Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Conway: U.S. Withdrawal Deadline Boosts Taliban in Afghan War

The top U.S. Marine general made a sharp departure from the White House’s talking points on Afghanistan, saying President Barack Obama’s promised July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing troops from the country had given “sustenance” to the Taliban.

“We know the president was talking to several audiences at the same time when he made his comments on July 2011,” Gen. James Conway told reporters on Tuesday. “In some ways, we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance….In fact, we’ve intercepted communications that say, ‘Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.’”

Conway, who recently returned from a trip to the region, was quick to qualify his remarks. He referred back to a statement made earlier in the press conference, saying that he expected Marines to remain on the ground in southern Afghanistan, the traditional stronghold for the Taliban, well after July 2011. “If you accept what I offered earlier as true, that Marines will be there … after the middle of 2011, what’s the enemy going to say then, you know?” he said.

The general’s blunt appraisal – that Afghan security forces are not likely to be ready to take the lead in a year’s time – is not a surprise. But timing of the troop drawdown is a contentious political issue. When Obama announced a surge of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in December, he said the transfer of forces in mid-2011 would depend on conditions on the ground, including the ability of Afghan security forces to take over responsibility for security.

Conway said, “I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us.”

The general acknowledged waning public support for the Afghan campaign, saying, “I sense our country is increasingly growing tired of the war.” Appealing for patience, he quoted the appraisal of a Marine officer he met on his most recent trip: “We can either lose fast or win slow.”

The White House and Pentagon declined to comment.

The Marines form only one part of the 78,000-strong U.S. troop contingent, which is in turn part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, which includes some 120,000 troops from 47 nations. Marine operations are focused primarily on the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, in Afghanistan’s Pashtun heartland.

Conway said the Marines would continue to go after the Taliban, regardless of the 2011 deadline. “I certainly believe that some American units somewhere in Afghanistan will turn over responsibilities to Afghanistan security forces in 2011, I do not think they will be Marines,” he said.