The U.S. Defense Department has extended the combat 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 southern region, 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 praised the work repeatedly of the 24th MEU in fighting Taliban militants in Helmand Province.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, however, has said repeatedly 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, Gates said he would "be loath 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.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the longer tour does not open the door to an extension beyond the 30 days, nor to the possibility of replacing them with other U.S. troops when they come out in November. "This is a slight addition to this tour and nothing more," he said.
He added that commanders in Afghanistan "asked for 30 more days to milk the fighting season to the bitter end and cement the gains they have made in the south."
By Nicole Belle — July 3, 2008