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ARLINGTON, Va. — U.S. Marines will be fighting in the southern Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar for years beyond the White House’s July 2011 target date to start withdrawing American troops and transitioning power to local forces across the country, according to the Marine Corps commandant.

“Though I certainly believe some American units somewhere in Afghanistan will turn over responsibilities to Afghan security forces in 2011, I do not think they will be Marines,” Gen. James Conway said at the Pentagon on Tuesday. “I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us.”

Whether Marines pull out or not, he said, is up to President Barack Obama, but Conway doesn’t feel conditions will allow a drawdown next year.

He also acknowledged that the July 2011 deadline set by the White House with the support of war commander Gen. David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates likely is fueling the insurgency.

“In some ways, we think right now it is probably giving our enemy sustenance,” he said.

But he added that U.S. forces staying in country beyond that date likely will show a long-term commitment that the Taliban will have trouble countering.

A somewhat bleary-eyed Conway spoke to Pentagon reporters the morning after returning from a seven-day trip to Afghanistan, with additional stops in Pakistan, Romania and Landshtul, Germany. It was possibly his last visit to the war zone as the commandant. Congress is expected to return from August recess to quickly confirm his successor, Gen. James Amos.

Conway returned to news that nearly 60 percent of Americans oppose the Afghanistan war, according to a Associated Press-GfK poll, a statistic for which he took some responsibility. Public opinion, Conway said, is “an important factor in this whole discussion.”

“I think that we, the military leadership, have to do a better job of talking about the last chapter of this book if we simply try to walk away,” he said. “I don’t think we have done a strong enough job in convincing the American people there are good and just reasons why we have to destroy the al-Qaida and the associated Taliban in Afghanistan.”

Conway said he realizes Americans are “war weary,” but he sensed that Marine Corps morale in Afghanistan is high, as those troops now feel “they have the upper hand.”

baronk@stripes.osd.mil

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