Gates recommends additional troops for Afghanistan

By David Morgan

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recommended sending additional troops to Afghanistan to reinforce NATO forces but there is no final decision yet, defense officials said on Monday.

The Pentagon chief will consult with President George W. Bush soon on a proposal to send 3,200 Marines to the South Asian nation, where stability is threatened by a surge in violence over the past two years, officials said.

One senior official said a decision could be imminent.

Gates has forwarded his recommendation to the White House and officials said the defense secretary would not order a deployment without first speaking to Bush, who returns from the Middle East on Wednesday.

“A recommendation has been forwarded for discussion. But at this point, no decision has been made. We’re still waiting,” Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Mark Wright told Reuters, declining to discuss further details.

The White House said Bush looked forward to hearing from Gates.

“President Bush is committed to helping the Afghan people deal with the Taliban and other extremists who continue to take innocent life and attempt to derail Afghanistan’s progress,” spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

A decision to send extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan could be seen as a reverse for NATO, whose member nations have been unable to respond to U.S. calls for additional forces.

Lawrence Korb, a former defense official now with the Center for American Progress, said the Bush administration mishandled NATO involvement by delaying its role in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“It’s a step in the right direction because we have not had enough troops in Afghanistan. But does it bode well for the alliance? No. The way this was handled has made it more difficult to get NATO to do what it needs to do,” Korb said.

Violence in Afghanistan has increased, with the fundamentalist Islamist Taliban fighting a guerrilla war in the south and east and carrying out suicide and car bombings across the country.

The United States has about 27,000 troops in Afghanistan — the most since leading the 2001 invasion. About half serve in a 40,000-strong NATO-led force, while the rest conduct missions ranging from counterterrorism to training Afghan troops.

For months, Gates pressed NATO allies to provide more troops for Afghanistan. But after meeting allies in Scotland last month, he signaled a shift away from pushing them to make politically difficult decisions to provide combat troops.

A senior Pentagon official said the United States was expected to proceed with the deployment of some 3,000 Marines to make up for the NATO shortfall.

“It is widely anticipated that the secretary will soon approve a deployment of additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan to fulfill unmet NATO requirements,” said a second senior defense official.

CNN reported on Monday that 3,200 Marines had been notified about an impending deployment to Afghanistan. The Marine Corps had no comment. (Additional reporting by Caren Bohan)