CAMP LEATHERHEAD, Afghanistan – Some 7,000 of the new U.S. troops ordered to Afghanistan are fanning out across the dangerous south this week on a mission to defeat the Taliban insurgency and to change the course of a war claiming American lives at a record pace.
The Marines represent the first wave of 21,000 troops ordered to Afghanistan this summer by President Obama. Most of the Marine buildup will occur in Helmand, the world's largest opium poppy-growing region and Afghanistan's most violent province. Helmand borders Pakistan, where the Taliban's top leadership is believed to be based.
"This is where the fight is, in Afghanistan," 1st Sgt. Christopher Watson, who like many here has also served in Iraq, said Monday. "We are here to get the job done."
Some 7,000 Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, are now in the country, Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Abe Sipe said. The forces have brought fighter aircraft, transport helicopters, artillery and the infrastructure needed to support what will ultimately be a force of around 11,000.
The United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 because the country's extremist Taliban leaders were sheltering Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the Islamist terror group behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
The forces quickly defeated the Taliban, pushing the militants out of Kabul and their southern base in Kandahar. But the international coalition and Afghan government have been bedeviled by a guerrilla war ever since, one that turned dangerously violent in 2006.
Along with this summer's troop buildup, the United States is training more Afghan security forces, increasing its spending on aid projects and working to strengthen government institutions, vital elements in a plan to stabilize the country and allow foreign forces to one day withdraw.
But adding troops also risks adding to the resentment of Afghans, especially if it brings about more civilian casualties, long an hot-button issue in this impoverished country. There are also fears that the new forces, which will bring U.S. troops levels to about 68,000 around the country, will simply push the Taliban elsewhere.
Most of the newly arrived Marines are now stationed at Camp Leatherneck, a small base in the center of Helmand expanding by the hour as workers build permanent structures. Some Marines have moved out to smaller outposts and are patrolling Helmand's deserts under a harsh summer sun.
Commanders warn that U.S. deaths are likely to increase this summer, the traditional fighting season in Afghanistan.
At least 70 American troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year, according to an Associated Press count, a 75 percent increase over the 40 U.S. troop deaths through the first week in June last year. A record 151 American forces died in Afghanistan in 2008.
The Afghan government controls some of the major towns and roads in Helmand, but most of the province of around 1 million is under the sway of the Taliban. Thousands of British forces have been deployed in Helmand since mid-2006, but there have been too few to provide security and counterinsurgency operations for the entire province.
Taliban militants and the drug lords they protect are believed to reap hundreds of millions of dollars from Afghanistan's drug trade. U.S. and NATO troops have stepped up attacks this year on drug labs after concluding the drug trade and the insurgency are intertwined.