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The past year saw a changing of the guard at the top of the Pentagon, as one consummate Washington insider made way for another. Both entered the job facing a nasty to-do list.

Iraq was in chaos and a resurgent Taliban was menacing Afghanistan when Robert Gates took the oath as defense secretary in 2006. A former CIA director who had left for academia, Gates was tapped by President George W. Bush to replace the polarizing Donald Rumsfeld. President Barack Obama asked Gates to stay on as part of the new administration.

By the time Gates handed over responsibilities to his successor, Leon Panetta, in June, the United States had transferred security matters to Iraqi forces and was on track to be out of the country within months. The Taliban, meanwhile, had been ousted from power centers they had recently ruled.

Gates won admirers for cleaning up some of the worst inefficiencies in the Pentagon, resulting in more than $100 billion in potential savings, and won respect for cutting through red tape when necessary to protect troops. In one famous example, he sped deployment of the heavily armored, V-hulled Mine Resistant Ambush Protected troop transport vehicles when improvised explosive devices were causing increasing deaths and injuries. When the trucks started reaching the field, IED casualties fell.

Gates left to a chorus of voices saying he’d be remembered as one of the great defense secretaries.

Panetta would face his own challenges as incoming head of the Pentagon. In addition to bringing the Afghanistan War to a close, dark financial clouds loomed over the DOD. America’s ongoing financial crisis ensured Panetta would preside over an era of constricted budgets, falling troop levels and potential acquisition program cancellations.

Though not a career intelligence official like Gates, Panetta too came to the Pentagon by way of the CIA. Nominated in 2009 by Obama to take over an agency widely considered to be in crisis, Panetta’s steady leadership style soon won over agency staff. In the crowning moment of his short tenure, Panetta oversaw the mission that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Sworn in two months later as secretary of defense, he has since vociferously fought against cuts in defense spending that he said would harm national security. He reluctantly said that $450 billion in planned spending reductions can be sustained. But he has repeatedly testified before lawmakers that enacting an additional $600 billion in cuts, as part of a broader effort to reduce the federal deficit, would be crippling.

This month, Panetta spoke in Baghdad, officially ending the Iraq War and finishing a pullout that Gates set in motion. How the U.S. will conclude its mission in Afghanistan remains one of the burning questions of the Panetta era at the Pentagon.

Carrollc@stripes.osd.milTwitter: ChrisCarroll_

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