Secretary Robert Gates is now two for two in his selection of outstanding military officers to manage America’s current wars. First there was the selection of General David Petraeus to replace the media-challenged General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. Now, the Secretary has recommended General James Mattis to be General Petraeus’s replacement as the head of Central Command. By these two moves the Obama Administration will have restored much of the confidence in their management of the wars lost as a result of the McChrystal firing, early dithering over the Afghanistan surge and difficulties in managing relations with the government in Kabul.
General Mattis has experience in the region and on the modern battlefield. He led the 1st Marine Division during its run to Baghdad in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Perhaps more important for his new role, he directed the subsequent so-called stability operations there in 2003-2004 including both the April and November battles of Fallujah. He understands the complexities and challenges of the modern battlefield. As one commentator put it, “… his experience would test and shape his views about risk, the limits of force, and the necessity of adapting quickly in the fiercest conditions. In the end, the strategy he developed for Al-Anbar would require two things: lethal force and an intellectual theory of restraint.”
His experiences in Iraq made him the right man to command Joint Forces Command (JFCOM). There he has energized the command to address the problems of hybrid warfare and joint and combined operations across the conflict spectrum. Under his leadership, JFCOM produced the 2010 Joint Operating Environment, possibly the best assessment of future security challenges confronting the U.S. military. Each of the Services has published or is developing their own strategic assessments of the future environments and corresponding operational concepts. In addition, General Mattis has pushed his institution, responsible for joint capabilities development and joint concept development and experimentation, to develop new and innovative ways of addressing evolving threats and new missions.
In his new role, General Mattis perhaps will have a chance to employ the new capabilities and implement some of the innovative concepts developed at JFCOM. One word of caution. Given General Mattis’ reputation for salty language, a wry sense of humor and blunt talk, he would be well served by enforcing the letter of the new policy on DoD-media relations.
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