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McHugh begins job as secretary

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WASHINGTON — Rep. John M. McHugh started his new job as Army secretary Monday, making his transition from Republican career politician to high-ranking Democratic appointee complete — and inheriting a crucial debate about the future of U.S. military policy in Afghanistan.

Mr. McHugh brings two congressional staffers to the Pentagon: Anne LeMay, his former legislative aide on defense issues, is his special assistant and held the Bible upon which he took his oath of office; and his congressional chief of staff, Robert G. Taub, will join his staff as well in the next few weeks.

Those are the only congressional staffers to make the transition with Mr. McHugh, said Lt. Col. Elizabeth L. Robbins, the new secretary's spokeswoman. Other potential appointments could take shape — an unusual number of Army generals, for instance, is awaiting assignment and could be tapped for civilian jobs — but Mr. McHugh inherits his staff mainly from former secretary Pete Geren.

Also sworn in Monday was Army Undersecretary Joseph W. Westphal, a fellow New Yorker who was briefly acting Army secretary in 2001.

The swearing-in was a subdued affair at the Pentagon; a more formal ceremony probably will take place later this fall, Mr. McHugh said recently. He posed for his official Army photograph, giving an even more polished look to a politician who won accolades on Capitol Hill for stylish ties and crisp suits.

But any glamour in the position probably will end there.

Mr. McHugh took office on the day the Washington Post ran a front-page story about the Obama administration's internal discussion about boosting U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan. Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in charge of the U.S. forces there, warned the White House in a written report that failure to significantly increase the U.S. presence and refocus the mission could spell failure within a year.

Among other warnings, he wrote, "We could defeat ourselves."

Gen. McChrystal urged a bigger counterinsurgency effort that focuses more attention on winning the hearts of Afghans, who have become distrustful of the foreign military presence and their own government.

As the chief executive officer of the Army, Mr. McHugh will play a key role in advising President Obama about the service's ability to expand its presence there. As a leader on the House Armed Services Committee, Mr. McHugh generally supported troop increases for Afghanistan but was outspoken about the Army being stretched thin by multiple long deployments.

Politically, the administration faces pressure from liberal Democrats and some conservative Republicans to resist troop increases and focus instead on hunting down Taliban leaders.

Although the position is new for Mr. McHugh, the Pentagon is familiar ground. He served on the House Armed Services Committee since his arrival in Congress in 1993. He was chairman of the House Army Caucus, led a subcommittee on personnel issues and was ranking Republican on the full committee when Mr. Obama tapped him in June.

He has had bipartisan support all along for the secretary's position and breezed through his confirmation, except for a "hold" placed on him and other nominees by two Republican senators from Kansas, for unrelated reasons.

With Mr. McHugh's assuming the job, his resignation from Congress takes effect and Gov. David A. Paterson is expected to announce soon a date for the special election to fill out the remainder of his two-year term.

The congressional office Mr. McHugh vacated is now under the supervision of the Clerk of the House. It will continue constituent service, including in north country offices, and phone numbers remain unchanged.

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