Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made the latest selection in the wave of prominent open command positions with his selection of Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Lloyd Austin to head U.S. Central Command.
Austin will take over for Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis who will finish his storied 40-year military career. Of course, the Senate has to approve Austin, but it doesn’t appear to be any obstacles standing in the Army four-star’s way.
A look at Austin’s previous commands shows that he’s essentially been groomed to take over CENTCOM since he helped facilitate the invasion of Iraq as the 3rd Infantry Division’s assistant division commander for maneuver. He followed that tour by taking over as the commander of the 10th Mountain Division where he commanded a deployment to Afghanistan.
He didn’t stop there. He got a taste of the grind at the CENTCOM headquarters serving as the chief of staff in 2005 and 2006. However, it will be his time in command of Multi-National Corps-Iraq that may serve him best in his future role. In Iraq, Austin oversaw the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
Austin helped orchestrate the meticulous break down of U.S. military infrastructure that was built up throughout the country since the invasion in 2003. Units and troops shut down the outermost bases and carefully backed their presence up to only the major bases in Iraq before the final pull out.
The Army four-star will not be directly in charge of the withdrawal. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, who was approved by the Senate to command U.S. forces in Afghanistan, will head that mission. However, Austin will serve as Dunford’s boss and certainly play a vital role in overseeing the final years of operations in Afghanistan.
Many feared that as the U.S. presence dropped, Iraq would slip into a vicious civil war between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Violence continues in the still unstable country, but the nation-wide civil war has thus far been avoided. It’s hard to tell who exactly can take credit for it, but the U.S. withdrawal did not incite the civil war that U.S. diplomats worried about.
The logistics of removing the mountains of U.S. equipment and infrastructure throughout Iraq was the largest challenge. U.S. Army logistics officials often credit the accessibility to sea ports and the staging areas in Kuwait for the success seen in the Iraq withdrawal. The U.S. military will miss both of those advantages in leaving Afghanistan.
The U.S. again has access to the ports in Pakistan preventing the U.S. from transporting the equipment completely through the air or along the Northern Distribution Network, which is a path that winds all the way up to Russia. However, the tenuous agreement for U.S. convoys to pass along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border could again freeze any shipment to Pakistani ports.
Another major challenge will be the hand off of security operations to Afghan National Security Forces. Again, this task was relatively easier with the Iraqi military because it was more advanced and had more experience within the ranks. Nine out of ten Afghan military recruits can’t read, and the Afghans barely have an air force to speak of. The allied nations are running out of time to train. The Afghans will soon have to take a more substantial role in the defense of their own country.
When considering Austin’s experience, many expected his role as the Army’s vice chief of staff to be simply a place holder before a more prominent position opened up. With the work he completed in Iraq and his time serving as the previous CENTCOM chief of staff, it’s hard to argue who else Panetta could have selected to take over as CENTCOM’s next commander.