CAMP LEATHERNECK, AFGHANISTAN // About 7,000 of the new US troops ordered to Afghanistan are fanning out across the dangerous Afghan south on a mission to defeat the Taliban insurgency. The Marines represent the first wave of 21,000 troops ordered to Afghanistan this summer by the US president, Barack Obama. Most of the build-up will take place in Helmand and Kandahar. The two southern provinces lie at the heart of the insurgency and are close to the border with Pakistan, where the Taliban's top leadership is believed to be based.
Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, based at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, are now in the country, according to marine spokesman 1st Lt Abe Sipe. 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. Helmand province - the world's largest opium poppy-growing region - is also Afghanistan's most violent. "This is where the fight is, in Afghanistan," said 1st Sgt Christopher Watson, who like many here has also served in Iraq. "We are here to get the job done."
Taliban militants and the drug lords they protect are believed to reap hundreds of millions of dollars from Afghanistan's drug trade. US and Nato troops have stepped up attacks this year on drug labs after concluding the drug trade and the insurgency are intertwined. Most of the newly arrived marines are now stationed at Camp Leatherneck, a small base in 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 US 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 per cent increase over the 40 US troop deaths in 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, too few to provide security and counterinsurgency operations for the entire province.