Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Top Marine Says Afghan Deadline May Help Taliban

By ELISABETH BUMILLER WASHINGTON — The commandant of the Marine Corps said Tuesday that President Obama’s July 2011 deadline to begin American troop withdrawals from Afghanistan was “probably giving our enemy sustenance.” It was by far the most sharply worded public remark from a senior military commander about the White House’s timetable for starting to wind down the war. The commandant, Gen. James T. Conway, also said that “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.” The general apparently meant that Mr. Obama’s deadline was set for a domestic political audience as well as for the Afghans. But the general, who is retiring this fall, said he thought the deadline might not ultimately comfort the insurgents, who could find that only a small number of United States forces leave Afghanistan next July, a possibility increasingly set forth by Pentagon officials and senior commanders. He predicted that Taliban fighters, who he said have been told repeatedly by their commanders that the Americans would leave en masse, would be demoralized when they realized that the United States was staying. “What is he going to say to his foot troops,” he said of a Taliban commander, when, “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.” General Conway, who spoke to reporters at a Pentagon briefing, also made clear, as he has in the past, that he remained personally opposed to overturning the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law that requires gay men and lesbians in the military to keep their sexual orientation secret or leave the service. Mr. Obama and senior Pentagon leaders, including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said that the law should be changed to allow gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military. The Senate is scheduled to consider legislation next month. “We will follow the law, whatever the law prescribes,” General Conway said, adding that the Marines “cannot be seen as dragging our feet or some way delaying implementation.” Based on his information from Marines, he said, “I can tell you that an overwhelming majority would like not to be roomed with a person who is openly homosexual.” But because some Marines do not object, he said, perhaps having those Marines share rooms voluntarily with openly gay service members “might be the best way to start, without violating anybody’s sense of moral concern or perception on the part of their mates.” Asked what he meant by moral concern, General Conway said, “We have some people that are very religious.” He added: “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.” Gay rights groups counter that most active-duty service members, who are decades younger than many senior commanders, do not passionately care one way or another about overturning the ban or serving with openly gay men and women. General Conway, echoing other senior American commanders, said that it “will be a few years” before the Marines can turn over their operations in Afghanistan entirely to Afghan forces. About 20,000 Marines are based in the southern province of Helmand, Afghanistan’s breadbasket and the Taliban heartland, where they continue to battle insurgents in Marja, the site of a major Marine offensive this past winter. “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, O.K., so as to maintain a presence there and keep Marja from being, again, this strategic victory on the part of the Marines in the south of Helmand,” he said. Nonetheless, General Conway said that over all in Helmand, “We have the momentum, we have the initiative.” Even though the American public is tired of the war, he said, “our enemy is getting tired, too.”


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Heather said...

Although General Conway may not be correct about things like Don't Ask, Don't Tell, he's absolutely right about this.