The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established in January 2002 as the headquarters to oversee U.S. and allied troop deployments in Afghanistan. That was about 12 1/2 years ago. In that period there have been 15 commanders of ISAF. Just since 2007 there have been six ISAF commanders (McNeill, McKiernan, McChrystal, Petraeus, Allen, Dunford). And now we are about to get another with the announcement that General Joe Dunford, who has led ISAF since February 2013, is about to leave to become the next commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Dunford has done a great job in Afghanistan under very trying circumstances and he certainly deserves to become commandant. But what does it say about military priorities that he is being pulled out as commander of a theater in wartime—the only such in the entire U.S. military—to assume a job back in the Pentagon? What it says to me is that the problem that Bob Gates so often complained about still isn’t fixed—namely that while portions of the military are at war, a large part of the military establishment remains on a peacetime footing.
Dwight Eisenhower did not return home to become army chief of staff until November 1945—until, that is, World War II was finished. It would have been unthinkable to bring him home while combat was still going on. And yet it is considered normal practice to bring home commanders from Afghanistan while the war continues to rage.
Granted the conflict in Afghanistan is a long-term struggle that, unlike World War II, will not have a definite endpoint anytime soon. But there is still a need for command continuity, all the more so because so much of what gets done in Afghanistan gets done via personal relationships. Every commander coming in has to build a new set of relationships with Afghans. The learning curve is steep and there is a price to be paid for shaking up the top tier so often. The willingness of the government to play musical chairs with our commanders bespeaks a fundamental lack of seriousness about winning this conflict.