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Insiders say Dunford ideal to lead Afghan war

Aug. 28, 2012 - 05:06PM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 28, 2012 - 05:06PM  |  
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, visits Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan, during a holiday visit on Dec. 24. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly has tapped Dunford, who formerly headed Marine Corps Forces Central Command, to succeed Gen. John Allen as the next head of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, visits Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan, during a holiday visit on Dec. 24. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly has tapped Dunford, who formerly headed Marine Corps Forces Central Command, to succeed Gen. John Allen as the next head of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. (Cpl. Scott R. Picklesimer / Marine Corps)
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If President Obama approves Gen. Dunford as the next commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, who do you think would be the ideal candidate to become the next assistant commandant? Tell us at marinelet@marinecorpstimes.com.

The next top military commander in Afghanistan could be a new, but familiar, face to Marines.

Assistant Commandant Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., a career infantry officer, is Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's choice to succeed Gen. John R. Allen as the international coalition's supreme allied commander, according to an article published Aug. 21 by the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper cited anonymous defense officials as having divulged Panetta's decision.

Allen has been the NATO field commander in Afghanistan for about a year, replacing now-retired Army Gen. David Petraeus as commander of the International Security Assistance Force on July 18, 2011. In nominating Dunford to succeed Allen, Panetta apparently bypassed at least two other senior officers thought to be in consideration for the post in Kabul: Army Gen. David Rodriguez, who led the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011 and now heads U.S. Army Forces Command, and Vice Adm. Robert Harward, a Navy SEAL and U.S. Central Command deputy commander. Both men have extensive experience leading troops in Afghanistan.

Allen, it is believed, will becomeNATO's supreme allied commander in Europe and the head of U.S. European Command. That shift is expected to happen early next year, before the next fighting season begins in Afghanistan.

Panetta's office would not discuss the news report suggesting that Dunford's name was passed to the White House. Dunford's office acknowledged being aware of the report, but declined to discuss it.

If approved by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate, Dunford would become the fifth ISAF commander in four years and be tasked with overseeing key aspects of the planned U.S. withdrawal, which is scheduled to conclude by the end of 2014.

The mission in Afghanistan is evolving drastically. Thousands of troops are pulling out, while those who remain are shifting focus from all-out combat to supporting Afghan forces and positioning them to take the lead. The U.S. footprint there, once in excess of 100,000 troops, is shrinking to 68,000, with further reductions expected through next year.

‘Fighting Joe'

Dunford became the Marine Corps' No. 2 officer in October 2010, after a dual tour commanding I Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Marine Corps Forces Central Command, out of Tampa, Fla.

Short tours at the Marine Corps' front office aren't unusual, however. While the commandant typically serves a four-year tour, assistant commandants often are in the job about two to three years.

Asked about the speculation, Commandant Gen. Jim Amos told reporters at the Pentagon Aug. 23 that he considers his ACMC to be "one of the finest officers who have ever worn this cloth."

"He's been a teammate of mine since he was a colonel and I was a two-star, so we've been together for a long time," Amos said. "He's got a day job right now, and it's called [being] the assistant commandant. I like right where he is, and any future jobs or nominations are approved by the secretary of defense and the president … I'll just leave it at that."

Others close to Dunford describe him as humble, intelligent, decisive and a good listener who gets along with most anyone. He was nicknamed "Fighting Joe" while leading Regimental Combat Team 5 during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"People want to follow him," said Bing West, an author, Vietnam combat vet and former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, who first met Dunford in the buildup to the 2003 Iraq invasion. "He listens, and then he puts it together and tells you what he is thinking."

Dunford was operations director during retired Lt. Gen. Jan C. Huly's tenure as the Corps' plans, policies and operations deputy commandant. Huly recalls him as a great manager and leader.

"He's also sharp as a whip. He's smart. He's very realistic. He's not going to BS anybody," Huly said. "He takes risks, but they are calculated risks. He won't hazard the troops or the mission unnecessarily."

The officers first met in the 1980s, when Dunford was a captain and Huly a major, and the friendship has lasted through many moves, assignments and deployments.

"I'm not surprised that he is considered for another position," said Huly. "He's a man for all seasons."

One thing about Dunford that's long impressed retired Sgt. Maj. Tony Glassford is his "phenomenal communication and leadership skills," and an unfailing ability to keep a level head.

"This guy's got his s--- together, for lack of a better word," said Glassford, Dunford's enlisted adviser in the mid-1990s when the future four-star commanded 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, at Camp Lejeune, N.C. "He has that knack of communicating with Congress on their level, walking out the door 30 seconds later and communicating with 50 lance corporals, and not missing beat."

"He's very calm, cool and collected," said Glassford, who retired in 2004. "He never, ever raises his voice."

That's true, said retired Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent, the 16th sergeant major of the Marine Corps. Yet although Dunford is not a "screamer," the general leaves little doubt when something doesn't meet his standards, Kent said.

But even then, Dunford is approachable, he said. It's a trait that will serve him well if approved to take over ISAF.

"You've got to have that personality where people can feel comfortable coming to you not only when things are going great, but when things are not going so great," said Kent, who retired last year. "They've got to be able to come to you and say, ‘We've got issues with this,' and not worry about getting bashed. … You don't feel shy telling General Dunford bad news because you know he's going to talk to you about a solution and give you courses of action for how you're going to fix it. He's not just going to chop your head off."

Kent, who served with Dunford in Iraq in 2004 when the general was 1st Marine Division's assistant commander, called him versatile and intellectually equipped to handle the challenges that come with leading an international coalition and interacting with the Afghan people. Others are impressed with Dunford's street-smart savvy. Retired Col. Gary I. Wilson said Dunford learned that growing up around Boston, a skill nurtured by his father, a veteran police officer.

"Joe Dunford knows what street fights are all about," Wilson said, "and Afghanistan is probably one of the best examples."

Some parallels from Dunford's combat experiences in Iraq would bode well for him in Afghanistan, where politics, religion and tribalism also intersect. He understands that this kind of warfare is "people-intensive," Wilson said, adding "he has a very deep, abiding appreciation for operations on the ground and what the young men and women go through."

Dunford has a reassuring style that "inspires confidence and competence in everyone below him," he said. "Like a street cop, he'll be right at home in Afghanistan. He is comfortable in those kinds of environments. … He has that street sense, that street fighter in him with a very disciplined, Irish-inspired point of view."

Wilson recounted a conversation he had with Dunford about maneuver warfare. Both were colonels at the time. Dunford told him that "just because you do something once and you are successful doesn't mean you do it over and over again," Wilson said. Dunford always "makes sure he has the facts," he added. "He realizes that your first information is neither your best nor your worst."

Challenges ahead

Although Dunford has not done a combat tour in Afghanistan, neither did Petraeus or Allen before they took command. Dunford also tracked combat operations closely while leading MARCENT, the Corps' command component in U.S. Central Command.

Dunford would inherit the critical mission of managing the withdrawal, while maintaining operations and conserving forces through the transition to Afghan control.

"It's a challenge, there's no question," said retired Col. Thomas X. Hammes, an author and senior research fellow at the Institute for International Strategic Studies at National Defense University. With foreign occupiers in the past, "Afghans generally let them leave," he said, but U.S. forces may have to prepare for "a little revenge push out the door."

West agrees with Panetta's choice to replace Allen, he said. Dunford "understands tribal dynamics" from his time spent leading ground combat forces and working with Iraqi counterparts in Iraq, he said. "When he's dealing with tribes, he'll be very nice and very polite," but that won't mean Dunford would put up with any nonsense, either.

After serving in an assignment largely focused on grappling with budgets and politics in Washington, Dunford "is finally getting back to where he should be," West said, leading and serving alongside the Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen in Afghanistan. Maintaining good morale among troops on the ground is another critical mission for Dunford as he leads forces toward the eventual withdrawal.

"You have to be extremely aware of morale," he said, noting the rash of recent killings of U.S. troops carried out by compromised Afghan forces. "How do you keep up morale, and how do you, at the same time, keep up with plans for the withdrawal?"

Whether Dunford or another senior officer gets the job will ultimately prove less important than what happens on the ground. The transition and force reductions directed by the president are continuing regardless of which four-star officer is leading the forces, West said, and, in the end, mission success will be dictated by the Afghans themselves.

"The dynamics of Afghanistan will not change because of one general or another," he said. "So you have to separate the dynamics out of Afghanistan. Don't expect a miracle in any way."

Staff writers dlamothe@militarytimes.com?subject=Question from MarineCorpsTimes.com reader">Dan Lamothe and Andrew deGrandpré contributed to this report.

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