, had to be talked into taking over at the Pentagon, according to the senior administration official. The official said Panetta, a former Democratic congressman from California who also worked as White House chief of staff and budget director, was reluctant to leave a job he relishes but answered Obama's call.
Gates told senior staff that he had recommended Panetta to the president six months ago.
Obama's choice of Panetta, who was budget chief under Democrat Bill Clinton, suggests the president sees Pentagon budget-cutting as a bigger challenge to the nation than either the Afghanistan or Iraq wars. Gates, who oversaw a turnaround in the Iraq war in 2007 and pushed for a bigger troop commitment in Afghanistan last year, is known to believe that his cost-cutting initiatives are the most important features of the legacy he will leave after more than four years in office.
Gates has come up with $400 billion in cuts in the defense budget for the next 10 years, and Obama has asked him to come up with $400 billion more, a task that will now fall to Panetta, if he is confirmed for the job.
It is unclear whether the turnover at the top of Obama's national security team will have any practical effect on the president's plan to turn over security responsibility in Afghanistan to the Afghan government by the end of 2014 — a process that began earlier this year. That transition to Afghan control is supposed to happen in tandem with the reduction in the approximately 100,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan starting in July.
Gates will be gone by the time the first set of troop reductions is carried out, but his advice will be central to decisions in coming weeks on how many troops to withdraw and over what period of time.
On top of the other changes, Obama will have to find a replacement for Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, the Navy admiral who is scheduled to retire at the end of September. Despite the White House determination to stay the course on strategy, the personnel changes could usher in new approaches and attitudes.
Stephen Biddle, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former civilian adviser to Petraeus, said the shake-up could portend a shift in the balance of power among the chief policy advisers on Afghan war strategy.
"Three of the most forceful advocates for a large effort in Afghanistan are all going to be leaving: Mullen, Gates and Petraeus," Biddle said. Most of those who have advocated for reducing the scope of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan will remain. One exception is Karl Eikenberry, the soon-to-depart U.S. ambassador to Kabul who questioned the wisdom of escalating the war in 2010.
Panetta's views on Afghanistan are less clear, but it would be difficult to find a stronger advocate for a forceful military campaign in Afghanistan than Gates. When he entered the Pentagon in December 2006 it was consumed by a then-deteriorating Iraq war.
By the time he leaves, Gates will rank as the fourth-longest serving defense secretary in history, after Robert McNamara, Caspar Weinberger and Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan and Kimberly Dozier contributed to this report.