Obama names team for "new phase' in Afghan war

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US President Barack Obama charged his reshaped national security team with managing a "new phase" in the long war in Afghanistan -- the struggle to put Afghans in charge of their own security.

Obama nominated CIA boss Leon Panetta as defense secretary, veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker as ambassador to Kabul and chose Lieutenant General John Allen as the new Afghan war commander, refashioning his security braintrust.

He also announced his choice of famed General David Petraeus, the mastermind of US strategy in Iraq and current NATO commander in Afghanistan, to lead covert intelligence operations as new director of the CIA.

"In Afghanistan, we're moving into a new phase, transferring responsibility for security to Afghan forces, starting to reduce American forces this summer, and building a long-term partnership with the Afghan people," Obama said.

Though Obama did not specifically mention an eventual US withdrawal from Afghanistan, his remarks were peppered with references to "transition" hinting at a White House desire to see a smaller US footprint in the troubled nation.

Praising retiring Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Obama referred to the fact that all US troops will leave Iraq this year, and an Afghan drawdown, on which he has insisted, will begin, albeit symbolically this year.

"Today, every American must know that because he helped to responsibly wind down the war in Iraq, we're in a better position to support our troops and manage the transition in Afghanistan," the president said.

But the size and scope of the likely withdrawal of some of the 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan remains a subject of fierce debate in Washington, and officials now refer to 2014 as a target date for a full withdrawal.

Obama has a strong political imperative, however, to offer Americans the prospect of an eventual exit from an increasingly unpopular conflict launched after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

The president introduced his new national security team one by one with remarks laying out the scope of their respective missions.

He said Panetta, a former army officer and respected Washington power player, would carry on Gates's reform agenda of cutting hundreds of billions of dollars of unnecessary spending.

"Leon knows how to lead, which is why he is held in such high esteem not only in this city but around the world," Obama said.

Petraeus was the architect of the successful surge strategy in Iraq, which then senator Obama opposed, and of US counterinsurgency tactics in Afghanistan.

The president predicted he would be similarly innovative in leading US covert espionage operations at a time when CIA operations have increasing synergy with American military missions.

"Just as General Petraeus changed the way that our military fights and wins wars in the 21st century, I have no doubt that Director Petraeus will guide our intelligence professionals as they continue to adapt and innovate in an ever-changing world," Obama said.

Before returning to Afghanistan on Friday to serve out his posting before taking over the CIA in September, the talismanic general expressed "guarded optimism" about the trajectory of the war.

The president also had warm words for Gates, whom he persuaded to stay on after the Bush administration and then coerced into extending his term.

"I am confident Bob Gates will be remembered as one of the finest defense secretaries in American history, and I will always be grateful for his service," said Obama.

Gates said his first priority had been to do everything he could to care for American service men and women in harm's way, and appeared to briefly become emotional in the ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

"I've done my best to care for them as though they were my own sons and daughters, and I will miss them deeply," he said.

Panetta, 72, who will be the oldest man to take up the post of defense secretary and the first Democrat in more than a decade, may be one of the few men in Washington with the credentials and political weight to succeed Gates.

Crocker, who retired from the foreign service after ambassadorial postings in hotspots including Lebanon, Pakistan and Iraq, will inherit a relationship strained by often testy exchanges between Karzai and current US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.

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