Battle Rattle

General: Brass joked about Marine angst over uniform sleeves

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Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, pictured here as a one-star officer in Afghanistan in 2009, told Marine Corps Times that Marines fear change. (Photo by Staff Sgt. William Greeson/ Marine Corps)

Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, pictured here as a one-star officer in Afghanistan in 2009, told Marine Corps Times that Marines fear change. (Photo by Staff Sgt. William Greeson/ Marine Corps)

As you may have seen, four Marine Corps generals and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett sat down with me recently and discussed a variety of issues, including the commandant’s new tough plans for barracks security, the manpower drawdown and the future of the service after Afghanistan.

Times are tough, they acknowledged. But Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commanding officer of 1st Marine Division, said Marines are also afraid of change, or the perception of change. He referenced a hot-button issue — Commandant Gen. Jim Amos’ decision to ditch rolled sleeves for Marines — while addressing it:

Marine Corps Times: One of the reasons there is push-back is because you’re dealing with so many things. There are money concerns, the drawdown, all these variables that are unclear.

Nicholson: Part of it is change. Nobody likes change. We were joking the other day, if four years from now the commandant twice removed said, “OK, we’re going to roll sleeves up,” there would be 20 letters to the editor going, “This is bull—-!” Any change is fraught with resistance. Again, the perception of change here. There isn’t really change at all.”

Nicholson, a salty commander who is popular with many of his troops, went on to make the case that because some of the initiatives the Corps is gravitating to now were in place years ago, there is really no change at all.

What are your thoughts, friends?

How long will Regional Command-Southwest in Afghanistan survive?

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Adm. James Stavridis, then the supreme allied commander of NATO, speaks to soldiers in Afghanistan in 2012. He advocated a plan for Afghanistan after 2014 that does not include a regional command in Helmand province, where Marines have led U.S. operations. (International Security Assistance Force photo)

Month by month, it increasingly looks like it could be a matter of time before the two-star Marine headquarters in southwestern Afghanistan ceases to exist.

Regional Command-Southwest, as it is known, was established in 2010 as the U.S. rapidly expanded military operations in Afghanistan, surging thousands of troops there. The Marine Corps was among the first involved in that surge, seeing its footprint grow in Helmand province from about 11,000 in 2009 to 20,000 the following summer. Maj. Gen. Richard Mills took command that spring of the newly formed RC-Southwest, which split off from the neighboring two star-headquarters in Kandahar province, RC-South.

Already, the Corps is shifting in the other direction. Currently, Maj. Gen. Lee Miller, commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), leads coalition military operations in southwestern Afghanistan. Marine officials say he will be replaced early next year at Camp Leatherneck by Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, who will deploy with a smaller headquarters known as MAGTF-14.

A widely cited article today by recently retired Adm. James Stavridis raises additional questions about what comes afterward, however. The recently retired supreme allied commander of NATO examines for Foreign Policy what the U.S. future in Afghanistan could resemble, advocating for a footprint in which some 15,000 coalition forces, including 9,000 Americans, stay in the country after the U.S.’s formal combat mission there ends in 2014. Of note is this passage:

Why 15,000 troops? The post-2014 mission needs to be spread across Afghanistan, with centers in each of the regional commands — north (Mazar-e-Sharif), west (Herat), south (Kandahar), and east (Bagram). There will have to be smaller centers in some of those regions as well, and a reliable ability to protect our own people and potentially provide some in-extremis support to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). All told, that will require 15,000 troops, still quite low compared with the 130,000 we had on the ground as recently as two years ago. This level would also provide critical mentoring and training in the areas in which the ANSF are still developing — logistics, intelligence, medical support, close air support, and so forth.

Notably missing from that list of regional commands is RC-Southwest — which means perhaps it’s time to examine what happened as the war expanded.

When the surge was announced by President Obama in 2009, the Corps had a one-star Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Helmand commanded by then-Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, with headquarters at the newly built Camp Leatherneck. The service was preparing to replace 2nd MEB through regularly scheduled deployment rotations with a similar unit from Camp Pendleton, Calif., led by then-Brig. Gen. Joseph Osterman.

Instead, the Corps deployed I MEF (Fwd.), Osterman told me in an interview in 2009. The move came as the Corps advocated for overseeing security in its own portion of the country, so it could operate in its traditional fashion as a Marine air-ground task force with its own organic air, logistics and combat forces.

Marine commanders in Afghanistan already have acknowledged they are planning to draw down to 4,400 troops in Helmand by early 2014 — and that’s if Obama’s yet-to-be-announced decision doesn’t dictate less. If that’s the case, how long will it be necessary to have a separate headquarters with a general officer in Helmand?

Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson on MEB-Afghanistan’s Presidential Unit Citation

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Then-Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson speaks to Marines with 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, outside Marjah, Afghanistan, in February 2010 (Associated Press photo)

Last week, I broke a story reporting that some 28,000 personnel will be authorized to wear the Presidential Unit Citation ribbon for serving under Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010. It’s prestigious, unit-level recognition of the sacrifices that thousands of Marines made as the U.S. ramped up the war in Afghanistan more than two years ago.

Today, Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson weighed in on the honor. He commanded the MEB as a one-star commander, and is back in Afghanistan now serving as the operations officer for the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command based in Kabul.

Nicholson had the following to say through email from Kabul:

Could not be prouder of our team or more honored by the Presidential recognition for the members of the MEB. The success of the MEB came at great cost and we will never forget the heroes who were killed and wounded. The MEB Team possessed an expeditionary mindset to get out and be in and amongst the people every day. MEB lived a rugged and Spartan lifestyle, and stayed closely connected to the local population they were there to protect. They put it all on the line every day and they never wavered. I am [damned] proud of this MEB team, they fought and thought their way through endless challenging scenarios in this most complex COIN environment we call Afghanistan. They have surely added a few lines of honor and accomplishment to the storied history of our Corps.

The Presidential Unit Citation is the unit-level equivalent of the Navy Cross. No Marine unit had received one since Marine Expeditionary Force (Reinforced), which was honored for actions during the initial assault on Iraq in 2003.