The US has ordered 1,400 more marines to southern Afghanistan to pre-empt a Taliban spring offensive, despite a planned troop drawdown starting in July, the Pentagon said on Thursday.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday “approved additional marine forces to southern Afghanistan to exploit and consolidate gains already achieved and apply pressure on the enemy during the winter campaign,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel David Lapan said.
The US Marine Corps contingent could start arriving within weeks and would only be on the ground for a short mission of less than 90 days, defense officials said.
The move was designed to cement gains against the mostly Pashtun insurgency, with the hope of bolstering recently cleared areas between Kandahar and Helmand provinces, officials said.
The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, currently based on a ship in the Indian Ocean, would be heading to Afghanistan for the “winter campaign,” US Central Command commander General James Mattis said later in a statement.
There are currently about 97,000 US troops in Afghanistan, along with 45,000 forces from other countries, and officials said the new US marines would not put the total number of US forces above the limit of 100,000 authorized by US President Barack Obama.
Obama last month said the US war strategy in Afghanistan was “on track,” but said gains won by his surge strategy at a heavy cost in casualties remained fragile.
The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the marine reinforcements, said that commanders were considering an even larger boost of up to additional 3,000 troops. Pentagon officials could not confirm that detail.
The new marine deployment comes as a surprise given the preparations for withdrawals by the US and its allies in Afghanistan, where a war against Taliban insurgents has dragged on for more than nine years, with nearly 2,300 coalition deaths, about two-thirds of them from the US.
US commanders are under pressure to show progress in Afghanistan this year and counter any upswing in Taliban attacks in the spring or face fresh public doubts about the course of the war.
US defense officials insisted the marine deployment did not reflect difficulties in the war, but was aimed at hammering home progress at a time when the insurgents usually pull back to prepare for fighting after the winter.
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