WASHINGTON – The top Marine general said Wednesday that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has rejected his proposal to shift Marine forces from Iraq to Afghanistan, reflecting in part the Bush administration's concern that recent security gains in Iraq are fragile and reversible.
"After discussion with the secretary and with my colleagues on the Joint Staff, there is a determination that right now the timing is not right to provide additional Marine forces to Afghanistan," Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, told reporters at the Pentagon.
Conway's proposal gives unusual insight into the thinking of the Marine Corps, which sees itself as offering unique capabilities, different in important ways than the Army, with which it has shared the bulk of the work in Iraq since a joint Army-Marine force invaded and toppled Baghdad in 2003.
Conway hinted at those differences, saying Marines prefer serving under fire in a combat zone to performing nation-building duties in Iraq. He said that in his meeting with Gates on this subject last week, Gates understood Conway's thinking.
"He's heard anecdotal reports that lance corporals are complaining that they don't have anybody to shoot" in the newly peaceful Anbar, where most Marines are operating, Conway said. "But that doesn't drive strategic thinking, of course." At another point Conway, who visited Anbar last month, described the province as still dangerous and said it would be too early to withdraw all troops.
Conway also acknowledged that his idea of putting Marines primarily in Afghanistan, after they leave Iraq, would have the added benefit of attracting recruits at a time the Marine Corps is trying to expand.
"There's a little bit of a recruiting consideration here in this, I'll admit to you," he said, sketching out a scenario in which about 15,000 Marines would be in Afghanistan and none in Iraq, compared with the present situation in which there are about 25,000 Marines in Iraq and just a few in Afghanistan.
Switching to Afghanistan at lower numbers would give Marines more time between combat tours, while appealing to those potential recruits who like the idea of fighting in the country that gave haven to al-Qaida before it carried out its Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Conway said. Left unsaid was the notion that many Marines get less satisfaction from their efforts in Iraq.
"I think the fact that the Marine Corps is still fighting the nation's wars would continue to bring in those great young Americans who want to be Marines and fight for their country," he said.
He referred to the Marines' current duty in Iraq's Anbar province as almost like occupation duty.
"Occupation is not the right word here, but the long-term security forces, that's not a Marine function," he said. "That's not what U.S. Marines do for the country. We're expeditionary, and we do not get engaged in some of the long-term type of duties that you see in Germany or in Japan or in Korea. We are much more mobile than that, and we want to keep that mobility and that flexibility and not get tied down."
The Afghanistan mission, he said, "matches our strengths and our capabilities" as a force that combines light infantry, armored ground power and tactical air capabilities.
"My point to (Gates) is that, if and when we are able to continue our drawdown in Iraq and it comes time for Marine units to start leaving the country, ... should we bring them home or should we start looking at putting them where there is still an active fight; in this case, Afghanistan? And we were prepared to do that."
Gates visited Afghanistan on Tuesday and was in Iraq Wednesday, although he did not go to Iraq's Anbar province.
In addressing the matter publicly for the first time, Conway said he was not disappointed by Gates' decision, given that the Marines have had considerable success in stabilizing Anbar province, which for much of the war had been a haven for Sunni Arab insurgents who killed hundreds of U.S. troops.
"Personally discouraged? No," he said. "Frankly, our casualty count is going to continue to be lower and that is a good day," Conway said.
Conway, a former commander of Marine forces in Anbar, said the essence of his proposal was to shift Marine combat units to Afghanistan as the need for their services in Anbar declined. Asked when he thought the situation in Anbar might be stable enough to reduce the Marine force there, Conway said two battalions likely would come home by March but further reductions were uncertain.
Conway also confirmed that he has proposed buying fewer mine-resistant armored vehicles than previously planned — 2,300 instead of 3,700 — in large part because the need for extra force protection in the Marines' sector of Iraq has declined dramatically as insurgent violence has dropped in recent months.