Obama will name CIA director Leon Panetta as his new defence secretary, reshuffling his security team at a pivotal moment for US military strategy.
Mr Panetta, 72, will replace Robert Gates, who retires as Pentagon chief on June 30, and Mr Obama plans to recall talismanic General David Petraeus from Afghanistan, who will end a decorated military career to lead the CIA.
In another key move, Ryan Crocker, one of America’s most tested diplomats, after tours in Pakistan and Iraq, will become ambassador to Kabul, charged with managing sometimes dysfunctional relations with President Hamid Karzai.
The overhaul comes at a pivotal moment in US foreign policy and will help shape Mr Obama’s approach to the unpopular war in Afghanistan, the NATO-led conflict launched last month in Libya and turmoil sweeping the Middle East.
Gen Petraeus, who commands NATO’s Afghan war operations and masterminded the successful Iraq troop surge strategy, will be replaced by Lieutenant General John Allen, deputy head of US Central Command, officials said.
A senior US official said Mr Obama had selected the “strongest possible team” of deeply experienced operators, all of whom face the task of handing security control to Afghans to eventually extricate America from Afghanistan.
Mr Panetta, who will be the oldest man to take up the post of defence secretary and the first Democrat for more than a decade, may be one of the few men in Washington with the credentials and political weight to succeed Mr Gates.
A holdover from the Republican administration of George W. Bush who emerged as a critical player in Mr Obama’s team, Mr Gates forged a strong alliance with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and was respected across political divides.
Mr Panetta, a former White House chief of staff and California congressman, will need all his organisational wiles to implement Mr Obama’s demand for $400 billion in budget cuts as he seeks to trim the huge US deficit.
All of Mr Obama’s appointees, to be formally unveiled at the White House, require Senate confirmation, seen largely as a formality. The immediate reaction to Mr Obama’s moves on Capitol Hill was warm.
“This team will provide the leadership to help make our nation safer,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, an influential Republican on national security matters.
Senior administration officials dismissed suggestions the appointment of a top military officer would revive Washington turf battles between military and espionage professionals over strategy and the use of intelligence.
Apart from the top defence job, a number of crucial national security posts are coming open in the next several months, including the military’s top officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, who finishes his term in September.
As for Gen Petraeus, some former CIA officials and analysts have touted the general as a perfect fit for the spy agency, citing his work with intelligence operatives battling Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere, as well as his experience in Washington’s policy debates. Agencies