Revolving door of generals takes Afghanistan command

Leadership post unstable at heart of war on terror

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The president has announced that 34,000 troops will leave Afghanistan this year after the Taliban “fighting season” ends in the fall, leaving about 30,000 troops.

Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, U.S. Central Command chief, has recommended that 13,600 troops stay after 2014, when most international troops are expected to leave the country.

The high turnover rate in leadership in Kabul perhaps explains why the blogosphere explodes with conspiracy theories when four-stars are replaced at other commands.

There is no exact science for replacing the chiefs of the so-called geographic combatant commands, such as Central, Pacific and European.

Unlike the service chiefs, who serve for four years, and the Joint Chiefs chairman, who normally stays for two, two-year terms, the four-star combatant commanders typically preside two or three years.

The timings of their departures can depend on who is queued up behind them, awaiting their turn at a prestigious “joint” command. At some point, a sitting four-star has to make way for a budding four-star.

When the Pentagon announced that Gen. Rodriguez would replace Army Gen. Carter Ham as head of U.S. Africa Command, bloggers announced that Gen. Ham was sacked over the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 that left an ambassador and three other Americans dead.

But reliable sources told The Times that there is no truth in the theory. The White House needed to find a joint posting for Gen. Rodriguez, a highly respected combat leader, after denying him the command in Afghanistan.

To boot, Gen. Ham is a White House favorite: He led the major in-house 2010 study that resulted in an Obama goal — lifting the ban on open gays in the ranks.

The same conspiracy theories enwrapped Gen. Mattis, a blunt-speaking warrior who led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The conjecture is that he is being ousted from U.S. Central Command for his hawkish views on striking Iran to disable its quest for nuclear weapons.

When Gen. Mattis is relieved by Army Gen. Lloyd Austin on March 27, he will have stayed in place two years, six months — about the average for CentCom.

Army Lt. Col. T.G. Taylor, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told The Times that Gen. Mattis denies any rift with the White House over Iran.

“CoCom commanders serve at the whim of the president and the secretary of defense,” Col. Taylor said. “There is no right, wrong, early, late. There’s no set time line for when somebody takes over and somebody leaves. Now, if somebody took over a CoCom and three months later was removed, that would be a little strange.”

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