Marines' Afghanistan Plan Sparks Debate

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 12, 2007

A bid by the Marine Corps to take responsibility for the primary U.S. military mission in Afghanistan is generating a heated debate inside and outside the Pentagon, with some senior officers arguing that the Marines are ideally suited for the Afghan war while others contend that the move would undermine the counterinsurgency strategy there.

Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, has raised the idea of the Marines shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan in meetings with the military's Joint Staff and the office of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. "It's just started to be discussed at senior levels," said Col. David Lapan, a Marine spokesman.

Gates yesterday played down the discussion, saying he has not yet seen any proposals. "It's . . . extremely preliminary thinking on the part of, perhaps, some staff people in the Marine Corps," Gates said during a trip to London. "I don't think at this point it has any stature."

The Marine Corps is enthusiastic about a possible move to Afghanistan, with senior officials saying yesterday that its integrated air, ground and logistics units are tailor-made for the dispersed fighting in rugged terrain.

"It's an optimal deployment of the Marine Corps," said one senior Marine officer, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be interviewed. "We feel as though we could very neatly fit into that niche."

Marine combat units -- traditionally trained in mountain warfare -- served in Afghanistan starting soon after the 2001 U.S. invasion. They have been largely pulled out over the past two years to focus on Iraq's Anbar province, where there are about 25,000 Marines. Over the past year, violence has fallen sharply in the western province, leading to the withdrawal last month of 2,200 Marines.

Under the proposal, as Marines are freed up from Iraq they would flow gradually into Afghanistan, relieving Army soldiers, who make up the bulk of the U.S. contingent of 27,000 troops. "It would be phased" and would probably begin next year, leading eventually to the Marines assuming the U.S. command there, said another senior Marine official. "We could do a heck of a job there," he said, adding that some Marine commanders are making contingency plans for training for an Afghan mission. But he and others stressed that any shift in deployments would require high-level approval.

Some military officers, including in the Army, see serious flaws in the proposal. They argue that the Marine Corps' seven-month combat tours are ill suited to a long counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and that the sea-based force is not designed for a land-locked country.

"Afghanistan is a long way from any ocean, and the Marine Air-Ground Task Force was not designed to conduct sustained operations inland without extensive Army support," said a general on the Joint Staff.

Some officers pointed to institutional drawbacks in putting a single service in command of the Afghanistan mission when the Pentagon is striving to promote joint operations involving the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force.

"A parochial, single-service approach to war-fighting would greatly complicate matters without providing a single significant advantage over our adversaries," said the Joint Staff general.

"If the reports are accurate, to make the fight in Afghanistan a single-service effort flies in the face of all the progress made in joint war-fighting in the last 20 years," said retired Army Gen. David Barno, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

The debate has also prompted inter-service rivalry. "The cynical talk is this gives the Marines another four-star billet running the NATO show over there," said a retired Army general. "The other cynical point is that this is a much more popular war" than the war in Iraq.

Marine officers denied that the plan marked a bid for territory or resources. "This idea this is some kind of play for resources is myopic," said a senior officer.

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