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Pentagon says 3,200 soldiers facing extended tour in Afghanistan
WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has decided to extend the combat tour of 3,200 soldiers from a 10th Mountain Division brigade in Afghanistan for four months in hopes of quelling the violence.
The decision comes a week after Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with commanders in Afghanistan and heard a request for more troops.
Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, at first asked for about 1,200 troops. Gates said he was "strongly inclined" to meet the commander's request but wanted to consider other options before deciding how many to hold over.
Ben Abel, a spokesman for Fort Drum, N.Y., where the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division is based, confirmed that Gates had decided to extend the brigade's tour.
Already, President Bush's plan to send more than 21,000 additional troops to Iraq is running into criticism on Capitol Hill as he struggles to persuade the Democratic-controlled Congress and a weary public to have patience with his war policies.
The decision further stresses a military straining to wage major wars on two fronts. Army and Marine Corps leaders, meanwhile, are telling Congress they are concerned about the readiness levels of their units at home.
The extension also raises questions about the future course of the conflict in Afghanistan. NATO and U.S. troops have struggled to control an increased flow of Taliban fighters into the country and a stubborn drug trade that has financed the insurgency.
According to several military officials, the decision was made to extend the 3rd Brigade rather than hold over about 1,200 soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division -- which is about halfway through a scheduled four-month tour in eastern Afghanistan. That regiment is now expected to go home as planned, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the details had not been released.
There are about 24,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the highest number since the war began in October 2001. The U.S. gradually has been transferring control of the forces to NATO.
Of the 31,000 troops under NATO command in Afghanistan, about 11,000 are American. The United States has an additional 12,000 or 13,000 to hunt down al-Qaida terrorists and to train the Afghan army.
The additional troops are expected to be used to prevent the Taliban from crossing the border from Pakistan.
Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., whose district includes Fort Drum, said the news was "a disappointing development."
McHugh recently traveled to both Afghanistan and Iraq with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.
"The fact is that we simply don't have enough troops. Thankfully, Secretary Gates has recognized the need and is open to expanding the size of the Army, but this will take time," McHugh said.
Associated Press writer Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.
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