U.S. to Bolster Forces in Afghanistan

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008

The U.S. military is planning to deploy about 3,000 Marines to Afghanistan this spring to counter an expected offensive by Taliban insurgents, a Pentagon spokesman said yesterday, citing NATO allies' failure to provide additional combat troops.

The reinforcements would be in place by April and stay for about seven months to try to bring down violence, which rose significantly last year, leading the Bush administration to reassess its Afghanistan strategy. Overall attacks were up 27 percent, with a spike of 60 percent in the volatile southern province of Helmand, where the Taliban resurgence is strongest, according to Pentagon data.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will receive the formal order Friday to deploy a Marine air-ground task force and a Marine battalion to Afghanistan, said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. Gates does not plan to approve the order immediately but will weigh it carefully because the Marine deployment would represent a "serious allocation of forces," Morrell said.

Bush administration officials said a political decision has been made that the U.S. military must shoulder a greater combat burden, given that the United States has failed to persuade NATO allies to contribute the thousands of extra combat troops needed to train Afghan forces and provide security. "The commander needs additional forces there . . . and the allies are not inclined to provide them, so we are looking at providing additional combat forces," Morrell said.

The United States now provides about 26,000 of the roughly 54,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan and has the lead combat role in the eastern part of the country, while U.S. Special Operations forces operate in all regions. British, Canadian, Australian and Dutch forces play key combat roles in southern Afghanistan, where violence has surged over the past year, particularly suicide and roadside bombings.

During a trip to Afghanistan last month, Gates said he was not inclined to supply the additional combat troops and continued to press NATO. But now, Morrell said, Gates has decided "to stop hammering our allies for things which may not be politically possible for them to deliver."

NATO force commanders have acknowledged that they lack enough troops to control territory in the nation of almost 32 million people, allowing the Taliban to recapture district centers following NATO offensives against the insurgents. That shortage led the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, to ask for at least three more combat battalions, they said.

Many NATO countries have placed restrictions on their troops that keep them out of combat. Other countries, such as Canada, operate without such restrictions but say their forces are already stretched.

"It's difficult to see how Canada could contribute more without a negative impact" on sustaining the troops' presence, Canada's army chief, Lt. Gen. Andrew Leslie, said in Washington last month. Canada has about 2,500 soldiers in southern Afghanistan.

Gates has decided that the Marines going to Afghanistan will not come from Iraq's Anbar province, as called for under an earlier Marine Corps proposal, because the situation in Iraq remains tenuous, Pentagon and administration officials said.

The plan to send Marines to Afghanistan was first reported yesterday by ABC News.

The Marine air-ground task force will go to Helmand, where its mission will be "to beat back another spring offensive," Morrell said. Fighting in Afghanistan tends to be seasonal, with a lull in winter when the weather makes travel difficult. British forces now lead the NATO command in southern Afghanistan, including Helmand.

Leslie acknowledged that Taliban gains in southern Afghanistan are a serious challenge. "The south is on a knife edge," he said. "Failure to secure the south could lead to unpleasant second- and third-order effects."

The Pentagon plan would dispatch a Marine battalion to train the Afghan army and police, partially meeting a shortfall of about 3,500 trainers for the police force, which U.S. officials say suffers from corruption and illiteracy. More trainers are needed for the Afghan army, following a decision by the Pentagon last month to increase the manpower goal of that force from 70,000 to 80,000.

Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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