General James F. Amos today vowed to make winning in Afghanistan his top priority if he is confirmed as the 35th commandant of the Marine Corps.
Amos, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the post, also pledged during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to always be forthright in assessing Marine Corps needs for Congress.
“You’ll always have my honest assessment of what is required,” he said.
If confirmed, Amos will be the first career aviator to hold the top Marine Corps post, which has been occupied almost exclusively by infantrymen. Serving as the assistant commandant for two years, Amos said, has given him a broad view of the service.
“I am keenly aware of the challenges our nation faces today, and likely will face in the future,” he said. “And, I understand the critical role of our expeditionary forces.”
Amos said he would ensure that the Marines maintain the counterinsurgency skills they honed in Iraq and Afghanistan, while also staying true to their traditional expeditionary force role. “We will shape the Corps to be our nation’s shock force, ready to respond to any crisis,” he said.
Quoting the Corps’ motto of “Always faithful, always ready,” Amos said, “We will make sure we are always ready to answer the call.”
Amos credited current Commandant Gen. James T. Conway with producing what he said are the best Marines in decades. “Our Marines have never been better trained, or better led,” he said. “They are simply magnificent.”
Amos called the operational tempo of Iraq and Afghanistan “the best of times, and the worst of times” for Marines, who want to be in the fight, no matter how tough it is. “Troop morale is sky high,” he said. “The bulk of 20,000 Marines in Afghanistan … are living a pretty hard life. But they’re a happy lot. It’s almost counterintuitive that you would put young men and women in an environment like that and they’d be happy.”
But they are happy, Amos said, and high recruiting numbers prove Marines want to be in the fight. “If you signed up today,” he said, “you couldn’t go to [basic training] until February, because we are that backed up.”
The general said he is confident in U.S. forces in Afghanistan based on his visits to Marines in Helmand province, one of the most violent parts of the country, where progress can be seen in more governance and new schools, and fewer and less-effective Taliban attacks.
Amos said he couldn’t say definitively how the U.S. mission in Afghanistan will end. But, he said, “I’m convinced the American military knows how to fight a counterinsurgency, and we will prevail in the nation of Afghanistan.”
Under questioning from senators, Amos said he is comfortable with Obama’s announcement that the United States would begin its drawdown of troops in Afghanistan in July. “I do agree with it, I think it’s helpful,” he said. “It will be backed up by conditions on the ground. Everybody understands that.”
Amos also spoke about his vision for the service after it leaves Afghanistan. Forces will need to remain forward-deployed in regions of the Pacific, Africa and elsewhere to engage with nations and train foreign militaries in efforts to prevent wars, he noted.
“We need to be the nation’s crisis response force – light enough to get there rapidly and fast enough to carry the day,” he said. “So when the president says ‘Send in the Marines,’ we’re either there or we can get there rapidly.”
A Marine Corps force structure review is under way and scheduled for release in January, the general said. It likely will include a plan to “get well” after Afghanistan, which will entail replacing and refurbishing equipment and reorganizing the force, he said.
Amos also was asked about a plan to move 8,000 Marines from Okinawa, Japan, to Guam. He said the Corps is working with the Defense and State departments to change the makeup of troops to relocate. The plan calls for more operational and fewer headquarters staff forces to allow for an air-ground task force at both Okinawa and Guam, as in Hawaii.
An agreement that is satisfactory to Guam residents and that shows the military is a good steward of the property will be worked out to solve a controversy over a planned Marine Corps firing range in Pagat, Guam, a historically preserved area, Amos said.
“I think we can work around the Pagat issue,” he said, “and I think it’s heading in that direction.”
Several senators questioned Amos about legislation to overturn the so-called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law, part of the pending 2011 Defense Authorization Bill. Amos said he personally is opposed to repeal of the law that bars gays from serving openly in the military, but that as commandant, he would ensure that the law is followed, however it is decided.
“We are the most disciplined service of all the ones you have,” Amos said. “We follow orders. If this [law] is changed, the last thing you’re going to see your Marine Corps do is step in and push it aside.”
In other areas, Amos said:
-- Marine Corps families are what he worries most about. “Even though we care for them well and we’re reaching out to them, our families are tired,” he said.
-- Increasing “dwell time” at home between deployments will allow Marines more training in areas such as amphibious assault, instead of just counterinsurgency.
-- He has spent most of his time as assistant commandant working on issues related to post-traumatic stress and suicides. He said he is encouraged that suicides among Marines have dropped to 32 this year, compared to 39 at the same time last year.
-- The Corps’ wounded warrior program “has become legendary,” and likely will stay in place long after troops leave Afghanistan.