As the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. had plenty to worry about: unrelenting insurgent attacks, an untested local force and an Afghan president who openly accused foreign troops of plotting to kill civilians.
But the Marine general earned favor from the White House in 2013 and 2014 as he shaped a plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, one that struck a careful balance between the military priorities of field commanders and the political imperatives of leaders in Washington.
President Obama’s nomination of Dunford on Tuesday to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff brings the general’s Afghanistan experience back to the fore. It is also certain to inform the advice he provides about how closely the United States should stick to that plan, which would end the U.S. military mission by the time Obama leaves office in 2017.
“I don’t read his appointment as a signal to escalate or extend U.S. efforts there,” said one former official who worked with Dunford in Kabul, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a senior officer. “What it signals is that the White House trusts his opinions.”
Obama, announcing the nomination in the Rose Garden on Tuesday, described Dunford as a tireless leader and strategic thinker. “He’s already proven his ability to give me his unvarnished military advice based on his experience on the ground,” he said.
A former infantry officer who commanded a Marine regiment in the initial Iraq invasion, Dunford took over the international military mission in Afghanistan in early 2013. At that time, NATO forces were scrambling to ensure Afghan troops could fight on their own and the White House was continuing to drive toward a path for ending America’s longest war.
James Dobbins, who served as the top U.S. diplomat for Afghanistan and Pakistan during the same period, said Dunford was “very disciplined” as he provided senior officials with recommendations for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. His selection, Dobbins said, was “undoubtedly based on that performance.”
While the White House has already made several adjustments to its plan to reduce troop levels over the next year and a half, Obama’s closest advisers have shown no sign that they’re willing to reconsider the most important deadline: ending the military mission by 2017. That would leave a small contingent of 1,000 troops attached to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Debate over Obama’s plan for ending the war is already intensifying as his departure from the White House nears.
The White House probably won’t need to make a decision on whether to cut the U.S. force in Afghanistan to 1,000 troops for another year, but there are already divisions within the administration over whether such a steep cut is feasible.
“The president has always been flexible within the broad parameters he’s given to his commanders,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser at the White House, said in an interview last month. Revisiting the 2017 deadline, Rhodes said, would be a “more profound decision.”
Some officials warn that there are dangers to having a presence of only 1,000 American troops based in Kabul. The force would lack significant intelligence or casualty evacuation capabilities outside of the capital. “We won’t have much early warning,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
“The problem is that we are reaching a point of diminishing returns here,” said the senior official. “If we go much below 5,000 or 6,000 troops, you lose a meaningful counterterrorism capability.”
Entering those deliberations will be Dunford, who has a reputation for being as attuned to political currents as he is to the complexities of insurgent combat.
Dunford has expressed some discomfort in the past with Obama’s decision to announce an end date for the military mission in Afghanistan. But David Sedney, a former senior Pentagon expert on the country, said the general would put his time in Kabul into a larger context as he grapples with challenges from the Islamic State to cyberattacks to China.
“I would say that he’ll have a deeper understanding” on Afghanistan, Sedney said. “But I don’t think that’ll make him more or less likely to play an advocacy role.”
Dunford will also weigh in on how the United States should use its remaining time in Afghanistan, a key question as the Taliban mounts a major offensive and Afghan forces struggle to keep the militants in check.
While U.S. forces are now mainly in a support role, the Afghan military remains dependant on the United States for air operations.
“They like having [Predator drones] overseeing their brigade operations,” the senior administration official said. “Well guess what — there are three countries in the world that have that capability and Afghanistan is never going to be one of them.”
For now, U.S. commanders seem to be taking full advantage of the 10,000 troops that are still in Afghanistan. There are more drones dedicated to flying surveillance operations in Afghanistan than in Iraq and Syria combined. A senior U.S. defense official said the extra aerial surveillance is necessary to protect U.S. troops scattered across bases in Kabul, Kandahar, Bagram and Jalalabad. U.S. Special Operations troops also regularly accompany their Afghan counterparts on targeted raids.
While American forces are no longer storming compounds, they are permitted to move with Afghan units to the “last point of cover and concealment,” which is close enough for them to direct airstrikes or coordinate helicopter evacuations for Afghans wounded in battle, the senior defense official said on the condition of anonymity. Such operations are permitted under NATO’s current “train, advise and equip” program.
Christopher Kolenda, who was a senior adviser to Dunford in Afghanistan, said the general would also bring an awareness of “the uses and limits” of military power to his new position — an understanding his time in Afghanistan reinforced. Those limitations — in dealing with entrenched corruption, rocky local politics or the complicated role of Pakistan — may figure just as importantly in Dunford’s handling of Afghanistan as chairman as military power.
“The question is less whether Gen. Dunford will offer his advice,” said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security, “and more what the White House will do with that advice.”