For the U.S. Marine Corps, 2009 was a year of transition: withdrawal from Iraq during a simultaneous buildup in Afghanistan, problems with the planned relocation of Futenma Marine Corps Air Station on Okinawa, Japan, determining how to replace equipment destroyed or used up in Southwest Asia, setting requirements and finding candidates for next-generation systems, and more.
A continuing priority for the commandant – Gen. James T. Conway – is getting the Corps away from the inland, land force assignments that were the hallmark of the Marines’ latter years in Iraq – a trend that appears to be repeating in Afghanistan – and back to their traditional first-on-the-scene, force-projection-from-the-sea status.
In September 2009, the Corps reached a milestone in Southwest Asia, with the number of Marines in Afghanistan exceeding the number in Iraq for the first time. By year’s end, the ratio was nearly 3-to-1.
The remaining Marines in Iraq were engaged in the final stages of withdrawal, clearing the last of their equipment for return to the United States or transfer to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, a rapid buildup was under way toward a planned deployment of slightly fewer than 20,000 Marines – larger than a brigade, but smaller than a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF). Conway said the end result will probably be a MEF (Forward), similar to what the Corps had in Iraq’s Anbar province.
While a number of decisions on deployment, command, and mission remained in development as the new decade began, Conway was definite on one score: Afghanistan is not Iraq. Some of the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) the Corps will employ there will reflect what worked in Iraq – especially the need to gain the active support of the people – but identifying and respecting the differences will be equally important.
“As [Adm.] Mike Mullen [chairman-Joint Chiefs of Staff] said it once upon a time … we do what we must in Iraq; we do what we can in Afghanistan,” Conway said in a Pentagon press briefing on Dec. 15, 2009. “We’re at that point now where Afghanistan has moved from being an economy of force function to our main effort.”
One of the major cultural differences involves collateral damage – civilian casualties caused by American and coalition attacks on the enemy.
“There was a mentality in Iraq that says, ‘If you do proper compensation and make apology for loss of civilian life, then in some ways, it’s God’s will;’ it’s ‘insha’Allah,’” Conway said. “That is not the attitude in Afghanistan. It’s just a different culture. If 15 Taliban run into a house and you put a bomb in the square of that thing and you kill a woman and child, it’s not the Taliban’s fault; it’s your fault that you killed that woman and child – and you’ve got enemies for life.”
That difference led to the imposition of new rules of engagement (ROE) for Afghanistan in 2009, severely restricting the use of force in any situation in which non-combatants might be endangered. With Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents taking advantage of the new ROE, many U.S. and allied military personnel began to complain about being asked to fight with their hands tied.
“The thought process behind the ROE change, I think, is valid and we’ve simply got to adjust – and I think we have. We are pretty good at that business to begin with; we tend to hit what we aim at and we spend a lot of time in combined arms,” Conway said. “That’s how we prefer to fight.
“What has happened, if you talk to the commanders – since … the ROE change[s] have been introduced – is that we’ve proven ourselves,” Conway said.