June 28, 2011

With Afghan Timetable In Place, Two Senior Officials Are Moving On

With the Obama administration’s new Afghan drawdown timetable in place, two of the most senior officials charged with managing the long war there are moving on.

Officials familiar with the matter say the White House’s top adviser on Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, plans to step down this summer. Maj. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges, the director of the Pentagon’s Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell, will step aside next week to assume a new post at the helm of the Army’s legislative affairs office, according to officials familiar with the matter. Neither move has been formally announced.

The personnel shifts come at a pivotal time for the deeply unpopular Afghan war, which is shedding both public and congressional support. The administration announced plans last week to withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan this year while bringing the remaining 23,000 “surge” troops home by next September. The drawdown will begin next month, making July an inflection point of sorts for the decade-long conflict.  Obama has promised to remove virtually all American forces by the end of 2014.

The personnel moves are the latest changes to the administration’s national-security ranks, which are about to undergo their most far-reaching shifts in years. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the architect of the Afghan withdrawal plan, retires effective Thursday, and will be replaced the following day by Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta. Panetta’s slot at the CIA will be filled by Gen. David Petraeus, currently the top American commander in Kabul. Petraeus, in turn, will be succeeded by Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, whose confirmation hearing will be held on Tuesday.

Although little known to the general public, Lute was Obama’s primary adviser on Afghanistan. During the administration’s surge debates in 2009, Lute was one of the loudest voices arguing against giving senior generals the 80,000 reinforcements they initially requested. More recently, Lute joined Vice President Joe Biden and other civilian officials in pushing Petraeus to withdraw U.S. troops faster than the commander deemed safe. Biden, backed by Lute, supported plans to remove 15,000 of the troops this year and the remaining 18,000 troops by spring 2012. Petraeus wanted to limit this year’s withdrawals and keep the remaining surge forces in Afghanistan through the end of next year.

Lute played a second, informal role as a back-channel intermediary to Petraeus and other senior generals, whose relationships with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and other civilian White House officials are rocky at best. Despite their policy differences, Lute maintains good relationships with Petraeus and other top officers, allowing him to broker disputes between the two sides while preventing Obama’s relationship with the Pentagon from rupturing.

Hodges, meanwhile, is a highly-regarded general who served as the top American commander in southern Afghanistan’s volatile Kandahar Province in 2009 as coalition forces were undertaking a broad push to evict the Taliban from its strongholds there. The offensive that Hodges helped design has markedly improved security conditions throughout Kandahar, and White House officials pointed to the progress there when detailing their withdrawal plans last week.

People familiar with the matter said that Hodges will be succeeded by Brig. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who just completed a tour as the deputy commanding general for operations in Regional Command-East, the violent portion of Afghanistan which abuts the country’s porous border with Pakistan. Hodges will move to the Army’s legislative affairs office in early July, clearing the way for Townsend to take over the Pentagon’s Pakistan/Afghanistan office.

Lute’s future remains far murkier. An administration official said no date for Lute’s departure has been set. “We keep begging him to stay,” the official said.

Lute was tapped as the Bush administration’s unofficial “war czar” in 2007, when he was picked by President Bush to serve as his adviser on Iraq and Afghanistan policy. Lute initially reported straight to Bush; in the Obama administration, he answers to Donilon. 

Retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said that the administration would be hesitant to let Lute step down before they could find his replacement. Before finally settling on Lute, Bush administration officials had been turned down by at least three prominent four-star generals. With public support for the war at record lows and U.S. troops beginning to head for the exits, finding Lute’s replacement could be just as difficult.

“It will be tough for the White House to let him depart with no one lined up for his job,” Barno said.