Marine Corps Moves to Take Lead Role in Afghanistan

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Marine Corps is making a bid to take over the command and primary mission of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, anticipating a gradual withdrawal of its troops from Iraq's western province of Anbar, senior military and Pentagon officials said.

The proposal, discussed at senior levels of the Pentagon last week, would have the Marine Corps replace the Army as the lead U.S. force in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops number more than 25,000 and make up the largest contingent of the NATO-led force there. No major Marine Corps combat units are deployed to Afghanistan, although recently Marine special operations units have served there.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, announced the withdrawal of 2,200 Marines from Anbar last month as the first element of a drawdown of approximately 21,700 combat troops scheduled to exit Iraq by July 2008. There are about 25,000 Marines in Anbar, out of 169,000 total U.S. troops in Iraq.

The second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, said this month that he is inclined to pull other U.S. forces out of Anbar as early as December as a result of declining levels of violence there.

Marine Corps officers who have served in Iraq expressed enthusiasm for the idea, which would in essence allow the service to extricate itself from the increasingly unpopular and costly Iraq war. In turn, it would shift its emphasis to the conflict in Afghanistan, which, along with bordering tribal regions of Pakistan, constitutes a major counterterrorism mission for the United States.

Senior Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, have not publicly spoken of the issue. Officers knowledgeable of the Marine Corps' push for the new mission did not characterize it as a formal plan.

U.S. troops in Afghanistan operate mainly in the eastern portion of the country, along the Pakistan border. A separate U.S. command includes Special Operations Forces that have the lead in an international mission to track down terrorist cells in Afghanistan.

The Army, the dominant force in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- where it has 17 and two combat brigades, respectively -- would have at least a portion of its current burden lifted if the Marine proposal is accepted. At the same time, the proposal could help streamline military operations by allowing each service to concentrate on one theater of operations.

Still, intra-service rivalry could lead some in the Army to oppose the change, a senior Army official said. One officer, for example, was critical of a March incident in Afghanistan when a new Marine Corps special operations company was investigated and ordered out of the country when its members killed or wounded more than 40 Afghan civilians after a suicide bomber attacked their passing convoy.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company