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A 'surge' for Afghanistan?

A Marine proposal under discussion this week would redeploy troops from Iraq.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 29, 2007

Kabul, Afghanistan

The top general of the Marine Corps is pushing hard to deploy marines to Afghanistan as he looks to draw down his forces in Iraq, but his proposal, which is under discussion at the Pentagon this week, faces deep resistance from other military leaders.

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Commandant Gen. James Conway's plan, if approved, would deploy a large contingent of marines to Afghanistan, perhaps as early as next year. The reinforcements would be used to fight the Taliban, which US officials concede is now defending its territory more effectively against allied and Afghan forces.

Within the Pentagon, General Conway's proposal has led to speculation about which, if any, American forces would be best suited to provide reinforcements for a mission that, most agree, has far more political appeal than the one in Iraq. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has already recommended against the proposal, at least for now, a military official said Tuesday.

That leaves the decision up to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

"It came down to an issue of timing," says the official, who didn't want to be named because of the sensitivity of the recommendation. "The chairman didn't feel that this was the right time."

Conway says that marines, who have been largely responsible for calming Anbar Province in Iraq, can either return home or "stay plugged into the fight" by essentially redeploying to Afghanistan. The general returned Monday from a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he visited with marines and stressed that the Corps is not out to snatch a senior command billet in Afghanistan, nor is it trying to get out of Iraq "while the getting is good."

Critics of the plan worry that it would leave too much risk for the Army in Iraq, but Conway argues that the Corps would assume more risk in Afghanistan than it has now in Anbar Province, where violence has abated considerably.

"The trend lines tell us that it may be time to increase the force posture in Afghanistan," Conway says, in his first public comments on the matter since the proposal was leaked to the press last month.

Ideally, he says, the international community would provide more help for the roughly 50,000 coalition forces there now – about half of them American troops, mostly from the Army. About 300 marines are currently stationed in Afghanistan.

"But if it requires additional US forces," Conway says, "then it goes back to our suggestion that maybe we need more marines in there with a more kinetic bent."

Adm. William Fallon, head of US Central Command, which oversees operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is said to be "very strong" on the Conway option, says another senior military official, who asked not to be named, adding that the whole mix of forces must be looked at before a decision can be made.

"We're at the taking-a-hard-look-at-it stage," says this official. "The positive side of the Marines looking at this for a deployment is it would be a good mix of combat power and training and equip missions."

Secretary Gates's focus so far has been to seek more help from the international community to provide trainers and other forces to combat the resurgent Taliban.

Top Army and Air Force officials have expressed concern about the Conway plan, even as US officials on the ground in Afghanistan appear to welcome the idea.

The Corps would probably deploy a Marine Air Ground Task Force, a self-contained unit that brings with it its own headquarters, ground elements, logistics, and air-assault capabilities that may be especially suited to the scale of operations in Afghanistan, Conway says.

Gates has appeared to shoot down the idea in remarks over the past month. But sources say the Defense secretary hasn't yet been fully briefed on the matter.