3,200 Marines to Deploy To Afghanistan in Spring

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

President Bush has approved an "extraordinary, one-time" deployment of about 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan for seven months starting this spring, the Pentagon announced yesterday, while defense officials continued to urge NATO allies to supply more forces to fill a long-standing shortfall of 7,500 troops that commanders say are needed to improve security.

About 2,200 Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., will deploy in March to southern Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents have escalated attacks and repeatedly seized territory over the past year.

"This has been timed to maximize our ability to take on the Taliban should they choose -- unwisely, I may add -- to attempt a second spring offensive," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said yesterday. Those Marines will focus on combat operations and work under a NATO command led by Canada.

Another 1,000 Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, based in Twentynine Palms, Calif., will take train Afghan security forces, primarily the police, and will work under U.S. command.

The deployment will bring U.S. forces in Afghanistan to more than 30,000 troops, the greatest number since the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban government in late 2001. There are currently about 28,000 non-U.S. foreign troops in Afghanistan, according to Pentagon data.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has long urged NATO allies to provide more forces and lift restrictions on their combat roles in Afghanistan, and officials said the decision to send the U.S. Marines does not alleviate that need. "It is our hope that our allies in NATO and other partners . . . in Afghanistan will see what more they can do to add forces to bring down the shortfall that will exist even after we deploy these additional Marines," Morrell said. This would include, "at the very least," sending forces to replace the Marines when they leave at the end of this year, he said.

Stretched thin by rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has struggled to muster the additional troops. "Finding these forces has been difficult," Morrell said.

As a result, the Marine Corps will have to sustain through 2008 a high pace of deployments -- which now dictate that Marines in combat units spend about as much time at home as in the war zone -- whereas previously that tempo was expected to ease in the spring, said Col. Dave Lapan, a Marine Corps spokesman.

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit was already scheduled to deploy for seven months to the Middle East, where it was to serve as a contingency force, or "theater reserve," for U.S. Central Command, led by Adm. William J. Fallon. Another U.S. combat force will now fill that role, which normally involves only a few months of combat time.

The Marines headed to Afghanistan will not come from Iraq, where Gates has made it clear that they are still needed. Nevertheless, the initial drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq -- particularly the departure last fall of two Marine infantry battalions from Anbar -- has helped make it possible to send reinforcements to Afghanistan, Morrell said.

"We are reaping the benefits to some extent from the success we have been seeing in Iraq," he said.

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