Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has tapped Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Lloyd Austin to command U.S. Central Command where he will likely oversee the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan much like he did in Iraq.
Austin will take over for Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who is retiring after leading CENTCOM the past two years. Before CENTCOM, Mattis led and oversaw the shutdown of U.S. Joint Forces Command from 2007 to 2010.
President Obama has announced the U.S. will complete its withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan in 2014. Austin will work with Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the future head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, to lead the withdrawal and complete the transfer of security responsibilities back to the Afghanistan National Security Forces.
This is not the first time the Pentagon has been given Austin such a responsibility. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates chose Austin to complete the end of military operations in Iraq as he commanded U.S. forces -Iraq from September 2010 to December 2011.
Pentagon leaders viewed Austin's command of U.S. forces in Iraq as a success as violence levels stayed low throughout the withdrawal, defense analysts have said. Austin's star has since risen to the top echelons of military leadership and he will now take over the most prominent regional command.
“During his final deployment to Iraq, Gen. Austin led our military efforts at a particularly important time, overseeing the drawdown of U.S. forces and equipment while simultaneously helping to ensure that hard-fought security gains were preserved and that Iraqis could secure and govern themselves,” Panetta said in a statement. “Lloyd would bring an important combination of strategic thinking, regional knowledge and proven judgment to one of the most critical posts in the department.”
Panetta called Austin one of the military's “most seasoned combat leaders.” He highlighted Austin's time as assistant division commander for maneuver with the 3rd Infantry Division in 2003, when the 3rd ID led the invasion of Iraq and Austin earned a Silver Star.
Austin's combat experience extends to Afghanistan. He led the 10th Mountain Division from 2003 to 2005 to include a deployment to Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom.
Austin has experience working at CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Fla. He served as the CENTCOM chief of staff after his tour as the 10th Mountain Division commander. He then commanded the XVIII Airborne Corps for two years before taking over as the U.S. Forces-Iraq commander.
The Army four-star will take over CENTCOM at an especially tricky time. With plenty of attention focused on the new national defense strategy that shifts a large portion of U.S. forces to the Pacific, Austin will be have to keep troops focused on the final years of America's war in Afghanistan.
U.S. forces face a steep logistical challenge in packing up a decade's worth of military infrastructure and either transferring it to the Afghans, or shipping it home. A land locked country; military logisticians said the lack of sea port will make the withdrawal from Afghanistan much more difficult than the one out of Iraq.
Upon Austin's assumption of command, Mattis will complete a storied 40-year career with the Marine Corps unless Panetta asks him to delay retirement and take over as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. Panetta's previous nominee, Gen. John Allen, is under investigation for his relationship with a Tampa socialite entangled in the scandal surrounding retired Army Gen. David Petraeus' extramarital affair.
Panetta offered no signal he was considering such a nomination in his statement announcing the pending nomination. In the same statement Panetta called the Mattis “one of the most celebrated battlefield leaders and strategic military thinkers of our time.”
“He has been an exemplary leader of U.S. Central Command at a critical time for America's vital interests in the Middle East and South Asia. He has helped build regional security cooperation, advanced the cause of security and stability, and ensured that our forces are postured and prepared for any contingency in the region. I have relied on Jim every day I have served as secretary, and am profoundly grateful for his service to me and to the nation,” Panetta said in a statement.