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Marines may be sent to Afghanistan

Gates has yet to OK the idea to ship 3,200 more troops in the spring.

January 10, 2008|Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Faced with rising violence, U.S. military officials have proposed sending additional troops to Afghanistan this spring in an effort to counter the growing power of Taliban militants.

Pentagon officials want to deploy 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan for a standard seven-month stint and would not replace them when they leave. Added to the 27,000 U.S. troops there, the additional Marines would boost the U.S. force to the highest level since the 2001 invasion.

The proposal is supported by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and could be submitted to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates as early as Friday. But Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, emphasized that Gates would not rubber stamp it.

"The secretary is going to want to think long and hard about it before he approves it, because it involves a serious additional commitment of U.S. forces," Morrell said.

Gates for months has tried to persuade U.S. allies to send additional troops. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization commands about 42,000 troops in Afghanistan, including about 15,000 of the Americans there.

The number of bombings and clashes with Taliban-aligned militants increased in 2007, and 117 U.S. military personnel were killed, according to the independent website icasualties.org.

Pentagon planners have examined the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy and troop build-up in Iraq to determine which tactics and strategies could work in Afghanistan. But Morrell said the proposal for additional Marines grew less out of the lessons of Iraq and more from the realization that, though weakened, the Taliban is a "stubborn" problem.

"It's based upon the fact the Taliban remains a persistent threat and commanders on the ground feel that additional forces are necessary to take on an additional spring offensive," he said.

The majority of the Marine force would serve in southern Afghanistan, one of the more violent areas. They would join other U.S. forces as well as troops from Canada, Britain and the Netherlands. A smaller group of Marines would train Afghan security forces.

The proposal to send more U.S. troops follows months of unsuccessful efforts by Gates and Mullen to persuade NATO countries to send additional combat battalions and trainers. At a congressional hearing last month, Gates said he intended to continue applying pressure.

"I am not ready to let NATO off the hook in Afghanistan at this point," Gates said.

In a meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, a few days later, Gates was told by several NATO defense ministers that domestic politics prevented them from sending more troops.

U.S. planners consequently have sought other ways to meet a request for 7,500 more troops from Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, who serves as commander of NATO forces in the country. But a military official said Wednesday that sending Marines would not mean that Washington would ease the pressure on its allies.

"The U.S. leadership would still like NATO to meet its commitments," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the proposal. "We still need NATO nations to exert a greater effort."

Morrell said that the need for more NATO forces remained.

"If anything, it increases the pressure on NATO," Morrell said. "It shows we are stepping up to the plate to fill part of the shortfall of 7,500 and other countries should dig deep and provide what they can to fulfill the rest."

Military officials compared the extra Marines to a buildup of U.S. forces last spring. Gates ordered extended tours for members of a brigade of the 10th Mountain Division to augment a NATO offensive against the Taliban.

The new Marines would arrive in April, when the winter snows have melted and heavy fighting is expected to resume.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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