SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN – Hundreds of U.S. Marines occupied the Kandahar airport Friday, carefully picking through unexploded weaponry and debris left by the Taliban in their hurried retreat.
It was the biggest Marine deployment since the U.S. military established a firebase in southern Afghanistan in late November. Some landed at the airport in helicopters in the early morning darkness.
Others arrived in a convoy of Humvees, pickup trucks and armored personnel carriers, and Afghans greeted the Marines as they passed by, waving AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Still, the Marines were on guard as they passed through a city awash with weapons after 29 years of war.
"They are happy to see us, but be aware there are still a lot of people in there who don't like us," Gen. James Mattis warned the soldiers before they left Camp Rhino, their base in the Afghan desert.
The main Marine force is expected to relocate to the airport, leaving what essentially will be a rear guard at Camp Rhino.
On Friday, Marine vehicles took up posts on the perimeter of the airport, six miles southeast of Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace and former stronghold. Soldiers cleared debris from the terminal building and checked for mines and booby traps.
"There's a lot of unexploded ordnance," said Capt. David Romley, a Marine spokesman from Phoenix, Ariz. "We are currently sweeping the airport to determine where the minefields are."
By nightfall, the Marines had swept about half the airport buildings, Lt. James Jarvis said at Camp Rhino, 70 miles southwest of Kandahar, where the Marines set up a forward operating base on Nov. 25.
He also said the Marines had determined the Kandahar runway was capable of handling planes despite bomb craters. The Marines did not say what the airport would be used for, but it could serve as a valuable staging ground for distribution of relief supplies.
More troops had planned to fly in on Friday, but they were delayed by a "potential threat to aircraft coming in." Jarvis said. He would not specify the threat, but said Marines were investigating.
"It is a minor setback to our timeline," Jarvis said. "It could have been a major setback if it had taken down one of our aircraft."
The Kandahar International Airport was the scene of fierce fighting until the Taliban abandoned the city a week ago, with pro-Taliban Arab defenders engaging in close combat with tribal warriors supported by U.S. airstrikes.
"There are pockets of resistance," Romley said. "We are maintaining our vigilance."
On an airport lawn, Marines displayed their discoveries: Russian rocket-propelled grenades, boxes of ammunition, Chinese mortars, an Italian anti-tank mine, an old rifle with a wooden stock, projectile fuses and a pipe used to smoke hashish.
"I guess they wanted to have some fun while they were fighting," one soldier said.
"Bidding starts at $10," joked another.
Staff Sgt. Christian Lippert of Wauseon, Ohio, said the Marines found some booby traps, as well as Soviet communications equipment and ejection seats and parachutes for military aircraft.
The Taliban air force was swiftly destroyed in the U.S. bombing campaign that began Oct. 7, and the Kandahar airport is littered with the wreckage of warplanes and helicopters.
Built with U.S. aid in the 1970s, it has a rose garden and an arched walkway at the entrance. It has high windows, many of them broken, and a curving roof that juts out toward the runway like the spokes of a wheel.
Most of the offices have been ransacked, and some are filled with piles of documents and rotting bread and fruit, possibly the supplies of the Arab fighters who held out for so long.
There were stacks of pink boarding cards for Ariana, Afghanistan's airline, along with a 1992 Paris Match magazine and a 1997 list of rules of recruitment for the Taliban, the Islamic militia that began its rise to power in 1994 and is now a splintered, defeated movement.
"Each home has to supply one young man," the regulations read.
However, exemptions were allowed: the ill, old men and families who had already lost members in battle did not have to serve. The order was signed by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban spiritual leader who is now a fugitive.
There were also stacks of forms issued by the Taliban's National Defense Ministry in which families could apply for compensation for loved ones who died as "martyrs" in battle.