07/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Afghanistan vs. the Marines: It's a Problem

I had dinner last week with a high-powered woman who travels with the top echelons at the DOD and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I couldn't resist asking about our current wars. Iraq will be okay, she said, Afghanistan is a problem.

I filed her comments in the back of my mind until I read Zachary Peterson's report in The Inside Defense News Stand today, and I noted that retiring marine commandant General James Conway seems to agree with her.

On April 29th, speaking before an event sponsored by the Marine Corps Association, General Conway said, quoting Peterson, that Conway doesn't "expect Marines to leave Helmand Province in Afghanistan next year when the first U.S. forces are slated to exit the central Asian country..."

Last year, when President Obama announced that he'd be sending more troops to Afghanistan, he also announced "a goal of starting to withdraw forces from the country in July, 2011." Conway said, "the President gave a mission statement and the secretary gave a concept of operations... and some of that is conditions-based... I think it will be quite some time in the Helmand Province before those conditions are such that we can truly expect to turnover."

Peterson writes that the general believes that "Marines in Afghanistan must continue to create stability with the support of local and national leaders on the ground and NATO." And, Conway added, "It's not going to be easy."

Conway is retiring in September, and military leaders can afford to speak more frankly as they near retirement, so I take him at his word. When asked about the cultivation of opium in southern Afghanistan he said, again according to Peterson, it "must be addressed at 'levels of above [my] pay grade.'" He also thinks that the military search for information through "intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets... has become a sickness, you can't get enough of it, the appetite is unquenchable and it is very, very expensive... I'm not sure we're using it the right way entirely."

The general also complained of the deterioration of American equipment as the war goes on. "Our gear is being left in theater and it's being burned up at a rapid rate in some cases seven times more than in ordinary peacetime use...And we're starting to see a gap between what we had been paying for and what our continuing need is..."
Peterson reads Conway as believing that "regular deployments to Iraq and now Afghanistan have left Marines with little time to train for missions beyond counterinsurgency." The general himself says, "We've got to regain those [traditional] core competencies that we lost being the world's largest counterinsurgency force...We also represent to this great nation an expeditionary capability--fast, austere and lethal--when the nation needs that. Today that is a fairly hollow promise."

To sum it up, the general, about to retire and seemingly speaking from his heart, believes that both the Marines and their equipment in Afghanistan are wearing thin, that their core competencies are being neglected and they are bearing burdens beyond those traditionally imposed on them.

If that's true, my friend knew what she was talking about, Afghanistan is a problem and all timetables are out the window.