WASHINGTON - In a decision reflecting the shortage of available combat troops, more than 2,000 Marines fighting the Taliban will be kept in Afghanistan 30 days beyond their original seven-month tour, the Marine Corps said yesterday.
The decision by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to extend the Marines' tour was confirmed a day after Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that more troops are needed in Afghanistan but that he didn't have more troops to send.
Gates had said several times in recent months that he had "no plans" to extend the Marines' tour. But U.S. officials, including Mullen, have said recently that the situation in Afghanistan is worsening and that the Taliban-led insurgency is gaining ground and influence.
At present there are 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, of which 14,000 are assigned to work under the International Security Assistance Force, the 40-nation coalition led by U.S. Army Gen. David McKiernan.
The other 18,000 U.S. troops are fighting directly under U.S. command, mostly in eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan, where violent attacks by insurgents have risen 40 percent from a year ago, according to a U.S. commander there.
In addition to U.S. forces, about 29,000 troops from 40 countries are serving in Afghanistan, although some are restricted by their home commands from combat.
Maj. David Nevers, a Marine Corps spokesman, confirmed that Gates had authorized an extension for up to 30 days for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, an air-ground task force that deployed to Afghanistan in February and March.
The unit's air squadron of jet fighters and attack helicopters, and its reinforced infantry battalion, the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, have been fighting Taliban and other extremists around the southern Helmand province town of Garmser, a major poppy-growing region and insurgent stronghold, since late March.
Nevers said the Marines are needed "to continue full-spectrum operations as they have been doing" in southern Afghanistan.
He said he had no information about a possible extension of a separate Marine battalion, the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, which has been training Afghan police in southern Afghanistan.
The Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, which has grown in strength since the Taliban were ousted by U.S. forces in late 2001, is likely to continue to spread its influence and violence this year, according to a Pentagon report issued last week.
Sixty-six U.S. troops and 57 allied troops have been killed this year in Afghanistan, according to the independent nonprofit Web site icasualties.com.
The Pentagon report said bombings and suicide attacks had increased about 35 percent between 2006 and 2007. It said efforts to train and equip Afghan army and police units had been slow and uneven.
The report also said that the cultivation of poppies and opium trafficking continue to foster violence and corruption, and that counter-narcotics operations "have not been successful."
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday, Mullen acknowledged that he is "deeply troubled" by the increasing violence in Afghanistan.
"There's no easy solution, and there will be no quick fix," Mullen said.
"More troops are necessary," he said, adding, "I don't have the troops I can reach for."
The shortage of troops means that while the insurgents can be cleared from towns and villages, "we don't have enough troops there to hold [territory]," Mullen said. "And that is key, clearly, to the future of being able to succeed in Afghanistan."
News of the extension was delivered Wednesday to Marine families at Camp Lejeune, N.C., home base of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
"Our families and spouses have been notified, and as hard as it was to hear it, we are so proud of what they are doing over there," said Annastacia Clinton, whose husband, Tom, is the executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, the core unit of the 24th.
The extension, she said, "is just the nature of what's going on, and that's OK. We are a proud group, and everybody will get through this."