Friday, July 4, 2008

Pentagon extends tour of Marines in Afghanistan

Pentagon extends tour of Marines in Afghanistan

By LOLITA C. BALDOR

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The Pentagon has extended the tour of 2,200 Marines in Afghanistan, after insisting for months the unit would come home on time.

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is doing combat operations in the volatile south, will stay an extra 30 days and come home in early November rather than October, Marine Col. David Lapan confirmed Thursday.

Military leaders as recently as Wednesday stressed the need for additional troops in Afghanistan. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has repeatedly praised the work of the 24th MEU in fighting Taliban militants in Helmand Province.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, however, has repeatedly said he did not intend to extend or replace the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, calling their deployment there an extraordinary, one-time effort to help tamp down the increasing violence in the south.

Asked about the possibility of an extension in early May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he would "be loathe to do that." He added that "no one has suggested even the possibility of extending that rotation."

Lapan said Thursday that commanders in Afghanistan asked that the Marines stay longer.

The Pentagon announced in January that the MEU was being ordered to Afghanistan, largely because efforts to press other NATO nations to increase their troop levels at the time had failed.

Commanders faced with increasing violence have said they need at least 7,500 more troops in Afghanistan. And President Bush and defense officials have said they hope to identify additional units by the end of the year that could go to Afghanistan early next year.

"The Taliban and their supporters have, without question, grown more effective and more aggressive in recent weeks ... as the casualty figures clearly demonstrate," Mullen told a Pentagon press conference Wednesday.

He added, "It's a very complex problem, and it's tied to the drug trade, a faltering economy and, as I've said many times, the porous border region with Pakistan. There's no easy solution, and there will be no quick fix."

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