Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis has been nominated to take command of the U.S. Central Command, the unit in charge of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced on Thursday.
Gen. Mattis, if confirmed by the Senate, would replace Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is now in Afghanistan as the U.S. and NATO's top military officer there.
The shake-up comes as the American public questions whether the fight in Afghanistan can be won, and the Defense Department is reeling from losing its top war commander - Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.
As head of Central Command, Gen. Mattis would oversee U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as across the Middle East, including Iraq and Iran.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters that he was impressed with the general's "strategic insight and independent thinking."
Gen. Mattis is a blunt-talking, seasoned war veteran best known for leading troops into the bloody battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004.
Since 2007, he has held the post of commander of the Norfolk, Va.-based U.S. Joint Forces Command, which is in charge of future joint warfighting plans and operations.
The selection came as a surprise. On the one hand, Gen. Mattis has significant ground combat experience and is considered an intellectual who grasps the nuances of fighting a complicated counterinsurgency.
But he is also known to speak bluntly and off the cuff - much like Gen. Petraeus' predecessor, Gen. McChrystal, who was fired for speaking ill of his civilian bosses.
In 2005, Gen. Mattis, as a three-star general, said in a speech in San Diego that he enjoyed shooting the enemy.
"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil," he said in the speech. "You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight. You know, it's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right upfront with you, I like brawling."
His boss at the time, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Mike Hagee, said that the comments reflected the "unfortunate and harsh realities of war" but that Gen. Mattis had been asked to watch his words in public.
Mr. Gates said Thursday that appropriate action was taken at the time. He also said he raised the issue with Gen. Mattis when interviewing him for the job and was confident that such statements would not be made in the future.
"I think the subsequent five years have demonstrated that the lesson was learned," he said.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he has been impressed watching Gen. Mattis interact with NATO allies, most recently as Gen. Mattis served as head of U.S. Joint Forces Command.
In 2004, Gen. Mattis' Marine division led the assault on Fallujah and he played a key role in helping Iraqi security forces negotiate with insurgents inside the city.
His remarks at the time of the battle suggest his thinking is very much in line with the counterinsurgency strategy pursued by Gen. Petraeus and Gen. McChrystal, which restricts military operations in order to win the support of the local population.
"All along we had intended a softer approach, using civil-military operations ... unless someone chooses to fight, and then we would fight," Gen. Mattis said in 2004. "Welcome to war with all its complexities and shifting centers of gravity."