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U.S. to send more counter-explosives units to Afghanistan

The units specialize in defusing roadside bombs, now used more frequently by the Taliban. The deployment will be separate from any formal request for additional forces.

September 12, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is preparing to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, including counter-explosives units to help fight the growing threat of roadside bombs in the war zone.

Defense officials Friday would not say how many troops might be sent in the deployment, which would be separate from any formal request from commanders for new forces. Such a request is expected in coming weeks.

Gates plans to send additional route-clearance and ordnance-disposal teams, units that specialize in finding and defusing roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The Pentagon is also planning to send additional intelligence specialists, medics and medical evacuation teams.

"The secretary believes the 68,000 troops that have already been committed deserve the very best IED protection we can provide them," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.

Morrell emphasized that officials did not know how many troops may be sent as part of the effort. Any additional troops could be sent in lieu of other forces due to arrive later this year, leaving the total number unchanged, he said.

President Obama has approved a troop buildup this year of about 21,000, meaning the U.S. force would reach 68,000 by the end of the year.

Prominent Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Sen. Carl M. Levin of Michigan, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have spoken out against any further troop increase. But members of Congress in the past have supported Gates' efforts to counter improvised bombs and probably would back efforts to improve troop protection.

The New York Times on Thursday first reported Gates' decision to send additional counter-explosives units.

In Afghanistan, roadside bomb attacks have increased dramatically in the last year as Taliban and other militants have increasingly adopted the technology and tactics used by Iraqi insurgents. Last month, Gates said he wanted to increase efforts to provide lighter-weight armored vehicles and unmanned reconnaissance drones to better protect troops.

Growing numbers of U.S. and allied soldiers have been killed by the roadside bombs, particularly in the south.

Gates "has seen the steady increase in IED attacks and IED casualties, and he believes the troops on the ground need more protection," Morrell said. "So he is looking to find more support personnel to help our troops combat this threat."

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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