The top general of the Marine Corps is pushing hard to deploy marines to Afghanistan as he looks to draw down his forces in Iraq, but his proposal, which is under discussion at the Pentagon this week, faces deep resistance from other military leaders.
Commandant Gen. James Conway's plan, if approved, would deploy a large contingent of marines to Afghanistan, perhaps as early as next year. The reinforcements would be used to fight the Taliban, which US officials concede is now defending its territory more effectively against allied and Afghan forces.
Within the Pentagon, General Conway's proposal has led to speculation about which, if any, American forces would be best suited to provide reinforcements for a mission that, most agree, has far more political appeal than the one in Iraq. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has already recommended against the proposal, at least for now, a military official said Tuesday.
That leaves the decision up to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
"It came down to an issue of timing," says the official, who didn't want to be named because of the sensitivity of the recommendation. "The chairman didn't feel that this was the right time."
Conway says that marines, who have been largely responsible for calming Anbar Province in Iraq, can either return home or "stay plugged into the fight" by essentially redeploying to Afghanistan. The general returned Monday from a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he visited with marines and stressed that the Corps is not out to snatch a senior command billet in Afghanistan, nor is it trying to get out of Iraq "while the getting is good."
Critics of the plan worry that it would leave too much risk for the Army in Iraq, but Conway argues that the Corps would assume more risk in Afghanistan than it has now in Anbar Province, where violence has abated considerably.
"The trend lines tell us that it may be time to increase the force posture in Afghanistan," Conway says, in his first public comments on the matter since the proposal was leaked to the press last month.
Ideally, he says, the international community would provide more help for the roughly 50,000 coalition forces there now – about half of them American troops, mostly from the Army. About 300 marines are currently stationed in Afghanistan.
"But if it requires additional US forces," Conway says, "then it goes back to our suggestion that maybe we need more marines in there with a more kinetic bent."
Adm. William Fallon, head of US Central Command, which oversees operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is said to be "very strong" on the Conway option, says another senior military official, who asked not to be named, adding that the whole mix of forces must be looked at before a decision can be made.
"We're at the taking-a-hard-look-at-it stage," says this official. "The positive side of the Marines looking at this for a deployment is it would be a good mix of combat power and training and equip missions."
Secretary Gates's focus so far has been to seek more help from the international community to provide trainers and other forces to combat the resurgent Taliban.
Top Army and Air Force officials have expressed concern about the Conway plan, even as US officials on the ground in Afghanistan appear to welcome the idea.
The Corps would probably deploy a Marine Air Ground Task Force, a self-contained unit that brings with it its own headquarters, ground elements, logistics, and air-assault capabilities that may be especially suited to the scale of operations in Afghanistan, Conway says.
Gates has appeared to shoot down the idea in remarks over the past month. But sources say the Defense secretary hasn't yet been fully briefed on the matter.
Less secure in Afghanistan
Two years ago, the Pentagon was set to proclaim military success in Afghanistan and tie it up with a bow. But this year the security mission in Afghanistan has suffered from the US focus on Iraq and a heavy reliance on an international force.
NATO's command in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force, has had some victories on the ground there, working with the nascent Afghan Army and police force. But the US considers some allied nations to be "casualty averse," not expecting to be engaged in heavy combat operations back when they signed up for what they considered a training-and-peacekeeping mission. Suicide attacks in Afghanistan are on the rise, and US casualties, though relatively few compared with those in Iraq, have increased as well, according to American military officials on the ground there.
Conway, for one, is convinced that Afghanistan's security needs inevitably will require more American forces – and that the Corps, with its "expeditionary" focus, is well suited to the mission. Already, he has sent two Marine battalions to mountain warfare training in California to prepare for the missions in Afghanistan should the request come.
The Corps is already beginning to plan the drawdown of its forces in Anbar in Iraq, where the bulk of Marine forces are deployed.
So far, the calm in Anbar, which began before the surge of US forces this spring, has continued, and Marine officials believe the strategy there has worked. It seems unlikely that a large contingent of marines would stay in Anbar much longer if that peace continues. Unless marines are sent elsewhere in Iraq, that would leave Conway an opening to redeploy them to Afghanistan.
Such a deployment would also ease the Corps' deployment tempo, a goal Gates established for both the Army and Marine Corps upon taking office in January.
The decision about which forces, if any, to send to Afghanistan has a political subtext. If the White House were to send more US forces into a country most Americans thought was already secure, Democrats would be sure to exploit the security retrogression during an election year.
Such a decision, too, would have reverberations within the Pentagon, since the US force that would return to Afghanistan would carry with it a political prize. While much of the American public wants US forces out of Iraq, many see Afghanistan as the more righteous mission, because the origins of the 9/11 attacks can be traced there.
"Marines may be jockeying for the longer-term and maybe more popular role," says Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.
If more American forces are needed in Afghanistan, then the Pentagon must look at the "entire pool" of forces before it decides that what is best for the Marine Corps is also best for its policy in Afghanistan, says Mr. Cordesman.
Institutional memory lost?
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution, another think tank in Washington, is not necessarily opposed to Conway's idea, but he worries that taking marines out of Anbar, where they have been effective, could rob the US of vital knowledge about the province.
"The Marines know more about that province than the Army does," he says.
Marines are already being asked to help with the fight in Afghanistan. Last month, Corps officials announced that AV-8B Harrier jump jets – attached to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed aboard an amphibious assault ship – flew more than a dozen sorties over Afghanistan. The jets conducted reconnaissance, escorted ground convoys, and dropped precision-guided munitions on enemy targets, according to Corps officials.