The scheduled pomp and speechifying of the handover Sunday is unavoidable. But it is at odds with Dunford’s under-the-radar style. Past commanders of the International Security Assistance Force, the official name of the NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, have included some of the nation’s highest-profile military leaders, such as Army Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.
Dunford brings a reputation as being low-key and unflappable, even under rocket fire. He was nicknamed “Fighting Joe” after leading a Marine regiment during the 2003 invasion of Iraq in a style that not only was thoughtful and decisive but carried little regard for personal risk. He led firefights from an unarmored Humvee, and during one rocket-propelled grenade attack he ran back and forth between his tanks to communicate with his commanders.
He hasn’t sought attention from the media, and until President Barack Obama nominated him for the Afghanistan post in October, he was little known outside the military. In the Pentagon, though, Dunford is highly regarded. His rise through various leadership roles was so quick that he basically skipped the rank of major general. His last job before Afghanistan was deputy commandant of the Marine Corps.
Afghan forces have almost reached their troop strength goal of 352,000. About 66,000 U.S. troops remain, down from the surge peak of about 100,000.
The timetable for reducing the size of that force is still unclear. Also, Obama has yet to announce a decision on how many – if any – will remain after 2014. None will, he said last month, if the Afghans won’t agree to give them immunity from prosecution, which has been an issue in discussions with Afghan leaders over U.S. troop levels and has killed the possibility of any U.S. troops remaining in Iraq. Any who do remain in Afghanistan would have only limited roles with training and counterterrorism missions.
The job Dunford is taking has been both difficult and star-crossed. Army Gen. David McKiernan was fired, and McChrystal resigned after a Rolling Stone magazine article in which comments attributed to McChrystal and his staff undercut Obama and other senior civilian leaders. And Allen’s nomination for the NATO command in Europe was held up when his named was briefly tied to an infidelity scandal that ended former Gen. David Petraeus’ career as CIA director. Petraeus also had been the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
Allen served 19 months in the post. If Dunford makes it all the way to December 2014, he would be the longest serving, as well as potentially the last U.S. commander of the war.