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U.S. to send 1,400 Marines to Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will temporarily send 1,400 more Marines to Afghanistan in an effort to hold onto fragile security gains, but overall U.S. troop levels will not surpass previously announced limits, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

A U.S. marine watches as helicopters fly in Sangin district of Helmand province January 1, 2011. REUTERS/Abdul Malik

The short-term deployments were ordered by U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, and come months before President Barack Obama plans to start withdrawing U.S. forces in July from the unpopular war against the Taliban.

“This will allow us to keep our momentum,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell. The troops would mainly be deployed in southern Afghanistan, he said, where fighting is the fiercest.

Britain’s top military officer, General David Richards, told reporters in Washington that Britain had no similar plan to boost force levels in Afghanistan but indicated that could change depending on the need of ground commanders.

“Troop levels are not set in concrete. They never have been,” Richards, Britain’s chief of Defence Staff, told a briefing at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington. “If there’s a good case for sending a few more people ... we’ll remain open-minded about it.”

Violence is at its worst in Afghanistan with record casualties on all sides of the conflict and with the insurgency spreading from traditional strongholds in the south and east into once-peaceful areas in the north and west.

A review by U.S. President Barack Obama last month found U.S. and NATO forces were making headway against the Taliban and al Qaeda, but serious challenges remained. It said the Taliban’s momentum had been arrested in much of Afghanistan and reversed in some areas.

The review also said the United States was on track to begin a gradual withdrawal of its troops -- now numbering about 97,000 in a total foreign force of some 150,000 -- in July. The pace and scope of the drawdown remains unclear, however.

Richards, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan from May 2006 to February 2007, said he recently returned to the country and was cautiously optimistic about the situation, adding “the changes on the ground are quite amazing.”

“I ... have every reason to think that we can crack this and leave Afghanistan, and more importantly its people, feeling they can tackle their future with our support.”

Obama ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in December 2009 and authorized the potential deployment of up to 3,000 extra forces to meet any unforeseen needs.

At the time, U.S. troop levels stood at about 68,000 and U.S. defence and military officials stressed that the new deployments of Marines were still within authorized levels of up to 101,000 U.S. forces.

Morrell said U.S. commanders have constantly adjusted the composition of forces in Afghanistan to meet requirements on the battlefield, sending some troops back to the United States and deploying others, as needed.

Under pressure to show sustainable results in the first half of 2011, the temporary boost in troop numbers could help counter any “spring offensive” by Taliban militants returning from Pakistan after the cold winter months.

Any long-term boost in overall combat troop numbers would likely face opposition from members of Obama’s Democratic Party, the majority of whom are eager to see troops start to come home in July.

“The deployment is only temporary,” one U.S. defence official said, adding that the Marines heading to Afghanistan were currently stationed in the Gulf.

Morrell said they would arrive in Afghanistan in mid-January.

Last year was the deadliest of the war with a record 711 foreign troops killed, according to monitoring website

Afghan security forces have been hit harder than foreign troops. A total of 1,292 Afghan police and 821 Afghan soldiers were killed in 2010, according to the Afghan government.

But Afghan civilians have borne the brunt of the war. The United Nations has said 2,412 civilians were killed and 3,803 wounded between January and October last year.

Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch in Kabul and David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie and Stacey Joyce