Marine Corps Chief Suggests Longer Afghan Timeline

The head of the U.S. Marine Corps says it will likely take longer than the July 2011 deadline set by the White House to turn over security responsibilities to the Afghan government. The longer timeline indicates the challenges facing U.S. troops there. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Tom Bowman.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There was a blunt assessment from a top military leader yesterday about when U.S. troops can be withdrawn from the toughest part of Afghanistan, where most of the fighting is taking place. The frank assessment came from Marine Commandant James Conway, just back from Afghanistan.

General JAMES CONWAY (U.S. Marine Commandant): I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us. I sense our country is increasingly growing tired of the war. But I would remind that the last of the 30,000 troops only arrive this month.

BLOCK: The timeline General Conway spoke of goes beyond what other officials, including the president, have said publicly.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now to talk about General Conway's comments. And, Tom, explain how what General Conway said yesterday lines up in terms of a timeline with what other military leaders or the president have been saying.

TOM BOWMAN: Well, they differ somewhat. And other officials in Washington have talked about the need for patience and that this will take time. General Conway is going beyond that. And he has a reputation for being among the most blunt and candid officials in Washington. You ask Conway a question, he'll tell you exactly what he thinks.

And he's going he just got back from visiting the troops and he gave a time estimate that many are only saying privately. And he says this mission will take years. I just got back myself last month from spending five weeks around the southern city of Kandahar. And I asked the same question to everyone I met army captains, generals, Afghan police commanders, even warlords - how long will this take before Afghan security forces can take over? And the estimate ranged from three years to 10 years.

BLOCK: Tom, hes also - General Conway is also juxtaposing that reality that he's describing on the ground of U.S. troops being there for years with what he called dwindling support for the war among the U.S. public.

BOWMAN: Right. Of course, he brought that up that America is weary of this war now in its ninth year. And that clearly came up, I think, when he met with his Marines over in Helmand province in Afghanistan. That he told them basically, forget about the politics at home, forget the fact that Americans are tiring of this war. I just want you to focus on the mission.

And General Conway also was critical during his press conference about political leaders in Washington and what he was saying was basically a failure on their part to level with the Americans about the war, to talk about the war. And here's what he had to say.

Gen. CONWAY: I don't think that we have done a strong enough job in convincing the American people there are good and just reasons why we have to destroy the al-Qaida and the associated Taliban in Afghanistan, similar to what we did in Iraq, certainly to the point where there's no future opportunity for safe haven. Certainly to the degree that we can create conditions for that Afghan government to rule the country and avoid safe haven.

BOWMAN: And what Conway didn't get into, of course, is there are divisions in Washington about whether and how to continue this Afghanistan mission, even in the White House.

BLOCK: Well, the timeline that President Obama has laid out is to start withdrawing U.S. troops next July July of 2011. Is that still realistic? Do you think that timeline is going to shift?

BOWMAN: No, I think it's still realistic. And, again, what General Conway is saying is he doesn't expect any Marines to come home from the southern part of the country where they are fighting. He said he does believe some U.S. troops somewhere in the country can come home. Of course, there are tens of thousands of U.S. Army troops all around the country, including the south.

And as a matter of fact, U.S. and NATO officials right now are talking about when Afghans can take more responsibility. The sense is that some districts, maybe in the north or western part of the country, can be turned over to Afghan control. And there will be a conference in Lisbon in November to talk about that.

And I'm told officials plan to come up with districts in Afghanistan that can be candidates for turnover to Afghan control. But they say don't expect any turnover at all until sometime next year at the earliest.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks very much.

BOWMAN: Thanks, Melissa.

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