Tom Donilon – a sceptic on Afghanistan troop increase – gets top job following resignation of General James Jones
Ewen MacAskill in Washington
US commanders will come under greater pressure to begin withdrawing significant numbers of troops from Afghanistan next July after the appointment today of a new White House national security adviser, Tom Donilon.
He takes over from General James Jones, whose resignation after less than two years was announced today by Obama. Donilon is expected to be much more forceful than Jones as Obama's main adviser on foreign affairs and defence.
Donilon, with no military background, is much more political than Jones and sided with the vice-president, Joe Biden, in pushing for as early an exit from Afghanistan as possible and was reluctant to accede to the generals' insistence on sending an extra 30,000 troops this year.
His stance will put him at odds with the US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, who took over this summer and is reluctant to begin withdrawing significant numbers of US troops until it is clear that progress has been made.
Obama, making the announcement today, stood by Jones in the Rose Garden and praised him as a friend and "a steady voice." Jones responded by praising Obama for turning round America's image in the world so quickly.
But behind the cordial words, the relationship is strained. CNN reported "friends'' of Jones saying he felt he had been pushed out and that this was the final indignity imposed on him by the Obama administration. The departure of Jones and other senior White House staff provides Obama with a chance to reshape his policies. Although Jones's resignation was widely expected, it is the most controversial of the departures so far.
He has long been out of synch with Obama's inner circle, figures such as the chief White House adviser, David Axelrod, the former White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and Donilon, who was Jones's deputy.
The New York Times reported that Jones's resignation – planned for next year – was accelerated because of indiscreet comments by Jones in Bob Woodward's book, Obama's Wars, published last month that details the internal debate in the White House over sending an extra 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan.
The Obama team has long prided itself on its discipline and lack of leaking to the press, and was unhappy with the portrayal of in-fighting rather than the picture it wanted of Obama being thoughtful and then decisive.
In the debate, Donilon emerged one of the sceptics, sceptical about sending the extra troops. Woodward wrote that the Pentagon disliked Donilon and quoted the defence secretary, Robert Gates, telling Jones that Donilon would be "a disaster" if he became national security adviser.
Gates, at a Pentagon briefing, insisted he had a good relationship with Donilon "contrary to what you might have read". Jones too, in his comments at the Rose Garden, tried to play down differences, describing Donilon as "my team-mate and friend".
Woodward's book said that Jones regarded Donilon as a disloyal deputy. Jones became a victim of a whispering campaign among White House staff after Obama had been in office only six months, with claims that he took a narrow definition of his job, worked minimal hours and was being bypassed on major policy issues.
After an intense policy debate among his top policy advisers last year, Obama agreed to a request by his generals to send the extra 30,000 troops to the 90,000 already there but insisted they accept the July deadline for the start of withdrawal.
Donilon, who is expected to take up his new job before the end of the month, is a foreign policy wonk who wants to see the US put Iraq and Afghanistan behind it and focus instead on issues such as the coming crisis over Iran's alleged attempts to secure a nuclear weapons capability and on the challenge posed by the growing strength of China.
Among those who have left or are about to leave the White House team are key members of the economics team, Larry Summers, Peter Orszag and Christina Romer. The White House has attributed the departures mainly to exhaustion.
Gates has signalled he intends to stand down next year as will the head of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.