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ARLINGTON, Va. — Marines won’t be replacing soldiers in Afghanistan anytime soon, the commandant of the Corps said Wednesday.

In a press conference at the Pentagon, Gen. James Conway told reporters that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has passed on a proposal to shift Marines out of Iraq and into Afghanistan, in an effort to realign the long-term focus of both forces.

“I think the mission [in Afghanistan] is one that matches our strengths and capabilities ... but it doesn’t appear additional Marines will be needed in Afghanistan in the near future,” he said. “The timing is not right for that.”

Conway said that while Marines in Iraq are performing important tasks, a growing number of those duties are training missions or rebuilding projects — a shift away from the Corps’ expeditionary focus.

“As we shift more towards long-term sustainment in Iraq, that’s not a Marine function,” he said. “That’s not what U.S. Marines do for the country. We don’t get engaged in some of the long-term type of duties you see in Germany, or in Japan, or in Korea.

“We’re much more mobile than that, and we want to keep that flexibility.”

Still, Conway downplayed the decision against a forces swap, saying that Marines continue to see great progress in Anbar province and are committed to their mission there.

He said the two Marine battalions deployed to Iraq earlier this year as part of the “surge” of security forces could be withdrawn from the country as early as next month, but they likely will stay in country until March.

Conway recently visited with those forces and said commanders have seen signs of progress, including drops in attacks and overall violence. But he would not comment on further drawdowns, saying those decisions still rest on how the security situation develops in the next few months.

Once those force reductions begin to occur, Conway said, officials may revisit the idea of a Iraq/Afghanistan Marine swap again.

But he emphasized that any plan to replace soldiers in Afghanistan with Marines would be done only if defense officials could be confident such a move wouldn’t jeopardize stability in either country.

“Right now we have about 25,000 Marines in Iraq,” he said. “What I would like to have is 15,000 Marines in Afghanistan, if the commanders there agreed. That gives us a seven-month deployment with 14 months home.

“And it would keep us engaged, with the Marine Corps fighting our country’s wars. We could do that for a long time. The stress and strains would still be felt, but we would be doing the right things for the nation, for the Corps and for those young Marines.”

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