An Iraq Vet Commanding In Afghanistan?

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Marine Photo / Cpl. Alfred V. Lopez

Dunford on a holiday visit to Marines in Afghanistan last Christmas Eve.

A new general’s name emerges in the Afghanistan context. Julian Barnes of the Wall Street Journal reports (sub. req.) that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has forwarded Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford’s name to the White House to be the next U.S. (and NATO) Commander in Afghanistan (COMISAF), confirming the insider gossip of some weeks.

Barnes’ piece interprets the recommendation (if approved by the President) as putting a solid stamp on the President’s policy. He notes that “Gen. Dunford is a firm supporter of the Afghan war strategy of Mr. Obama, who has called for continued drawdowns of U.S. forces through the end of 2014.”

All this is fine and good. General Dunford, the current Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, comes with a great reputation. Full stop.

So without commenting on Dunford’s military competence, we can still ask one quite obvious question:

Why is General Dunford being nominated as the COMISAF when, as the story concedes (in paragraph seven), “Gen. Dunford has served in Iraq but has never served a tour of duty in Afghanistan.”

Really? Ten years in Afghanistan, and almost three years after the President’s West Point speech, and we can’t find a commander who has served in Afghanistan before? Is the cupboard really that empty? As one who made the Iraq to Afghanistan transition, I can assure you that it’s neither simple, nor easy. Afghanistan is exponentially more complex—and harder.

This is a very sensitive time in a very sensitive operation—and very few observers think it’s going very well. This is no time to have a commander doing “discovery learning,” no matter how talented he may be. To put it bluntly, there are American soldiers and Marines in firefights with the Taliban every day. They deserve a leader who knows Afghanistan—or at least a major part of it—intimately on the day he flies in.

Inexperience may have been unavoidable earlier in the conflict, but that is simply not the case anymore. There are a number of eligible three and four star candidates—in the Army, Navy, and the Marines—who have served in—and understand the incredibly complex human, cultural and physical geography of—Afghanistan.

Surely at least one of them also believes in the President’s policy of “responsible transition”?

If not, then there is a more serious problem.

Douglas A. Ollivant is a Senior National Security Fellow at the New America Foundation. A retired Army officer, his last assignment was Director for Iraq at the National Security Council, after two tours in Baghdad. He also spent a year in Afghanistan as a Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Indiana University and is on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant.