WASHINGTON — The United States has ordered an additional 1,400 Marines to southern Afghanistan to preempt a Taliban spring offensive, despite a planned troop drawdown starting in July, the Pentagon said Thursday.
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,” spokesman Colonel David Lapan told AFP.
The Marine 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 tentative gains against the mostly Pashtun insurgency, with the hope of bolstering recently cleared areas between Kandahar city and Helmand province, 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,” the head of US Central Command, General James Mattis, said later in a statement.
There are currently about 97,000 American troops in Afghanistan, along with 45,000 forces from other countries, and officials said the new Marines would not put the total number of US forces above the limit of 100,000 authorized by President Barack Obama.
“These forces are within the current authority,” Lapan said.
Obama last month said the US war strategy in Afghanistan was “on track,” but warned that gains won by his surge strategy at a heavy cost in casualties remained fragile and reversible.
That assessment came one year after Obama announced both a surge of 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan and gradual troop drawdown beginning in July 2011.
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 United States 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 Americans.
US commanders are under pressure to show clear progress in Afghanistan in 2011 and successfully counter any upswing in Taliban attacks in the spring, or else face fresh public doubts about the course of the war.
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.
US officials see the American-led campaign in the south as make-or-break for the war effort, pinning their hopes on undermining the Taliban in its heartland.
The White House strategy review issued last month said progress in Afghanistan was evident in gains by Afghan and coalition forces against Taliban bastions around Kandahar city and in the Helmand province.
But the study was short on details, and did not include pointed criticisms of the Pakistani and Afghan governments that have featured in US government documents leaked in recent months.
Though pledging to work with Afghanistan to improve governance and reduce corruption, the review said little about countrywide graft, including in President Hamid Karzai’s government, which many analysts see as endemic to Afghanistan and a serious threat to the US-led war effort.