USA — Conway Predicts Ongoing Marine Presence in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON, Aug. 24, 2010 — 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.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway
Marine Corps Com­man­dant Gen. James T. Con­way holds a press brief­ing at the Pen­ta­gon, Aug. 24, 2010, to talk about his just-com­plet­ed trip through U.S. Cen­tral Command’s area of respon­si­bil­i­ty.
DoD pho­to by R. D. Ward
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“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.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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