By Nathan Hodge
The top U.S. Marine general said President Barack Obama’s announced July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan 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, said he expected Marines to remain on the ground in southern Afghanistan, the traditional stronghold for the Taliban, well after July 2011, though he himself is set to retire in the fall.
“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.
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.
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 the Marines would continue to go after the Taliban, regardless of the 2011 deadline. “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.