WASHINGTON — Iraq is stable enough to allow the roughly 22,000 U.S. Marines there to withdraw, the service's top general said Friday.
"The time is right for Marines in general terms to leave Iraq," said Marine Corps Commandant James Conway.
That war has become largely a nation-building mission rather than the pitched fighting in which the Marine Corps excels, Conway said.
Conway said he wants to see up to 20,000 Marines deployed instead to the building fight in Afghanistan, especially in the south where insurgents and the Taliban and al-Qaida benefit from both a nearby safe haven and booming trade in narcotics.
"When you've got those two elements you've got the potential for a long-term insurgency," he said. "That's where the Marines ought to be. That's what we offer the nation," he said.
The Marine Corps can't fight in both Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, because it does not have enough combat support troops and equipment to divide between the missions.
"Anything that you put into Afghanistan must necessarily come as a reduction of Marine forces in Iraq," he told reporters. "When the door slams on the Marines in Iraq, let all the Marines be on the other side of the door."
Conway has been pushing for a large deployment of Marines to Afghanistan for months. No decisions have been made on the size of the force that would be sent.
President Barack Obama is expected to go to the Pentagon next week to meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff_ the military heads of each service_ in their secure meeting room known as "the tank." Sorting out troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq is expected to be on the agenda.
Conway said that Obama's willingness to meet with his military chiefs at the Pentagon instead of the White House amounts to a gesture of respect to the commanders.
"It is great symbology; he's on our turf," he said. "More importantly, he gets to meet and shake hands with hundreds of people in all the services."