By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - General David Petraeus faces a Senate grilling on the faster-than-expected drawdown in Afghanistan when he appears on Thursday for his confirmation hearing to become the next CIA director.
Although he is expected to be confirmed easily, the outgoing military commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan will be pressed about his apparent recommendation for a slower drawdown than that set out by President Barack Obama on Wednesday.
Facing pressure to speed the withdrawal from the unpopular, decade-old war, Obama said he would pull out roughly a third of the 99,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan by the end of next summer. The first 10,000 forces will leave this year.
Lawmakers are expected to ask Petraeus whether he harbors concerns over the pace of the pullout, which ultimately gained the acquiescence of the military. Is this a compromise between battlefield and political realities? What are the risks involved?
"I think he's going to get pushed on this," said Bruce Riedel, who advised the White House on Afghan policy in the past.
"Have you adjusted your number to satisfy the White House to get the job you want? I don't think anyone will put it in quite those crude terms, but it will sound like that."
Petraeus, a favorite among Republicans and credited with turning around the war in Iraq and making major battlefield gains in Afghanistan, is expected to receive a warm reception at the hearing. He would take over the CIA's top job in September.
His nomination as CIA chief is part of a broad reshuffling of Obama's national security team that will see a new defense secretary, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Afghan commander and ambassador to Kabul all taking over in the coming months. Outgoing CIA Director Leon Panetta will become the next defense secretary on July 1.
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A Pentagon official told Reuters that Petraeus planned to step down as the top commander in Afghanistan in mid-July, allowing time for his retirement and a break before he takes over running the U.S. spy agency.
Past military officers have served as CIA chief, but Petraeus has said he felt the need to hang up the uniform he has worn for the past four decades.
"For someone who has the relatively high profile that I have had, it is best, I think, to take the uniform off," he told the Marine Corps Times newspaper in a recent interview. "I think it sends an important message to the CIA work force."
When he gets to the CIA, Petraeus' experience as a battlefield commander could serve the agency well, given its increasing role in recent years in covert operations -- often undertaken jointly with the U.S. military -- like the May 2 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The raid deeply strained intelligence ties with Pakistan.
As CIA director, Petraeus is expected to privately embrace the campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan, a nominally covert CIA operation that has fueled anti-American sentiment but also put heavy pressure on militant safe havens.
Some observers say operations like the drone campaign in Pakistan blurs lines between the roles the Pentagon and the spy agency might play in the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates. But that could be an asset for Petraeus, who can straddle both worlds.
"To the extent that these lines have blurred ... I think it's reasonable to say that makes General Petraeus a good choice," said Paul Pillar, a former senior U.S. intelligence official now at Georgetown University.
"I expect he will portray his previous job and his next job as a continuation to a large extent of performing the same national mission, albeit from a different seat."
Still, the jobs are very different. Petraeus, after investing the past year building the Afghan strategy, will soon need to defend the viewpoint of CIA analysts who have in the past been significantly more cautious about assessing battlefield advances there.
"Are you prepared to be the intelligence adviser and not the policy adviser?" Riedel asked, articulating questions he expected from lawmakers.
"You quarreled with the analysts at Langley (CIA) before. Are you now going to be their representative?"
(Editing by Peter Cooney)