WASHINGTON 
— The commandant of the Marine Corps predicted a
continued Marine presence in southern Afghanistan well after July 2011,
when a transfer of security responsibilities to the Afghan government is
slated to begin.

"I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the
ground are such that turnover will be possible for us,” Gen. James T.
Conway told reporters today during a Pentagon briefing.

Conway briefed reporters on his recent trip to the Central Command
area of responsibility, during which he visited Afghanistan, Pakistan,
Romania and Germany. He spent most of his trip visiting Marines and
sailors in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, an official said.

Helmand and its neighboring province of Kandahar are the birthplace
of the Taliban, Conway noted, and the conditions there vary from other
regions. “If you look at the numbers of attacks, numbers of casualties;
if you look at the focus of the main effort – that is, the view of the
commanders there – the fight is in the south,” he said.

Conway declined to pinpoint the length of time a Marine presence
would be needed there. However, “I do not believe conditions in …
Helmand or Kandahar … are going to be such that we think we can simply
turn over to Afghan forces and leave,” he said.

The key to success in Helmand, Conway said, is to move people’s
loyalties off the fence and onto the side of Afghan and international
security forces. While slow to happen, he’s seeing signs of progress
toward this end, he said, with less corrupt and better-skilled police
forces, more projects, and district and subdistrict governors overseeing
the rule of law.

“When [the International Security Assistance Force] is able to
construct a self-contained cell phone system,” Conway said, “I’m
convinced that tips and intelligence will pick up, making it virtually
impossible for the Taliban to operate while hiding behind the citizens.”

Conway noted that the Taliban are trying to “string” out the
situation in Marja, located in Helmand province, for as long as they can
since they realize the loss will be a major defeat for them.

“We are dealing with a very intelligent enemy here who realizes that
Marja, probably more than any other battle in Afghanistan, has the
capture of an international audience,” he said. “And so they’re not
giving up that easily.

“They’re sniping at us, there’s throwing a few rounds here and there,
they’re shooting at our helicopters,” he continued, “but mainly,
they’re intimidating people … so as to maintain a presence there and
keep Marja from being, again, this strategic victory on the part of
Marines in the south of Helmand.”

Conway praised the Marines serving in Helmand province. They embody
the meaning of expeditionary, he said. Their ability to be fast,
flexible and lethal throws the enemy off balance, he explained, and it’s
not uncommon to find units away from their forward operating bases for
30 days at a time.

“Using superior firepower and battlefield mobility, I believe that
they hold the initiative,” he said of the Marines. “Even in the height
of the Taliban’s so-called fighting season, they are making the enemy
react to them.”

Conway also acknowledged the challenges that lie ahead. The Afghan
army’s capacity is hitting a critical stage, he said. Army Lt. Gen.
William B. Caldwell IV, commander of NATO Training Mission Afghanistan
and Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, is ahead of
schedule in training Afghan infantry companies and kandaks, or
battalions, he said, although the quality “varies widely.”

But the toughest part of Caldwell’s mission- recruiting and training
Afghan military aviators and enablers – lies ahead, Conway said.
Enablers are the equivalent of the Marines’ combat support units, he
explained.

“Those troops will require a higher level of education and skills
training than his ‘grunt’ units have required to date,” he said. “That
said, the organization and approach that he and his joint combined team
have taken appears to be, to the interested observer, just right for the
task at hand.”

A military force shapes the environment, Conway said, with better
security enabling other lines of operation, such as the economy and
government, to take shape.

“That’s why what General Caldwell and his people are doing is so
important,” Conway said. “That’s why we’re partnering right now, almost
on every patrol, with Afghan security forces when we go out. That’s why
we want to posture the police, so they can be successful.”

The goal is to transition an increasing amount of responsibilities to host nation forces.

“When we think that we have sufficiently beaten down the insurgency
in the area, we have sufficiently built up the Afghan capability to deal
with what’s there, then I think we have done the essence of what we
were sent there to do,” he said.

Conway acknowledged reports that indicate Americans are “increasingly
growing tired of the war,” but he noted that the last of the 30,000
troops President Barack Obama ordered to Afghanistan have only just
arrived this month.

Military leaders need to do a better job of convincing Americans of the need for the war in Afghanistan, Conway said.

“I don’t think that we have done a strong enough job in convincing
the American people there are good and just reasons why we have to
destroy al-Qaida and the associated Taliban in Afghanistan, similar to
what we did in Iraq,” he said, “certainly to the point where there is no
future opportunity for safe haven, certainly to the degree that we can
create conditions for that Afghan government to rule the country and
avoid safe haven.”

While Americans may not all support the war, the general noted that
they firmly support the troops. “I am so proud of our American public,
that regardless of how they see what happened in Iraq or what’s
happening in Afghanistan, they support the troops,” Conway said. “And
that’s the message that they get from me; that’s the message that they
see when they come home to dwell. And in that regard, I’m just
incredibly proud of our country.”

Comments

  1. I appreciate General Conway’s diplomacy but can’t wait until he retires and let’s loose with the rest of the story!
    The “we” that failed in not presenting the strategic value of a stable Iraq and Afghanistan to the people of this Republic dwell in a White House and both houses of Congress in the District of Columbia USA. There sure as heck has been nothing but the sound of a uncertain trumpet coming from inside the Beltway.
    Another thing this tired cliché of “I support the troops but not their mission” isn’t going over to well with me either. We have today the finest fighting force we have ever had in this Republic. In spite of multiple deployments into a combat zone at great risk to life and limb they continue to reenlist. I have to conclude those that reenlist believe in the mission and we need to back them 110% in that mission until they believe that mission is accomplished. It’s an insult to their intelligence and their courage to say you support them but not their mission. That’s it from the peanut gallery in fly over country.

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