THE US is to send a “mini-surge” of 1400 additional marines to Afghanistan to help preserve gains made against the Taliban .
The extra troops will keep up the momentum once the fighting season resumes in the northern spring.
However, with barely seven months to go before July 31 – the date by which President Barack Obama has promised to start bringing home some of the 97,000 US troops serving in Afghanistan – the reinforcements may be interpreted by some in Washington as a ruse to keep the numbers stable, while seeming to be honouring the withdrawal timetable.
General David Petraeus, the overall commander in Afghanistan, made the request for an extra marine battalion to consolidate the territorial gains around Kandahar in the south before making his recommendations about potential thinning out of troops elsewhere in the country. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates approved the request on Wednesday.
Dr Gates had warned earlier that any troop withdrawals by July would be relatively minor and dependent on security conditions. Having an extra 1400 marines in Afghanistan, with the expectation that this could rise to 3000 in due course, will largely assuage concerns within the Pentagon about premature troop withdrawals to meet a political timetable set by the White House.
When Mr Obama approved the surge of 30,000 US troops a year ago, he gave Dr Gates leeway to add another 10 per cent if the need arose. Colonel David Lapan, the Pentagon spokesman, said the additional 1400 marines would keep the total number within the overall limit set by Mr Obama.
The mini-surge is supposed to be temporary, but all military commanders in Afghanistan are under intense pressure to create security conditions over the next seven months that will allow Mr Obama to announce some troop withdrawals by the end of July. They will be reluctant to let go of the extra battalion. To underline the continuing challenge posed by the Taliban, NATO officials acknowledged yesterday that despite suffering a large number of casualties over the past 12 months, the insurgents were still at the same strength they were a year ago; an estimated 25,000 fighters.
The decision to send an extra battalion may alarm congress, particularly the Democrats, but commanders in Afghanistan have been saying that it is vital to hold on to the gains made against the Taliban. A White House strategy review last month warned that while progress had been made, it was “fragile and reversible”.
General David Richards, Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff, in Washington for talks at the Pentagon, said there were no plans to increase the size of the British force in Afghanistan, which stands at 10,000, including 500 special forces. He added: “If there’s a good case for sending a few more, we will remain open-minded.”
In a speech to the Atlantic Council, General Richards said the Taliban was under “unprecedented pressure” and had lost significant ground in the south.
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 their 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 Helmand province.