By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, who takes over as head of international forces in Afghanistan next year, faces the challenge of winding down a war in a country where he has little experience using a strategy he did not devise.
Dunford, whose nomination was confirmed by the Senate on Monday night, will be the fifth commander of the International Security Assistance Force since President Barack Obama took office, a leadership churn that worries Afghan war analysts.
Friends and colleagues describe Dunford, the Marine Corps assistant commandant, as a calm and thoughtful leader who earned the nickname "Fighting Joe" on the battlefields of Iraq by creating conditions for success with careful planning and harmonious execution.
But analysts expressed mixed views on his selection to replace Marine Corps General John Allen.
Some worry about the No. 2 Marine's lack of experience in Afghanistan and his vocal support for President Barack Obama's plan to withdraw most U.S. forces by the end of 2014. That could make him reluctant to ask for more time and troops if conditions on the ground are not right for a stable transition, they say.
But others contend that after a dozen years of war, Dunford's job is to execute the strategy he has been given, not reinvent it. And while he may be able to suggest some adjustments to the plan, he has very little room for maneuver as members of the 46-nation coalition edge toward departure.
"The problem is at this point nobody is going to fight it. It's the strategy. It's not his choice," said Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. "For good or evil, the question is: How does he manage the shift towards an exit."
Dunford, a Boston native, is a 35-year veteran of the Marines. He was commissioned as an officer in 1977 and he served as a platoon and company commander for several years before moving to administrative roles. He holds two master's degrees and is a graduate of the elite Army Ranger School.
As the United States moved toward war with Iraq in 2003, Dunford - then a colonel - found himself in the First Marine Expeditionary Force serving as commander of Regimental Combat Team 5, the unit that would lead the U.S. invasion, seize the Rumaila oil fields and then head toward Baghdad.
When officials advanced the timing of the invasion by a day, Dunford had his forces ready to move in three hours. He kicked off the assault with a nighttime crossing of the 10-foot berm and anti-tank ditch separating Iraq and Kuwait, moving in darkness rather than at dawn as initially planned.
"He earned the Fighting Joe title by his actions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, when he led the initial attack into Iraq (crossing the berm on the accelerated timeline) and leading all the way to Baghdad," said General James Mattis, the head of U.S. Central Command, who was Dunford's commander in Iraq.
"He's not flashy, but he's the fighter - one I could always count on when the going got difficult," Mattis said in an email. "He is tactically cunning and does a superb job at setting his subordinate commanders up for success by orchestrating complex battle plans into harmonious actions."
Congressman Duncan Hunter, who served in the Marines in Iraq and occasionally had a chance to interact with Dunford, said the commander was seen as "a decisive leader who was well-respected by subordinates and peers throughout the chain of command."
"In a stressful, combat environment he proved himself to be an accomplished and energetic warrior," Hunter said in an email.
Since the war Dunford has moved rapidly up the chain of command. He became a brigadier general in 2004, was selected to become a major general in December 2007 and then promoted to lieutenant general two months later, before Congress had acted to confirm his second star.
"That in itself will give you an idea of how he was seen in the Marine Corps," said Marine Colonel David Lapan, a spokesman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has worked for Dunford and been his neighbor.
He has a "great reputation as a combat commander, as an operational commander, very even-keeled, measured, analytical," Lapan said. While his combat experience is not in Afghanistan, the differences are not that great and he can bring a fresh perspective to the situation, Lapan said.
But some Afghan war analysts are concerned about Dunford's appointment, saying his support for Obama's withdrawal strategy will make it difficult for him to adjust the drawdown based on conditions on the ground. Continued...