KABUL — In the fall of 1973, as the Vietnam War lurched to an end, newly minted freshman Joseph Dunford Jr. of Quincy walked by a Marine Corps recruiter outside the cafeteria at St. Michael’s College in Vermont.
The Boston College High School graduate paused, glanced at the recruiter’s pitch, and asked, “Hey, what’s this all about?”
The Marine answered, “It’s pretty selective, and I’m not sure you can qualify.”
Forty years later, Dunford is the top US and NATO military official in Afghanistan, a four-star Marine general who has been chosen to wind down America’s longest war, while at the same time protecting this traumatized country and strengthening Afghan forces so they can combat a stubborn and violent insurgency.
As Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Globe recently, “I’m guessing he doesn’t get much sleep.”
‘Since he was a little boy, he talked of being a soldier.’
Dunford does not. The 57-year-old son of a retired Boston police officer logs marathon days steeped in battlefield reports, noise from critics back home, and a need to juggle the practical and political as the United States moves to end its combat mission by December 2014.
“It’s been tough,” Dunford said at his headquarters, a former Afghan military sports club in the Green Zone. “It’s taken a long time, you know, at a significant cost of blood and treasure. But at this point, what we need to do is ensure that all our sacrifice actually has meaning well into the future.”
Dunford does not fit the cinematic stereotype of a blustering, ego-driven general. His nickname is “Fighting Joe,” gained for his front-line command during the Iraq invasion, but Dunford comes across as soft-spoken, cerebral, even humble. After distracting controversies that entangled his three predecessors in Afghanistan — Generals Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, and John Allen — those traits probably rose in value.
But Dunford, who lived in South Boston until he moved at age 12 to Quincy, is firm and forceful when he speaks of his dedication to this mission, which he assumed in February after serving as assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.
“I felt honored to have the opportunity,” Dunford said.
That sense of duty, he continued, owes a debt to the strong, understated example of his father, Joseph Dunford Sr., a former Boston deputy police superintendent who fought with the Marines in the Korean War at the bloody Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
“That had by far the greatest influence on me,” the younger Dunford said of his decision to enter the military. “In terms of being a husband, being a father, and being a man, he was a good role model.”
The general’s father, to whom his son bears a strong resemblance, lives with his wife, Katherine, in their modest, two-story home of 46 years.
“We never had any problems,” the elder Dunford said at the kitchen table, speaking of his children. “They did what they were supposed to do, when they were supposed to do it.”
He said he never encouraged his namesake, the oldest of six boys, to join the Marines. But “since he was a little boy,” the general’s mother said, “he talked of being a soldier.”
Military service has long called the family: The general’s grandfather served during World War I, and his mother’s four brothers served in World War II. “You graduated from South Boston High, and you went into the Marine Corps,” the elder Dunford said.
In Afghanistan, the military and Boston continue to be linked. Three of Dunford’s top generals were raised in the city’s suburbs, including Army Major General James McConville, who played pickup sports with Dunford in the Merrymount section of Quincy.
Decades later, Dunford surveys a different field as he manages the war from a ground-floor office that is comfortable but not ostentatious. Two Red Sox caps adorn one of his wall shelves. His windows look out on a dusty forecourt that abuts a garden retreat where soldiers from dozens of nations gather for drinks — all nonalcoholic — and conversation.
In an adjoining cafe, movie posters from “The Godfather” and “Casablanca” give the place a faint veneer of nightlife in a city where insurgent bombs explode about once a week. A photo of Muhammad Ali taunting a prone Sonny Liston dominates one wall; a picture of the Rat Pack is on another.
Whatever comfort these trappings hold is offset by the weekly memorial ceremonies that Dunford attends, where the names of the newly dead from the American-led coalition and Afghan security forces are read aloud.
The general personalizes letters of condolence for every US service member killed in Afghanistan, and he attempts to do the same for fatalities from the other 48 nations that make up the International Security Assistance Force. He also tries to attend the departure of every plane carrying the remains of coalition dead to their native countries.
That personal touch extends to his staff, aides said. Dunford has organized surprise birthday parties, routinely takes time to speak with his staff, and is never far removed from thoughts of family and home.
“We end up talking about our parents,” said Army Colonel Kyle McClelland, 49, a Chicopee native who is Dunford’s liaison to Congress. “I think it’s the Scottish-Irish upbringing — discipline, hard work, and if you don’t do it right, don’t do it.”
McClelland paused and added, “He has the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
During an interview in Dunford’s office, that weight seemed palpable on his 6-foot-2-inch frame, dressed in fatigues. This is serious work, and it showed — in his straight-ahead gaze, in Marine posture that only hinted at weariness, and in direct language that meticulously worked its way through a checklist of challenges and accomplishments.
An improved Afghan army and police force are taking the fight to the Taliban, Dunford said. The coalition has transitioned almost completely to a train-and-advise role. And attacks by the Taliban, he argued, have been sporadic, scattered, and ineffective.
“Our goal now is to make sure that what we have done over the past 10 years continues on into the future,” Dunford said.
That goal includes halving the US military presence, currently at 61,000 troops, by February and withdrawing more service members before the end of 2014. The United States and Afghanistan are currently engaged in difficult talks about the size and role of coalition troops that might remain in 2015 and beyond.
As Dunford works the endgame, he leans on his commanders from home. Army Lieutenant General Mark Milley, who oversees the coalition’s day-to-day operations, is from Winchester. Major General Paul LaCamera, who commands the Fourth Infantry Division in the south of Afghanistan, is from Westwood. And McConville, his Quincy neighbor, supervises operations in the east.
Milley laughed when asked how Greater Boston, located far from a major military base, could produce four of the top US generals in Afghanistan.
“The luck of the Irish,” Milley said with a smile. “Here’s a factoid — and this should not be construed as a prediction, and I hope I don’t jinx myself — but the last time Dunford, Milley, and McConville served in combat together at the same time, in the same place, the Red Sox won the World Series” in 2004.
In this time and place, Dunford’s stated objective is “winning.” But this kind of victory is not the “Mission Accomplished” that President George W. Bush proclaimed weeks after the fall of Baghdad in 2003.
Dunford, who received master’s degrees from Georgetown University and the Fletcher School at Tufts University, has a nuanced and transitional definition of success in Afghanistan, with an emphasis on military training, transparent national elections in 2014, and a difficult-to-quantify goal of national confidence.
“The future of Afghanistan is, in fact, in the hands of the Afghan people,” Dunford said.
At its core, Dunford’s game plan resembles the blueprint of a master mason whose job has been scaled back to lay a foundation, train other builders, and leave the tools behind to finish the project. But if that goal falls short of the traditional concept of battlefield victory, Dunford’s aides said he has embraced this complicated mission with a quiet, evangelistic zeal.
The general distributes 5-by-8 cards to staff that outline “What Does Winning Look Like?” with a stress on values as old-fashioned as the cards themselves — self-reliance, legitimacy, and accountability.
He recently carved a half-hour from another long, hot day to thank two-dozen Romanian troops — in earnest, emotional remarks outside headquarters — for their service in Afghanistan. And after he arrived in Kabul, he began referring to a “decade of opportunity” in the country rather than a “decade of transformation,” which is an official phrase used in NATO and US documents.
For McClelland, the choice of semantics is subtle but powerful. “He changed that the day he came here,” the colonel said.
Abdullah Amini, who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan for eight years and has served seven American commanders as cultural adviser, described Dunford as a good listener who is willing to be challenged. Amini said that Dunford and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who meet once a week, have a good professional relationship.
That relationship is important because Karzai has been a notoriously prickly partner. He has excoriated the United States and its allies on issues such as detainee control, civilian casualties, and air strikes, but also realizes that international support will be crucial for Afghanistan’s future.
Amini, who became a US citizen, gave a nod to the intrigue and unpredictability that are deeply woven into Afghan society. When he met Dunford, Amini recalled, he told the general: “I have only three words for you: relationships, patience, and judgment.”
Dunford smiled and replied, “I have a lot of patience.”