DELARAM, Afghanistan — The U.S. Marines are considering requesting two battalions and a combat aviation unit in Taliban-controlled southern Afghanistan, which would be the largest proposed expansion of U.S. troops in the volatile region, two senior Marine commanders said.
If approved, the move would involve roughly 3,000 Marines and support staff, and it would mark the Marines' shift from the once-restive Anbar province in Iraq to places such as Helmand and Farah provinces in southern Afghanistan, which U.S. and NATO officials concede that Taliban forces have overrun.
"The decision hasn't been made yet, but there are contingency plans along those lines," Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, said Wednesday in an interview with McClatchy as he was touring the base in Delaram.
Most U.S. forces now are deployed in eastern Afghanistan, but Conway has pushed for Marines to tackle southern Afghanistan, where Taliban forces live and fight and where the opium poppy trade is thriving. Many Taliban forces train in neighboring Pakistan and travel through Helmand to Kandahar, the militant Islamic group's former hub.
Conway has been calling to shift troops from Iraq since last year, but Secretary of Defense Robert Gates initially opposed moving troops from Anbar. However, as violence has diminished in Iraq and increased in parts of Afghanistan, Conway's proposal has gained traction in the Pentagon.
The additional Marines would be one of the three brigades that Army Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, has requested for the southern region. During a visit here last week, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that he expected the military to meet McKiernan's request with as many as 30,000 more troops.