Quick, what do you really know about Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the man about to take over the Afghanistan war?
Dunford could become President Barack “No Drama” Obama’s dream general. Pending Senate confirmation, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps will head to Kabul in the next month or two to succeed Gen. John Allen, the current ISAF commander -- a post that has seen more than its share of unwanted attention.
Allen’s departure from Kabul is still marred by the investigation into e-mails he exchanged with Tampa socialite Jill Kelley. Allen succeeded Gen. David Petraeus, who, before resigning as director of the CIA, ruled ISAF with all the pomp and circumstance of a military rock star, irritating many. Petraeus followed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who resigned after an article in Rolling Stone portrayed him and his staff as disrespectful of civilian authority. And McChrystal followed Gen. David McKiernan, who was abruptly fired by Defense Secretary Robert Gates after refusing to resign.
Dunford’s nomination is uncontroversial. Apart from some blustering from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and others that Dunford lacks combat experience in Afghanistan, the only other ding on him comes from some retired senior officers who fear he may be pliable when it comes to what the White House wants in terms of a troop withdrawal.
But that may not be much of an issue anymore. It’s becoming clearer that the White House will likely allow the ISAF commander to retain a robust fighting force on the ground in Afghanistan through next year’s fighting season, which ends in November. Then, it’s probable that troops will begin coming out quickly.
For now, Dunford is boning up on Afghanistan and preparing for deployment. He is considered a no-nonsense Marine officer (what Marine officer isn’t?) who is widely respected, humble, and serious -- and who looks a little like Mad Men’s Don Draper. Dunford’s rise to the top, from one-star to three-star, occurred without him ever really holding the two-star rank -- a promotion that was seen as faster than almost anyone in recent Marine history.
These days, Dunford, who grew up in New England, is more likely to be seen getting his own lunch at a Pentagon cafeteria than jetting around Washington with a slew of black Suburbans.
As a one-star in the early years of the Iraq war, he was a vigilant commander who had little tolerance for soldiers not doing their job. At one point, his command lost four Marines, killed, assassination-style, by an insurgent after all four fell asleep on the roof of a building in Anbar province during a security watch. It was a painful lesson and one from which Dunford has said he drew many lessons. Later during the same deployment, when on a “battlefield circulation,” he came across a Marine who had fallen asleep on post. He jolted him awake and told a reporter later that war is just notplace for complacency.
Barring any secret email affairs or scandals, Dunford’s assignment could be cleared any day now, starting the clock on a 60-day window for him to take over from Allen, becoming the third COMISAF in three years.
The nation knew Petraeus very well. We knew far less about Allen. Who knows anything about Dunford?
It turns out Dunford has been to Afghanistan many times, as the second-ranking Marine Corps officer and a Joint Staff figure. He made it through Ranger school and holds master’s from Georgetown and Tufts Universities. He was groomed to rise up the ranks, learning the ropes as senior aide to the commandant of the Marine Corps and later as the executive assistant to the vice chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff and in two of the “J” directorates.
According to a senior defense official close to the selection process, the public should know five things about Dunford that those inside the Pentagon know.
First, he’s a “combat-proven leader,” the official said, having “served 22 months in Iraq, with 5th Marine Regiment...during the invasion...a real warrior's warrior.”
Second, because he served on the Joint Staff and in the Marine leadership as assistant commandant, he “obviously knows the Pentagon well and gets along with the top brass and civilians.”
Additionally, Dunford is known to have an “excellent ‘touch’ with people,” a source said, and he is considered a mild-mannered leader who “wins loyalty.” Top defense officials felt that would be valuable in working well with Afghans and allies.
The man knows Afghanistan well enough, officials felt, because he was commander of 1 Marine Expeditionary Force and all of the U.S. Marines forward-deployed in Central Command.
Finally, the senior official said Dunford has come to know Panetta well. "The SecDef has personal trust in him," and that, the official said, “counts for a lot.”