DELARAM, Afghanistan — The U.S. Marines are considering requesting two battalions and a combat aviation unit in Taliban-controlled southern Afghanistan, which would be the largest proposed expansion of U.S. troops in the volatile region, two senior Marine commanders told McClatchy.
If approved, the move would involve roughly 3,000 Marines and support staff, and it would mark the Marines' shift from the once-restive Anbar province in Iraq to places such as Helmand and Farah provinces in southern Afghanistan, which U.S. and NATO officials concede that Taliban forces have overrun.
"The decision hasn't been made yet, but there are contingency plans along those lines," Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, said Wednesday in an interview with McClatchy as he was touring the base in Delaram.
Most U.S. forces now are deployed in eastern Afghanistan, but Conway has pushed for Marines to tackle southern Afghanistan, where Taliban forces live and fight and where the opium poppy trade is thriving. Many Taliban forces train in neighboring Pakistan and travel through Helmand to Kandahar, the militant Islamic group's former hub.
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Conway has been calling to shift troops from Iraq since last year, but Secretary of Defense Robert Gates initially opposed moving troops from Anbar. However, as violence has diminished in Iraq and increased in parts of Afghanistan, Conway's proposal has gained traction in the Pentagon.
The additional Marines would be one of the three brigades that Army Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, has requested for the southern region. During a visit here last week, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that he expected the military to meet McKiernan's request with as many as 30,000 more troops.
The Marines would send an Air Ground Task Force, which includes ground troops and air support. An Air Ground Task Force is serving here, but it has only one battalion, the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment from Camp Lejeune, N.C., with 2,000 troops and support staff. The proposal calls for two battalions. During his visit, Conway called the 3rd Battalion a "bridge force" to an expanded Marine presence.
The Pentagon hasn't received a formal request, and Conway said he didn't expect a decision until January. So far, the Pentagon has said that the 3rd Brigade of the Army's 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y., will go to Wardak and Logar provinces in eastern Afghanistan. In addition, an aviation unit from the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, N.C., will go to Afghanistan early next year to meet McKiernan's call for more troops and air support.
British forces have been serving in southern Afghanistan, but the Marines also began sending forces here earlier this year, first the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, then the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, based at Twenty Nine Palms, Calif.. Both units brought significant security improvements to parts of Helmand and Farah provinces, but often were stretched thin. They also lacked the air support needed to patrol parts of the rough terrain.
Security has improved in urban areas where Marines are present, but areas a few miles away remain under Taliban control, and commanders here said they didn't have enough coalition or Afghan troops to wrest control from the Taliban.
"I think it is a matter of time before we start going to places we haven't been before," Conway told the Marines.
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