Pulling out of Afghanistan will help the Marines free up forces for contingency operations. http://www.armytimes.com/story.php?f=0-ARMYPAPER-1814028.php A mission ends: Marines wrap it up in Afghanistan; Army, NATO troops to continue By Christian Lowe Times staff writer First in, first out. Nearly five years after Marines touched down in Afghanistan after a 400-mile helicopter flight from amphibious assault ships, the leathernecks are pulling out. They are leaving defense of the fledgling Afghan government and the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his supporters to the U.S. Army soldiers and NATO troops, a top Corps official confirmed. âWeâre attempting to reduce our operational tempo and deployment tempo,â said the Corpsâ plans, policy and operations chief, Lt. Gen. Jan Huly, in a May 18 interview. âA good way to do that is not send as many units overseas.â Since going into Afghanistan shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Corps continued to send at least one battalion of leathernecks to the fight. Central Command officials say the Marine pullout, for now, is not the start of an overall withdrawal of American ground forces in Afghanistan. âThe U.S. is still going to be the biggest contributor to that force, so itâs not like the U.S. Army is going to be leaving,â said CentCom spokesman Maj. Matt McLaughlin. Soldiers make up 17,000 of the 22,000 U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan, said Army spokesman Maj. Nathan Banks. NATO forces account for another 8,800 personnel on the ground there, McLaughlin said. Huly said, however, the exodus will be a drop in the bucket of near-constant deployments to Iraq and other Marine missions. The move means Marine infantry battalions and other units that were looking for a break from Iraq rotations by going to Afghanistan are back in line to join their brethren in Anbar province and other Iraqi hot spots. Maybe Iraq, maybe not But those rotations are in the maybe column: Based on recent patterns, just because theyâre in a Marine infantry battalion doesnât mean their seabag has an Iraq sticker on it. Despite the Marinesâ shrinking presence on the Horn of Africa, not every battalion that deploys to the Middle East goes into Iraq, and the units in that country donât always spend a lot of time there. Some Marine Expeditionary Units, the rough equivalent of two Army battalions, have deployed in âtheater reserveâ status, meaning the landing team stays mainly on its amphibious ships for the bulk of the deployment, conducts the odd training exercise in the region and waits for a call to go into Iraq that may not come. The Corps will still provide some support troops to the Afghan mission, including intelligence technicians and military training teams, Huly said. Marine expeditionary units could also be on call to plug in gaps if needed. The conclusion of the Corpsâ Afghan deployments comes as the U.S. commitment to that country is on the decline. Military officials have said that American forces will be reduced from the roughly 22,000 troops there now to 16,500 by the end of summer. Details were not available on any possible reduction of Army forces in Afghanistan. And for Marines, it also means the end of a duty many of them say is unique, a mission some strategists have said is tailor-made for light infantry forces. âItâs an area that, once youâve been there, you never forget it for the rest of your life,â said Col. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, which deployed to Afghanistan for nearly five months in 2004. The Corps leaves Afghanistan with a mixed security situation, however. Recent clashes between NATO-led International Security Assistance Force troops â who are in charge of overall security for the Afghan government â and insurgents resulted in the deaths of about 90 enemy forces, 15 Afghan police, one Canadian soldier and an American civilian near Kandahar. Huly said the security situation did not affect the decision to pull Marines from Afghanistan. âI donât think that was discussed,â he said. The country has seen a recent surge in violence, with enemy forces increasingly resorting to suicide bombers and roadside explosive devices â tactics common in Iraq. âWe are predicting that the enemy will get more alert [and] more active in the summer,â said Afghan national army Lt. Gen. Sher Karimi at a May 4 Pentagon press briefing. âSo we are accordingly planning to be more alert, more active and have more aggressive operations, offensive operations, in many areas against the enemy.â The Afghan national army has about 31,400 trained forces with another 3,400 in the pipeline. In addition, the Afghan National Police has about 64,000 trained personnel with another 3,500 in training, McLaughlin said. NATO forces step up presence The end of the Corpsâ commitment to the Afghanistan mission comes as the allied forces of NATO are increasing their presence in that country by about 60 percent. During a December 2005 NATO foreign ministerial conference at the organizationâs headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, officials agreed to boost NATOâs contribution to the Afghanistan International Stabilization and Assistance Force by about 6,000 troops, increasing international presence to an estimated 15,000. The ministers also agreed to expand ISAF support into the volatile south, the birthplace of the Taliban, and later into the eastern provinces that border the suspected al-Qaida sanctuary of Pakistanâs North-West Frontier Province. âISAF stability operations will be used to create an environment required to enable reconstruction and nation-building activities to continue,â according to an outline of the plan provided by Navy Cmdr. Cappy Surette, spokesman for the Pentagonâs European Command liaison office. Afghan government comes first The revised NATO plan ârecognizes the primacy of the Afghan government and the paramount importance of continued, coherent and consistent development of Afghan political institutions and security capacity,â the outline states. So far, 26 allies and 10 non-NATO countries contribute forces to the ISAF mission, which has already assumed security duties in the northern provinces of Afghanistan â including the cities of Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz and Bamian â and the western provinces that border Iran. ISAF will assume control of security operations in the southern provinces â which include the cities of Kandahar and Lashkar Gah â this summer, Surette said. The ISAF forces will not be used for counterterrorist operations, Surette added. The task of hunting down al-Qaida and allied fighters will be the exclusive mission of U.S. and coalition troops commanded by Combined Joint Task Force 76. Planned ISAF missions in Afghanistan will include: â¢ Conducting stability and security operations in coordination with Afghan national security forces. â¢ Supporting Afghan government programs to disarm illegally armed groups. â¢ Supporting Afghan government and internationally sanctioned counternarcotics efforts within limits, but not participating in poppy eradication or destruction of processing facilities, or taking military action against producers. â¢ Supporting humanitarian-assistance operations coordinated by Afghan government agencies. A portion of the projected 16,500 American forces stationed in eastern Afghanistan by this summer are due to fold into the ISAF mission following NATOâs assumption of security duties in the southern provinces, Surette added. The counterterrorist missions concentrated in the eastern provinces still will be run by U.S. commanders, he said. Staff writer Matt Cox contributed to this report.