New Afghanistan commander brings quiet, steady leadership to drawdown

Thursday, December 6, 2012 - 9:34am

(CNN) -- With little fanfare Monday, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford was confirmed by the Senate as the newest commander for the international forces in Afghanistan, charged with overseeing the final two years of the U.S.-led war and executing the White House plan to phase out troops and leave a small number behind after 2014.

Dunford, much like his confirmation, has made a career of flying under the radar, but he will be front and center as the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, replacing Gen. John Allen. He is well-known in the tight-knit Marine Corps community as a thoughtful and calm leader and has 22 months of commanding in Iraq.

Until his name emerged in August as the nominee for the top job in Afghanistan, few people had heard of him.

His first real position in the public spotlight came at his confirmation hearing last month, which was notable mostly for Sen. John McCain's rant that Dunford lacked Afghanistan experience. McCain seemed amazed that Dunford was not part of the planning phase of the Afghanistan drawdown.

The Arizona senator's concern about Dunford's lack of experience in Afghanistan is quickly refuted by those close to Dunford, who said his work as assistant commandant of the Marine Corps took him to Afghanistan many times. He is no stranger to the country operationally because he was also the head of the Marine Corps command that handles operations and logistics in Afghanistan. He also spent time in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he focused on Afghanistan.

Dunford would not be the first ISAF commander with no real Afghanistan ground experience. When then-Gen. David Petraeus took the position, he had commanded Central Command, which oversaw the war from the U.S., but had never commanded troops on the ground inside Afghanistan. Petraeus's experience was in Iraq.

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-California), a former Marine who served in Iraq at the same time as Dunford and knows of his command experience, said Dunford's lack of command experience in Afghanistan should not make a difference.

"The premise that only leaders who have served in a theater of operation should be commanders of the operation is an argument I cannot buy into," Hunter said in a statement to Security Clearance. "Make no mistake, General Dunford is a combat tested leader with an appreciation of the environment he is about to enter."

When Dunford arrives in Kabul, he will be facing an Afghan government that is not known for being helpful to the U.S. and that is often critical of the allied military force.

The Afghan Security Forces, considered the key to the success of Afghanistan upon the full handover at the end of 2014, still have a long way to go before they are able to handle sustained operations without the help of the international forces.

"He's a competent tactician, a very good regimental commander as a Marine, there is no reason to believe he won't be a competent tactician in deflating the balloon and doing it professionally," says Thomas Donnelly, codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based policy analysis group. "He is not known by (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai, and won't have any pre-established relationships or trust with the Afghans or Pakistanis, but he has the trust of the White House," he said.

As the U.S. troops levels start to fall in Afghanistan, Dunford will have to consider how aggressive his forces will be as international troops start to rely more on Afghan forces to defend their country.

And though the Taliban has been beaten up over the past two years, outside threats that flow between Afghanistan and Pakistan, such as the Haqqani network, remain a considerable threat.

But sources said Dunford in not going into this blind. Since his nomination, he has voraciously studied the history of Afghanistan since 2001, making him among the top five in the U.S. military in terms of knowledge on Afghanistan.

"He is going there to do what he has done in all of his commands; be thoughtful, work hard and get the job done," according to a senior official close to him.

Officials close to Dunford, who did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said Dunford was chosen over officers with more Afghanistan experience, such as Gen. David Rodriguez who has served many years in Afghanistan.

"There are a lot of smart generals; he's actually smarter than them," one official close to Dunford said. "He has become a favorite of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense because he has brought in some ideas that have strategic vision and thoughtfulness during meetings where people have said 'that is what we are looking for'," the official said.

But detractors say that while Dunford is an excellent commander and can see well beyond the box, the mission now calls for somebody who will follow through with President Barack Obama's Afghanistan strategy.

"The real mission is to wrap things up," Donnelly said. "(The Obama administration) picked the guy they want and appear to have an agreement on the policy and the strategy. It does not seem like Dunford is the guy to show up in Kabul and say 'Oh my God, I didn't know we were this close to victory; we really need to tough it out'."

Dunford is the son of a Marine who later became a Boston police officer. Dunford's father was a veteran of the Marine Corps' seminal fight at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. Dunford thought he was going to leave the Corps after his first tour was up after joining in 1977, but when other Marines questioned his decision, he stayed in out of a sense of duty.

"He really never thinks he will be continuing on but keeps getting asked to do so," officials close to Dunford said. "Like many of his jobs, he did not position himself for them, he did not ask for this job in Afghanistan, and he will approach it like he does with all of his others, with a sense of duty and a desire to get the job done well," the official said.

Those close to him say he does not admire political jockeying, but his time in the very political Joint Chiefs of Staff showed many senior leaders at the time he can play political ball just as well as anybody. The ISAF commander walks a fine line of being a military commander and a political marksman.

He is considered a leader who gets things done. Sources tell the story of Dunford as a colonel commanding his Marines in Iraq on the march up to Baghdad in 2003 when one of his tanks became disabled. He wanted to ensure the safety of the crew and was running between tanks getting messages to the tank commander while Iraqi forces were shooting rocket-propelled grenades at him. The move was risky and unusual for a senior commander, let alone any other Marine.

The move earned him the nickname "Fighting Joe," which some who know him are pretty sure he is not happy about because it takes away from his troops and the mission. Sources say Dunford was put up for a Navy Cross -- one grade below the Medal of Honor -- but it was downgraded several times because, as one source put it, "Silver Stars are for troops who are blowing up machine gun nests, and colonels are not really doing that." Dunford does wear the Legion of Merit with combat valor for recognition of that event.

Dunford does not talk about the incident, sources say, and that attitude is part of why he is so widely admired by staff and colleagues. He is seen as being in touch with people, ensuring the praise is given it is due. At the same time, he will come down hard on those he perceives not pulling their weight.

He spent his second tour in Iraq as a one-star general after being confirmed in 2004, commanding the 5th Marine Regiment. He moved up the ranks quickly after that, recognized for his superior planning and commanding in combat.

In December 2007, Dunford was selected for a second star and was quickly promoted to a lieutenant general only two months later, even before Congress could confirm him for his second star.

"He is well-thought-of, and that kind of movement is emblematic of how he is though of in the Marine Corps," said Marine Col. David Lapan. "He has a good deal of experience he brings to the table, and people recognize that he is right for the position in Afghanistan," he said.

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