By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 8:43 PM
The commandant of the Marine Corps said Tuesday that Taliban leaders may be misleading their own forces into believing that they only have to keep fighting through the middle of next year, when U.S. troops are slated to begin pulling out of Afghanistan.
President Obama has said that troops will begin withdrawing in July 2011, but it will be months before the administration determines the size of the drawdown. On Tuesday, Gen. James T. Conway said in a Pentagon briefing that he thinks the Taliban has misinterpreted U.S. intentions.
"We think right now it's probably giving our enemy sustenance. . . . We've intercepted communications that say, hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long," he said.
But if it turns out the Marines are still in Afghanistan after mid-2011, Conway said, insurgent leaders based in Pakistan could be hard pressed to explain themselves to their foot soldiers.
Conway, who just returned from a visit to Afghanistan, said that decisions on withdrawals next year would be made by Obama and Conway's superiors but that he did not think U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan would be able to turn over Helmand province, the birthplace of the Taliban, to Afghan forces.
He added that interrogations of Taliban prisoners have shown that they are getting tired of the war.
"They're getting hammered, to a much greater degree than we are," Conway said. "And they're asking themselves, 'Hey, is this all worth it?' And they're asking themselves that now."
In a separate Pentagon briefing Tuesday, the Italian general heading up NATO training of Afghan National Police said that the police force could benefit from President Hamid Karzai's plan to ban private security firms.
Brig. Gen. Carmelo Burgiotold reporters that Karzai's move "could slow down attrition and increase retention" in the Afghan police program.
In seeking to recruit new police, the Afghan government has struggled to compete with private contractors, who pay employees far more. The Afghan police have also been plagued by attrition levels running near 40 percent.
Recently salaries for Afghan police have been raised, but the banning of private security firms could help provide an incentive for Afghans to work for the government instead, Burgio said.
One thing both Conway and Burgio agreed upon was that the Afghan operation was going to take time.
Conway, as have other military leaders, reminded reporters that the last of the last 30,000 troops are still arriving. "I think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that we would expect to be able to turn over to Afghan forces," he said.
One of his regimental commanders, he said, has pointed out that "we can either lose fast or win slow."
Burgio also said more time was needed for police training.
"I always say to my bosses I need time," Burgio told reporters. "We cannot solve this problem in one year. . . . The main challenge is the changing of the mind-set, which means working for years."