U.S. to Hand Over Security Duties in Anbar to Iraqi Forces

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008

The top Marine Corps general said yesterday that the U.S. military will hand over security responsibilities to Iraqi forces next week in Iraq's western province of Anbar, paving the way to reduce the 25,000-strong Marine contingent there and free up more Marines to go to Afghanistan.

The Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. James T. Conway, said Anbar no longer requires such a large number of Marines, who would be better employed fighting in Afghanistan, where he said the Taliban insurgency is "growing bolder."

"I do know that 25,000 Marines in a province, again, are probably in excess of the need, especially after Iraqi provincial control assumes responsibilities for security," Conway told a media roundtable at the Pentagon.

Attacks in Anbar have fallen to the lowest level since the war started in March 2003, even as thousands of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers have withdrawn from the province this year, said Conway, who recently met with U.S. and Iraqi commanders in Anbar. -- There are now two or three attacks a day, compared with scores daily two years ago, when Anbar was one of the most dangerous provinces in Iraq.

While pointing to security gains in Iraq, Conway voiced concern over increased violence in Afghanistan, where he said insurgent attacks and U.S. troop casualties have increased since 2004.

"The Taliban are growing bolder in their tactics and clearly doing their best to exploit security gaps where they exist," he said. More foreign fighters are also flowing into Afghanistan from Pakistan, and the al-Qaeda terrorist network is shifting its focus to those countries after serious defeats in Iraq, he said.

Conway made a strong pitch to send thousands of additional Marines or other U.S. troops to Afghanistan, voicing agreement with U.S. commanders there who have said for years that they have too small a force and have called for as many as 10,000 more troops. "The economy of force is not necessarily working," Conway said.

He said the additional Marines are needed in part to replace the 3,200 in southern and western Afghanistan whose extended eight-month tour will end in late November. He warned that without reinforcements, a security vacuum will allow the Taliban to retake captured territory and persecute the population.

"We've seen families slaughtered. We've seen policemen rounded up and executed with shots to the back of the head in the soccer stadium, just to make the point. And so that's what we risk if we don't somehow take advantage of those gains and maintain the momentum in that area," Conway said.

Taliban fighters and their families are entrenched in the strips of cultivated lands in Afghan river valleys, where they have access to food, supply lines and profits from opium production, he said. A critical mass of foreign and Afghan troops is needed to defeat the insurgency by driving the Taliban from such "green zones" and into the austerity of the Afghan mountains, he said.

Marine units in the United States are stepping up their mountain training in preparation for a possible Afghanistan mission, Conway said. He noted that the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and 2nd Battalion 7th Marine Regiment were not fully trained when concerns over a Taliban spring offensive led to an "impromptu decision" to deploy them there in April.

Marine combat forces now spend as much or more time deployed than they do at home, and Conway said that given the stress on them, it would be impossible to send more Marines to Afghanistan without at least a partial drawdown from Iraq. The number of Marines deployed worldwide must fall to 15,000 before the Corps can reach its goal of giving Marines twice as much time at home as in the war zone, he said.

Nevertheless, Conway said, Marines would be better employed in combat in Afghanistan than in rebuilding Iraq.

"Young Marines join our Corps to go fight for their country," he said. "It's our view that if there is a stiffer fight going someplace else in a much more expeditionary environment . . . then that's where we need to be."

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