Marines in Southern Afghanistan aren't waiting around for Washington to decide on a new strategy. Here at Forward Operating Base, or FOB, Delaram Marines are putting into action counter-insurgency tactics aimed at chasing away Taliban fighters and returning the towns and villages within this vast area of Afghanistan to some sense of stability.
LTC Martin Wetterauer, commander of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, says "on any given day Marines can be in a direct firefight, we can be helping build a clinic, or out training with the local Afghan National Security Forces." His area of operation, or AO, called Tripoli, comprises an enormous swath of southern Afghanistan and presents his 1,000 plus Marines with just about every challenge one can imagine.
In places like Delaram in Nimrooz province, the debate over sending more troops to Afghanistan meets reality. Wetterauer says troops equal time.
"Time is an element in this whole equation. The more people that you have on the ground the more things you can do at once. If I had more Marines, then I could have more guys that could be dedicated to training as well as security," he said.
This is the sixth combat deployment for the "3-4" since 2003. Five of those deployments have been in Iraq and the Marines are currently one month into their first Afghanistan tour. They are drawing on their experience in Iraq's Anbar Province where Sunni insurgents flipped sides. In Anbar Marines were able to take advantage of that change of allegiance and create momentum leading to security, stability and local governance. The 3-4 Marines feel they now have a similar momentum in Afghanistan and want to speed things up.
But Afghanistan is different than Iraq in important ways. In this area of the country there is almost no tradition of conventional governance. There is little respect for the police because officers have been so corrupt in the past. Crushing poverty created by a shattered economy is compounded in Helmand Province by the illiteracy rate which is at 90 to 95 percent.
Kael Weston, the State Department adviser working closely with the top Marine commander here, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, admits the Marines are facing a challenge.
"There are about 20 chessboards that we need to be watching here and currently we are only seeing about three", he says.
But the Marines and Weston are looking at this current deployment through different eyes. The first eight years of the conflict are viewed as categorically different from what the Marines are doing here now.
"We are now four months into a new war" says Weston.
Another term often heard here is the so-called "Afghanistan 2.0" strategy, or an attempt to break away from mistakes made since NATO forces invaded the country in 2001. It is explained something like this: the U.S. has not been fighting the war in Afghanistan for eight years. It's been fighting the same war, every year, for eight years.
Based in Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif., the 3-4 Marines are responsible for an area nearly the size of Vermont. There are over 600 towns and villages scattered throughout the area and tribal affiliations and connections shift from place to place.
On AO Tripoli's northern border is Gulistan, mountainous and relatively peaceful. It's the most picturesque of the towns in the AO and the locals are welcoming.