Publicly announcing what White House officials had confirmed Wednesday, President Obama held a news conference Thursday at the White House alongside CIA Director Leon Panetta, his choice to succeed Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he retires, and Gen. David Petraeus, who will shift to lead the CIA. Petraeus has commanded the U.S. military efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The moves come at a critical time both in terms of the military effort in Afghanistan and in the United States’ troubled relationship with Pakistan, strained further in recent weeks by the use of drone strikes in the country and the public voicing of concerns on both sides.
“We confront urgent challenges,” the president said, pointing to the looming handover of parts of Afghanistan and winding up U.S. presence in Iraq. He praised Panetta, Petraeus, Ryan Crocker and Lt. Gen. John Allen, saying “They are leaders of enormous integrity and talent who have devoted their lives to keeping our nation strong and secure.”
“Given the pivotal period we are entering, I felt it was absolutely critical we have this team in place” to focus on the mission, he added.
Petraeus, who expressed “guarded optimism about the trajectory of the mission” in Afghanistan, will retire from the Army to head the CIA as a civilian.
Panetta praised “the good men and women of the CIA for all they do without recognition or credit to safeguard this nation,” and promised to lead the military in its use of limited resources. “We cannot be free unless we are secure,” said Panetta.
Gates called Panetta “the best possible choice to succeed me.”
The shuffle reunites Petraeus with Ambassador Crocker, who opened the U.S. Embassy in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban and is perhaps best known for his tenure as ambassador to Iraq. Crocker was called out of retirement to take the job.
Marine Lt. Gen. Allen, who helped negotiate with Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq’s Anbar province, will assume command of forces in Afghanistan and of the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.
The moves are widely seen as an implementation of existing strategy in Afghanistan in particular, not a change in policy.
The president urged the Senate to confirm the appointments as soon as possible.