Last week during an interview with Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the outgoing Marine commander of Regional Command-Southwest, I asked for his thoughts on something hanging over everyone’s head in Afghanistan: The planned drawdown of U.S. forces.
It was the kind of question I asked because it’s what people in my job are supposed to do, even though there’s an understanding he couldn’t answer it directly. Here were his thoughts:
That decision will be made at a level much above mine. The way I see it, there will be a thinning out, a gradual reduction of coalition forces within a given area and a gradual turnover of security and responsibility. Rather than having a band and parade out of town, I think we’ll do it as a gradual process until one day people look around and say, ‘Hey didn’t Marines used to be around here somewhere?’ Again, the number of forces will depend on a number of high-level decisions. We’re anticipating being able to take some of that dividend and being able to apply it to other places within the province, the fringes of the province, where we could use some more forces. The border jumps out at you. It’s a big issue, a big problem, and there’s a lot of terrain down there.
That measured response doesn’t exactly square with all the options reportedly being discussed at International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul and at the White House, according to a story in this morning’s Washington Post. It reports that President Obama is still eyeing a “meaningful” withdrawal in Afghanistan beginning this July, and Helmand province — better known to some as Marine-istan — is one of the regions in play.
Two senior military officials said one set of options being developed by staff officers in Kabul involves three choices: the removal of almost no forces; the withdrawal of a few thousand support personnel, including headquarters staff, engineers and logisticians; and the pullout of a brigade’s worth of troops — about 5,000 personnel— by culling a battalion of Marines in Helmand province that was added after the surge, a contingent of soldiers training Afghan security forces and an Army infantry battalion in either the country’s east or far west.
The officers said Petraeus had not approved the list. They said they expected that a version of the support-personnel withdrawal, perhaps with some combat forces added to the mix, would be the most likely recommendation.
“Our hope is that we’ll be able to get away with no combat troops getting pulled out this summer,” one of the officers said. “But we recognize that may not be possible.”
The Pentagon is hoping to increase its flexibility by dispatching in April an equivalent-size unit to replace a 750-strong Marine battalion that arrived in Helmand in January for a three-month deployment, the officers said. Although those battalions are not part of the 30,000-troop surge, commanders may seek to count their departure as part of the July drawdown.
Those details raise plenty of questions about what’s coming.
First, how will Marine commanders in Helmand plan for the departure of Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines? The Post story doesn’t label the unit, but it certainly would appear to be the “750-strong Marine battalion” that officers mentioned. About 1,400 Marines with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., deployed from Navy ships to Afghanistan in January, and Mills said it’s still expected they will “return home in time,” which would remove them from Afghanistan soon.
Second, will that be good enough for the White House? The MEU wasn’t a part of the initial 30,000-troop surge announced in December 2009, which included an additional 8,500 Marine forces. How long will it take until improving districts in Helmand like Garmser and Nawa are targeted for drawdowns, too?