Commandant downplays a shift of Marine mission from Iraq to Afghanistan


Some widely reported speculation about the motivation behind a proposal to shift Marine Corps responsibility to Afghanistan is blatantly wrong, the Marine Corps commandant told local service members and retirees Wednesday.

Gen. James Conway told a full house at the Marine Corps Association luncheon at Camp Lejeune's Officers' Club that he couldn't comment on the plan itself, because it hasn't yet gone to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

But, he said, the idea that the Corps is looking to take over a four-star general billet in Afghanistan is "absolutely untrue."

"It has been said that we want to leave the Al Anbar province (in Iraq) while the leaving is good," he said, but that is also wrong.

"In many ways, this is not about Afghanistan," he said, but rather about Iraq.

In Iraq, Conway said, Marines have gone into arguably the toughest sector - Al Anbar province - and gotten it under control.

"Nobody would have predicted we'd be where we are today when we went in," he said. "If there's hope, that hope started in Al Anbar."

But while violence is decreasing in Iraq, it is increasing in Afghanistan, he said.

"I am not as optimistic about what I see right now in Afghanistan," Conway said.

There are fewer than 400 Marines in Afghanistan now, while about 25,000 are in Iraq.

Still, he said, Afghanistan and Iraq do not represent not the war itself, but rather, "battles in the long war."

Conway also told the Marine Corps Association about the mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles designed with a V-shaped hull to deflect shrapnel, providing more protection from an underbelly attack than an up-armored Humvee.

Conway said officials are finding troops in MRAPs are "about 300 percent more likely to survive (the) blast that literally takes out an up-armored Humvee."

The MV-22 Osprey also has deployed to Iraq, and though the aircraft has "a checkered past," it is ready to perform now, Conway said.

Conway also addressed the growth of the Marine Corps - which he said is necessary to give Marines a break from the current rotation cycle of seven months deployed, seven months home.

The plan is to grow to 202,000 by 2011. In the first year of the plan, Conway said it was crucial the Corps meet its goal of an additional 5,000 Marines without lowering standards.

"We knew that our critics would be out in force" if the Corps could not meet the goal, Conway said.

Instead of falling short, he said, the Marine Corps actually outperformed - going from 179,000 to 186,000.

And morale is good, he said, especially among those getting ready to deploy or already in theater.

"The longest faces I have seen in the Marine Corps are in the Pacific," he said, where the Marines are far away from the war and worried they may never see the battlefield.

Contact military reporter Jennifer Hlad at or 353-1171, ext. 8467. To comment on this story, visit