The top Marine commander in Afghanistan and Helmand province Gov. Mohammad Gulab Mangal briefed media at the Pentagon today, addressing the evolving mission there as Afghan forces take the lead in providing security.
Many issues were addressed. Improved governance, for one. Expansion of the Afghan National Army, for another. Even the Afghan government’s plan to stir up commerce in Helmand was discussed, a wrinkle that hasn’t received much press.
Two basics weren’t covered, however: How many Marines are there presently in Afghanistan, and how many will be left this fall? Both numbers are unclear, now that the U.S. is in the middle of reducing forces across the country to 68,000 as part of the drawdown called for by President Obama.
Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus, commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) and Regional Command Southwest, told reporters that he won’t discuss the number of Marines in Afghanistan. That’s despite his predecessor, Maj. Gen. John Toolan, doing so several times during his tenure in charge downrange.
“I’m just not going to get into specific numbers,” Gurganus said, pressed by veteran Associated Press reporter Robert Burns on why he hadn’t said how many Marines were in theater. “I found out that I get in trouble when I get into specific numbers. But, we will have a sufficient amount of Marines to do the mission we’ve been assigned.”
That’s quite similar to comments from the general that appeared in a San Diego Union-Tribune story published over the weekend. In that one, Gurganus told embedded reporter Gretel Kovach that he gets “in a lot of trouble” when he discusses the current size of his force.
Compare that with Toolan, who commanded Marines in Helmand until March. In a March interview, he told me there were about 17,000 Marines in country at the time. He added that it was likely there would be as few as 7,000 by Oct. 1, the milestone at which there is expected to be 68,000 U.S. troops across the country.
“We’re going to have to make some tough choices about where the greatest threat is, and what the greatest need is in terms of the readiness of the Afghan security force,” Toolan said. Gurganus “is going to have to make a decision about how to best apportion the forces he has,” Toolan added at the time.
So, how many Marines are in in Afghanistan now? It isn’t exactly clear, but we can say this:
1) While I was at Camp Leatherneck in May, Marine officials said there were about 15,800 Marines in RC-Southwest. The entire regional command included 36,000 forces at the time, including 25,000 from the U.S., and 9,500 from the United Kingdom.
2) Since then, several Marine battalions have concluded their deployments and not been replaced. Most prominently, that includes 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, and 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, both out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. Combined, that’s at least another 2,000 Marines no longer in Helmand, dropping the overall number to no more than 13,800.
3) Gurganus said today that the Corps is about halfway through its drawdown this year. If that’s from 17,000 to 7,000, that leaves about 12,000. There could be more than that, however, depending on what time period he’s counting.
Gurganus stressed this morning that it’s important to note the increased capabilities of the Afghan military plays a role in the Marines being able to withdraw.
“It looks like we’re making an exodus of a lot of Marines out of this province, but at the same time, you have to take a look at their capabilities and how the numbers of the Afghan National Security Forces have developed,” Gurganus said.
“In 2009, we had one… brigade of Afghan National Army out here. Today, we have an entire corps of three brigades, and we’re building a fourth brigade,” he continued. “The police, which were almost non-existent in 2009, their numbers are way over 8,500. There will be plenty of security forces to continue the mission, and our challenge now will be to develop their capabilities.”
All fair points. Respectfully, though, with whom is the general concerned about getting in trouble? Gen. John Allen, the commander of all NATO forces in Afghanistan? The International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Kabul? Obama?
Virtually anyone asking about the status of the Marine mission in Helmand is going to ask how many forces are there. The question isn’t going away anytime soon.