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Politics

Obama's Next Moves on Afghanistan, Pakistan

Confirmation hearings will give congressional critics a public stage to challenge the president on security issues.

Leon Panetta and Gen. David Petraeus will win easy confirmation to their new jobs on President Obama’s national security team, but not until the Senate puts them on the spot about the administration’s plans for bringing troops home from Afghanistan.

The hearings for Panetta, nominated to replace Robert Gates as defense secretary, and Petraeus, picked to succeed Panetta as CIA director, will also provide a rare public look at White House views about terrorism and national security after the death of Osama bin Laden.

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Bin Laden’s killing will put pressure on Obama and his team to speed up the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and some senators are eager to use the hearings to make that point. They will also push for details of the U.S. endgame in Iraq and to make a case -- unsuccessfully -- to curtail aid to Pakistan.

Questions are also likely to focus on prolonged American involvement in Libya, the United States’ reluctance to take on the government of Syria in light of a crackdown on protesters, and the general unrest in much of the Arab world.

The administration’s plan is to begin bringing back troops from Afghanistan in July. But it’s not clear how many men and women will be covered by the initial order and how long it will take to complete the withdrawal.

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Much of the pressure to bring the troops home faster will come from Democrats. “The sentiment is sizable in my caucus for a large reduction in troop strength, and especially in combat troops,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) said the day after the president announced bin Laden’s demise.

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Levin’s views will get a wide airing as he chairs the confirmation hearings for Panetta. “Afghans now are in an even better position to take responsibility [for their own security] because whatever direction is coming from Pakistan, from that safe haven, no longer has the guidance or strength that bin Laden’s presence could give to it.”

Petraeus will be called on to answer similar types of questions, although the Senate Intelligence Committee is likely to conduct part of that hearing behind closed doors, given the hush-hush nature of much of the CIA’s business.

There will be other chances, too, for lawmakers to press for answers about U.S. military and intelligence efforts, especially concerning Afghanistan. The Armed Services Committee will hold hearings this summer for Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, nominated by the president to replace Petraeus as head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. And the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will consider the nomination of Ryan Crocker, a veteran U.S. diplomat, to be the next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

And at some point later in the year, confirmation hearings presumably will be held for Obama’s choice to succeed Adm. Mike Mullen as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Mullen is widely expected to retire this summer.

The president’s eventual pick to replace Mullen will come before Congress after the expected starting date of the troop reductions in Afghanistan, giving lawmakers one last public forum to call for changes.

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