I am in beautiful Baghdad at a conference to discuss what happens when the Marines start to leave. It is a good thing that they can. It is a measure of success in Al Anbar that the Iraqi army and police forces can take over big chunks of territory and it has to happen eventually, but it will make life harder for us at the PRTs. The Marines give me my food, transportation and even my boots. I need the Marines.
They will not be all gone, but Marine brigades in Al Anbar will be reduced by more than half by this summer, if all goes as planned. This means fewer helicopters & humvees as well as fewer places to land the helicopter or park the humvee for the night. Our AO is as big as the State of South Carolina. It would be hard enough to travel such a big place, but Al Anbar does not have a good road system like the palmetto state and we have significant security concerns on long road trips. Even absent these problems, I would look forward to driving 12 hours (that is how long it takes to get to Rutbah) through one of the bleakest deserts in the world w/o the prospect of rest stops or gas stations.
That is why we are making plans now. Actually, I would call it perhaps less planning and more wishing or hoping. There are a few options and we are already doing some things that make travel less crucial. For example, we can (and are) sending our people out for longer periods. They are essentially embedded in a local town for days or weeks. We also are looking into hiring local employees, as I mentioned in a previous post. What might end up happening is that we have a HQ at Al Assad, but most of the staff is someplace else most of the time.
Personally I do not need to worry too much. As long as I am here (until September next year) there will be enough Marines to take care of most of what I need to do. I will just need a little more planning and trip consolidation. They would not have given me a new pair of boots anyway.
More challenging, but more interesting is how the PRTs will take over some of what the Marines do in civil affairs. The Marines have done an excellent job of securing the country and beginning the job of rebuilding (building) those aspects of civil society that help keep the peace. They are can do kinds of guys and they do the jobs they are given.
But Marines are fundamentally warriors. Some of them are getting a little nervous that it is too peaceful around here for them to employ their particular talents to the fullest. We (PRTs) will need to take some of that civil society program over. Word is that I will get a few more staff members to go with the accretions of responsibility. Following the Marines, we have some big boots to fill.