WASHINGTON – It will likely be a few years before Afghanistan is secure enough for the U.S. Marines to leave, Commandant Gen. James Conway said Tuesday, adding his voice to a growing chorus of military leaders warning of a long fight ahead.
Afghan war commander Gen. David Petraeus and other senior officers have recently said that considerable time will be needed before Afghan troops can take over the fight.
But Conway's blunt assessment was the first of its kind to come from a service chief since President Barack Obama announced that U.S. troops will begin leaving Afghanistan in July 2011. Last fall, Obama said that security conditions will determine how many forces can leave and how fast.
Conway also said intelligence intercepts suggest that Taliban fighters have been encouraged by the talk of the U.S. beginning to withdraw troops next year.
"In some ways, we think right now it's probably giving our enemy sustenance," Conway said of the 2011 deadline. "We think that he may be saying to himself ... 'Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.'"
But, Conway quickly added, the perception that the U.S. is pulling out completely is likely to work in America's favor after the deadline passes, when Marines are still fighting insurgents. Taliban morale is likely to drop when "come the fall we're still there hammering them like we have been," he said.
"I think it could be very good for us in that context, in terms of the enemy psyche," he said.
The Marines have been at the forefront of America's toughest fights in the Afghanistan war, including attempts to oust the Taliban from the farming hamlets of Marjah in Helmand province.
Conway, known for his candor, is planning to retire this fall after 40 years in the Marines.
"Though I certainly believe some American unit somewhere in Afghanistan will turn over responsibilities to Afghan security forces in 2011, I do not think they will be Marines," he told reporters in his opening remarks at a Pentagon news conference.
Noting that Helmand and Kandahar are considered the "birthplace" of the Taliban, Conway said, "I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us."
Conway said he wants to prepare Marines for the likelihood that the war will continue past the 2011 deadline. He recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, where he said morale was high because Marines "can sense conditions are turning their direction."
Conway also said he believes that the Afghanistan government's effort to reconcile with low-level Taliban foot soldiers could be a "game changer" in the war.
But "when that will come remains to be seen," Conway said.
When asked about a proposal in Congress to lift the military's ban on openly gay service members, Conway said he still opposes such a move. He said that Marines in particular recruit "pretty macho" young Americans, many of whom have religious objections to sharing a room with a gay person.
But if the law changes, the Marine Corps will "deal" with it and not drag its feet, he said.
"We've got a war to fight," he said, "and we need to, if the law changes, implement (it) and get on with it."