Army gets geographical command, at last

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The Army stepped to the fore last month, winning one of the armed forces’ most coveted commands after having seen Marine Corps generals selected in recent years to head operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Europe.

The Pentagon announced that Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, Army vice chief of staff and the last commander in Iraq, would take over U.S. Central Command — a pivotal post, given the unrest in Egypt and the possibility of war in Iran. After Senate confirmation, he will succeed Marine Gen. James N. Mattis.

The Air Force had been in the running for the four-star post because any decision to strike Iran’s nuclear sites would involve a large bombing campaign lasting days.

Previously, a Marine general was tapped to run NATO and another Marine selected to succeed that officer to lead the war in Afghanistan.

“Lloyd Austin has strategic vision and significant operational savvy, which will be extremely helpful in dealing with Iran and the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East,” retired Army Gen. Jack Keane said.

The inside politics of winning what is called a geographic combatant command is downplayed publicly by the Pentagon.

But for the military branches, such an assignment is an important prize. There is the prestige of commanding combat troops, ships and planes, with a direct chain of command to the defense secretary.

It also gives each general a seat at the table when discussing budget priorities and more face-time with the lawmakers who control Pentagon spending and policies.

Leader of the pack

The Marine Corps may be the smallest military branch, but in recent years it has scored big in the competition and broken new ground.

This year, Marine generals owned the top command assignments for the Middle East and Afghanistan, and were tapped to head forces in Europe and the southern hemisphere, leaving the Army leadership a bit chagrined.

A Marine never had headed European Command and NATO forces until 2003. Now, a second, Gen. John R. Allen, the current Afghanistan commander, is in line. His posting is dependent on an inspector general inquiry into his email exchanges with a married socialite in Tampa, Fla., home to U.S. Central Command, where Gen. Allen had served.

“These leadership decisions are emblematic of the Marine Corps‘ effectiveness and high-level contributions to global military operations over the last decade,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, who served as a Marine officer in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Marines were a force in Iraq, and they have been equally effective in Afghanistan. These results are possible because of the strong leadership and tactical know-how that is a reliable Marine Corps characteristic.”

Ask why Marines have been winning the plum posts, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney observed, “They are better at politics.”

Retired Gen. James T. Conway, a former Marine commandant, chalks up the good showing to the Corps’ “institutional excellence.”

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