WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama tapped a highly respected combat commander as his next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Tuesday, signaling that the battles against al-Qaida and Islamic State militants threatening the Middle East and the West remain top priorities for the nation's military despite years of trying to change the focus to Asia.
Announcing his selection of Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. during a Rose Garden ceremony, Obama said America's armed forces must be ready to meet a broad range of challenges, and that Dunford has proven to be one of the military's most highly regarded strategic thinkers.
"We have to keep training Afghan forces and remain relentless against Al Qaida. We have to push back against ISIL and strengthen forces in Syria and build moderate opposition in Syria," said Obama, using an alternate name for the Islamic State group. "We have to stand united with our allies in Europe and keep rebalancing our posture as a Pacific power. We have to keep investing in new capabilities to meet growing threats, including cyberattacks."
As the U.S. started to look beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon had begun to increase its focus on the Asia Pacific region, where the North Korea threat was escalating and China was flexing its military muscles. But that has been eclipsed by the march of Islamic State militants across Syria and Iraq, and the group's effort to expand to other regions and import the fight to the West.
In choosing Dunford, Obama picked a battle commander who led forces in the initial invasion into Iraq and more recently was in charge of the Afghanistan war coalition during a key transitional period during 2013-14. And if confirmed, Dunford also represents a sense of continuity, succeeding Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who will have served as chairman for four years. Both men are known as intellectual and charismatic leaders who connect well with their troops.
But in the end, such choices often come down to personal relationships.
"I know Joe, I trust him," Obama said. "He has already proven his ability to give me his unvarnished military advice based on his experience on the ground." He added that under Dunford's "steady hand we've achieved key milestones, including the transition to Afghan responsibility for security, historic Afghan elections and the drawdown of U.S. forces."
Obama also chose Gen. Paul J. Selva, a top Air Force officer and pilot, to serve as vice chairman. Selva, who has clocked more than 3,100 hours piloting transport and refueling aircraft, is currently the head of U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. The two officers are expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate, although there will likely be spirited questioning from senators unhappy with the administration's national security policies.
Obama described Dunford's work ethic as tireless, noting that some aides carry a voice recorder to keep track of his commands and ideas.
Dunford's service as the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps was brief — he began that job last October. But the rapid promotion is one of several that have marked his fast-tracked military career, which saw him leap from a one-star general to four stars in about three years. He would be only the second Marine to serve as chairman.
Dunford began his career as an infantry officer, and he earned the nickname "Fighting Joe" when he led the Marines' 5th Regimental Combat Team during the 2003 Iraq invasion. He is well-connected internationally, often meeting with NATO and other coalition leaders, particularly during his Afghanistan command.
While several top military officers were considered, including the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, and U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Samuel Locklear, Defense Secretary Ash Carter recommended Dunford, according to several officials with knowledge of the discussions. The current vice chairman, Adm. James Winnefeld, had made it known he is planning to retire later this year.
Obama's choice of Dunford got high marks from across the political spectrum.
"General Dunford's exemplary service in Iraq and Afghanistan makes him a strong choice as we confront threats to stability and peace in both countries and throughout the region," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He promised prompt consideration by the committee.
"'Fighting Joe' earned his nickname by being an unflappable commander with an uncanny grasp of the battlefield," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH. "As our nation fights an extremely complex and evolving threat from ISIS and other sophisticated terror groups, I believe General Dunford would be an excellent choice."
Obama referred to Dunford's native Boston, saying he's the "very definition of Boston strong." But Obama added, "the only downside in my book is as a White Sox fan, there is yet another Red Sox fan who I'm going to have to be dealing with."
Dunford's most visible military role came in 2013 when he became the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan. During his 18 months there, he oversaw the ongoing drawdown of U.S. troops, the transition to Afghan military lead in combat operations, and the tumultuous Afghan elections that dragged on and delayed efforts to reach an agreement on the U.S. military's future presence in the country.
Dunford, 59, holds master's degrees in government from Georgetown University and international relations from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.