President Barack Obama has tapped the general who oversaw the final troop withdrawal in Iraq to become the new leader of U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base.
Gen. Lloyd Austin III, currently vice chief of staff of the Army, would become the next top U.S. commander for the Middle East — directing the end of the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan — if the Senate confirms his nomination.
Austin, 59, would be the first African-American general to lead CentCom. Nearly all international combat troops are to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
An experienced combat leader, Austin headed the 3rd Infantry Division that marched into Baghdad in March 2003. He returned to Iraq in February 2008 for a little over a year. He deployed there again in late 2010 as the top commander, and with a fourth star, directing the final troop withdrawal and the end of the war.
"Lloyd would bring an important combination of strategic thinking, regional knowledge and proven judgment to one of the most critical posts in the department," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.
A paratrooper and West Point graduate, Austin also served in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, leading the 10th Mountain Division. He served as CentCom's chief of staff from September 2005 until November 2006.
The next month, he became commander of Fort Bragg in North Carolina and the 18th Airborne Corps. The nearly three-year stint included his 15-month stay in Iraq as the No. 2 U.S. commander under Gen. David Petraeus.
The Washington Post reported that Austin won plaudits for his performance there during a pivotal moment in the war. After British troops left the southern city of Basra in 2008, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dispatched Iraqi security forces in March to take control. They proved ill-prepared, however, and nearly bungled the operation. Austin quickly intervened with U.S. troops and advisers, helping the Iraqis rescue the mission.
Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution told the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer that Austin played a role far beyond the attention he received: "Yet as operational commander, Lt. Gen. Austin — even more than Petraeus — was responsible for the detailed decisions necessary to pacify Basra and Sadr City. His vision proved crucial."
The Observer said Austin, a native of Thomasville, Ga., had paid tribute to black military pioneers such as the first black paratroopers but was reluctant to talk about his own milestones.
The Post wrote that when he left his command at Fort Bragg, Austin told reporters, "If you talk to Tiger Woods today, and you asked him how he felt about being the best African-American golfer in the world, he would tell you that you don't want to be known as the best African-American golfer. He wants to be known as the best golfer."
If confirmed, Austin would replace Marine Gen. James Mattis, who took the CentCom helm in August 2010.
Mattis has not yet announced his plans once he leaves CentCom, and his departure appears to be unconnected to the recent scandal involving Tampa socialite Jill Kelley. Mattis has not been linked to the controversy.
Over the summer, Kelley told an FBI agent about anonymous and threatening emails she had received, which ultimately exposed an affair between biographer Paula Broadwell and former CIA director Petraeus, who once served as CentCom chief and counted Kelley as a friend.
The Pentagon also is investigating potentially inappropriate emails between Kelley and Gen. James Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Allen is a former acting and deputy commander at CentCom.
CentCom is one of two major combatant commands headquartered at MacDill, the other being U.S. Special Operations Command. The commands have led the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
CentCom has oversight of U.S. security interests in 20 nations in the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia and Lebanon to Iraq and Iran. It's a prestigious command that some of the nation's best-known generals have led, including Norman Schwarzkopf, John Abizaid, Anthony Zinni and Petraeus.
Times staff writers Ron Brackett and William R. Levesque and news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press, Washington Post and Fayetteville Observer.