An army general with experience drawing American military forces out of a war zone became the head of U.S. Central Command on Friday during what the secretary of defense calls a time of "change, challenge and turmoil."
Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III will oversee the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the transition of security operations to local forces, after a ceremony Friday morning in which he received the CentCom command flag from Marine Gen. James Mattis, a storied combat commander whose exploits and memorable quotations have chronicled more than a decade of war.
The former 3rd Infantry Division commander helped lead the initial charge on Baghdad exactly 10 years ago on Friday, with Mattis' 1st Marine Division on his right flank. Austin cited the ongoing difficulties CentCom and the military faces after a decade of two war zones.
"While challenges persist today, we are seeing some progress being made in some areas," Austin said of the war in Afghanistan. "The full story has not yet been written. History alone will provide the true measure of our collective efforts."
He cited the "extremely challenging undertaking" of transitioning all security operations to the Afghans and withdrawing all combat troops from the theater by the end of 2014. He hedged his statement with a commitment to Afghanistan and other regional powers.
"This is not meant to signal an end to our presence or involvement in the region," he said. "If we want to have an effective and lasting impact on that part of the world, we must remain engaged."
He went on to quote former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's remarks upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973: "Peace cannot be achieved by one man or one nation. It comes from the efforts of men with broad vision and good will throughout the world."
Austin also quoted the late King Hussein I of Jordan, who is known to have said "Without peace and without the overwhelming majority of people that believe in peace defending it, working for it, believing in it, security can never really be a reality."
Friday also marks the 68th anniversary of the creation of the Arab League, which Austin says is an example of the "understanding and willingness of leaders to solve issues" for the betterment of their people and people throughout the world.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel began the ceremony describing the exploits of Mattis and Austin, who led their respective commands in the Iraq desert on opposite sides of the Euphrates River.
"Today these battle-tested leaders share a single stage. One having completed a distinguished command, and one stepping forward to take his place," he said.
He cited wide-spread, unconfirmed stories of Mattis, including the Christmas when the unmarried then-brigadier general relieved a young watch officer so he could be home with his family. Hagel also reiterated Mattis' maxim to Marines: "Always engage their brain before they engage their weapon."
After offering it would be inappropriate for himself, a former Army sergeant, to utter the Marine Corps motto, the defense secretary said, "To hell with it, general, I say 'Semper Fi' and thank you."
Hagel also cited Austin's work overseeing the drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011—"a tough job, combining political challenges with uncertainties of combat and war."
"I am confident, all members of our institution are confident, in Gen. Austin," he said, during "a time of change, challenge and turmoil."
In his introductory remarks, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, highlighted the Honda Grand Prix race beginning Friday, "careening through the streets" of nearby St. Petersburg, Fla.
"What a perfect metaphor for what Jim Mattis has been doing, and what Lloyd Austin is about to do," he said of "the most important and challenging job in our military inventory."
Dempsey described Austin as the "right mix of valor and values, thoughtfulness and decisiveness" with the talent to unpack complicated problems to find solutions.