The U.S. Marine Corps may need to grow to sustain commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and remain ready for other crises, the force’s new commander said Wednesday.
Gen. James Conway also said he saw a mismatch between the views of his troops and those of American civilians on the time needed to train Iraqi forces and the nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Conway said the Marines’ present strength of around 180,000 troops was sufficient for peacetime but he added: “Where the force is engaged and is more stressed, I think that that number needs to somewhat be more variable.”
Commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan meant the Marines were well below their target of allowing units to spend 14 months at home for every seven-month deployment, Conway said.
Conway, who took over as Marine Corps commandant last week, said he had asked his staff to work out how to achieve the target and meet the Marines’ requirements to the country.
“There’s two ways that you approach that -- one is reducing the requirement, the other is potentially growing the force for what we call ‘the long war,’ ” he told reporters at the Pentagon.
Conway noted several groups -- including a bipartisan panel co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker -- are preparing advice on Iraq strategy; the general said he would await the outcome of that process before making any recommendations.
Conway said he had enough forces for another crisis but training for fighting such as jungle warfare and large-scale maneuvers had been severely limited by Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Our Marine Corps has become, I think, a very counter-insurgency capable force but we’re not providing to the nation some of the other things that we should be able to do in virtually any other nature of contingency,” he said.
There are 23,000 Marines in Iraq and 150 in Afghanistan, although they have had larger contingents there in the past.
The Marines’ main presence in Iraq is in the restive western province of Anbar, where they are focusing on training Iraqi security forces to take on insurgents.
Disconnect with public opinion
Conway said training Iraqi forces was a long process and indicated some concern that American public opinion was not prepared to give U.S. forces the time needed to do the job.
“Unfortunately I think that the timeline that we see that it would take to build a fully capable, competent force and for us to feel comfortable stepping away is longer than the timeline that we probably feel now that our country will support,” he said.
Critics of the Iraq war say it has been a diversion from the fight against al-Qaida but Conway said the Marines were killing people in Iraq who would otherwise be trying to “work their way into Baltimore harbor or Los Angeles airport.”
But he said he was not sure ordinary Americans shared that view despite efforts by President Bush and many others.
“I don’t know ... that we’ve been able to convince our people that ... these efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are battles in the global war on terrorism,” he said. “I don’t think that we’re on the same frequency.”