President Obama is expected to outline his initial plans for a military withdrawal in Afghanistan Wednesday, with up to 5,000 U.S. troops potentially leaving by next month and a reversal of the 30,000-troop surge of 2009 and 2010 eventually planned.
We all know what Battle Rattle readers are thinking: What does it mean for the Marines?
First, I’d caution anyone against getting ahead of themselves. The likelihood is strong that few, if any Marines will be included in the initial 5,000-troop reduction. If they are, it seems unlikely they’d be infantrymen, something that retiring Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others have cautioned against.
It’s the second half where things could interesting for the Corps.
The 30,000-troop surge announced in 2009 added about 8,500 Marines in southwestern Afghanistan, expanding the footprint to a full, forward Marine expeditionary force of about 20,000 Marines. Overall, it expanding the U.S. footprint to about 100,000 troops, with many more spread throughout eastern and southeastern Afghanistan.
Top Marine officers have been forecasting for months that several Helmand province districts — Nawa, Marjah and Garmser, in particular — are ripe for transition to Afghan control later this year. Considering there was one battalion each in Nawa and Garmser last year and two-plus in Marjah, that’s a significant change.
That transition already is underway, however. The reduction of forces in Marjah actually began at least late last year, when a rifle company with 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, was pulled from the district to assist in violent Sangin district in December.
Forces from 3rd Marines had spent most of 2010 in Nawa, but a company with 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, appeared in Marjah this spring, indicating the transition in Nawa was underway.
In a briefing with reporters last week, Maj. Gen. John Toolan, commander of Marine forces in Afghanistan, acknowledged transition was likely in one of the next two “tranches” to Afghan forces. However, he reinforced that a large withdrawal now wouldn’t make sense.
“We need to hold that security picture in the central Helmand River Valley, so that’s going to be key to what we try to accomplish this summer, fall or this fighting season,” he said. “I think that in regards to the efforts over the past two years in the south, everywhere from Khanishin, which is in the south, Garmsir, Nawa, Marjah, there’s been tremendous success, to the point where many of those districts will be identified for transition of lead security responsibility in either the next tranche or the following tranche.
“So that has given us an opportunity to then reinvest in certain areas where we’re probably not as prevalent, not as dense,” he said. “And we need to thicken our holds in some places, which are mostly in the north.”
It’s hard to believe that would differ much from the plan announced tomorrow. A gradual reduction of Marine forces may begin later this year, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on anything significant happening soon in Helmand. There’s too much work left to do.
On the other hand, Obama’s announcement could shed a lot of clarity on what Marine units could be doing in 2012. It’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes out.