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The abrupt departure of the four-star general in charge of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has set off a scramble within the Bush administration to fill a job that requires vast combat experience, deft diplomatic skills, and the ability to handle the prickly question of what to do about Iran.
While President George W Bush may pick a surprise candidate to replace Adm William Fallon, who resigned after just one year as leader of US Central Command, he’s expected to choose a senior Army general who can see the big picture and doesn’t need a lot of time to become familiar with the political dynamics of the volatile Middle East.
“He’s looking for a guy who’ll be a quick study,” said retired Army Maj Gen Robert Scales, former commandant of the Army War College. “He’s also looking for someone who can take a strategic view of radical Islam rather than just focusing on the tactical fight. And he needs to be a person who’s trusted in the region.”
Each of the military branches will propose candidates to succeed Fallon at Central Command. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will make his recommendation to the president.
Due to his star power, Army Gen David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq since February 2007, has emerged as a leading possibility although he may be more valuable in Iraq.
Petraeus is highly regarded inside the White House and on Capitol Hill for overseeing the reduction in violence in Baghdad and other key areas in Iraq. For those reasons, Petraeus should stay right where he is, said retired Army Maj Gen David Grange.
“I wouldn’t move Petraeus,” said Grange, a former commander of the 1st Infantry Division. “I would keep continuity of command. It’s too important to move someone out of there quickly.”
Gates said recently that Bush had made it clear to him that he wanted to keep Petraeus in Iraq until late this year. Petraeus is likely to get a second four-star assignment after his tour in Iraq concludes.
Other possibilities include Army Lt Gens Martin Dempsey, Ray Odierno, Stanley McChrystal and Peter Chiarelli. All have substantial experience in Iraq.
Headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Central Command is arguably the military’s most important warfighting organization. Its commander is responsible for operations in a swath of the globe that reaches from Central Asia to the Horn of Africa, a region where religious extremism has fueled al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
The job of Central Command chief is as much about statesmanship as it is about using heavily armed forces. Fallon, like his predecessors, spent much of his time traveling throughout the region in an effort to build relationships that would produce support for US interests and reduce al-Qaida’s influence.
“You really need somebody who can deal with our friends in that region,” said retired Navy Adm Bob Natter, former commander of the US Atlantic Fleet. “This job has more to do with understanding (leaders in) the region and being there for a while so they can get to know you.”
The post is a high-profile one and the occupant has to be politically savvy. Fallon quit after an Esquire magazine article described him as being at odds with a White House eager to go to war with Iran. Titled “The Man Between War and Peace,” the article cast Fallon as a lone voice against taking military action to stop the Iranian nuclear program.
The Central Command chief ostensibly is senior to Petraeus and Army Gen Dan McNeill, who leads US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. The arrangement, however, led to friction on Fallon’s watch, especially over the timing and pace of drawing down US troops from Iraq.
Central Command manages tens of thousands of soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors, yet those troops are recruited, trained and equipped by the individual military branches. The new commander must have a solid understanding of the challenges each of the branches faces in producing a steady flow of forces.
“The job requires an officer with knowledge of the area, who hopefully is respected in the area, and who is also respected by the other services,” said Mike Delong, a retired Marine Corps general who was deputy commander at Central Command from 2000 to 2003. “And he’s got to hit the ground running.”
Dempsey, Fallon’s deputy, has been named acting commander until a permanent successor is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Dempsey is still thought to be a contender for the Central Command post even though the Defense Department announced in early February he had been selected to head Army forces in Europe. The new assignment comes with a fourth star.
Prior to being named Central Command’s deputy commander last spring, Dempsey spent nearly three years in Iraq as a battlefield commander and head of the unit responsible for training Iraq’s security forces.
Odierno, until recently the former No. 2 commander in Iraq, has been nominated for promotion to four-star general and is scheduled to take over as the Army’s vice chief of staff.
In March 2003, Odierno was commander of the 4th Infantry Division and led the unit during the invasion of Iraq. He has been critical of Iran for supplying weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq.
“We have no doubt they are still supporting insurgents,” Odierno said of the Iranians at a recent Pentagon press conference. “If you ask me what I worry about most, I do worry about that as a long-term threat. And I think we have to, you know, constantly watch it.”
McChrystal, who was just named to a top post on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, controls US commandos in Iraq. As head of the shadowy Joint Special Operations Command, he typically works behind the scenes. But his name was pulled into the spotlight last year following investigations into the April 2004 friendly fire death of former NFL star Pat Tillman.
Just a day after approving a medal claiming Tillman had been cut down by “devastating enemy fire” in Afghanistan, McChrystal tried to warn Bush that the story might not be true, according to testimony from the investigation. But top Army officials concluded McChrystal did nothing wrong.
Chiarelli serves as Gates’ senior military assistant and is a former senior commander in Iraq. He led day-to-day military operations before transferring command to Odierno. Chiarelli also is a former commander of the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas.
Bush, however, could buck convention again. Selecting Fallon, a naval aviator who flew missions in Vietnam, was viewed as an unusual move because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being fought on the ground mostly by soldiers and Marines.
But Fallon was seen by the administration as an ideal fit because he had been head of US Pacific Command and was used to dealing with thorny political problems involving China, Taiwan and North Korea.
“The job goes beyond Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Rep Bill Young, a longtime Florida congressman whose district borders Central Command’s headquarters.
The color of the uniform “doesn’t matter nearly as much as the experience the candidate for this very responsible position would bring to the table,” Young said. (AP)
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