WASHINGTON, Aug. 4, 2008 -- Some 1,000 Marine trainers currently serving in Afghanistan have had their seven-month tours extended by 26 days, a Pentagon official told ABC News.
The official said that on Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved the extension for the Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment (2/7), who are serving as embedded trainers fighting alongside Afghan security forces in southern and western Afghanistan.
Earlier last month, Gates had approved a 30-day extension for the 2,200 Marines and sailors serving with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).
Both units are now scheduled to remain in Afghanistan until mid-November, as the Pentagon tries to control an increasingly volatile situation in the country with resources limited by the commitment in Iraq.
Gates had ordered the 3,200 Marines into Afghanistan in January, to help fight the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. At the time, he said their deployment would be a one-time mission to meet a short-term need for combat operations in the region and trainers for Afghan security forces..
While the 24th MEU has been conducting offensive operations in Afghanistan's Helmand and Kandahar provinces, it is the trainers of the 2/7 who have borne the brunt of the Marine casualties in Afghanistan. Eight members of the batallion, which is based in Twentynine Palms, Calif., have been killed in combat since the unit arrived in Afghanistan earlier this year.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen has said U.S. troop levels would have to go down further in Iraq before additional combat troops could be diverted to the fight in Afghanistan.
Even if that were to happen, the conventional wisdom has been that the 10,000 additional troops being requested by battlefield commanders in Afghanistan would not be able to arrive until 2009.
Gates said at a Pentagon news conference last month that Pentagon planners were working "very hard to see if there are opportunities to send additional forces sooner, rather than later."
To that end on Friday, the defense official says, Gates also approved orders for less than 200 "enabler" troops to meet short-term needs to help with the fight in Afghanistan. These include explosive experts to deal with the growing threat posed by roadside bombs, as well as helicopter support troops.