Pentagon weighs sending 3,000 more troops to Afghanistan

( AFP ) - US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is considering sending some 3,000 additional marines to Afghanistan to boost forces ahead of a Taliban spring offensive, a Pentagon spokesman said Wednesday.

Gates is likely to agree to fill at least part of a 7,500-troop shortfall in combat troops in Afghanistan with US troops, said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

Morrell said Gates' thinking "has evolved on this such that the commander needs additional forces there, our allies are not in a position to provide them, so we are now looking at perhaps carrying a bit of that additional load."

The proposal to send marines to meet the requirement formally goes before the secretary on Friday, but he is unlikely to make a final decision at that time, Morrell said.

It calls for deploying a Marine air-ground task force with helicopters and some 2,200 combat troops by April when insurgents are expected to mount a spring offensive, officials said.

An additional Marine battalion also would go to train Afghan security forces under the proposal, according to Morrell, who said it would add up to a brigade-size force of 3,000 troops or more.

Currently, there are 26,000 US troops in Afghanistan, most of them under the 40,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

Commanders have complained that they are short three infantry battalions, 3,000 trainers and helicopters, which were promised but not delivered by NATO members even as a classic insurgency developed in Afghanistan.

With around 140 suicide attacks, 2007 was the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the extremist Taliban were ousted from power in late 2001, according to a United Nations survey.

"People are suggesting it reflects a deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan," Morrell said of the proposal to send marines. "And I would argue that it is more a move of anticipation of what we expect to be another attempt at a Taliban spring offensive."

"The timing is that they would be in place by April, for a one-time, seven month deployment to have them in place in RC-South to beat back another attempt at a Taliban offensive," he said.

A Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the marines would go to Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, if the plan is approved.

It was unclear where the troops would come from, but Morrell said they would not come from Iraq.

Gates last month shot down a proposal by General James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, to shift marine forces to Afghanistan, and leave military operations in Iraq to the US Army.

But General Dan McNeill, the commander of the NATO-led force, requested additional forces, and the propoal to send marines has gone through the Joint Staff, officials said.

Gates "will consider it thoroughly before approving it," Morrell said.

The secretary had hoped to convince European allies to make up the shortfall in combat forces in Afghanistan, telling US lawmakers last month he was "not ready to let NATO off the hook."

But after a meeting with some NATO defense ministers on the issue in Edinburgh, Scotland in mid December, Gates came away persuaded that it was politically too difficult for other allies to provide the required combat forces.

"We're going to try to look at this more creatively than we have perhaps in the past, where we basically have just been hammering on people to provide more people," Gates told reporters travelling with him.

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