After bidding farewell to American soldiers on his 12th and final trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary, Robert Gates is now in Brussels to meet with fellow NATO defense ministers for the last time. Gates, whose last day at the Pentagon is scheduled for June 30, steps down at a pivotal time for the nation's security, leaving behind his own legacy and many unknowns about where U.S. policy will go in his wake.
Gates, the only cabinet member of George W. Bush's administration to stay on under Obama and the only defense secretary in U.S. history to be asked by a newly-elected president to keep his job, has served eight different presidents during his career. He's been praised by some as one of the best defense secretaries ever. And now, as the country contemplates its continuing role in Afghanistan and faces dire economic challenges, the man nominated to succeed him, Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta, has more to fill than Gates' well-traveled shoes. [Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.]
Since supporting the surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan authorized by Obama in December of 2009, Gates has spoken out repeatedly about the planned July troop withdrawal. Recently, Gates has suggested that the drawdown should be "modest," so not to ruin the progress made since the troop increase. "I have every confidence that the decision that's made will be a responsible one," Gates said from Afghanistan on Saturday. "Nobody wants to give up the gains that have been won at such hard cost. And nobody wants to give our allies the excuse to run for the exits."
Minding the risks overseas, Gates also recently acknowledged the growing "weariness" both in Afghanistan and in the United States over the time and money that's already been devoted to the conflict, which, now in its 10th year, has become the longest war in American history. Mix that sense of fatigue with growing domestic worries about paltry job gains and weak economic growth, and selling the war effort in Afghanistan becomes an even greater challenge politically for his successor. "Panetta's inheriting the harder job," says Michael O'Hanlon, research director at the Brookings Institution's 21st Century Defense Initiative. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]
Panetta's stance on the conflict in Afghanistan has been less clear than Gates' up to now. The current intelligence chief--who can boast that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed under his watch--served President Bill Clinton as chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget. From California, Panetta was also elected to nine terms in the House of Representatives. On Thursday, as he appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing, Panetta will surely be asked to provide more insight into his plans for Afghanistan as well as Iraq and the war on terrorism. [Check out our roundup of Afghanistan political cartoons.]
O' Hanlon, who is as much in the dark as the rest of Washington about Panetta's thinking, says the change at the helm itself will have an impact, as new relationships will have to be forged with both White House and Congressional insiders and the public. "We go from a known quantity, with a very known and established reputation on these issues, to a totally unknown quantity. That by itself matters a lot, even if you can't predict where the unknown quantity is going to go," O'Hanlon says. "Even though [Panetta's] been part of the team in some sense for two years, we don't really know where he stands."
Panetta's advisory style, in particular, will be closely observed. What kind of advice he gives, and whether he'll try to be assertive or deferential, public or private, are among the questions that people on Capitol Hill and overseas are likely to ask. His relationship with the military will also be closely watched.
According to Ron Kessler, author of The CIA at War, the changes, which include U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus taking Panetta's gig at the CIA, will affect little in terms of Obama's overall policy on defense and national security issues. The president likely will begin to withdraw troops in July as promised, and he'll keep his goal to have Afghan security forces take over by 2014. "We'll see more of the same," says Kessler.But in terms of how those broad policies will be implemented, the potential for change could be significant. As the new national security team takes shape, the speed and degree by which NATO and U.S. forces hand off security efforts to the Afghans themselves could evolve. According to Afghanistan war critic Bing West, who served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs during the Reagan presidency, Panetta's recent experience working at the CIA, combined with the on-the-ground experience in Iraq of the four top generals leading the effort in Afghanistan, suggests that the number of U.S. combat troops could fall more quickly, as the leaders opt for an approach that's more centered on empowering native forces. "At the Pentagon it's inevitable that Panetta is going to accelerate the withdrawal in Afghanistan and most likely increase the advisors and decrease the combat units, put the Afghans more into the fight more quickly," West says.
The new team of generals West refers to will eventually consist of Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Allen, who will take Gen. David Petraeus' job as U.S. commander in Afghanistan when he becomes CIA director in September; Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, the head of U.S. Central Command; Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who was recently appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. Ray Odierno, who will replace Dempsey as Army chief of staff. All have aided with stability operations in Iraq, which West says could contribute to their strategy in Afghanistan. "They're going to have their own view, and if you look at the background of all of them, I'd be willing to bet a lot of money you're going to see more of a movement to the same kind of advisor system that we saw in Anbar [in Iraq] in 2007," West says, referring to the system where Western forces took an advisory role over mostly local troops. [Take our poll: Is Gen. Martin Dempsey the right choice for Joint Chiefs chair?]
As hard as winding down the war and establishing stability in Afghanistan will be, Gates also leaves to Panetta the daunting task of shrinking the Pentagon budget after years of steadily rising outlays. Even for Panetta, who was yanked from Congress in 1993 to help Clinton pass that year's deficit-cutting budget agreement, this task won't be easy. According to O'Hanlon, his challenge as defense secretary will be less about figuring out where and what to cut and more about convincing the public that they will still be safe with less resources committed to security.
"The hard part of the job is not to do the arithmetic, it's to create domestic political support from as many constituencies as possible for painful cutbacks that many people aren't going to like, and that many people are going to worry might weaken our security. You've got to show a real understanding about the nature of those risks," O'Hanlon says. "Panetta's a very capable guy, but one shouldn't assume that just because he did the OMB thing that therefore he's well-positioned for secretary of defense at a time of fiscal austerity. The challenges are different at DOD."