TAMPA With the Middle East in turmoil and the bulk of U.S. troops set to leave Afghanistan by 2014, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III is "the right man at the right time" to head U.S. Central Command, said John Abizaid, a retired Army general who was the longest-serving head of the Tampa-based command.
The Pentagon on Thursday announced that Austin, vice chief of staff of the Army, is President Barack Obama's nominee to replace the current commander, Marine Gen. James Mattis, who took over Centcom at MacDill Air Force Base in 2010.
The command oversees military operations in a 20-nation swath of the world that includes most of the Middle East and parts of Southwest Asia.
The move to replace Mattis does not appear to be related to ongoing investigations of relationships involving former top Centcom officials and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley.
"It is part of the normal general officer rotation," said Lt. Col. Tom Clossen, a Pentagon spokesman.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta praised Mattis and his likely replacement.
"Gen. Austin is in the mold of the extraordinary Centcom commander he would succeed," Panetta said in a statement. "Jim has a distinguished record as a combatant commander …who I believe will go down as one of the most celebrated battlefield leaders and strategic military thinkers of our time."
Mattis has not said what he will do after he leaves Centcom.
Austin, who oversaw the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq and led troops into Baghdad in 2003, also served as a commander in Afghanistan as well as Centcom chief of staff.
Abizaid and other military leaders contacted by the Tribune said Austin has the right combination of leadership, smarts, calm under fire and personal integrity to handle command of U.S. forces in one of the world's most dangerous regions.
"The Central Command area of operations is not just challenging because of the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan," Abizaid said in an interview with the Tribune. "You have an entire area in the center of the Middle East in great turmoil, all the way from Egypt to Syria to Yemen and other places.
"These are going to be difficult places for U.S. policies to be implemented. It requires a cool head and competent demeanor, and he has both."
At the moment, Centcom officials are concerned not only with Afghanistan but the destructive influence of Iran in the region, civil unrest in Egypt, a civil war in Syria that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, and a nuclear-armed Pakistan and Yemen – countries that are home to Al-Qaida fighters.
And though it is not in Centcom's region of responsibility, Israel and its relations with its neighbors is always a part of Centcom's calculus.
"I can't think of anyone better prepared to do this job," said Abizaid, who has known Austin since the two were together at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the mid-1970s.
"At West Point, I was his cadet squad leader," said Abizaid, who served as Centcom commander from 2003 until 2007. "He was a great young man. Smart, capable. I think the world of him both as an officer and a human being."
Abizaid said his regard for Austin, who would become the first African-American to head Centcom, has only increased since Austin graduated from the academy in 1975.
The two worked together again in 2005 when Austin became Centcom chief of staff. Abizaid said Austin impressed him with his ability to handle responsibility calmly.
"At the time, we were at war in Iraq, at war in Afghanistan and had troops in the Horn of Africa, which belonged to Centcom at the time," Abizaid said.
"We had over 500,000 U.S. and allied troops operating air and naval and ground operations in coordination with all sorts of different countries. We had locations scattered throughout a very difficult area, and he kept it all synchronized and coordinated and run as well as anyone could. Talk about a guy who can handle multiple challenges at one time, he could do it without breaking a sweat."
William Fallon, a retired admiral who headed the command from 2007 to 2008, called Austin "a terrific guy."
Austin served under Fallon for a short time as commander of Multi-National Corps – Iraq.
"He is an experienced commander," Fallon said. "He knows the region, knows the territory. He works hard and is a pleasure to work with."
Like Abizaid, Doug Brown, a retired Army general who led U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill from 2003 to 2007, has known Austin for years.
"He is a tremendous pick," said Brown, who lives in Dade City. "He has tremendous experience in the (area) and is a very talented individual. Quite frankly, I do not think there are many people who could have been picked that I would happier about."
Austin's leadership style is particularly impressive, he added.
"He is very steady, very detail-oriented," Brown said. "He thinks through the issues and understands the area he is going to."
It's not just Austin's peers and commanders who praise him.
"I think more highly of him than any other commander I have ever served with," said Army Lt. Col. Haydn Hungerford, a logistician with Socom's Command Central at MacDill.
Hungerford served as Austin's company commander when the two were with the 82nd Airborne Division in the late 90s.
"He has the ability to really think clearly in times of relative stress," said Hungerford. "He embodies the Army's values and has a way of being measured, concise, fair."
Obama's selection of Austin is subject to approval by the U.S. Senate.
Abizaid offered a glimpse of what Austin has to look forward to.
"Look, it is a very busy, very demanding job," Abizaid said.
"Nothing is more important than being a major strategic commander in a time of war. There are a lot of different things to do and you operate at the friction point of military and political leadership, which at times is uncomfortable. He will handle it well."