VAERNES GARRISON, NORWAY -- As the U.S. nears the completion of nearly two decades of combat in the Middle East, the commandant of the Marine Corps said the service is looking beyond the region and working to focus more on other parts of the world where new threats are emerging.
During a brief visit to the new Marine Corps rotational force in Norway as part of a multi-country Christmas tour of deployed Marine units, Gen. Robert Neller held a town hall forum and took questions from a handful of Marines from the 300-troop rotation. Addressing a question about where the Marine Corps saw itself fighting in the near future, Neller spoke plainly.
"I think probably the focus, the intended focus is not on the Middle East," Neller said. "The focus is more on the Pacific and Russia."
The commandant acknowledged that who and where to fight is not always a unilateral choice.
"The problem is, we may not be interested in the Middle East, but they seem to be fascinated with us," he said. "And as long as there are groups there that threaten the United States, there will have to be some presence."
The current Marine Corps deployed presence in the Middle East is robust.
More than 450 Marines are now deployed to Afghanistan in advisory and training capacities as local troops continue to battle the Taliban. Hundreds more are in Iraq, staffing two ground bases supporting the fight against ISIS and reinforcing the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. An artillery detachment in Syria recently departed for home after being credited with helping to achieve victory in the assault on the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate in Raqqa.
And elsewhere in the Middle East, elements of the Marines' crisis response force for the region are distributed in various countries, ready to respond to a regional crisis, provide aid to an embassy, or rescue a downed aircraft.
Traditionally, multiple stops on Neller's annual Christmas visit are to deployed Marine units in the Middle East.
Neller asked the enlisted Marine who asked the question how old he was when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred. Eight, the Marine responded.
"If you look at the security situation in that part of the world, is it any better than it was at 9/11?" Neller said. "We've been there for 17 years next September. So we keep doing the same thing, getting the same result, and we're still unhappy. Maybe we need to change something."
He predicted "a slight pullback" from the Middle East in favor of presence in and focus on the Pacific and Eastern Europe, where North Korea and Russia pose regional and global threats.
The Pacific, in particular, houses three of the five threats in the Pentagon's "4+1" framework, Neller said: North Korea, China, and global terrorism. (The other two threats are Russia and Iran).
"So I believe we'll turn our attention there," Neller said. "We're going back to the Pacific."