Pick to Lead Afghan War Unlikely to Alter Strategy

Experts say the next coalition chief is unlikely to change the Obama administration's withdrawal plan.

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Dunford
First lady Michelle Obama shakes hands with Marine Corps Lt. General Joseph Dunford before a a speech at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in San Diego, Calif.

The man President Obama is expected to tap as the next commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan is seen as a loyal officer who will not rock the boat.

Reports indicate the White House will likely nominate Marine Corps Assistant Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford to replace Gen. John Allen to head up the coalition in Afghanistan later this year. And national security experts were quick to note the career infantry officer was among the first military leaders to back Obama's plan to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

"It shows they've learned from the McChrystal episode because Dunford is a vocal supporter of Obama's plan to surge and then get out," says Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress. He was referring to retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was fired from the same job after allegedly making critical remarks about the president and other top administration officials to a Rolling Stone magazine reporter in 2010.

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The Wall St. Journal first reported Dunford's coming nomination. A U.S. official confirmed the general's name has been sent to the White House, where the president must sign off before Dunford's nomination is sent to the Senate. Dunford has never deployed to Afghanistan, but he was a regimental commander for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Insiders like Korb don't expect Dunford to make any major changes to the current NATO and U.S. strategy, which calls for building a huge Afghan national security force and handing more and more territory to them between now and the end of 2014. "This means the status is going to hold," Korb says.

But, as with most issues these days, conservatives scoffed at the pick.

"He's a lousy pick if our goal is victory, but a good pick if you're sitting in the Oval Office and want a yes man," says Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute. "He's one of the few generals who has supported Obama's artificial [2014] time line. The second it was announced, we began to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."

So how will America's Afghan partners and its Taliban foes view Dunford's coming nomination?

"Afghans will see this pick as confirming their abandonment," Rubin says, "but the Taliban will be celebrating tonight."

Just whom will they be celebrating?

Dunford, a Massachusetts native, has been a Leatherneck since 1977, after he graduated from the private St. Michael's College in Vermont.

He held a number of leadership posts, eventually becoming a senior aide to several senior Marine Corps leaders. Dunford has commanded the I Marine Expeditionary Force and U.S. Marine Corps Central Command.

Dunford caught the attention of many in Washington for his performance as the head of the 5th Marine Regiment during the 2003 Iraq invasion, where he reportedly earned the nickname "Fighting Joe" from his then commander, Gen. Jim Mattis.

"His major preparation for this job was his service in the Iraq war," says Joshua Foust of the American Security Project.

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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