The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) in Camp Lejeune, N.C. — home to the 2nd Marine Division — has begun preparations for a potential contingency deployment to Afghanistan. While no warning order has been issued, and no final decision has been made, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has requested an additional 3,000 Marines for Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is currently mulling such an allocation, according to reports Jan. 10. The deployment of the 24th MEU or another unit like it would represent a noteworthy reinforcement of U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan. But it carries even further significance: It foreshadows what the kind of moves the United States will be able to make once it is free from distractions in Iraq.
The looming spring Taliban offensive foreseen in 2007 never really took shape. Instead, a NATO counteroffensive spearheaded by British and Canadian troops kept the pressure on core Taliban strongholds, even as the use of suicide bombers and scope of the Taliban insurgency increased. Though there are very real
and fundamental issues that prevent NATO from imposing a military solution
in Afghanistan, it already is clear that NATO will stand its ground
this year. A recent surge of British troops
has already nudged the total strength of U.S. and NATO forces above 50,000, and NATO summits in the first half of the year probably will entail pressure for further reinforcements.
The first important aspect of a deployment is the example that 3,000 additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan would represent for the rest of NATO to emulate. A NATO defense minister summit is set for Feb. 7-8 in Vilnius, Lithuania. Second, reinforcing the 24th MEU with trainers and deploying it — or another similarly organized Marine unit — would bring immense organic airlift capacity to Afghanistan. Generally, this would include at least 16 utility, transport and heavy lift helicopters, a significant addition to a military effort chronically short of helicopters. A glimpse of the organic air power and airlift capacity of a U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit
Third, this mobility could be leveraged to provide an extremely mobile reserve force. This force would be able to quickly and meaningfully to reinforce other units operating in Regional Command South, where the 3,000 troops are to be assigned. Aside from fighting the Taliban, recent instability in Pakistan — both before and after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto
— represents another core reason for CENTCOM's request for reinforcements. Concerns about stability in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas and North-West Frontier Province, rising insurgencies on both sides of the border spilling across in the other direction, and even the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal all loom large this year. The hitting power and mobility of an MEU undoubtedly would come in handy should any of these Pakistani issues come to a head. But even if they remain just below the boiling point, Afghanistan will still see spillover effects from the Pakistani instability (despite Islamabad's insistence that this unrest is under control). Already, the flow of suicide bombers educated in Pakistani madrassas into Afghanistan is increasing. Ultimately, U.S. preoccupation and distraction in Iraq
will end. Significant issues still must be dealt with first. But the way the United States could soon surge a brigade-strength force into Afghanistan on short notice is a reminder that in the years to come ,Washington will be in a position to redeploy its now battle-hardened military — long accustomed to a high deployment tempo — across the globe.