Soon, they will be coming home.
Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, said Thursday that all but a handful of the 16,000 Marines in Anbar would be out of the country in less than a year.
"We think in the spring of 2010 that [Marine commander Maj. Gen. Richard Tryon] will close the door, turn out the lights, and end Marine Corps presence in Iraq," General Conway told an audience of veterans at the National Press Club in Washington.
It's a departure long-awaited by the Marine general. Conway has championed the move for more than a year as he has sought to take the Marine Corps back to their expeditionary roots. The idea is to take Marines out of Iraq, which has hundreds of built-up bases with reasonably good living conditions, and put them in Afghanistan, which doesn't.
Marines essentially operate as a self-sustained light unit that conducts a focused mission for shorter periods, leaving the Army as the occupying force. But the war in Iraq required thousands of troops, and the US Army couldn't do it alone, so Marines remained in Anbar. As they went back for "rotation after rotation," Conway grew concerned that the deployments were reshaping the Marine Corps, and not for the better.
So he pushed to pull Marines out of Iraq, where tensions had decreased, and into Afghanistan, where the limited infrastructure and more intense fighting seemed more in keeping with what Conway sees Marines doing.
At the same time, Conway said he could not have "one foot in the canoe with another on the dock," meaning the Marines couldn't do Afghanistan and Iraq simultaneously for long.
Now, more than 10,000 Marines are headed to Afghanistan as the deployments to Iraq slow down.
"We served in many ways as a second land army," Conway said, and "served a long way away from the sea."
The Marines' departure from Anbar is significant for its symbolism. The current level of stability in Iraq has its roots in the "awakening movement" that began in Anbar in 2006, was nudged by Army units there, and unfolded with Marine support ever since. This month, American troops across the country are pulling out of most cities in Iraq to allow Iraqi forces to assume more responsibility for security.
Yet deploying Marines to the more expeditionary environment of Afghanistan is only part of Conway's attempt to get Marines back to where they were before 9/11. In many ways, both Iraq and Afghanistan have taken the Corps away from the kinds of operations it traditionally trains for because it has been so focused on the counterinsurgency operations in these places.
The general has often lamented that the conventional kinds of training the Corps has done – training for assaults from the sea that conjure images of landings at Inchon and Guadalcanal – seems foreign to too many Marines. Many in the generation of Marines who have enlisted since 2001 have never been on a naval ship – Marines' traditional mode of transport.
"We're going to have to accomplish some training that we have not been able to accomplish with our specific focus on counterinsurgency," Conway said.