New, likely final commander takes over in Afghanistan

Boston native will lead forces in drawdown

Marine General Joseph F. Dunford
Marine General Joseph F. Dunford will oversee the final transfer of lead responsibility for security to Afghan troops.

KABUL — Marine General Joseph F. Dunford, a Boston native, took command of both the US and the international military missions in Afghanistan in a traditional handoff ceremony on Sunday, becoming the 15th general to lead the international command here — and he is expected to be its last.

It falls to Dunford, who led the Fifth Marine Regiment at the start of the Iraq War, to manage the withdrawal of nearly 100,000 troops, about 68,000 of them American, and a vast amount of equipment and cargo from a landlocked country still at war with the Taliban.

He will also oversee the final transfer of lead responsibility for security to Afghan troops, including in the most volatile districts in the south and east, where the Taliban have maintained influence if not outright control.


He takes over from General John R. Allen, whose 19-month tenure as supreme commander in Afghanistan was marked by urgent diplomacy to repair a damaged relationship with the Afghan government and public, and who oversaw the beginning in earnest of the security transfer that Dunford is to complete.

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Dunford, a four-star general, has served in a number of senior posts including, most recently, as assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.

He spent his first several days in Afghanistan sitting at Allen’s elbow in meetings, saying little as he learned his new job, said Western officials who attended meetings with him. They described him as more of a ‘‘regular Joe’’ than Allen but similarly focused and flexible.

Dunford was born in Boston in 1955 and raised in Quincy. He is a graduate of Boston College High School and St. Michael’s College of Colchester, Vt. He has a master’s degree in government from Georgetown University and a master’s in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

He served as the Marine officer instructor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, and was as a member of the Commandant’s Staff Group and as the senior aide to the commandant of the Marine Corps.


In a sweeping speech at the ceremony on Sunday, Allen was at turns thoughtful and filled with emotion as he spoke about the price of the war for US and foreign troops, the persistence of the Taliban and their allies, and his growing belief since his arrival in July 2011 that Afghanistan could succeed in defending itself and its fledgling democracy.

Reflecting the emphasis his command gave to reducing civilian casualties, he introduced two Afghan students from a nearby high school, a girl and a boy, whom he had invited to the ceremony and had seated in the first row — saying, in essence, that they were the future that Western and Afghan troops were fighting for. And Allen expressed that, despite the concerns he had as he took up command, he was leaving with ‘‘an optimism and a very real sense of knowing that we will be victorious.’’

‘‘I believe that in 10 years, Afghanistan will never again be the place between empires caught in the grindstone of international politics,’’ referring to the country’s neighbors who at different times have fought each other or fought proxy wars on Afghan soil. And Allen added, in a nod to concerns that Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups could return to Afghanistan in numbers after the US withdrawal, ‘‘I believe that Afghanistan will never again be a safe haven to terrorists.’’

Allen became emotional discussing the toll of the long war, twice mentioning the numbers of dead that the United States and its allies had borne. He described how every Sunday his leadership gathered to read the names of those who had been killed the week before, noting that ‘‘560 sons and daughters have given their lives’’ and that 5,500 had been wounded just during the months of his command.

In recent months, the numbers of Afghan soldiers and police who have died fighting the insurgency had been mounting.


Allen did not promise that the Taliban would be vanquished anytime soon, saying that victory ‘‘may never be marked on a calendar.’’

winding down

‘‘Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory. This is what winning looks like,’’ Allen said.

When it was Dunford’s turn to speak, he kept his remarks brief and blunt, talking for barely three minutes. He promised ‘‘continuity’’ in all respects including the International Security Assistance Force’s ‘‘commitment to accomplish the mission.’’

Much of the focus of his job will become clearer in coming days, with President Obama expected to announce the pace of the US military withdrawal over the next year, and perhaps propose troop levels as a negotiating point for the extent of a lasting military assistance force to stay in Afghanistan past 2014.

One of the hardest parts of Dunford’s new job, said Major General Charles M. Gurganus, the Marine Corps commander over a stretch of southern and southwestern Afghanistan that includes the Taliban heartland, will be trying to help the Afghan security forces become self-sustaining.

The goal is for them to be able to do their own recruiting, training, and equipment supply over many years. For now they still rely on US troops for medical evacuation, intelligence, and logistics assistance.

President Hamid Karzai, who was invited, did not attend the ceremony, but Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, the defense minister, and Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the national security adviser, were there.