Gen. James Conway, the Marine commandant who returned recently from visiting troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, called the Afghan mission more dangerous but less vital than Iraq.
“What I told the troops in Iraq is that the most dangerous thing that our corps is doing today is happening in Afghanistan,” he told Pentagon reporters. “The most important thing we’re doing today is happening in Iraq. And that is because we’re sealing the win there.”
Currently, some 5,000 Marines are operating in Iraq as the phased drawdown of U.S. forces continues there.
“The major equipment items are 95 percent out of Iraq,” he said. “Our folks there in this last rotation, if you will, have been doing a magnificent job phasing down, breaking trail for the much larger army, shipment of equipment that’s going to follow.”
Conway said the way the Marine Corps views operations in Afghanistan will be predicated on what happens in Iraq.
“I would also offer that the way we see Afghanistan is very much through the filter of Iraq,” he said. “And that we come out of Iraq under a victory pennant, facing now what we see in Afghanistan, I think, is the way we … would hope and expect American forces to be able to do that.”
The commandant’s remarks come weeks after President Barack Obama announced a U.S. strategy for Afghanistan that will send 30,000 additional forces over the next six months with the nonbinding goal of beginning to withdraw troops starting in July 2011.
Some 13,000 Marines currently are operating in Afghanistan – a number that is expected to rise to 20,000 by spring of next year. Military officials have said the distribution of additional troops would factor in the current U.S. footprint in Afghanistan, which comprises about 68,000 troops — a mixture of combat forces and trainers — spread throughout, but with the east and south serving as focal points.
In July, U.S. Marines and Afghan security forces launched an operation in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand River valley, waging war against Taliban operatives in the area.
Currently, some 8,000 Marines of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade of Camp Leujeune, N.C., are responsible for southern and western Helmand province and in the western border province of Farah.
Conway acknowledged significant differences between the two wars, but said that lessons learned in Iraq might find valid application in Afghanistan.
“Certainly I can offer that although Afghanistan has a lot of things different about it,” he said, “we have validated our tactics, techniques and procedures that we used in Iraq.”