Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., doesn’t just represent a district adjacent to the major West Coast Marine Corps bases; he’s also a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, ending his tenure in uniform last year as a major in the Marine Corps Reserve. He’s an outspoken advocate for the troops, notably leading an ongoing push to grant the Medal of Honor to Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta for heroism in Fallujah, Iraq, and speaking out in recent days against the president’s handling of the drawdown in Afghanistan.
Marine Corps Times spoke with Hunter on Thursday about his priorities for the Marine Corps, his pick for commandant, and his modest hopes for the future of Afghanistan.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, top commander in Afghanistan, met with President Obama this week, and he’s requesting 10,000 troops stay behind in Afghanistan post-2014. What do you think of his efforts, and is 10,000 troops enough?
A: Gen. Dunford, he’s holding Afghanistan together by himself. He’s been there at the hardest time. Dunford’s already come out and said 10,000 troops. And I think the president should jump on that. What you need is the ability to kill bad people or the ability to watch Pakistan or watch Iran. And to keep on helping the Afghan police in training.
What do you think we can expect after 2014 in Afghanistan?
A: I think the timeline’s working but I think if we leave (without leaving troops on the ground), what happened in Iraq will happen in Afghanistan. I don’t know if the Afghans can hold up; I think they can hold the cities. I think they can hold Kabul and I think they can hold Kandahar and they can probably hold a few other places, but they’re just going to have to buckle down and not worry about the periphery of the country because they probably don’t have the ability to manage it without us and our supplies.
Do you have more optimism for postwar Afghanistan than you do for Iraq?
A: Frankly, it’s not about bringing Afghanistan into the first world. It’s about being able to strike in that area. And having a base for operations in that area. That’s what it comes down to for me and a lot of my colleagues on the national security side. Purely being able to strike and being able to touch people and being able to know what they’re up to. And you can’t do that if you’re operating off an aircraft carrier to the extent that we need to.
Who should next Marine commandant be?
A: I think Dunford’s great. I think he’s fantastic. I think [U.S. Southern Command commander Gen.] John Kelly’s a great, great Marine. Shoot, those are my two choices right there. There’s a lot to choose from, but you know Dunford, he’s been at the tip of the spear right now for a couple of years and probably has a pretty clear and deep perspective on where the Marine Corps needs to go from here. We could always bring back [Retired Gen. Jim] Mattis. I think that would make everybody happy.
Q: When the Quadrennial Defense Review comes out later this month, what do you hope it will indicate for the Marine Corps, and what are your thoughts about the 174,000 end strength — a drawdown of 20,000 Marines — they’ll likely have to achieve?
A: The Marine Corps’ core competency is the flavor of the month right now. They’re expeditionary, they’re getting back to their amphibious roots and their sea duty, and everyone wants a piece of that game. The Army wants to reinvent themselves, I think a little shortsightedly, as an expeditionary amphibious-capable service. If we’re thinking about giving the Army money to make them more expeditionary or amphibious, we already have that: it’s called the Marine Corps. If you have a higher requirement for that, the numbers for the Marine Corps need to be higher to match that requirement. So what that says for the Marine Corps is, if everybody agrees that we need more expeditionary capabilities, you have it in the Marine Corps and that’s what you need to use instead of reinveinting the wheel.
What are your other priorities regarding the Marine Corps this year?
A: The biggest thing is making sure that other services don’t try to reinvent themselves as a Marine Corps and use billions of dollars to do it. Too, with the shift to the Pacific, it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. Because the Marines are the tip of the spear and moving into wherever the hot spots are. There’s not a lot of hot spots that are at the scale that you would use Marines in in the pacific. There can be huge, big wars there possible with peers or competitors, right? And there can be tsunamis and such. But in the end, the hot spots are still in the Middle East and in southwest Asia.
Q: Some lawmakers are calling for responses to allegations that Marine Corps commandant Gen. Jim Amos exercised unlawful command influence regarding his 2012 Heritage Brief and in the cases of scout snipers filmed desecrating corpses in Afghanistan. Will you weigh in?
A: We’ve looked into this a couple of times and got some information. And both times it turned out that the Marine Corps had done their due diligence, worked through their own processes and done the right thing. ...What Amos did messed up the due process of the Marines that were in that (sniper) case. But I don’t think he did it maliciously. From my personal experience, even if it takes awhile, the Marine Corps has always done the right thing. Whether it was the Haditha Marines [accused of killing unarmed civilians in Iraq in 2005] that get caught up in some of this stuff that didn’t do anything wrong, they get exonerated.
I think the Marine Corps to an extent is too small to have those types of scandals. It’s transparent in the way that something that’s done would be seen by a lot of Marines. There’s more Marines that want to protect the Marine Corps than the commandant himself, and I don’t think they’d allow something bad to happen to the Marine Corps because of the commandant. No one person is greater than the Corps as a whole.
Q: Another Marine vet in Congress, Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., has been in the news lately for threatening a reporter. What’s your take on that?
A: Here’s what I would say: Mike’s from Staten Island. From New York, all right? I think that’s how these guys act. They’re not as laid back as us Californians. Or as proper as the East Coasters. I think that’s it. His New York came out.
Q: So that was more his New York than his Marine?
A: I think so.