WASHINGTON Defense Secretary Robert Gates will consider sending some 3,000 Marines to Afghanistan to thwart any spring offensive by Taliban militants, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.
"This proposal is coming before the secretary this week," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said. "He will take it and consider it thoroughly before approving it."
Violence has surged in Afghanistan over the past two years, with the hardline Islamist Taliban fighting a guerrilla war in the south and east and carrying out high-profile suicide and car bombings across the country.
For months, Gates has pressed NATO allies to provide more troops for Afghanistan. But if the Pentagon chief backs the proposal, it will show Washington has concluded it will have to provide a large share of any extra combat forces.
Gates ordered a boost in U.S. forces early last year in response to the violence and the United States currently has some 27,000 troops in Afghanistan -- a record high.
Around half the U.S. troops serve in a 40,000-strong NATO-led security assistance force while the rest conduct missions ranging from counter-terrorism to training Afghan troops.
While NATO says it thwarted last year's attempted Taliban spring offensive, overall violence is up 27 percent over a year ago and it has risen by 60 percent in the southern province of Helmand, the U.S. military said last month.
IN PLACE BY APRIL
Morrell said most of the Marines would go to southern Afghanistan, where British, Canadian and Dutch troops have done much of the fighting.
"The idea is to get this in place to prevent, as we did last spring, another attempt by the Taliban to come back," he told reporters. "The timing is that they would be in place by April. This is a one-time seven-month deployment."
After meeting allies in Scotland last month, Gates signaled a shift away from pressing NATO nations to make politically difficult decisions to provide combat troops.
He suggested the allies could help with other areas of the mission of rebuilding Afghanistan. But that shift means the United States must shoulder more of the combat burden.
"The commander needs additional forces there. Our allies are not in a position to provide them so we are now looking at perhaps carrying a bit of that additional load," Morrell said.
U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban government in late 2001 in response to the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Morrell said the plan to send the Marines would be contained in a schedule of deployment proposals presented to Gates on Friday.
The plan would involve the deployment of a unit called a Marine Air Ground Task Force to fight in southern Afghanistan, and a Marine battalion to train Afghan forces.
The Pentagon's Joint Staff developed the plan after a request from Adm. William Fallon, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, and it has the support of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a U.S. military official said.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)