The commandant of the United States Marine Corps said Tuesday that he expects his forces to be in southern Afghanistan for several more years, even though some U.S. troops will begin withdrawing from the country next July. General James Conway noted that wrong expectations about President Barack Obama's Afghanistan strategy are helping the Taliban in the short term, but might come back to hurt them after the target date passes.
In his final Pentagon news conference before retiring, General Conway said President Obama's plan to begin withdrawing U.S. forces next year will be carried out, but not in key and hotly-contested areas in southern Afghanistan, where the Marines operate.
"Though I certainly believe some American unit somewhere in Afghanistan will turn over responsibilities to Afghan security forces in 2011, I do not think they will be Marines," Conway said. "Helmand and Kandahar [provinces], adjacent to it, are the birthplace of the Taliban. I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us."
But Conway, who just returned from a visit to Afghanistan, said President Obama's declaration that he will begin reducing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by July 2011 is bolstering Taliban morale.
"In some ways, we think, right now, it's probably giving our enemy sustenance," the General said. "We think that he may be saying to himself, in fact we've intercepted communications that say, 'Hey, we only have to hold out for so long.'"
Conway said Taliban leaders are also using that impression to try to keep their fighters motivated in the face of a growing onslaught from U.S. Marines and other forces. But the general said that effort by Taliban leaders will backfire when fighters realize they are wrong.
"What's the enemy going to say then? What is he going say to his foot troops? The foot troops have been believing what he has been saying," Conway said, adding "They're [i.e., U.S. troops] are all going to leave in the summer of next year, and come the fall we're still there hammering like we have been."
General Conway said his Marines, working with other foreign troops and Afghan forces, are making progress in Helmand Province and neighboring areas, which make up the Taliban heartland. He said U.S. snipers are taking out Taliban snipers and that his troops are disrupting Taliban supply lines, making it more difficult for them to distribute bomb-making materials. Conway said those moves have helped to sharply reduce the number of American casualties in Helmand this month. But the general said the Taliban in the area will not be weak enough and the Afghan government forces will not be strong enough to allow for a foreign troop withdrawal there for several years.
Like other U.S. officials, General Conway noted that the key is to convince Afghan civilians to support the government and resist Taliban intimidation. He said he does not expect an Iraq-style tribal "awakening," but he said that as Taliban fighters realize foreign forces are not giving up, there could be a move toward reconciliation, which he said would be a "game changer."