The untimely search for a new Afghanistan War commander


President Barack Obama, left, is introduced by Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, after arriving for a troop rally during a visit to the country, on May 25. Dunford has been selected to become the next Marine Corps commandant. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

The selection of Gen. Joseph F. Dunford as the next commandant of the Marine Corps was greeted widely last week by most Marines as a fantastic choice. Frequently called “the smartest general in the Marine Corps” by his peers, Dunford is known as unflappable and fair, and has a wealth of operational experience that led to his nickname, “Fightin’ Joe.”

As retired Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent, once the top enlisted Marine in the service, put it: “He’s the damn epitome of a Marine leader.”

There’s a down side to the selection, however. Dunford, 58, has served as the chief of the International Security Assistance Force overseeing coalition operations in Afghanistan since February 2013, when he replaced Marine Gen. John Allen. Dunford has provided stability in a position that has been dogged by controversy in the past, especially Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s 2010 resignation following controversial comments in a Rolling Stone article and a single sex scandal in 2012 that engulfed his two predecessors, Army Gen. David Petraeus and Allen. (Petraeus admitted to having an extramarital affair while in his next position, director of the CIA. Allen, his successor in Afghanistan, ultimately was cleared of wrongdoing following an investigation into emails he sent to a married woman in Florida.)

Dunford was seen as a breath of fresh air by many when he took over. Now, though, in the waning moments of the war in Afghanistan, it is believed he will depart Kabul for Washington and become the top administrator in his service this fall.

Pending Senate confirmation, Dunford will replace Gen. James F. Amos, who is expected to retire after serving as commandant for the last four years. Amos has been dogged by controversy for the latter half of his tenure as commandant, especially over his alleged heavy-handed involvement in legal cases related to an embarrassing viral video of Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in 2011. Dunford replacing him was the best way to turn the page, said several retired senior Marines who know both men.

But the move means the ISAF job faces transition at a complicated time in which the U.S.-led coalition is rapidly drawing down military forces in Afghanistan. By the end of 2014, the Pentagon is expected to have about 9,800 U.S. troops on the ground there — down from more than 100,000 a few years ago, and 32,800 as of June 1. There will be about 14,000 coalition forces in Afghanistan by the end of the year, down from about 49,000 now.

It is not yet clear what the White House or Pentagon intend to do with the position. Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, and Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, both said they had no news to share in how Dunford’s war-zone post will be filled. That leaves a series of questions about it that have not been answered.

Among them:

1) Will the next ISAF commander be an American? Several European four-star officers have held the position over the years, most recently when British Gen. David Richards commanded ISAF from May 2006 to February 2007. The current deputy commander in ISAF, Lt. Gen. John Lorimer, also is from Great Britain.

2) Will the Pentagon tap another influential general from the Pentagon for the job? It seems possible. That might put someone like Army Gen. John Campbell, currently the vice chief of staff of the Army, in contention. Dunford was named the ISAF commander while serving as the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps under Amos in 2012.

3) Will NATO and the U.S. want another four-star officer for the job? The rank of the top commander in a unit is usually based on its size. ISAF has been a four-star organization since 2004, but prior to that it was commanded by three- and two-star generals. Going back to that now would underscore the diminishing attention and resources the war effort in Afghanistan will get. Frame of reference: The Pentagon kept a four-star officer, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, in charge of U.S. operations in Iraq until it wrapped them up at the end of 2011. He later became the vice chief of staff for the Army, and more recently the chief of U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and across the Middle East.

UPDATE, June 9, 4 p.m.: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized Gen. David Petraeus’ admission of an extramarital affair. He acknowledged having one while with the CIA.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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