WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is preparing to send at least 3,000 Marines to Afghanistan in April to bolster efforts to hold off another expected Taliban offensive in the spring, military officials said Wednesday.
The move represents a shift in Pentagon thinking that has been slowly developing after months of repeated insistence that the U.S. was not inclined to fill the need for as many as 7,500 more troops that commanders have asked for there. Instead, Defense Secretary Robert Gates pressed NATO allies to contribute the extra forces.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said Wednesday that a proposal will go before Gates on Friday that would send a ground and air Marine contingent as well as a Marine battalion — together totaling more than 3,000 forces — to southern Afghanistan for a "one-time, seven-month deployment."
Gates, he said, will want to review the request, and is not likely to make a final decision on Friday.
"He will take it and consider it thoroughly before approving it," said Morrell. "I just want to get people away from the idea that this is going to be imminently approved by the secretary."
He said Gates "has some more thinking to do on this matter because it's a serious allocation of forces."
Morrell added that Gates' thinking on the issue has "progressed a bit" over time as it became clear that it was politically untenable for many of the NATO nations to contribute more combat troops to the fight.
"The commanders need more forces there. Our allies are not in the position to provide them. So we are now looking at perhaps carrying a bit of that additional load," the spokesman said.
Morrell said the move, first reported Wednesday by ABC News, was aimed at beating back "another Taliban offensive" that is expected this spring — as has occurred in previous years.
When Gates was in Afghanistan last month, commanders made it clear they needed the additional forces.
Last year was the most violent since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The number of attacks has surged, including roadside bombings and suicide assaults.
Currently there are about 27,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, including 14,000 with the NATO-led coalition. The other 13,000 U.S. troops are training the Afghan forces and hunting al-Qaida terrorists.
Morrell said that while the Marine ground and air contingent would be put in place to prevent a spring Taliban offensive, the Marine battalion likely would be used to train Afghan forces.
The shift in U.S. thinking on sending more combat forces to Afghanistan has appeared inevitable in recent weeks, based on the political realities in many of the NATO nations.
In meeting after meeting during his Afghanistan visit in early December, Gates heard pleas from both Afghan and U.S. military leaders for up to 7,500 more forces, with about half needed for training.
About a week later, Gates was asked by a reporter after a NATO meeting in Scotland whether the Bush administration was considering sending more troops to Afghanistan, in the event that the shortfalls are not bridged by NATO allies. Gates replied, "Not in the short term."
But by Dec. 21, Gates acknowledged during a press briefing that the Pentagon would "be looking at the requirement ourselves."
Bush administration officials pressed NATO allies for months to fill gaps in troops levels in Afghanistan, but many allied governments face public opposition to deeper involvement there.
Gates said at the Scotland meeting that the administration had decided to tone down its appeals to allies, taking into account "political realities" faced by some European governments whose citizens may see less reason to intervene in Afghanistan.
The Bush administration has launched a wide-ranging review of its policy in Afghanistan to ensure that gains made since the radical Islamist Taliban regime was ousted in 2001 are not lost and to bolster Afghan President Hamid Karzai's nascent government.