In reversal, Pentagon may send Marines to Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is reviewing a request from commanders in Afghanistan to dispatch a unit of at least 3,000 Marines there by April in anticipation of a Taliban spring offensive.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates has not made a final decision on what would be a one-time, seven-month deployment of a Marine air ground task force, the Associated Press reported.

The move reverses Pentagon public pronouncements that the Marines were not needed in Afghanistan. As recently as last month, Marine Corps commandant Gen. James T. Conway said Gates had rejected a proposal to shift Marines from Iraq to the country. "It doesn't appear that additional Marine units will be needed in Afghanistan in the near future," Conway told reporters on Dec. 5, 2007. Conway has been lobbying the Pentagon leaders to send Marines to the country as they withdraw from Iraq.

Attacks by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have increased dramatically since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, and Gates had requested that NATO allies contribute additional troops. But Morrell said alliance nations are not in a position to do that, so the burden falls to the U.S. military. The Marines would be sent to southern Afghanistan, where the fighting is heaviest.

American troop levels in Afghanistan number around 27,000, having doubled last year when the military sent a second combat brigade to the eastern part of the country where Taliban fighters often cross the border from sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan.

Taliban insurgent groups are displaying more high-level coordination and are using more roadside bombs, said Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, speaking to reporters from the country on Jan. 8. Insurgents have launched at least 10 large-scale attacks in recent months, he said, that involved 30 or more Taliban fighters banding together to conduct attacks and then disperse.

Conway has argued that the Afghanistan mission matches the Marines' strengths and capabilities. "We are one of the world's premier counterinsurgency forces at this time," he said in December. But, he added, moving large numbers of Marines to Afghanistan would be worthwhile only for a prolonged deployment since it would take time to move equipment there.

The smallest unit that typically deploys to a combat zone is a Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is made up of about 2,200 Marines and sailors, and includes 21 transport helicopters and eight AV-8B Harrier jump jets.

Afghanistan's rugged terrain places a premium on helicopter lift to move men and material. The country has a limited road network, easily monitored by insurgents who place roadside bombs and set ambushes. But the Marines' heavy lift helicopter has limited capability in "high and hot" environments. That restricts its capacity to carry heavy loads at high altitudes, such as in Afghanistan's arid mountains, and during the country's hot summer months.

One U.S. Army aviation brigade is deployed in Afghanistan that includes around 25 CH-47 Chinook heavy lift helicopters, the work horse helicopter of the war in Afghanistan. It is the only helicopter capable of carrying troops and equipment over all kinds of terrain in the country and during the hot summer months.

Conway said a prolonged deployment of Marines to Afghanistan would require additional aviation and support units, but he did not sat whether additional Army aviation units would need to be sent to support the Marines.

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