Maj. Gen. Sayed Malook, left, CO of the 215th Corps, looks over a map with Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, center, ISAF commander, in May 2013. (Sgt. Tammy K. Hineline/Marine Corps)
Gen. Joseph Dunford, nominated June 5 to become the next commandant of the Marine Corps, has spent the last 16 months of his career as the top commander in Afghanistan.
As he took the helm of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, replacing Marine Gen. John Allen in February of 2013, he was faced with an array of challenges. Chief among them has been orchestrating an orderly drawdown of allied forces while ensuring Afghan government and indigenous security forces don’t implode.
He met the charge with tenacity. In April 2013, after just three months, he took to the Hill, telling lawmakers in Washington, “I firmly believe we can win” the then-12-year-old war. The commander of 66,000 American troops, in addition to coalition forces, told Congress he wanted leaders to talk more about “winning” and not just leaving Afghanistan by 2014.
Winning, by his definition required three things:
■Create a strong Afghan National Security Force that could stand on its own.
■Help Afghans create a stable civilian government.
■Ensure al-Qaida and other extremists groups could no longer use Afghanistan as a safe haven.
On the other hand, Afghanistan’s return to chaos ruled by terrorists and radicals would spell defeat.
It was a tall order for anyone and the long-term future of Afghanistan remains uncertain. But, under Dunford, ISAF has turned over security for nearly the entire country to Afghan forces, who are now handling the majority of military and police operations. In doing so, his performance has earned him continued admiration in Washington.
Former Marine and former Democratic Sen. Jim Webb from Virginia said through a spokeswoman that he “has the highest regard for General Dunford, whom he has known for many years.” Specifically regarding Dunford’s performance in Afghanistan, the Marine Vietnam veteran who has also served as secretary of the Navy, said Dunford is “the finest officer now serving in the United States military.”
Dunford began orchestrating the turnover of security even as uncertainty remained over how long and how many U.S. forces would remain beyond 2014. While some called for a total withdrawal by the end of this year, Dunford was a proponent of leaving some forces behind to bolster stability and continue to advise and assist the Afghan military. The administration announced in late May that nearly 10,000 troops would remain in Afghanistan after the majority of forces leave and major combat operations draw to a close.
Preparations for a withdrawal have not been without challenges, however; in the Marine Corps’ area of responsibility, Regional Command Southwest, there have been signs that some local Afghan National Army commanders are already cutting deals with the Taliban. There were reports in late 2013 that some ANA had handed over checkpoints once manned by Marines in the Sangin district of Helmand province.
It remains to be seen what that could mean for the three goals Dunford laid out before Congress in 2013.