Gen. Dunford to head Afghan war, wrap it up

US Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford's main challenges are likely to be managing the wind down of the war in Afghanistan. Afghans expect to see few changes on the ground. 

Francois Lenoir/REUTERS
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta addresses a news conference next to Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) US Navy Admiral James Stavridis (C) and US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford (R) during a NATO defense ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels October 10, 2012.

When US Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford takes the command of international troops in Afghanistan in the coming months, there are few Afghans who expect it will herald any significant changes in a war that has already begun winding down.

If Washington sticks to its timeline for the Afghan war, Dunford's main challenges are likely to be managing the logistical challenges of withdrawal, ensuring areas handed over to Afghan control do not pass to the Taliban, and preventing weary NATO partners from exiting earlier than scheduled. 

But many Afghans say the personnel shift will have little bearing on the daily realities for those outside of international military command rooms, reflecting popular disillusionment with any further potential of foreign forces to transform the country.

“We have seen no positive change when different commanders have been replaced. Gen. John Allen [the current Afghanistan commander] did nothing for this country, just like the other commanders,” says Haji Jan Agha, a member of the Afghan parliament’s defense commission. “I don’t believe this new general can do anything to change the situation in the coming two years. He will be busy with the arrangements for the withdrawal and nothing else.”

President Obama’s nomination of Dunford as the new Afghanistan commander was announced on Wednesday. Incumbent US Marine Gen. John Allen, will move to NATO where he will serve as supreme allied commander.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary general, recently made remarks to The Guardian newspaper that some NATO partners may speed up their withdraw. With General Allen as the new supreme allied commander of NATO forces, he will be well-positioned to hold together the alliance in Afghanistan in what is certain to be a critical two year period.

The US Senate must still confirm Dunford before he can take command of troops in Afghanistan. If he passes the confirmation hearing, he will become the sixth commander of international forces in Afghanistan since the US first invaded in October 2001. Unlike those before him, Dunford will take the helm of the war at a time when international forces are clearly moving toward the exit.

Surge ended, 2014 looms

In September the last of the American surge troops left Afghanistan, leaving 68,000 US forces here. The withdrawal of American forces will continue until 2014 when the US and international forces will conclude their combat mission in Afghanistan. 

Before Dunford steps into his new role, the questions surrounding the long-term fate of US forces based here after 2014 may get clarified. US and Afghan officials are reportedly engaged in talks about a bilateral security agreement, but details have yet to emerge.

Instead, Dunford’s primary focus will likely be overseeing the end of the international combat mission and transitioning security responsibility to Afghan forces.

Despite security gains in some areas of Afghanistan, the east still remains problematic. Many Afghan officials say they are concerned international troops no longer have enough time to stabilize these restive areas and Afghan forces are still ill-prepared for the job.

“The main problem is the Afghan government and its military. They’re still not able to maintain the security brought with the help of the foreign forces and the Americans,” says Hilaluddin Hilal, a former deputy of the Ministry of Interior. “The government was not able to provide facilities and job opportunities for the Afghan people. When you provide facilities to people, then they’re willing to help you maintain the security.”

Green-on-blue challenge

Tensions between NATO forces and their Afghan counterparts are also at an unprecedented high as green-on-blue attacks, where Afghan soldiers and police target foreign forces, continue to claim lives.

The problem led international military commanders to place restrictions on joint operations and fostered mistrust among NATO and Afghan soldiers that has challenged the partnership at a critical time.

“I don’t think a single person can change this problem. If the new commander tries hard, he can stop green-on-blue long-term, but not in the short term. We are also worried about this problem. This has made our reputation very bad. Now foreign forces are suspicious of every single Afghan soldier,” says Afghan Army Maj. Abdul Qadir, who is currently stationed in Helmand and asked to use a nickname because he’s not authorized to speak with the media.

Still, Qadir says there is potential for change under Dunford. “I believe that if he wants and if he’s allowed he can do a lot in the coming two years,” he says.

Dunford will come to Afghanistan after having served as the No. 2 commander of the US Marine Corps. Though he has not previously served in Afghanistan, he commanded a marine regiment during the invasion of in Iraq in 2003.

*Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report

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