U.S. Marines Arrive in 'The Desert of Death'

This vast tent city called Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province was little more than a clump of huts six months ago.

It is now the sprawling home to the so-called Afghanistan surge. The spearhead of the 21,000 new troops, an augmented brigade of 10,000 Marines, is based here, in a pan-flat expanse in a place locals call "the desert of death."

The so-called surge, a term Marine commanders resist because it connotes only a temporary presence, has begun.

About 9,000 troops, 7,000 of them Marines, pack this dust-filled patch of desert. They've begun dispatching troops to farther-flung parts of this lawless province.

"This is a force that is five times the size of the force that had previously been here," said Capt. Bill Pelletier, spokesman for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which combines air, infantry and other elements.

Helmand is arguably the poppy capital of the world. It is estimated that the narcotics trade has yielded Taliban and other insurgents about $300 million, enough to buy a steady stream of arms and parts for roadside bombs. Known as IEDs, these improvised explosive devices have caused more than two-thirds of coalition casualties this year, officials say.

Commanders here believe that the insurgency isn't so much fueled by ideology but mostly by economics. The vast majority of fighters are designated Little Taliban, or known in military jargon as $10-a-day Taliban. That is, they fight for money rather than ideology. The hard core of the insurgency is led by Chechen and Pakistani elements, a commander here says, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the information.

U.S forces first landed in Afghanistan in October 2001. For years, Afghanistan, a country known as the graveyard of empires, was known as the forgotten war. No longer. The Marine presence here could last the better part of a decade, the commanders here say. The military is planning to stay here between three to five years.

More Troops, More Fatalities

That time frame depends on political decisions back in Washington. But the increase in troops has already led to a rise in both civilian and military fatalities. U.S. casualties are up 66 percent this year.

And following the death of dozens of civilians in U.S. airstrikes on three villages in the neighboring province of Farah last month, the military and Marines here are especially sensitive to civilian casualties. Gaining the support of locals, commanders here say, is absolutely essential to their mission.