At 7:45 a.m., we board a C-130 leaving Kabul for the two-hour flight to Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan. Although slightly less crowded than usual, the plane is full of exhaust fumes and very hot. The pilot executes a steep, fast, stomach-turning combat landing. Sitting next to me is a big, strong Special Operations Forces guy with an M-4, who also happens to be a medic. He kindly hands me two Dramamine to take before the return trip.
Helmand Province is much hotter, drier, and windier than Kabul. The Marine base is carved out of a featureless desert. Everything from tents to vehicles is coated with wind-blown sand.
Helmand is a Taliban stronghold and part of RC-3 (Regional Command-3.) General Nicholson, the terrific commander of RC-3, has sacrificed a lot for our country. Seriously wounded in Iraq, he recovered and, rather than retiring, is now in charge of the new strategy to reclaim southern Afghanistan from the Taliban.
The General talks to us about the tremendous courage of our troops and their progress in clearing the "Big T" Taliban out of the villages. There is no doubt that the Marines are highly effective. They are also suffering tough casualties. While at Camp Leatherneck, I was saddened to learn of the death of Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard of New Portland, Maine, who died a few days ago in combat operations in Helmand. With the deployment of additional troops has come more casualties, which is what makes troop level decisions so difficult.
After hearing the General's briefing, I have two major concerns.
First the ratio of our troops to the Afghan Army members in Helmand makes no sense to me at all. There are some 10,000 American troops in the region, but only about 800 Afghan troops. Why are we bearing such a disproportionate burden in one of the most dangerous regions of the country? While at 90,000 members the Afghan Army isn't as large as it should be, surely more Afghan troops could be deployed to this region.
Second, it appears to me that we don't have enough civilians from America and other countries to work with the Afghans to provide security, basic services, and governance structures once the Marines clear out the Taliban. In other words, the "clear, hold, build, and transition" strategy cannot succeed without more civilians to help with the "build and transition" parts. The Marines battle the Taliban village by village, but then the Taliban return if villages are not secured. A counter-insurgency strategy depends on a unity of effort by both the military and civilian sides. But it looks to me like the civilian side is severely understaffed for the mission.
The two "surges" that I think may be needed are surges of Afghan troops and of American civilian employees. Yet, much of the debate about Afghanistan in Congress seems to focus on whether or not to send more American troops with far less discussion of the levels of Afghan troops and civilian personnel.
We leave the briefing to have lunch with the Marines from our respective state. I enjoy talking with the Marines who hail from several Maine communities well as with a civilian, Dr. Joseph Mickiewicz, who turns out to be the son-in-law of John Dionne of Grand Isle, Maine.
I ask the Marines their concerns. Two of them tell me exactly what I perceived from the briefing: that after they fight to drive the Taliban out of a village, there isn't the follow up that is required to secure and stabilize the town.
The Marines also tell me that when they arrived in May, they did not have the equipment that they needed for some time. This is a disturbing problem that I will pursue with Defense Dept. officials.
On a more positive note, the Marines proudly describe their success in rooting out the Taliban and in working with local Afghan leaders. One quotes a local leader urging residents to work with the Americans as saying: "The Taliban don't build schools; they burn schools!"
The Maine Marines are an impressive group, and I tell them how proud we all are of their sacrifice and service.
After lunch, we visit the field hospital which is operated by a combined team of British, Danish, and Americans. We visit each of the patients which include a badly injured Marine who will be airlifted to Germany shortly for additional treatment. He describes an ambush by Taliban fighters in which he was injured. His spirits seem good, however, and he loves talking with John McCain.
Among the other patients are a young Danish woman solider and an eight-year old Afghan boy in a wheel chair who has two broken legs and a broken arm.
An operation is underway while we are at the hospital, and I am surprised to learn the patient is a Taliban fighter who was shot in the stomach.
After we talked with all the patients and the British hospital administrator, we make our way back to the C-130 for the two-hour return flight to Kabul where we have a press conference. The Afghan press repeatedly asks whether the timing of our trip is intended to boost President Karzai's election chances. We explain that we are not backing any candidate and that we did not meet with Hamid Karzai or any other candidate to avoid giving that impression. (Ironically, President Karzai is angry at our Ambassador for holding meetings with two other candidates.)
American officials do hope that whoever wins can avoid a run-off election which would delay necessary decisions as well as General McChrystal's pivotal report.