HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – U.S. Marines are crossing the sands of southern Afghanistan for the first time in years, providing a boost to a NATO coalition that is growing in size but still short on manpower.
Some of the Marines that make up the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit helped to tame a thriving insurgency in western Iraq, and the newly arrived forces hope to move into regions of Afghanistan now controlled by the Taliban.
The troops are working alongside British forces in Helmand province — the world's largest opium-poppy region and site of the fiercest Taliban resistance the last two years. The director of U.S. intelligence has said the Taliban controls 10 percent of Afghanistan, much of that in Helmand.
"Our mission is to come here and essentially set the conditions, make Afghanistan a better place, provide some security, allow for the expansion of governance in those same areas," said Col. Peter Petronzio, the 24th MEU commander.
Thirteen of the 19 Marines in the platoon of 1st. Lt. Adam Lynch, 27, served in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi in 2006 and 2007, helping to reduce violence there. Lynch expects the Marines, who arrived last month on a seven-month deployment, will have an effect in Helmand as well.
"If you flood a city with Marines, it's going to quiet down," Lynch said in between sets of push-ups with other Marines on Helmand province's sandy floor. "We know for seven months we're not here to occupy, we're just here to set conditions for whoever comes in after us."
Taliban fighters have largely shunned head-on battles ever since losing hundreds of fighters in the Panjwayi region of Kandahar province in fall 2006, and it's not clear that Taliban fighters will stay to face the Marines in regions they operate.
Lynch, a mobile assault commander, said he doesn't care if the militants flee: "Just get the Taliban out of here, that's the biggest thing."
The West has been pouring troops into Afghanistan in lockstep with a rise in violence the last two years. More than 8,000 people — mostly militants — have been killed in the violence, and the country saw a record number of suicide attacks — more than 140. Western officials have warned in recent months that the international mission could fail.
The U.S. now has 32,500 troops in the country, the most since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban for hosting al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. In late 2006, Afghanistan had 40,000 international troops. Today, that number is almost 70,000.
The Marines have been moving supplies and forces through Helmand by ground convoys for the last several weeks, a draining and dangerous task. Some convoys have taken more than 20 hours to complete, and two Marines were killed by a roadside bomb April 15.
Lt. Col. Ricky Brown, the commander of the logistics battalion, gave a pep talk to a supply convoy last week, hinting at operations to come.
"You all are gonna move down there so the BLT (battalion landing team) can go in there and kick some Taliban butt," he said.
The Marines' presence in southern Afghanistan is a clear sign that neither Britain nor Canada — which operates in nearby Kandahar province — have enough troops to control the region. But commanders and troops say the nations are working well together.
British Capt. Alex West helped deliver supplies to a remote and dusty firebase in Helmand province on Sunday.
"We spent the last operations borrowing kit (gear) off you, so it's about time you borrow stuff from us," said West, 29, of Colchester, England. "All of us have been in operations where the Americans have helped us, so we're happy to help."
The Marines are known as the theater task force, meaning they fall under the direct control of U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, the commander of all NATO troops in Afghanistan. McNeill can move the Marines to whatever flash point he wants. Most other U.S. troops are stationed at permanent bases in the east.
The Marines have moved into a poppy growing region — as much of Helmand is — but their directions are to steer clear of poppy fields so they don't risk alienating local farmers who rely on the cash crop for their yearly income.
Counterinsurgency doctrine calls for forces to first clear a region of militants, hold that region and then build up government institutions and businesses. But the Marines are in the country for only seven months, meaning they don't have time to hold and build regions, and it's not clear if there enough other NATO troops to hold areas, either.
"We are the clear piece," said Clinton. "There are others who will do the holding and building. We're clearing and doing some holding."
While riding in a 47-vehicle convoy through the sands of Helmand province this past week, 1st Lt. Dan Brown said the terrain reminded him of other missions.
"If you didn't know any better, you'd think you were in Anbar right now," he said, referring to western Iraq.