US President Barack Obama plans to shuffle his his nation's defense and intelligence bosses, White House officials told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
The move would see CIA Director Leon Panetta serving as Secretary of Defense and General David Petraeus, currently the US military's top man in Afganistan, taking Panetta's post as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The officials also said Obama is expected to ask Lt. Gen. John Allen to replace Petraeus as Afghanistan commander; and that diplomat Ryan Crocker would likely be tapped as the next US ambassador to Afghanistan.
All sources spoke on condition of anonymity as the changes, which would probably take place this summer, haven't been formally announced by the president.
The musical chairs for some of the United States' most sensitive security postings come as Defense Secretary Robert Gates revealed he he would be leaving his post later this year. The White House wants to schedule Senate confirmation hearings in the coming months.
The move comes as US military and civilian defense leaders call 2011 the make-or-break year for turning around the Afghan war and laying the path for a gradual US exit by 2015. The planned transition to Afghan security control is expected to begin this year. The US intends to start withdrawing some of its 100,000 forces in July.
Petraeus claims military advances, especially in the Taliban stronghold of southern Afghanistan, have blunted the Taliban-led insurgency and given the edge to the US and its NATO partners. But questions remain about whether the Taliban can be successfully integrated into Afghanistan's new government and about the use of Pakistani border regions by anti-western insurgents.
The nearly wholesale shuffle of Obama's Afghanistan top military and diplomatic crew leaves few military and civilian leaders who have both the President's ear and Afghanistan experience. Allen, the choice for Afghanistan commander, has never served there.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will leave his post in September after four years dominated by the ebb of the war in Iraq and the escalation of the one in Afghanistan. The top candidate to replace Mullen is Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who also has never served in Afghanistan.
The changes are expected to be announced Thursday at the White House.