Don’t Call It a Surge

Start Slideshow View as a List

The fog of war: On July 2, U.S. Marines began their biggest offensive in Afghanistan since 2001, driving deep into the pivotal southern Helmand province to extend the NATO-controlled "green zone" and establish a new base in the town of Khanishin. The 4,000 Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade are part of 10,000 additional U.S. troops recently deployed to the country and are accompanied by about 650 Afghan soldiers. Operation Khanjar (Thrust of the Sword) is their first major operation. Above, Marines wait for helicopter transport at the beginning of their mission.


At Camp Dwyer, U.S. Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss addresses assembled Marines on July 1. After failing to secure substantial reinforcements for Afghanistan from NATO allies at the 60th anniversary summit in April, the United States is largely going it alone. Obama's attempts to charm and alarm (saying, "It is probably more likely that al Qaeda would be able to launch a serious terrorist attack on Europe than on the United States because of proximity") his European counterparts fell flat. The only firm offers for troops came from Belgium, with 35 military trainers, and Spain, with 12.


The sweep into Helmand provides the U.S. military command with an opportunity to test new tactics. After freeing areas from Taliban control, Marines will for the first time remain behind in small bases clustered among the villagers they were sent to protect. For the time being, troops live in makeshift accommodations, some in the homes of local families. Above, U.S. Marines, after placing sandbags against the windows, fall asleep in an empty school in the village of Mian Poshteh on July 8.


For the most part, the Taliban have made the calculated decision to retreat to more-remote locations in the province, leaving the Marines with little resistance and only sporadic fighting thus far. Some have complained that they have not even fired enough rounds to lighten their heavy packs. Their hope is to enable as many voters as possible in next month's presidential election, Afghanistan's first in five years. Above, Marines cross a river in Helmand while on patrol on July 10.


Stop and search: Helmand province is one of the most treacherous parts of Afghanistan, where Taliban supply lines run deep and more than half of the world's opium poppies are produced. Previous forays into the south have achieved very little, and the area continues to provide safe passage for the Taliban to and from Pakistan. Above, an Afghan man is searched for weapons after Marines came under fire on July 6 near Mian Poshteh.


Ticking time bomb: The Taliban has said that its counteroffensive, Operation Foladi Jal (Iron Net), would avoid frontal battles and instead use its effective tactics of roadside bombs and ambushes on military convoys. Attacks by small arms, mines, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) continue to rise and have significantly contributed to recent U.S. and British fatalities. Above, a Marine, dwarfed by the blast, runs for cover moments after an IED detonates in Helmand on July 13.


A tactical directive issued at the outset of Operation Khanjar said that winning locals' support was a priority overriding all others. Not wanting to push Afghans into the arms of the Taliban ahead of the Aug. 20 election, the biggest change in the campaign under recently instated Gen. Stanley McChrystal has been the reduction of errant airstrikes and civilian casualties. The Marines' recent offensive is in keeping with these objectives: to protect the province's population and to extend the writ of the government in Kabul, not merely to kill or capture Taliban soldiers. Above, a Marine greets a local resident in a typically American manner on July 3.


Marines come under fire as they begin their campaign in the south. Residents of Helmand have complained that local police forces are as bad as, if not worse than, the Taliban they ousted. Training Afghan forces remains the key requisite to stabilizing the country. But a decided failure to do so is preventing the United States from leaving a war that was supposed to be over almost as soon as it began.


In London, the July 16 funeral of a British officer killed in Helmand is a grim reminder that July has been the deadliest month for international troops since fighting began almost eight years ago. On July 16, the death of a Canadian soldier brought the month's coalition fatalities to 47, of which 24 were American. With the deployment of additional troops, U.S. commanders expect the number of casualties to continue to rise and predict a 50 percent increase in bombings this year.


A new study by the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has recommended a complete ban on tobacco for any personnel in uniform and on the front lines. But U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he has no plans to stop the sale of tobacco on military bases, which would deprive troops in combat of "one of the few outlets they may have to relieve stress," as a Pentagon press secretary put it. In 2006, the Defense Department spent $564 million treating tobacco-related illnesses in the military. Above, two Marines at Camp Dwyer on June 30 take a break at a smoking area that is, for the moment, here to stay.


Above, a Marine speaks to a local resident through a translator to attain intelligence information. Opinion polls say that most Afghans want Western troops to stay, but they want international forces to do a better job of securing the country. By the end of 2009, 68,000 U.S. troops will be on the ground in an attempt to unify and stabilize battle-scarred Afghanistan. But will even that many troops be enough to get the job done? The troops may surge, but will Afghanistan?

Check out other FP photo essays:

Previous Next Close