11/23/2008 - 11/24/08
AL ASAD, Iraq — U.S. Marine Corps leaders are devising a plan to send thousands of additional combat troops to Afghanistan to wage aggressive warfare against the Taliban that they expect could take years.
The Marines would like to deploy upward of 15,000 troops if Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Army Gen. David Petraeus, newly named head of the U.S. Central Command, approve. Some 2,300 Marines have been sent to Afghanistan to replace units that are returning home after eight months.
On Friday, Gates said he wanted to supplement the more than 30,000 U.S. troops, mostly from the Army, already in Afghanistan. Another 30,000 troops from other NATO countries and allies are also stationed in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban and other Islamist insurgent forces.
The Marine proposal was shaped during a series of meetings in Afghanistan, Iraq and Bahrain in the past week involving top officers. Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway was in contact with a group headed by Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, commanding general of the Marine Force Central Command, traveling from base to base.
"Treat every day as a combat mission," Helland wrote in a battle plan for one of his commanders.
The Marines have long made no secret of their desire to depart from Iraq and redeploy to Afghanistan, where they were the first conventional U.S. troops in 2001 to invade Afghanistan to assist local forces in toppling the Taliban regime.
Finding troops will not be easy unless there is a significant drawdown in Iraq where Marines have been deployed to al-Anbar province since 2004. The Marines have about 22,000 troops in the sprawling province, assigned mostly to back up Iraqi security forces.
Maj. Gen. John Kelly, the top Marine in Iraq who met with Helland last week, said there could be a "significant" reduction in al-Anbar within months without endangering progress made toward strengthening the Iraqi economy, political structure, and security forces.
In an interview, Kelly said his views were not prompted by the Marine Corps' desire to redeploy to Afghanistan.
"All my recommendations and decisions have nothing to do with Afghanistan," said Kelly, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Forward. "I'm absolutely focused on Iraq. I work 20-hour days. I don't have time to read about Afghanistan."
Marine leaders say the fight in Afghanistan will be different than in Iraq where the Marines teamed with Sunni tribal sheiks to crush the insurgency.
In his orders to Col. Duffy White, commander of an air-ground task force deployed recently to Afghanistan, Helland warned that Afghanistan would be different because of differences in terrain, politics, the local culture and the presence of the NATO-Afghan Army-U.S. coalition.
Iraq veterans should not be allowed to rest on the laurels of their success in al-Anbar, wrote the combat veteran of Vietnam. "Once a mistake is made, the excuse 'this is how we did it in Iraq' will not suffice," Helland wrote.
For the Marines, there is a sense of unfinished business in Afghanistan. In early December 2001, soon after the Taliban government was routed, Marines were part of a plan to attack the Tora Bora mountains where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was believed to be.
But even as Marines waited to load onto helicopters, U.S. officials called off the attack, preferring that the Afghan forces finish the task of capturing or killing bin Laden and his top lieutenants. Instead, bin Laden and many of the others escaped and are still at large.
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