Washington: The United States has ordered an additional 1,400 Marines to southern Afghanistan to pre-empt a Taliban spring offensive, despite a planned troop drawdown starting in July, the Pentagon has said.
Defence 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 a news agency.
The Marine contingent could start arriving within weeks and would only be on the ground for a short mission of less than 90 days, Defence 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 authorised 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.
Defence 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.