Marines press to remove their forces from Iraq
WASHINGTON: The Marine Corps is pressing to remove its forces from Iraq and to send marines instead to Afghanistan, to take over the leading role in combat there, according to senior military and Pentagon officials.
The idea by the Marine Corps commandant would effectively leave the Iraq war in the hands of the army while giving the Marines a prominent new role in Afghanistan, under overall NATO command.
The suggestion was raised in a session last week convened by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and regional war-fighting commanders. While still under review, its supporters, including some in the army, argue that a realignment could allow the army and Marines each to operate more efficiently in sustaining troop levels for two wars that have put a strain on their forces.
As described by officials who had been briefed on the closed-door discussion, the idea represents the first tangible new thinking to emerge since the White House last month endorsed a plan to begin gradual troop withdrawals from Iraq, but also signals that American forces likely will be in Iraq for years to come.
At the moment, there are no major Marine units among the 26,000 or so American forces in Afghanistan. In Iraq there are about 25,000 marines among the 160,000 American troops there.
It is not clear exactly how many of the marines in Iraq would be moved over. But the plan would require a major reshuffling, and it would make marines the dominant American force in Afghanistan, in a war that has broader public support than the one in Iraq.
Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have not spoken publicly about the Marine concept, and aides to both officials said no formal proposal had been presented by the Marines. But the idea has been the focus of intense discussions between senior Marine Corps officers and other officials within the Defense Department.
It is not clear whether the army would support the idea. But some officials sympathetic to the army said that such a realignment would help ease some pressure on the army, by allowing it to shift forces from Afghanistan into Iraq, and by simplifying planning for future troop rotations.
The Marine proposal could also face resistance from the Air Force, whose current role in providing combat aircraft for Afghanistan could be squeezed if the overall mission was handed to the Marines. Unlike the army, the Marines would bring a significant force of combat aircraft to that conflict.
Whether the Marine proposal takes hold, the most delicate counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan, including the hunt for forces of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, would remain the job of a military task force that draws on army, navy and Air Force Special Operations units.
Military officials say the Marine proposal is also an early indication of jockeying among the four armed services for a place in combat missions in years to come. "At the end of the day, this could be decided by parochialism, and making sure each service does not lose equity, as much as on how best to manage the risk of force levels for Iraq and Afghanistan," said one Pentagon planner.
Tensions over how to divide future budgets have begun to resurface across the military because of apprehension that congressional support for large increases in defense spending seen since the Sept. 11 attacks will diminish, leaving the services to compete for money.
Those traditional turf battles have subsided somewhat given the overwhelming demands of waging two simultaneous wars — and because Pentagon budgets reached new heights.
Last week, the Senate approved a $459 billion Pentagon spending bill, an increase of $43 billion, or more than 10 percent over the last budget. That bill did not include, as part of a separate bill, President George W. Bush's request for almost $190 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Senior officials briefed on the Marine Corps concept said the new idea went beyond simply drawing clearer lines about who was in charge of providing combat personnel, war-fighting equipment and supplies to the two war zones.
They said it would allow the Marines to carry out the Afghan mission in a way the army cannot, by deploying as an integrated Marine Corps task force that included combat aircraft as well as infantry and armored vehicles, while the army must rely on the Air Force.
The Marine Corps concept was raised last week during a Defense Senior Leadership Conference convened by Gates just hours after Mullen was sworn in as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
During that session, the idea of assigning the Afghan mission to the Marines was described by General James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant. Details of the discussion were provided by military officers and Pentagon civilian officials briefed on the session and who requested anonymity to summarize portions of the private talks.
The Marine Corps has recently played the leading combat role in Anbar Province, the restive Sunni area west of Baghdad.
General David Petraeus, the senior army officer in Iraq, and his No. 2 commander, Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, also of the army, have described Anbar Province as a significant success story, with local tribal leaders joining the fight against terrorists.
Both generals strongly hint that if the security situation in Anbar holds steady, then reductions of American forces can be expected in the province, which could free up Marine units to move elsewhere.
In recent years, the emphasis by the Pentagon has been on joint operations that blur the lines between the military services, but there is also considerable precedent for geographic divisions in their duties. For much of the Vietnam War, responsibility was divided region by region between the army and the Marines. As described by military planners, the Marine proposal would allow Marine units moved to Afghanistan to take over the tasks now performed by an army headquarters unit and two brigade combat teams operating in eastern Afghanistan.
That would ease the strain on the army and allow it to focus on managing overall troop numbers for Iraq, as well as movements of forces inside the country as required by commanders to meet emerging threats.
The American military prides itself on the ability to go to war as a "joint force," with all of the armed services intermixed on the battlefield — vastly different from past wars when more primitive communications required separate ground units to fight within narrowly defined lanes to make sure they did not cross into the fire of friendly forces.
The Marine Corps is designed to fight with other services — it is based overseas aboard navy ships and is intertwined with the army in Iraq. At the same time, the Marines also are designed to be an agile, "expeditionary" force on call for quick deployment, and thus can go to war with everything needed to carry out the mission — troops, armor, attack jets and supplies.
Petraeus is due to report back to Congress by March on his troop requirements beyond the summer. His request for forces will be analyzed by the military's Central Command, which oversees combat missions across the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and by the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. All troop deployment orders must be approved by Gates, with the separate armed services then assigned to supply specific numbers of troops and equipment.
Marines train to fight in what is called a Marine Air-Ground Task Force. That term refers to a Marine deployment that arrives in a combat zone complete with its own headquarters, infantry combat troops, armored and transport vehicles and attack jets for close-air support, as well as logistics and support personnel.
"This is not about trading one ground war for another," said one Pentagon official briefed on the Marine concept. "It is about the nature of the fight in Afghanistan, and figuring out whether the Afghan mission lends itself more readily to the integrated MAGTF deployment than even Iraq."