Marine Commander Wants More Forces in Afghanistan

When Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway visited the dusty hinterlands of southern Afghanistan last week, probably the last thing he expected to find was U.S. Marines with full, bushy beards. But there they were, members of the Marines' Special Operations Command unit, known as MarSOC.

While a complete departure from the Corps' fastidious clean-shaven image, the beards have been adopted by small, largely independent teams training Afghan forces and conducting high-level missions in remote areas. Commanders say the facial hair is a signal to the Muslim population that the Americans respect their customs.

But beyond the uncustomary grooming procedures, the Marine Corps' top commander didn't seem surprised by much during his trip into Afghanistan, a country where a resurgent Taliban has been wreaking havoc and insurgent groups have been bleeding over the porous borders with Pakistan. There are currently about 3,400 Marines deployed in Afghanistan, and Conway said far more are needed to do the job.

But the Marines' hands are tied in sending more troops unless there is a reduction of the 24,000 Marines currently deployed in Iraq. The service is not big enough to handle a protracted war on two fronts, Conway has said. The time is ripe for a drawdown in Iraq's Al Anbar Province, he has long argued, pointing to security improvements logged with each passing week. For the better part of the past year, Conway has attempted to sway Pentagon war planners to shift the focus for Marines from Iraq to the mountains of Afghanistan, where they are better suited to fight as an expeditionary force.

"There's not much enemy left in Iraq but there's plenty of enemy here to be dealt with," Conway told more than 100 Marines deployed at Afghanistan's Bagram Air Base during his recent visit. The trip is one of several the plain-spoken commander takes every year in order to brief Marines down to the lowest enlisted ranks on the service's big-picture issues.

Conditions are undeniably better in Iraq each week, the general told a NEWSWEEK reporter traveling with him. "On average, you've got three attacks a day in Anbar Province. It used to be several hundred a day."

This past spring, Marines were given a toehold into the resurging Afghan fight when an infantry battalion and a Marine Expeditionary Unit were sent as part of a one-time surge into southern Afghanistan. The Marines were assigned territory that had previously undergone only intermittent patrols, Conway said. As a result, casualty numbers in Afghanistan are now surpassing those in Iraq. There were 65 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan in May, June and July--the highest three-month tally since the war began in 2001, according to the Associated Press. And the military death toll in July eclipsed that of Iraq for the first time since that war began in 2003, the AP reported.

"We are undermanned in order to be able to do all we need to do in the south [of Afghanistan]," Conway said. The 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, for example, is currently covering 16,000 square miles. "That's a huge area of responsibility. We can't nearly be every place we need to be in sufficient strength to manage that."

In recent weeks, both of those Marine units have had their deployments extended, and there's no clear indication who will take on their ground once they go home as scheduled by November. The Corps, already stretched thin by its Iraq commitments, would be hamstrung to send any more troops into Afghanistan as replacements, Conway said.

Conway's trip to Afghanistan comes as the Pentagon looks to step-up the fight against Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters with a troop surge that could include Marines. Their role in the strategy, however, likely won't be cemented until after Multi-National Force-Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus returns to the United States next month to brief President Bush and other military leaders. After leaving Iraq, Petraeus is set to take over the U.S. military's Central Command, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan.

Should Marines be ordered in for an extended role in Afghanistan, they would need to go in as a Marine Air Ground Task Force, Conway said. By design, a self-sustaining MAGTF unit is in charge of its own artillery, air and logistics, and could swell to as many as 40,000 Marines, depending upon its combat mission. "If we're ordered there, we aught to be ordered there in large numbers if we're going to be expected to operate in a country that is that large with what is now a fairly significant enemy presence," Conway said. "We don't want another force in there that isn't fully adaptive for what we think we're going to face."

Pulling out the small number of Marines currently in southern Afghanistan without a plan to replace them, could undo security gains, Conway cautioned, citing lessons learned in Iraq. "If you leave those people [locals who have cooperated with security forces], the method of the Taliban or of Al Qaeda is to come in and exact a punishment."

The potential security gap after Marines go home is a serious worry, despite the fact that winter months are typically considered a more inactive fighting season in Afghanistan, said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution. Even if current Marine force levels were doubled, force numbers wouldn't be anything close to those in Iraq, he said.

In Afghanistan, which has an area about the size of Texas, there are currently about 70,000 international troops coupled with about 65,000 Afghan security forces the Pentagon wants to see doubled in the next five years. In Iraq, a much smaller country by almost 100,000 square miles, there are about 700,000 security forces between Iraqi and international troops. "The broader issue is whether or not the mission is working even with the Marines there," O'Hanlon said.

In the meantime, the modest numbers of Marines in southern Afghanistan mean some units are operating on their own, further out from larger bases. One Marine platoon, for example, is based near the village of Gulestan, in the Farah province that borders Iran. The austere camp of tents and camouflage netting, outlined in rings of dirt-filled barriers meant to absorb blasts and bullets, is many miles from the nearest Marine base.

Last week, the mountain valley was dry and dusty. But spring brings fertile fields of opium and marijuana crops, said the platoon's leader, Lt. Benjamin Brewster. Their presence has had significant impact in improving security for the locals, Brewster said. "When we leave, they will either go back to being farmers, or will be killed," he said.

MarSOC Marines also break up into small teams but don't own battle space, something Conway said keeps them flexible in tackling targets that might not need the support of a conventional unit. That flexibility is readily identifiable by the decision of some to grow beards in an attempt to have status among local Afghan men. "In some cultures, it should be allowed," a senior member of MarSOC's Charlie Company, told NEWSWEEK during a visit to their secluded camp last week.

The special operations Marines have been based in a small remote outpost near the city of Delaram since late June. They wear the same brown digitized uniform as conventional Marine units, carry many of the same weapons and drive in the same Humvees. The nature of their mission has them out among locals more than other units, often great distances from a support base, explained the senior Marine, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of his position.

At times, they may be forced to depend on those local villages for food and, under extreme circumstances, a brief sanctuary to render medical aid to an injured Marine, he said. "With this in mind situations can turn bad very quickly, so if it means buying a few seconds of life as opposed to death by showing them without words that you know about their customs and culture and respect, then it is definitely worth the effort," he said.

But Gen. Conway may not be totally convinced about the beards. "I have authorized relaxed grooming standards previously as a commander where I thought it made sense," Conway said, explaining he previously approved a mission that required Marines to grow long hair and beards, and dress like Iraqis. "I would do anything if I thought it would enhance the mission or save lives. I'm not sure, as I understand all of the elements of [the south Afghanistan operations] at this point, that [growing a beard] does either."

The issue, however, was momentarily shelved as Conway sat in the blazing mid-day sun in the dusty Delaram camp, perched upon a picnic table talking with the Marines for well over an hour as they ate lunch out of MRE packets. "I was impressed. I'm always impressed with the spirit of our Marines in remote places," Conway later said while en route back to Washington. "There's no loss or lack of enthusiasm for the mission, and that's important because I think we're going to be at it a while."