WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has placed about 2,000 Marines with special operations training aboard Navy ships in the Gulf, poised for use in Afghanistan (news – web sites), where the hunt for al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives is intensifying, defense officials said on Thursday.
U.S. commanders have not yet decided how many of the Marines deployed with the seven-vessel naval Expeditionary Strike Group, led by the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, will be sent into Afghanistan, officials said.
The Marines are from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
The Wasp strike group, carrying 2,000 to 2,200 Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, left North Carolina on Feb. 19 for a scheduled six-month deployment in the Gulf region and arrived in recent days, officials said.
“Some of the those Marines will participate in and support operations in Afghanistan,” said a defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The United States, beefing up its forces in the region, already has 2,000 other Marines inside Afghanistan as part of the 11,000-strong U.S. military contingent there.
The official said the number of Marines from the Wasp group who will be sent into Afghanistan depends on the circumstances on the ground and requirements identified by commanders.
Marine Corps officials said the troops were trained for special operations missions, and that the Wasp, resembling a small aircraft carrier, carried attack helicopters and Harrier fighter jets. Officials gave no further details about the Marines’ possible missions.
Under an initiative begun by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Marines are being trained to join Army Special Forces soldiers in operations in what U.S. officials call the global war on terrorism.
A Navy official said four of the seven ships in the group are positioned in the Gulf: the Wasp, the guided missile cruiser USS Yorktown, the dock landing ship USS Whidbey Island, and the amphibious transport ship USS Shreveport.
The official said two others are in the north Arabian Sea: the guided missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf and the guided missile destroyer USS McFaul. The official declined to identify the location of the final vessel in the group, the attack submarine USS Connecticut.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan have stepped up operations in the remote, mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of Operation Mountain Storm.
American-led forces are seeking al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (news – web sites), who is blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and other key fugitives.
(Additional reporting by Charles Aldinger)
NOTE: Spec Ops can’t do it alone, if there is going to be a spring offensive you need a lot of infantry. Right now the 10th Mountain Infantry Division is over there. The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions are tied to Iraq. Thus, the Marines are getting the call on what they do best, hunting down and killing the enemy.