* Dunford won 'Fighting Joe' nickname on battlefields of Iraq
* Limited Afghan experience
* Colleagues say he's a good choice for the job
By David Alexander
WASHINGTON, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, who takes over as head of international forces in Afghanistan next year, faces the challenge of winding down a war in a country where he has little experience using a strategy he did not devise.
Dunford, whose nomination was confirmed by the Senate on Monday night, will be the fifth commander of the International Security Assistance Force since President Barack Obama took office, a leadership churn that worries Afghan war analysts.
Friends and colleagues describe Dunford, the Marine Corps assistant commandant, as a calm and thoughtful leader who earned the nickname "Fighting Joe" on the battlefields of Iraq by creating conditions for success with careful planning and harmonious execution.
But analysts expressed mixed views on his selection to replace Marine Corps General John Allen.
Some worry about the No. 2 Marine's lack of experience in Afghanistan and his vocal support for President Barack Obama's plan to withdraw most U.S. forces by the end of 2014. That could make him reluctant to ask for more time and troops if conditions on the ground are not right for a stable transition, they say.
But others contend that after a dozen years of war, Dunford's job is to execute the strategy he has been given, not reinvent it. And while he may be able to suggest some adjustments to the plan, he has very little room for maneuver as members of the 46-nation coalition edge toward departure.
"The problem is at this point nobody is going to fight it. It's the strategy. It's not his choice," said Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. "For good or evil, the question is: How does he manage the shift towards an exit."
Dunford, a Boston native, is a 35-year veteran of the Marines. He was commissioned as an officer in 1977 and he served as a platoon and company commander for several years before moving to administrative roles. H e holds two master's degrees and is a graduate of the elite Army Ranger School.
As the United States moved toward war with Iraq in 2003, Dunford - then a colonel - found himself in the First Marine Expeditionary Force serving as commander of Regimental Combat Team 5, the unit that would lead the U.S. invasion, seize the Rumaila oil fields and then head toward Baghdad.
When officials advanced the timing of the invasion by a day, Dunford had his forces ready to move in three hours. He kicked off the assault with a nighttime crossing of the 10-foot berm and anti-tank ditch separating Iraq and Kuwait, moving in darkness rather than at dawn as initially planned.
"He earned the Fighting Joe title by his actions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, when he led the initial attack into Iraq (crossing the berm on the accelerated timeline) and leading all the way to Baghdad," said General James Mattis, the head of U.S. Central Command, who was Dunford's commander in Iraq.
"He's not flashy, but he's the fighter - one I could always count on when the going got difficult," Mattis said in an email. "He is tactically cunning and does a superb job at setting his subordinate commanders up for success by orchestrating complex battle plans into harmonious actions."
Congressman Duncan Hunter, who served in the Marines in Iraq and occasionally had a chance to interact with Dunford, said the commander was seen as "a decisive leader who was well-respected by subordinates and peers throughout the chain of command."
"In a stressful, combat environment he proved himself to be an accomplished and energetic warrior," Hunter said in an email.
Since the war Dunford has moved rapidly up the chain of command. He became a brigadier general in 2004, was selected to become a major general in December 2007 and then promoted to lieutenant general two months later, before Congress had acted to confirm his second star.
"That in itself will give you an idea of how he was seen in the Marine Corps," said Marine Colonel David Lapan, a spokesman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has worked for Dunford and been his neighbor.
He has a "great reputation as a combat commander, as an operational commander, very even-keeled, measured, analytical," Lapan said. While his combat experience is not in Afghanistan, the differences are not that great and he can bring a fresh perspective to the situation, Lapan said.
But some Afghan war analysts are concerned about Dunford's appointment, saying his support for Obama's withdrawal strategy will make it difficult for him to adjust the drawdown based on conditions on the ground.
"He was in a very small minority among senior military officers in articulating that President Obama's Afghanistan strategy and the notion of firm deadlines could work," said Michael Rubin, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "He has never explained ... how or why he thinks it could work."
Dunford will have to guide international forces through a series of critical milestones over the coming two years, starting with Afghan forces taking over the lead role for the country's security next summer.
The presidential election in the spring of 2014 is viewed as essential to ensuring Afghan support for the government once international forces withdraw. And Dunford also must manage the drawdown of U.S. and international forces and the transition to full Afghan control by the end of 2014.
"All too often when officials talk about the transition, they just talk in terms of numbers and the actual Afghans doing security and fighting," Rubin said. "But to really have transition and independence, you need a lot in the background."
Afghan National Security Forces still lack important specialty skills, from intelligence, logistics and communications to maintenance, engineering and accounting, he said. Medical support is a "huge example."
"When we're fighting with the Afghans and the Afghans get wounded, we triage them, evacuate them, that sort of thing. They have no capability of that on their own. We haven't focused on it in transition," Rubin said.
Ultimately the issue is whether withdrawal from Afghanistan will take place as Afghan security forces acquire the skills they need to defend the country, or whether it will move ahead according to a political timeline, he said.
"Most generals are looking at the capabilities," Rubin said. "Dunford is the exception. He appears to be looking at the politics."
But Cordesman said Dunford's job in Afghanistan is to execute the policy approved by the White House, the Pentagon and NATO and he has little flexibility in the matter.
"The purpose of a commander is not to tell the president what to do," he said. "The purpose of a commander is to do the task he's assigned as well as he possibly can."
He said he believed Dunford would be able to "tell the president bad news or make recommendations that indicated we had to change the way in which we exit ... or the timing."
"This is certainly not somebody who would simply accept or follow orders regardless of conditions," he said. "But it is obvious that no commander at this point is going to come in ... charged with reexamining and reinventing the strategy." (Editing by Cynthia Osterman)