Expect Marines to remain fully engaged in the effort to combat the so-called Islamic State group in Iraq in the coming year, the head of Marine Forces Central Command said.
In a recent interview with Marine Corps Times, Lt. Gen. Frank McKenzie said Marines based in Iraq are poised to be at the point of friction as local troops plan an offensive to retake the Ramadi in Anbar province from IS militants.
Marines are concentrated in three locations in Iraq: at al-Asad air base in western Anbar, where about 320 Marines provide security and advise Iraqi troops; al-Taqaddum air base to the east, where nearly 400 Marines carry out a similar mission; and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where a nearly company-size element of Marines provides additional security for State Department officials.
Earlier this year, U.S. officials acknowledged that U.S. troops at al-Asad had gone weeks without any members of the Iraqi military to train, a revelation that cast some doubt on the strategy behind positioning Marines at the remote base.
But McKenzie said the base was positioned to become a focal point in the conflict as Iraqi security forces move against the extremists.
"Al-Asad sits on key terrain inside Iraq," he said. "Eventually, there's going to be large actions up and down the Euphrates River valley, and al-Asad's going to be the hinge point when that occurs. Have we trained to our full capacity? No, we have not. But you know, 60 days from now we could be training to full capacity. And that's the nature of war."
Because of this, he said, Marine force strength will likely hold steady at the two bases in the coming year.
McKenzie said Marines' presence at al-Taqaddum is also crucial as the much-anticipated Ramadi counteroffensive gets underway, with Iraqis in the lead. While a series of Islamic State victories in Iraq have cast serious doubt on the will of local troops to hold ground and fight, McKenzie said he had not yet lost faith in their ability to repel the enemy.
"I would watch Ramadi and I think that would be a very good bellwether, if you will, of their ability to field forces and push back on Daesh," he said, using a term for IS derived from its Arabic name.
In the coming year, McKenzie said, Marine officials will work to develop a consistent predeployment training workup for Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response–Central Command, the unit in the Middle East to which most of the Marine forces in Iraq are attached. The unit was created last October and has since become a crucial part of the coalition effort to combat the Islamic State.
McKenzie said he hoped to see a predeployment workup that would allow members of the crisis response unit — augmented by Marines with I and II Marine Expeditionary forces — who assist in the Iraqi training mission to composite prior to their arrival in the Middle East. An ideal workup would be several months long, he said, and include a culminating mission rehearsal exercise designed to present as realistic a range of scenarios as possible, from noncombatant evacuation operations to embassy reinforcements and raids.
"Now that we've sort of gotten a consistent state where you've got guys at TQ and you've got guys at al-Asad, our training will now adapt to begin to reflect that reality, and we'll look at those specific requirements," he said.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, a small contingent of about 100 Marines will continue to support training and sustainment operations in Afghanistan through 2016, McKenzie said. About 50 Marines are deployed to Bagram Airfield as trainers and advisers to the Georgian military, and about the same number are deployed to various headquarters elements throughout the country as individual augmentees, he said.
"I think that's going to hold for at least one more rotation, and then we'll just be driven by policy decisions about the ultimate size of the force in Afghanistan, whatever that is," McKenzie said. "We can certainly support [the Georgian training mission], and we think it's good for the Georgians and it's good for us."