It will be a "few years" before U.S. forces in Afghanistan can turn over full responsibility for security operations to Afghan troops, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps said Tuesday.
"I think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that we would expect to be able to turn it over to the Afghan forces," Gen. James Conway told reporters at the Pentagon. "And I think there's a mindset that needs to accompany that on the part of our Marines, that it may be awhile."
President Barack Obama has ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops to begin in less than a year, although he has not said how many will withdraw or at what pace they will leave when the July 2011 deadline arrives.
Conway said for now, that deadline is making it tough for Marines in Afghanistan.
"We think right now it's probably giving our enemy sustenance. We think he may be saying to himself - in fact, we've intercepted communications saying 'Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long!'" the general said.
But, he added, the pendulum may swing in the United States' favor when the Taliban leadership sees that U.S. troops are not leaving en masse.
"What is he going to say to his foot troops where you've got the leadership outside the country trying to direct operations within because it's too dangerous for them to be there, and the foot troops have been believing what he's saying - that they're (U.S. forces) all going to leave in the summer of next year, and 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," Conway explained.
As one of his officers said, the general recounted, "either lose fast or win slow."
Conway said the Marines are already working with Afghan forces to get them ready for the day the turn-over does happen.
"We're partnering right now, almost on every patrol, with Afghan security forces when we go out," he said in what may be his last briefing before his expected retirement in the fall. "The time that we're there, the shaping operation is in a transition for the entire time, transitioning host nation forces to the point where they can do those things."
Even though he is leaving, he predicted that in the future, the Marine Corps that he has served for more than 40 years will soon get smaller.
"I think in time, after Afghanistan, that 202,000 Marines in a peacetime Marine Corps is probably too many. People are expensive. I don't know that we could keep 202,000 Marines constructively occupied."