WASHINGTON, Jan 16 (Reuters) - About 500 Navy construction engineers will go to Afghanistan next month to build facilities for thousands of extra U.S. troops expected to deploy there in coming months, the Pentagon said on Friday.
The 25th Naval Construction Regiment, based in Gulfport, Mississippi, will arrive in Afghanistan late in February for a deployment of up to 12 months, officials said.
The sailors were initially due to deploy to Kuwait, which the U.S. military uses as a support base for operations in Iraq. But their assignment was switched as part of a shift in military strategy as the United States begins to focus more on Afghanistan.
The unit consists of support troops known as "Seabees," a fabled arm of the U.S. Navy that specializes in constructing bases, landing strips and other facilities needed to sustain military operations.
Pentagon officials declined to say where in Afghanistan the unit would be deployed or to specify the kinds of facilities it would construct.
"This is about building capacity to accommodate the anticipated additional forces that the United States has committed," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.
The United States currently has about 33,000 troops in Afghanistan and plans to add at least another 13,000 forces by summer to combat an intensifying Taliban insurgency that has caused violence levels to soar in recent years.
All told, up to 30,000 extra troops may go to Afghanistan in the next 12 to 18 months, Pentagon officials have said.
An additional Army combat brigade of about 3,500 soldiers began arriving this month in eastern Afghanistan. The Pentagon is also sending a combat aviation brigade of about 2,800 soldiers this spring and expects to follow that up with about 7,000 additional combat ground troops by early summer.
Much of the build-up plan, which awaits a final nod from President-elect Barack Obama after he takes office on Tuesday, is expected to take place under NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, which needs more troops mainly for southern Afghanistan.
But Whitman said the 25th Navy regiment will operate under U.S. command as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, which focuses on counter-terrorism but also includes other missions.
The Pentagon also said it would deploy the 4th brigade of the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division based at Fort Richardson, Alaska, to Afghanistan beginning in late February, as part of a normal troop rotation.
The brigade, consisting of about 3,500 combat soldiers, will replace the 4th brigade of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division now on duty in eastern Afghanistan. (Reporting by David Morgan, editing by Jackie Frank)