Senior Military Leader Returns To Vt. Alma Mater, Weighs Options For Afghanistan

May 14, 2017

The highest ranking military officer in the United States says the risk in letting Afghanistan destabilize further is the possibility of more terrorist attacks against the West.

General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to reporters on Sunday after giving the commencement address at his alma mater, Saint Michael’s College, in Colchester.

“There’s about 18 or 19 extremist groups in that region who have indicated they have the desire if not the capability to attack the West. And so our job is to keep pressure on them and preclude that from happening,” Dunford told VPR.

“It’s not going as well as we’d like it to go,” Dunford said, and noted that Afghan security forces in particular have a casualty rate that is too high.

Dunford and other military and civilian leaders will be meeting with President Trump in the next couple of weeks to brief him on a range of options for continued U.S. engagement in Afghanistan.

"Our job is to frame decisions so that [the president] is fully informed when he makes them." — Gen. Dunford

Dunford would not comment on whether they would recommend that more US or NATO troops be sent to Afghanistan, but said that part of the mission is to not allow Afghanistan to further destabilize. Currently about 13,000 NATO troops are serving in Afghanistan, of which about 9,000 are U.S. troops.

“It’s helpful to the president when we all come in to him and say, we’ve considered all the strengths and weaknesses of the various options that may be out there, the pros and cons if you will,” General Dunford said, referring to himself and the secretary of state, secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security, the vice president and others.

“As a group, if we go to him with a single option, it certainly makes it easy for him," Dunford said. "But that’s not necessary. What’s necessary is that he hears all the arguments and he’s making an informed decision. And I think that’s what our job is, is to frame decisions so that he is fully informed when he makes them.”

In his keynote address to graduates, Dunford only fleetingly referred to security challenges that face the United States, but characterized them to be “as complex and difficult as any we’ve faced since World War II.”

He noted that those challenges and the pace of change require “values-based leadership” and exhorted the graduates to see extraordinary leaders as simply ordinary men and women who act with courage. Dunford’s 15-minute speech focused on the theme of leadership and emphasized the twin qualities of moral courage and service to others, drawing on the liberal arts college’s Edmundite religious teachings.

Saint Michael’s College conferred honorary degrees on Dunford, Class of ’77, and three other alumni: Brian Lacey ’72 for his work in children’s television; Tracey Ann Romano ’86 for her research in marine biology; and Loung Ung ’93 for her human rights work on behalf of Cambodians.

Nearly 500 graduates, including those receiving advanced degrees, wore black caps and gowns, some with regalia and colored cords to mark their academic honors. They entered the ceremony to the sound of bagpipes, each graduate carrying a single white carnation to memorialize two classmates who died in the fall: Jerry Collins of Bridgewater, Mass., and Will Peterson of Essex Junction.