COL LAPAN: Good morning, all. Thanks for coming out so early.
It’s my distinct pleasure and privilege to welcome back to the Pentagon Briefing Room the 34th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, General James T. Conway.
General Conway has served as Commandant since November 13th of 2006, and is one of only two Commandants to serve his entire tenure during wartime.
He last briefed this group on December 15th, late last year. General Conway just returned from a trip to the Central Command region. Specifically, he and his group visited Romania, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Landstuhl, Germany. General Conway spent the majority of his trip visiting Marines and sailors in Helmand province in Afghanistan. And General Conway will retire this fall after more than 40 years of service. And he’ll, again, give you a briefing on his recent travels, and then take your questions.
GEN. CONWAY: Okay. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
As Dave indicated, it has been many months since I’ve been before you. And also, we did just get back last night from a trip into theater, so if I look a little ragged, that’s it. I’m not getting old, just getting tired.
I would like to offer a quick statement and just prime the pump, and then will look forward to your questions. And as Dave referenced: Romania, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and we came back down through Germany.
Romania is a good partner, an ally. We attended a Navy Day there at the port city of Constanta, and were reminded many times that Romania stood with us in Iraq and has now increased their presence in Afghanistan to some 1,800 troops. They’ve sustained 15 killed in action to date in Afghanistan, but they’re dedicated to the task. And it can be rightly said that, as a nation, we believe they’re punching above their weight.
The Pakistani leadership is consumed with responding to the aftermath of the flood disaster. Since August 12th, we have had 2,200 Marines from the 15th MEU responding to the crisis. As of this morning, the eight CH-46s and four CH-53s that we have deployed have evacuated 3,075 people and delivered more than 650,000 pounds of cargo.
Two-six MEU from the East Coast is sailing early, in order to contribute to the disaster relief, and should be off the coast of Pakistan by mid-to-late-September. General Kayani cautioned me that the involvement of his army in the flood relief will for a time detract from their efforts to secure the Pakistani frontier.
We came out of theater through Landstuhl, Germany, where we witnessed dedicated people at the hospital perform a myriad of tasks associated with a major way station in casualty flow. Gratefully the number of Marines and American servicemen in general was down from previous days.
Our primary purpose for the trip was of course to visit Marines and the great sailors who support us in Afghanistan. I have several observations for you from there.
First, Marines in Helmand are exercising our definition of expeditionary. That is fast, austere and lethal, to keep the enemy off balance. Partnering with Afghan infantry, it is not uncommon to find units that are away from their forward operating bases for 30 days at a time.
Using superior firepower and battlefield mobility, I believe that they hold the initiative. Even in the height of the Taliban’s so- called fighting season, they are making the enemy react to them.
Second, morale is high. Though it is a tough fight, Marines can sense conditions are turning in their direction. Recently a contact team from our manpower department went into Afghanistan and re- enlisted several hundred Marines.
They do value the support of their fellow Americans. And the only concern perhaps best expressed by a lance corporal that I spoke to was when he said, sir, don’t let our country go wobbly on us now.
Third, the capacity of the Afghan army is hitting a critical stage. Lieutenant General Caldwell is ahead of schedule with his infantry, companies and kandaks. And by the way, the quality varies widely.
But now he faces the toughest part I believe. And that is to recruit and train the aviators and what’s called the enablers, what Marines call combat support and combat service support units.
Those troops will require a higher level of education and skills training than his grunt units have required to date. That said, the organization and approach that he and his joint combined team have taken appears to be, to the interested observer, just right for the task at hand.
Next, the key to success in the Helmand province is to get the people off the fence and squarely on the side of their security forces, the government and my Marines. Ever so slowly, and even incrementally in some places, that is beginning to happen. Better and less-corrupt police, projects, district and the sub-district governors who oversee the rule of law are making a difference. When ISAF is able to construct a self-contained cell phone system, I’m convinced that tips and intelligence will pick up, making it virtually impossible for the Taliban to operate while hiding behind the citizens.
Finally, though I certainly believe some American unit somewhere in Afghanistan will turn over responsibilities to Afghan security forces in 2011, I do not think they will be Marines. Helmand and Kandahar, adjacent, are the birthplace of the Taliban. 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 arrived this month. I would also quote the analysis of one of my regimental commanders when asked about the pace of the war. He said we can either lose fast or win slow.
Anne, I think the first question is yours.
Q The Marine Corps in the next few years is going to be facing some big changes on two fronts. One would be the discussion about the role that the Marines play in future warfare, and then also the changes to personnel policy under -- if "don’t ask, don’t tell" is lifted. So what advice would you like to leave your successors, considering that these changes will probably take place long after you’re gone? What would you like to say on those two fronts?
GEN. CONWAY: First of all, Anne, in terms of -- in terms of the size of the Corps, you know, we grew 27,000 additional Marines.
We saw the requirement come down in Afghanistan vis-a-vis Iraq. So we’re getting real close to that objective out there of 1-to-2 deployment to dwell.
Although we have resolved as a Corps that we need to take a look at what our post-Afghan figures will be, as a solid planning figure, for purposes of reset and for purposes of our deployment -- our deployments to unit -- deployment plans in the Pacific, we’ve got a fairly significant BEQ build-out taking place right now. We need to know where to cease all of that.
I wouldn’t start any of that until after this activity in Afghanistan is complete and we can do it without in any way burdening the troops. So I think that would be the first thing.
In terms of "don’t ask, don’t tell," you know, we will obey the law. We’re anxious to see what the survey indicates when it’s made public towards the end of the year.
But I caution our Marines and our Marine leadership: If the law changes we pride our Corps in leading the services in many, many things, and we’re going to have to lead in this too. There will be a hundred issues out there that we have to solve, if the law changes, in terms of how we do business, and we cannot be seen as dragging our feet or some way delaying implementation. We’ve got a war to fight. We need to, if the law changes, implement and get on with it.
Q General, I wanted to pick up on "don’t ask, don’t tell." As you know, the Senate’s going to pick it up next month as part of the authorization bill. And you’ve told the Hill that you think the current policy works and that you would never ask Marines to room with a homosexual if we can avoid it. You’ve been followed by other Marine generals -- Jack Sheehan, Peter Pace, Carl Mundy -- in opposing a change in the policy.
And also, if you look at the polls done by Military Times, the Marines seem to oppose any change in policy by a fairly significant margin.
And I want you to focus on: What is it about the Marines that they -- they oppose this change in policy, repealing "don’t ask, don’t tell?" You’ve been in the Corps for over forty years. You get out there and talk to Marines. What is it that the Marines oppose about this -- more so than the other services?
GEN. CONWAY: Well, that’s a tough question to answer, Tom, because I’m not as familiar with the other services as I am my own Corps. So any comparison or contrast is difficult.
But we recruit a certain type of young American, pretty macho guy or gal, that is willing to go fight and perhaps die for their country. That’s about the only difference that I see between the other services. I mean, they recruit from a great strain of young Americans as well. They all come from the same areas and that type of thing.
So I can only think that, as we look at our mission, how we are forced to live in close proximity aboard ship, in the field for long periods of time and that type of thing, that the average Marine out there, and by the way, my own surveys indicate that it’s not age dependent, it’s not rank dependent, it’s not where you’re from; it’s, as you highlight, pretty uniformly not endorsed as the ideal way ahead. But I just think all those things have impact on the Marines. And we’d just assume not see it change. But again, we will follow the law, whatever the law prescribes.
Q As far as living in tight quarters, is that the issue you hear mostly when you talk to Marines out in the field?
GEN. CONWAY: Well, see, we, unlike the other services, we have consciously, for decades now, billeted by twos. So if the law changes, we start out with a problem in terms of how to address that. And I’ve spoken publicly some about that in the past.
You know, we’ll deal with it. I do not believe there’s money out there to build another requirement for BEQs, to allow every Marine to have a room by his or herself. So how we deal with the billeting problem is going to one of that myriad of issues that we’ll have to face.
Q How would you deal with it?
GEN. CONWAY: I don’t know. I don’t know.
We sometimes ask Marines, you know, what is -- what is their preference. And I can tell you that an overwhelming majority would like not to be roomed with a person who is openly homosexual.
Some do not object and perhaps -- you know, perhaps a voluntary basis might be the best way to start, without violating anybody’s sense of moral concern or perception on the part of their mates.
I don’t know. We’re not there yet. And it’s one of those hypotheticals at this point that we have to consider but we won’t have to deal with until the law changes, if it does.
Q General Conway, you said that the country is growing tired of the war in Afghanistan. You’re perhaps the first member of the Joint Chiefs to openly say that the country is growing tired of this war and say it so bluntly.
How do you, having said that as Commandant, how do you maintain morale? What are your concerns for your troops, if the country is really tired of this war? Because you also say you think you’re going to be there a few years, with a country that’s tired of this war.
How many years? How do you do that?
GEN. CONWAY: Barbara, first of all, what I’m saying to you is what I’m reading from you folks really. And those are the results of the public opinion polls. I read this morning where 70 percent of Brits oppose it, 60 percent of Americans oppose it.
So, but I think that’s an important factor in this whole discussion. I think that we the military leadership have to do a better job of talking about the last chapter of this book, if we simply try to walk away.
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 Qaeda and the associated Taliban in Afghanistan, similar to what we did in Iraq, certainly to the point where there is no future opportunity for save haven, certainly to the degree that we can create conditions for that Afghan government to rule the country and avoid safe haven.
What I just finished about 11 days of telling our troops is that you need to understand that public opinion in the United States will be whatever it is, okay, but that our country has matured to such a degree -- I think in some ways from our lessons learned after Vietnam -- has matured to the degree that our fellow countrymen can be against the war but still support the troops. I honestly think that 95 percent of Americans support what the troops are doing and do not associate them with the policies of any administration.
Q Sir, if I could just follow up on a couple of points, when you said that we’ll -- the Marines or the military, please clarify -- will be there a few years, what is your instinct on that? What do you think?
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah. Well, I can’t say we’ll be there for a few years or not. What I can tell you is that what I said is that I think -- I think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that we would expect to be able to turn over to Afghan forces. And I think there’s a mindset that needs to accompany that on the part of our Marines, that it may be a while. So --
Q What are you talking about, five years? More?
GEN. CONWAY: Barbara, I can’t say that for sure. Things twist and turn. Again, witness our experiences in Iraq. We had intelligence officers in 2006 saying that all is lost. By the end of 2006, we had the Awakening, and conditions changed completely in Iraq.
I don’t see the culture in Afghanistan permitting something like that, but I do think that reconciliation could be a game-changer. When that will come remains to be seen.
Q When you -- very, very, quickly, sir --
GEN. CONWAY: Barbara, let me ask if there are more questions; I’ll come back to you, okay?
Q Go ahead.
GEN. CONWAY: Go ahead, please.
Q On the -- on the issue of Okinawa, General, there has been a -- the U.S. position has been to decide on which shape the runway’s going to be in Camp Schwab.
Japan has wanted to give the authority to Okinawa for whether it should be a V-shape or an I-shape. Do you have any opinions on that?
GEN. CONWAY: Well, you know, from the original concept, the V- shaped runway was agreed upon. And in terms of absolute aircraft safety, we still believe that that is the best way to do things. So, you know, it is entirely, at this point, a scenario to be resolved between the very senior levels of the Japanese government and the U.S. government.
But given a set of options, we would prefer, I think, a runway that is entirely safe for our pilots and air crews that are taking off and landing there.
Q Could I ask you two questions? One, how is Marjah going right now? I assume you were there. And secondly, just to follow up on Barbara’s questions, can you say that a year from now there will be no withdrawals of Marines from Helmand? I mean, that’s your area.
GEN. CONWAY: Well, okay, first of all, Marjah, I believe, is a pivotal battle that is ongoing, okay. We are dealing with a very intelligent enemy here who realizes that Marjah, probably more than any other battle in Afghanistan, has the capture of an international audience. And so they’re not giving up that easily, okay?
We drove them out. We outmaneuvered them. There was not as much fighting as we thought would be the case, because they sensed our overwhelming firepower, our ability to disrupt their command and control. There was a lot of shaping that had gone into it. So the clearing of Marjah was a very successful and fairly rapid evolution.
What has happened is that the Taliban realize that if that is the end of it -- okay -- that will be a major defeat for them. So they’re trying to string this out as long as they possibly can.
Now, they’re not -- they’re sniping at us, they’re throwing a few odd rounds here and there, they’re shooting at our helicopters, but mainly, they’re intimidating the people, okay, so as to maintain a presence there and keep Marjah from being, again, this strategic victory on the part of Marines in the south of Helmand.
Let me make it clear, if I haven’t, okay? I can’t say if Marines will be in Helmand or start withdrawing next year or not. That’s going to be a presidential-level decision, okay, as -- you know, as I think educated or informed by the best military advice of General Petraeus, General Mills, the Secretary of Defense, et cetera. What I can say is that I do not believe conditions in the birthplace of the Taliban in Helmand -- or Kandahar for that matter, with our brothers, Army brothers, to the east -- are going to be such that we think we can simply turn over to Afghan forces and leave, okay? That’s my point, and that’s what I’m trying to prepare our Marines for.
Q I see -- (off mike).
GEN. CONWAY: Okay.
Q And so let me just, so you anticipate U.S. troops in Helmand and Kandahar for a few more years?
GEN. CONWAY: It’s the birthplace of the Taliban. Yeah. And the conditions there are not such as they are in other regions of the -- of the country. If you look at numbers of attacks, numbers of casualties; if you look at the focus of main effort -- that is, the view of the commanders there -- the fight is in the south.
Q Can I ask one more question? In Marjah, how many insurgents are you -- is there an estimate of how many insurgents are left there that you’re dealing with?
GEN. CONWAY: Oh, I don’t know. I would put it in a couple of hundred, something like that, you know. It’s -- compared to our combat power, it is not significant. But based upon the way they fight -- you know, trying to induce us to create civilian casualties; firing from compounds where they have women and children driven into the rooms and that type of thing; having to have positive I.D. on a guy carrying a weapon before you can take him down; not wearing uniforms -- of course, that’s been the case now for nine years -- it just makes it tough to root them out and take them down.
In the back. Yes, sir.
Q Thank you, General. You mentioned that conditions is the key to deciding whether or not troops can start pulling out in large measure -- in large numbers.
What exact conditions would you be looking for before you could advise General -- or the president and the rest of your superiors?
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah, okay. You know, a military force shapes the environment. We can’t fix the economy. We can’t fix the government. What we can do is affect the security. Now we can aid in these other things, but for all intents and purposes, we shape the environment that allows these other lines of operation, if you will, to take place.
Initially, in both Iraq now and in Afghanistan, we’ve had to do that at the start by ourselves. But increasingly our doctrine calls for turning that over to host nation security forces. That’s why what General Caldwell and his people are doing is so important. That’s why we’re partnering right now, almost on every patrol, with Afghan security forces when we go out. That’s why we want to posture the police, so they can be successful.
So the time that we’re there, this shaping operation is -- and a transition for the entire time -- transitioning host nation forces to the point where they can do those things. That’s what we hope to accomplish. When we think that we have sufficiently beaten down the insurgency in the area, we have sufficiently built up the Afghan capability to deal with what’s there, then I think we have done the essence of what we were sent there to do.
Q If I could ask a follow-up, General Caldwell briefed us just yesterday, and one of the things he mentioned was that the Afghan security forces, 1 in 10 shows sign of drug abuse; 4 out of 5 are illiterate; desertion is a real problem. Is there any indication to you that these Afghan security forces are going to improve such --
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah.
Q -- that if we get the number we want, that they’ll be of the quality we need to turn them over?
GEN. CONWAY: You know, the biggest problem I think we face in all of that is a literacy issue.
And as I said in my opening statement, as we continue to build out the force, it’s going to become even more important. These people are fighters at heart, okay? They are every bit as good as Iraqis; in some ways, even more so with regard to, you know, their willingness to really mix it up.
We’re finding that when they partner with us, they’re quite effective. Our attrition rate is down about 12 percent in the Afghan army forces that operate with us in Helmand. We’ve had to fire some police because of corruptness, but those that we train and most of them that we get from General Caldwell’s ANCOP program are pretty good. But they need to understand that they’ll be supported by Afghan army and by U.S. Marines in our case if things get too tense for them. So we think there’s a good construct there that’s working.
And, again, it’s never going to be, you know, British Royal Marines that we’re training there. But they only need to be better than the insurgency. And we think we can achieve that in a reasonable period of time.
Q A couple of quick questions on two of your most controversial programs: One, the V-22. How well was it performing in Afghanistan in terms of readiness rates?
GEN. CONWAY: Mm-hmm.
Q You know, it had an issue in Iraq.
GEN. CONWAY: Mm-hmm.
Q And what are some of the types of missions it’s performing? And then I had a follow-up on another system.
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah. Well, readiness rates are about what we would expect them to be for the aircraft based upon, you know, the fact we tossed it immediately into combat. You know, we thought we had learned all we needed to know about harsh environments in Iraq, but quite frankly, the environment in Afghanistan is a little different. So we’ve got other parts now that are causing us issues with regard to readiness availability. But those parts having identified now -- having been identified and having been put into the system, we’re seeing a slow but steady increase in availability. As we apply those parts, our mechanics are getting simply better and faster, and they can find shortcuts that are still, you know, I think applying proper safety procedures.
The aircraft is doing everything that we want it to do and more. It is our new medium-lift helicopter. So it’s involved in some of these insertions behind the enemy; it’s involved in resupply; it’s involved in transfer of equipment and personnel all over the theater. It’s been shot at and hit a few times. And so all of those things that we would expect it is doing, and it’s doing them in ways that still have us in terms of how best to employ such a state-of-the-art capability.
Q Any chance it might go to Pakistan to help with the relief effort?
GEN. CONWAY: 26 MEU’s got Ospreys onboard.
Q And have they flown any missions?
GEN. CONWAY: 26 MEU was the one that’s going to arrive in September, okay? We offered an amazing capability here. We offered to have the aircraft self-deploy all the way to Pakistan from the eastern coast. The issue has to do with availability of ramp space in terms of the Pakistani airfields, and the fact that the new CENTCOM commander sees this as a marathon, not a sprint. He wants some long- term capacity there to help the Pakistanis.
Q I want to ask you about the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. That’s the biggest acquisition program you’ve got going. And it’s always in the target crosshairs.
As you leave at this point, it’s entering these crucial reliability tests. Do you sense support for the program starting to wane within the Navy, and within the Office of Secretary of Defense?
GEN. CONWAY: You know, the program is under continuous scrutiny. It has been a beleaguered program I think it’s probably fair to say. But at this point, I think everybody’s anxious to see how it performs. These new, more reliable vehicles we think are going to perform much better. We are looking at affordability of the program in the out- years. If you believe there will be cuts to the defense budget, we have to ask ourselves, you know, are 573 affordable?
But we’re excited about the capability. And there’s certainly a need for that kind of capability in the out-years as we get back to the sea and ships.
Q But as you leave here, do you sense, when you leave, the knives are really going to come out and try to gut it?
GEN. CONWAY: I can only say I hope not. I don’t sense it, but I hope not, okay. Because it is incredibly important to us, okay.
Q General, you know, again, looking ahead to the future, the secretary has done two things. One, he -- you know, he took off the review of the Corps, and he’s endorsed the expeditionary mission, which is true to your heart. But at the same time, he’s questioned the amphibious -- how much amphibious capabilities we need. And that becomes a Navy shipbuilding problem in sustainment. Are you concerned that -- you know, that expeditionary, you know, in the future will not necessarily include amphibs?
GEN. CONWAY: No, I’m really not. Any person that takes a look at the United States as a maritime nation, accepts our dominant defense theory of forward deployment, forward basing, engaging, you know, way away from the United States, has to have a strong appreciation for a naval -- Navy/Marine Corps/Coast Guard -- team that’s able to do whatever has to be done out there. There are a lot of -- there’s a lot of blue on that map of the arc of instability.
And although we have been fortunate, I guess the last couple of times our nation has engaged, that a host country would allow us to come in, build the iron mountain, mass the forces and cross their border into the attack, there’s not a lot of places like that in the world, where some of the people that might challenge us exist.
So I think that it is an asymmetric advantage that our country holds, and I think that, although the secretary’s question is right -- how much is enough right now? -- that is pretty much laid out by a previous QDR that says we will have two brigades prepared to conduct joint operational access, and it would be augmented by all the other services, because they too believe -- it’s not just a Marine/Navy thing -- the other services would be deeply engaged. And I honestly think they deeply believe that it’s a capacity that the nation needs to sustain, okay?
Yes, sir, go ahead.
Q General, I want to ask you about two challenges that the Marines face in Afghanistan.
One is the issue of the rules of engagement, the emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties. How big a challenge is that for the Marines getting the job done?
And the other one is a perception issue, the president’s July 2011 date for the beginning of this withdrawal, and the impact that that has on local Afghans and their expectations.
Does that make your job more difficult, in terms of getting things done, especially winning hearts and minds?
GEN. CONWAY: Okay, first of all, your ROE question, sir, is one I ask every time I go into the theater. And now through two commanders and multiple ground combat element commanders, the answer is always the same. It doesn’t bother us much.
Okay, one, we believe in it. We understand the nature of the Afghan culture and society. And we accept that, you know, if you want to conserve enemies, you need to avoid civilian casualties.
Okay, so conceptually we’re there. In execution, we’re very good at that type thing. That’s who we are in terms of a combined arms team. Our communication is good. Our fires are precise. We have tactical patience sufficient to make all of this work. And so at every level when I ask my commanders that question, we’re okay with it.
In terms of the July ‘11 issue, you know, I think if you follow it closely, and of course we all do, we know the president was talking to several audiences at the same time when he made his comments on July 2011.
In some ways, we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance. We think that he may be saying to himself -- in fact, we’ve intercepted communications that say, hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.
But let me give you a different thought. Okay, if you accept what I offered earlier as true, that Marines will be there after 2011, okay, after the middle of 2011, what’s the enemy going to say then, you know?
What is he going to say to his foot troops, where you’ve got the leadership outside the country trying to direct operations within -- because it’s too dangerous for them to be there -- and the foot troops have been believing what he’s saying, that they’re all going to leave in the summer of next year, and come the fall, we’re still there hammering them like we have been? I think it could be very good for us in that context, in terms of the enemy’s psyche and what he has been, you know, posturing now for, really, the better part of a year.
Q So you think it could take until after July of next year for any sort of awakening or reconciliation process to really get going?
GEN. CONWAY: You know, I’ll tell you, we visited with Admiral Harward, Bob Harward, who runs detention in Afghanistan for ISAF. And it was really interesting to talk with him about the forensics of what he is discovering as he goes about his interrogation and questioning prisoners and so forth. Our enemy is getting tired, too. They’re getting hammered, to a much greater degree than we are. And they’re asking themselves, "Hey, is this all worth it?" And they’re asking themselves that now.
So, you know, I think the combined effects of that over the next year or so until next summer, when they realize that we may begin the process in July of 2011, but it’s certainly not going to all be done in a month, or two months, or three months -- that I think it’s only going to compound his thought process that maybe this isn’t going to end well.
Q Thank you, General. Three questions into one. One, how does this WikiLeaks impact on your mission in Afghanistan? And two, as far as floods in Pakistan is concerned, is it impacting the mission in Afghanistan? And finally, as far as withdrawal and the mission change in Iraq, how does your soldiers or your Marines or your -- I mean people in Afghanistan are thinking that you can learn some method, some -- can you learn some lessons from Iraq into your mission in Afghanistan?
GEN. CONWAY: Sir, I missed the first question. Would you restate it?
GEN. CONWAY: Okay.
Q Yes, sir.
GEN. CONWAY: Okay. WikiLeaks was not helpful, to the degree that I think our partners are concerned that we could have such a serious breach. At the same time -- and I haven’t -- I haven’t examined all the documents. I haven’t tasked anybody to do that. At the same time, except, perhaps, for compromising some of our sources, I don’t think that it’s being felt tactically on the battlefield. My troops chose not to raise it with me in a single question-and-answer session, so I don’t think that the impact is severe, except as it relates to our capacity to maintain secrets.
The MEUs that are supporting Pakistan are the theater reserve for the theater commander. That he has chosen and elected to commit both the MEU that’s there now and the future MEU, at least for a time, to Pakistan crisis requirements I think strips him of some of that capability to respond elsewhere in theater. But for purposes of Marines in Helmand, there is no impact. We aren’t relying upon any of the MEU capacity in Helmand province to be able to continue our functions there.
In terms of Iraq, you know, we’re out of Iraq, for all intents and purposes, have been now for the better part of a year, started the process really about a year before that. But we asked ourselves, to the essence of your question, what lessons are transferable -- that we learned over four or five years in Iraq -- to Afghanistan as we built up our presence there.
And we found there was about 70 percent application, probably, I mean, but you’ve got a different culture, different environment, different language, different tribal construct, different leadership, of course, that we’ve got to deal with. And so we focused on the delta.
We focused on that 30 percent and tried to, you know, inject that into our training to make our leadership more prepared and that manner of thing. And that’s working for us.
None of it gets far from our old Small Wars Manual. You know, Marines back in the ‘20s in Central and South America learned many of these lessons in terms of this transition process that we talked about earlier. So a manual that’s soon to be 100 years old has really been our beacon for the way ahead in terms of how we approach.
Q And so finally, troops are watching all the news, ups and downs, what is --
GEN. CONWAY: They’re incredible informed, they really are.
Q -- what is happening around the globe.
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah.
Q How do you keep their morale? Because things change in their minds also, whatever they watch, whatever they hear, whatever they see.
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah. Well, again, I emphasize to them, the number-one concern on the part of American troops anywhere they go is the country behind us. That was the case in 2003. That’s the case today in 2010.
And I’ll tell you, I am so proud of our American public, that regardless how they see what happened in Iraq or what’s happening in Afghanistan, they support the troops. And that’s the message that they get from me; that’s the message that they see when they come home on dwell. And in that regard, I’m just incredibly proud of our country.
Over here. Yes, sir.
Q You mentioned safe havens. And you also mentioned that the leadership is outside the country. Only foot soldiers are there. So why are we still there? And why don’t we focus where the leadership of Taliban and al Qaeda is?
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah, yeah. Well, first of all, it’s not a black- and-white situation, okay? I would say significant elements of the leadership are out of the country, not susceptible to the day-to-day contact, not susceptible to our Special Forces that focus on such things.
And that they are avoiding that type of jeopardy is noted by their foot soldiers. And so we think that there’s a seam there that we probably can exploit, okay? That’s the essence of it.
Q General, some Marines equate the future of the Marine Corps with the EFV platform.
I’m wondering if you think that -- if you agree with that in any way. But does the Marine Corps run the risk of clinging to the platform too much, much in the same way the Air Force seemed to cling to the F- 22?
GEN. CONWAY: You know, let me say, Gordon, it is not the platform. It’s the capability, okay? The problem is it’s the only thing out there that gives us that capability. You know, when the secretary made the determination to trim away the F-22, there were a number of other U.S. Air Force aircraft that could perform that function. Maybe not as well, arguably, but could still do it.
This is the only capability that exists out there to get us from over the horizon. And I think, back to the secretary’s comments, we all appreciate we’re going to have to come from over the horizon. Now, if you’re over the horizon, you’re at least 12 to 14 miles out. And you simply can’t do that in a vehicle that moves at 6 miles an hour very effectively. I would be hesitant to put some of those vehicles at sea or in the water at that distance.
So it’s not necessarily the EFV made by General Dynamics that goes 25 knots; it’s the capability that we need to be wed to. And it’s my belief that if that program were cancelled outright, we would still be looking then to come up with that capability in some other context, because it is essential to the way we do business.
Q General, going back to the future of the Marine Corps, and you mentioned small wars. A lot of prognosticators say that, you know, looking forward after Afghanistan, that’s what the real threat’s going to be, small engagements -- you know, North Africa, Middle East -- around the world.
What do you -- what do you think -- what about the state of the readiness of the force going forward? How should it be shaped to meet that threat, if you agree that that is the threat to worry about the most?
GEN. CONWAY: You know, both the Quadrennial Defense Review of this last year and a study group that we put together shortly after I became Commandant said almost the same thing.
If you look at the sweet spot out there, 2020 to 2025, they said the most likely conflict is what they call hybrid warfare, regional conflict, that manner of thing. And so we have to have a Marine Corps that’s built towards that, because we have an expression that we do windows. We do whatever the nation asks us to do.
At the same time, Secretary Gates has said I -- I support that, that is certainly my belief, but that the -- there is also in our history a routine element of surprise where we fight the battle that we were not prepared to fight or didn’t think we were going to have to engage in.
And so our guidance to the Corps has been what it always has been. As we shape our future, we need to be a two-fisted fighter. We need to be able to do what we’re doing right now in Afghanistan, but we also need to be able to do what we did in 2003 when we crossed the Iraqi border alongside an Army division. And that is roll 500 miles to Baghdad with a heavy combined arms kind of capability that only the MAGTF can provide.
So we’re trying to build both, and we’re trying to train to both, now that we have more time home, not just counterinsurgency skills that kind of take you away from some of those core competencies of a combined arms capability that also, by the way, can come from the sea.
Q But given your earlier statement that you feel Marines are going to be in Helmand and other places in Afghanistan for several years, do you think that’s going to have a negative effect to be prepared for that kind of smaller hybrid or --
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah --
Q That was kind of the argument of getting out of Iraq --
GEN. CONWAY: No, that’s the key -- that’s the key to the 1-to-2 deployment to dwell. When we’re home for 14 months, we can do a lot of that type of training and still give Marines time with their families, still do the preparation to go back to Afghanistan with the forces that are in that rotation. So we think that 14 months is going to be invaluable to us in that context, that we can build back some of those things that have gotten rusty.
Q General, the -- your Marines took over from the Royal Marines in Sangin in July. And since then, they’ve destroyed quite a number of the forward operating bases which the Royal Marines had set up.
Can you explain the thinking behind that? And does that imply that the Royal Marines were perhaps tactically doing the job not in the right way?
GEN. CONWAY: Well, first of all, the Royal Marines are not completely out of Sangin yet. But when 40 Commando comes out, they will not be replaced, is our understanding.
We have a little bit of a different approach from the Royal Marines. We believe that we need to challenge the enemy where he thinks he has strength, and we are less prone, I think, to move into a forward operating base and simply use that as a basis for operation. May go back to our Vietnam days; I don’t know for sure. But I can tell you that our mentality is that there’s no place in a zone where we’re not going to go and then, hopefully, be able to stay with sufficient force to, again, build behind us with Afghans, transition the police in and that type of thing.
So I think just a minor difference in operating philosophy. The Royal Marines we consider did a very good job. They took a lot of casualties. It’s just that there are some minor differences, I think, in how we approach the matter.
Q Does it -- sorry, just one further -- are you suggesting that it is wrong to have fixed positions, and better to remain totally mobile?
GEN. CONWAY: I’m not suggesting that at all. We have fixed positions, too. You have to have a place as a base of operations, you know. You have to have a place where you can go back to, to at least rest and refit, resupply, those types of things. Most of those places are going to have a secure helicopter pad. We don’t want to have our helicopters flying into places that, you know, we aren’t secure in for, you know, hundreds of meters. So, no, fixed bases are absolutely necessary.
We do believe in a paucity of fixed bases, because then you have to have a security force at that base, you’ve got to protect it and that eats up manpower pretty quickly. So we want to have a minimum of those, contingent with the thought that you then get out and roam the countryside trying, again, to suppress the insurgents.
Q The Army is beginning a complete overhaul of its M4 carbine. And I was wondering if the Marine Corps has any plans to look at their own weapons or small-arms systems and any plan to overhaul that. And if not, why not?
GEN. CONWAY: Well, we’ve been -- we’ve been looking at our small arms for a long time, you know, assessing the effects on the battlefield, knock-down power, killing power, those types of things. We are never going to be a carbine Marine Corps, okay, we’re never going to go completely to the M4. We’re a rifle Marine Corps.
We believe in long-range shooting skills. And those skills are just not as resident in a carbine as they are in a service rifle. That’s not to say we don’t use the M4. A lot of our people carry the M4. But it’s more an extension of the pistol than it is an adjustment to the rifle.
We’re experimenting right now with an automatic rifle as opposed to a light machine gun in the SAW. And we have three battalions, I think it is, that’s going to go forward with both weapons systems. And those battalion commanders are going to come back and give us an appraisal of the two systems -- how the Marines like them, their effectiveness in combat and those types of things.
Finally we have looked at a 7.62 system. We looked at a 6.68 system that had interchangeable barrels and receiver. But before we would go to something like that and go to a completely new rifle, which would be fairly expensive for us, we want to make sure we’re getting all we can out of the cartridges we fire out of the 5.56 M16A2.
Q When will those rifles be going forward as you mentioned?
GEN. CONWAY: Pretty soon, I think, in the next rotation, probably towards the end of the year, maybe the first part of next year.
COL LAPAN: We have time for one or two more.
GEN. CONWAY: Okay, in the back over here, please.
Q After the force structure review is done, do you have any doubt that in some ways the Marine Corps will be less capable in certain niche ways?
GEN. CONWAY: That is certainly not the intent or the guidance given through the force structure review, is to make the Marine Corps less capable for the long term. But -- no, I don’t. I don’t have that concern at all.
I think -- I think in time, after Afghanistan, that 202,000 Marines in a peacetime Marine Corps is probably too many. People are expensive. I don’t know that we could keep 202,000 Marines constructively occupied. And that’s what -- in the end, we will probably take the options given to us by this force structure review group, make some assumptions as to the climate and the world’s status at that point, and try to come away with a strong assumption that again allows us to look towards that figure in terms of reset, in terms of BEQ number requirements, in terms of UDP and so forth. So we need something out there in the out years, but in no way would we accept that we’re going to build a less capable Marine Corps.
Q Overall, you want the force to be optimized, but don’t you have to -- don’t you have to sacrifice certain capabilities to make the overall force what you want?
GEN. CONWAY: We -- no.
GEN. CONWAY: No. I don’t see that we’re going to eliminate, in a vertical slice, any of our capabilities.
Q Will you dial it back, maybe say --
GEN. CONWAY: There will be less Marines eligible to deploy when we have a smaller Marine Corps in peacetime than there are today. That’s the only place that I would say that we would be less capable of responding to the call from the secretary. Okay.
In the back. Yes, sir.
Q Sir, there’s been a big drop in Marine casualties in Helmand in this current month. What do commanders on the ground tell you they attribute that to? And has the corner been turned on the security front in Helmand?
GEN. CONWAY: Okay. First of all, we took some losses early on through some very accurate snipers in Marjah and some other places.
The best counter-sniper system on the battlefield is another sniper. Our snipers are very good, and so we have taken down that threat significantly, I think, over the last several months.
Secondly, we are impacting supply lines. And our read, again, as we intercept and question and interrogate and so forth, is that the enemy is having a tougher time getting the elements of the IEDs into place and being able to, you know, attack us through the IED systems.
No, to your last question. Security has not turned today sufficient, for instance, for us to say, okay, Afghan security forces, Afghan police, you got it, all right? We have the momentum, we have the initiative, but that’s different from declaring that security conditions are changed dramatically in Helmand.
Okay, Barbara, I promised to come back to you. All right.
Q I want to take you back to "don’t ask, don’t tell." You said something that I’d like to ask you what you meant, with precision. You talked about -- when you said that, you know, some Marines are skeptical of all this, you talked about the -- and your words were ‘the moral perception that Marines have of people serving in the Marine Corps who are openly gay.’ What do you mean by moral perception?
GEN. CONWAY: Barbara, we have some people that are very religious. And I think in some instances -- I couldn’t begin to give you a percentage, but I think in some instances we will have people that say that homosexuality is wrong, and they simply do not want to room with a person of that persuasion because it would go against their religious beliefs. So that’s my belief about some percentage of Marines in our Corps.
Q And what do you -- if that is the case, and the law changes, as a senior commander, then -- it’s a volunteer force. Should those people leave?
Should accommodations be made? What do you -- what do you do about that?
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah. Well, I think, as a commander, you try to satisfy the requirements of all your Marines. And if the law changes and we have homosexual Marines, we’ll be as concerned about their rights, their privileges, their morale as we will Marines who feel differently about that whole paradigm.
So commanders -- local commanders will be required to assist us in making sure that every Marine is provided for and is focused on the fight at hand.
Q Thank you, General. General, you said several times that the -- that Kandahar and Helmand are the birthplace of the Taliban. Helmand was also the center of drug production in Afghanistan. So I’m wondering what your sense from your trip and earlier, what your sense of -- is of the production, processing, trafficking of opium from -- in and from Helmand and its relationship to the insurgency, what the state of that is now.
GEN. CONWAY: Yeah. It is dramatically reduced and will be further reduced in the future. We -- when we -- when we started deploying in the Helmand, we had reports that the drug trafficking brought to the Taliban and the associated al Qaeda somewhere between $70 million a year all the way up to $400 million a year in terms of resources, which allows them to buy the tools of war and use them against us.
So we knew we had to, in conjunction with the Afghan government, attempt to beat that back. Frankly, it was our perception that the farmers in and around Marjah gambled and lost, okay, because they put poppy in the ground at a time when their governor told them not to do that. And so by the time of the harvest season, we owned Marjah.
And two things. One, the harvest was blighted this year; it was not a good crop.
And secondly, you know, we said, hey, we’re not going to allow people to come in here to work your fields, transport off your poppy and so forth. So in many instances, we gave them just a subsistence, if you will, payment to burn their own fields. And so the production this year was very much disrupted.
In the meantime, we know that you create enemies if you take away the ability of a man to feed his family. So we’ve, through education, through seed distribution, through instruction on how to, you know, create a different crop, through trying to make sure that the infrastructure is there at harvest time to get that crop to a market because you’re not going to have, you know, bad guys come by and pick it up for you, we think that we’re giving them -- again, through the Afghan government -- I can’t overemphasize that -- another way to once again be a productive and, you know, successful farmer.
Russian wheat is going to be less available on the market. There’s a -- the Pakistani wheat fields are going to be problematic for probably some time to come. So we think that the price of wheat is going to fare pretty well in the next year or 18 months, so in that regard, you know, we could be fortunate that we can transition the Afghan farmers to something other than poppy.
Q What’s your retirement plan, sir?
GEN. CONWAY: Fish and hunt.
GEN. CONWAY: (Laughs.) When? You do not presume the Senate in my job, okay?
I got to go, folks. Thank you very much.
Q Thank you.
GEN. CONWAY: Okay. Take care.
(C) COPYRIGHT 2010, FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC., 1000 VERMONT AVE. NW; 5TH FLOOR; WASHINGTON, DC - 20005, USA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. ANY REPRODUCTION, REDISTRIBUTION OR RETRANSMISSION IS EXPRESSLY PROHIBITED.
UNAUTHORIZED REPRODUCTION, REDISTRIBUTION OR RETRANSMISSION CONSTITUTES A MISAPPROPRIATION UNDER APPLICABLE UNFAIR COMPETITION LAW, AND FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC. RESERVES THE RIGHT TO PURSUE ALL REMEDIES AVAILABLE TO IT IN RESPECT TO SUCH MISAPPROPRIATION.
FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC. IS A PRIVATE FIRM AND IS NOT AFFILIATED WITH THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. NO COPYRIGHT IS CLAIMED AS TO ANY PART OF THE ORIGINAL WORK PREPARED BY A UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT OFFICER OR EMPLOYEE AS PART OF THAT PERSON'S OFFICIAL DUTIES.
FOR INFORMATION ON SUBSCRIBING TO FNS, PLEASE CALL CARINA NYBERG AT 202-347-1400.