The Pentagon’s top civilian and military leaders will announce the nomination of U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel to be the next head of U.S. Central Command on Thursday afternoon, according to an official with direct knowledge of the move.
Votel — who currently leads the U.S. Special Operations Command — has for weeks been discussed as the White House’s choice to take over from Gen. Lloyd Austin, who currently oversees the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the continuing fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford have flown to Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla. to make the announcement. The plans to tab Votel Thursday have not previously been reported.
With 3,000 primarily special operations troops in Afghanistan carrying out counterterrorism missions, and another 200 commandos having just arrived on the ground in Iraq to take part in kill or capture missions against Islamic State leadership, Votel’s nomination underscores the central role that the elite troops play in the wars that President Barack Obama is preparing to hand off to the next administration. There are also roughly 50 U.S. commandos operating in Syria advising local militia forces.
An Army Ranger, Votel took over the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command in June 2011, staying until August 2014, when he assumed the leadership of the Special Operations Command from retiring Adm. William McRaven. Previously, he served as deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and commanded the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment.
If confirmed by the Senate, Votel will have to work under the shadow of two potentially explosive investigations into how Centcom leadership handled intelligence assessments in Iraq and Afghanistan. A group of civilian analysts at the command have charged that military leaders pressured them into skewing intelligence reports about the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in order to back up White House claims of progress.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are also investigating if similar pressure on analysts exists in Afghanistan. Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the Republican head of the House Intelligence Committee, told Foreign Policy in November that he and the chairmen of the House Armed Services Committee and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee were standing up a task force “to investigate numerous allegations of the manipulation of intelligence by Centcom officials.”
The investigations have cast a pall over the tenure of Gen. Austin, who struggled during an appearance in September before the Senate Armed Services Committee when he misspoke about the presence of U.S. commandos in Syria, and admitted that a $500 million Pentagon program to train Syrian fighters had produced only “four or five” fighters.
It has been reported that Army Lt. Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas III is the pick to fill Votel’s current post after he departs. Like Votel and McRaven before him, Thomas currently runs JSOC and has plenty of experience in Washington, having served on the Joint Staff, and as the assistant director for military affairs at the CIA.
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