Changing of the guard in Afghan war leadership

President Barack Obama puts his hand on the shoulder of outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as he introduced a reworked national security team, Thursday, April 28, 2011, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. From left are, top commander-designate for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen; CIA Director-nominee Gen. David Petraeus; Defense Secretary-nominee Leon Panetta; Gates; the president; and Vice President Joe Biden.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

President Barack Obama's long-awaited decision on how many troops to bring home from Afghanistan this summer coincides with a changing of the guard in Washington and Kabul - one which could affect how the president's withdrawal timetable is executed.

The president has a number of options on the table, and CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante reports that he has not yet decided which to take. The options range from a short pullout - 5,000 troops, mostly support troops, at the beginning - to a true withdrawal of all 30,000 by the end of next year, and a range of numbers in-between.

One option, Plante says, is that Mr. Obama will announce no specific numbers, but say that all of the 30,000 support troops will be out by a certain date, and then leave the details up to the commanders.

But those commanders will represent a far different group than what is currently in place.

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has presided over the Afghanistan and Iraq wars for four and a half 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 - Petraeus as head of the Central Intelligence Agency (if confirmed by the Senate), and Rodriguez as Commanding General of the U.S. Army Forces Command.

Also departing in July is the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, retired Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who in 2006-07 served as the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Their replacements will no doubt bring fresh eyes to Afghan war policy as the White House looks to wind down 10 years of conflict in 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 Qaeda 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.

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.

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.

Stephen Biddle, a defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Associated Press their departure could create a shift in the balance of war advice within the administration.

"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.