What should we make of the comments of General James Conway, Commandant of the Marine Corps, on Afghanistan? A blunt assessment of the situation from a general officer who is set to retire this fall? A pre-emptive "revolt" prior to retirement--as opposed to those generals and admirals who voiced opposition to the direction of the Iraq war only after leaving the service? Is he another "runaway general" seeking to undermine the authority of the president?
I cannot say with any certainty the reasons for and the timing of these comments. However, I'd like to advance another theory (and to stress that it is a theory based upon observations from afar). It is to speculate whether the groundwork is being laid for a shift in administration policy.
Consider the following. President Obama entered office promising very clearly and in no uncertain terms that the detention facility at GITMO would be closed within a specified 365-day period. That deadline has come and gone without the camp being closed, while preparations remain underway for an eventual transition. An initial promise and firm deadline ended up being modified as feedback to that announcement complicated matters.
The president announced a July 2011 deadline to begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces--although this was swiftly recategorized, both by the progressives on the left and conservatives on the right--as being tantamount to an absolute and complete departure from Afghanistan. The recent statements emanating from military leaders, however, have been stressing that July 2011 does not by any means represent a complete and total U.S. (and NATO) military disengagement from Afghanistan. Quite the opposite--that there will be a continued, ongoing involvement. Several days ago, Lt. General William Caldwell, who heads up the NATO training mission, observed that Afghanistan is still much more than a year away from having sufficiently trained and prepared military and police forces to take over in providing security.
Conway's comments can perhaps be interpreted to mean that come summer next year, some parts of Afghanistan may be much more stable and permit the withdrawal of U.S. forces--but that one should not expect U.S. forces to leave the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar; and that the Marine Corps--itself in search of new missions to ensure its relevance in a 21st century military environment--may remain as part of a new expeditionary capability, not in service of "forcible entry" into countries (its traditional role) but as America's counter-insurgency force (which also hearkens back to earlier points in the Marines' history).
Perhaps what the stage is being set for is a bifurcated result in Afghanistan: a withdrawal of some U.S. forces and a handover to Afghan forces in the north, starting in July 2011--enabling the president to claim fulfillment of his promise made at West Point; but an increased focus on the south, with operations set to continue beyond the July date.
[The views, opinions and speculations expressed are entirely my own, and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy or of the U.S. government.]