WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday chose Navy Admiral James Stavridis to be NATO’s top commander as the alliance prepares to step up its efforts in the Afghan war.
Gates, speaking at a Pentagon press briefing, also recommended that Admiral Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, run the headquarters for U.S. military operations for Asia and the Pacific.
He would replace Admiral Timothy Keating as head of U.S. Pacific Command.
The U.S. defense chief additionally recommended second terms for Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Marine Corps General James Cartwright as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Stavridis is now head of U.S. Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in Latin America. Previously he was the senior military assistant to Donald Rumsfeld when Rumsfeld was Pentagon chief.
Putting a Navy officer in the job in the middle of a ground war may concern some, but Stavridis oversees elements from all the U.S. military services in his current role.
At Southern Command, he has integrated military operations closely with the work of civilian agencies -- an approach U.S. and NATO officials say is essential in Afghanistan to win over local people in the battle against insurgents.
President Barack Obama’s administration is reviewing the Afghan war strategy in the face of rising violence by the Taliban and other insurgents. The review is due to be completed before a NATO summit on April 3-4.
Stavridis would be the first naval officer to hold the prestigious post of Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
He would replace U.S. Army General John Craddock, who has been at NATO since December 2006 and is expected to retire.
About 70,000 foreign troops, including 38,000 Americans, are trying to stabilize Afghanistan. Most of them are members of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, commanded by U.S. Army General David McKiernan.
Obama last month approved the deployment of 17,000 extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan and could send more -- as McKiernan has requested -- after the review is complete.
Stavridis has no previous experience of Afghanistan but he is regarded as intellectual, ambitious and energetic.
He holds a doctorate in international relations and has cultivated a reputation as a creative thinker, writing a blog and organizing movie nights at his Miami headquarters featuring Latin American films to educate staff about regional issues.
Stavridis would work closely on Afghanistan with U.S. Army General David Petraeus, another hard-charging intellectual.
Petraeus, who oversaw a major decline in violence in Iraq, now runs U.S. Central Command, the headquarters responsible for a volatile swathe of the world that includes Afghanistan.
Although Afghanistan would be Stavridis’ priority, the NATO post involves juggling a multitude of issues from relations with Russia to peacekeeping in Kosovo.
For decades during the Cold War, the supreme allied commander’s job was the preserve of U.S. Army generals, most famously Dwight Eisenhower in the early 1950s before he went on to become U.S. president.
But an Air Force general and a Marine Corps general have held the post in the past decade.
Top U.S. military officers are nominated by the U.S. president and require U.S. Senate confirmation. The supreme commander’s appointment also must be approved by NATO’s North Atlantic Council of alliance members.
Additional reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Xavier Briand