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Joe Biden taps General Lloyd Austin as first black Pentagon chief

US President-elect Joe Biden named retired army general Lloyd Austin on Tuesday to be secretary of defence, who if confirmed will become the first African-American to lead the Pentagon.

“Throughout his lifetime of dedicated service — and in the many hours we’ve spent together in the White House Situation Room and with our troops overseas — General Austin has demonstrated exemplary leadership, character, and command,” Biden said in a statement.

“He is uniquely qualified to take on the challenges and crises we face in the current moment.”

The four-star general was the US commander in Iraq and then the head of the US Central Command covering over all of the Middle East in 2010 to 2016 when Biden was vice president.

But he was a surprise choice for secretary of defence, bypassing a highly qualified former senior Pentagon civilian official, Michele Flournoy.

By choosing Austin, Biden will have to persuade the US Senate to waive a law that says the US military must be led by a civilian or, if a former military official, someone who has been out of the service at least seven years.

The law has been waived only twice before, including in 2017, when former general Jim Mattis was made defence secretary under President Donald Trump.

The Biden campaign called Austin “a trusted and crisis-tested leader who has overseen some of the most complex and impactful operations in the history of the armed services,” citing the campaign against the Islamic State group and the withdrawal of nearly 150,000 military personnel from Iraq before that.

“I look forward to once again working closely with him as a trusted partner to lead our military with dignity and resolve, revitalize our alliances in the face of global threats, and ensure the safety and security of the American people,” Biden said in the statement.

‘Back on track’

In a separate piece in Atlantic magazine explaining why he picked Austin, Biden wrote: “I’ve sought his advice, seen his command, and admired his calm and his character.”

He acknowledged the issue of nominating someone recently in military service to helm the department of defence, and said he hoped Congress would grant a waiver and that his nomination would be quickly approved.

“Austin also knows that the secretary of defence has a different set of responsibilities than a general officer and that the civil-military dynamic has been under great stress these past four years,” Biden wrote.

“He will work tirelessly to get it back on track.”

Austin spent four decades in the army, graduating from West Point Military Academy and following a career with a wide range of assignments, from leading platoons to running logistics groups and overseeing recruiting, to senior Pentagon jobs.

In March 2003, he was the assistant division commander of the 3rd Infantry Division when it marched from Kuwait into Baghdad in the US invasion of Iraq.

From late 2003 to 2005, he was in Afghanistan commanding the Combined Joint Task Force 180, the principle US-led operation seeking to stabilize the security situation in the country.

In 2010, he was made commanding general of US forces in Iraq, and two years later became the commander of the Central Command, in charge of all Pentagon operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

That put him in charge of the fight against the Islamic State as it captured large swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Since retiring, Austin has been on the board of one of the Pentagon’s largest weapons suppliers, Raytheon, as well as other companies.

He also was part of a small group of shareholders in an investment group, Pine Island Capital Partners, that included Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and his rival for the Pentagon job, Flournoy.

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