Pentagon Is Open to Moving More Marines to Afghanistan

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008

The Marine Corps may begin shifting its major combat forces out of Iraq to focus on Afghanistan in 2009 if greater security in Iraq allows a reduction of Marines there, top Pentagon officials said yesterday.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the proposal by the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Conway, to focus his force on Afghanistan -- which they rejected late last year -- could be reconsidered.

"Should we be in a position to move forces into Afghanistan, I think that certainly would come back into consideration," Mullen said at a Pentagon briefing. He said that he understands it is challenging for the Marines to have "a foot in both countries" and that Conway seeks to "optimize the forces that he has," but stressed that any shift is likely to occur "down the road."

Gates said he agrees that the Marine Corps shift is "a possibility" for next year. He explained that when he earlier said the change "wouldn't happen on my watch," that was not an unchangeable policy decision -- he meant it would not unfold until 2009, when he plans to step down.

Gates said that the Pentagon is still looking at options to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan in 2009, but that there is no plan to extend the seven-month deployment of about 3,200 Marines dispatched there this spring. "I'd be loath to" extend the Marines beyond November, when they are scheduled to leave Afghanistan, he said.

A senior military official said this week that after a "vigorous debate," Mullen, Conway and other members of the Joint Chiefs recently hammered out their priorities for employing stretched U.S. ground forces: first, Iraq; next, Afghanistan; and finally, bringing troops home to increase the amount of time they have in the United States to train and recuperate.

Long, 15-month deployments and troop increases in Iraq and Afghanistan have severely stretched the Army and Marine Corps. That has led to more soldiers under "stop-loss," which means they are required to stay in service beyond their contractual departure date. As of the end of March, the number of active-duty, National Guard and reserve soldiers on stop-loss had risen to 12,100, Army officials said.

Gates asked the Army last year to minimize the number of soldiers on stop-loss, and said yesterday he is "troubled" by the trend, detailed for him in a briefing yesterday by Army leaders. "It is an issue. It troubles me. And I think it is a strain," he said.

Still, he said the practice is important to maintain "unit cohesion," noting that about half of soldiers under stop-loss are sergeants. "If they left a unit, it would leave a pretty gaping hole, while still deployed," he said.

Gates said Army leaders told him they expect the number of soldiers prevented from leaving because of stop-loss will begin to decline in September, after five Army combat brigades return from Iraq by July.

Turning to another key troop morale issue -- proposals in Congress to increase benefits under the GI Bill -- Gates said he supports more generous benefits but wants to link them to a longer mandatory term of service, six years compared with three under the leading Senate legislation.

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