U.S. Marines Take On the Taliban in Afghanistan

After two Iraq deployments, members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit face a different sort of war.

Helmand and Kandahar province locator map
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GARMSIR, AFGHANISTAN—At this spartan combat outpost in the heart of Helmand province, U.S. marines are preparing for what may be their toughest fight yet. Under the cover of darkness, they will push out to take up positions for a battle that they hope will break up a key Taliban stronghold in what is currently one of the most dangerous regions in the country.

For the moment, though, their job is to rest up and dodge the 124-degree heat, waiting for the go-ahead while they attend to the rituals of war in the windy high desert. Marines sleep outside on the ground or on the hoods of humvees parked in the middle of opium poppy fields. Sand penetrates everything, so Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Justin Carter cleans his bullets with baby wipes to make sure they are free from grit that could cause his rifle to jam. Cpl. Brandon Karana, a forward scout and former logger, pulls his rifle apart and scrubs it with a toothbrush. He holds it up to inspect his handiwork. "I hope I don't have to fire this thing," he says.

That is looking unlikely. To date, the 1st Battalion Landing Team of the 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit—2,200 troops sent here in March to bolster struggling British forces—has been ambushed by Taliban fighters with rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, and striking battle savvy. In one particularly fierce assault, marines from Weapons Company were pinned down in an hour-and-a-half-long firefight.

As the 24th MEU has pushed south, the size of Taliban units it is fighting has grown larger, from pockets of three to five to groups of as many as 25 to 30 fighters. And they are well trained. Resistance has been so fierce—and so unexpected, they add—that the unit is on Day 30 of what it initially thought would be a two-to-three-day campaign.

Many of the men here are not new to combat. The 24th MEU fought during the toughest years of the insurgency in Iraq, where urban street battles in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi "were like getting into a fistfight in a phone booth," recalls 1st Lt. Tom Lefebvre, a Weapons Company platoon leader. During its 2004 deployment to Fallujah and then in Ramadi from September 2006 to May 2007, the battalion weathered brutal attacks on a daily basis. Soon after the unit's tour was extended to nine months from six as part of the surge, the marines began to see progress. "It wasn't a matter of if you thought you were making a difference," says Cpl. Scott Oaks of Stewartville, Ala. "You could see a difference."

Here, they are not so sure. They have watched British colleagues fight to retake from the Taliban some of the same hills where old British forts from colonial-era campaigns in the 1800s still stand. Since 2006, control of this town has changed hands three times. Marines say that they are willing to do the hard fighting to clear out the area again. But, they occasionally wonder, to what end—and at what cost? "I've got no problem going after the Taliban," says Weapons Company 1st Sgt. Lee Wunder. "But we'd all like to see, for all our effort and hard work, when we leave that there is someone to backfill for us."

They have received no word yet on when, or if, this will happen. As U.S. casualties in Afghanistan continue to rise, there has been talk of shifting troops from Iraq. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen has made it clear, however, that current troop levels in Iraq preclude such an increase. Earlier this year, the Pentagon emphasized that the marines' deployment to Helmand was an "extraordinary, one-time" commitment.

The unit has just learned that its eight-month tour will be extended by one month to November. In the meantime, Mullen has raised questions about the consequences of what he calls an "economy of force" campaign in Afghanistan. "We don't have enough troops there to hold," he says. "And that is key, clearly, to the future of being able to succeed in Afghanistan."

"Beat up pretty bad." Weapons Company was sent in to support comrades in Alpha Company, camped just down the road in this town that serves as a major crossing point on the Helmand River. Here, the Taliban funnels fighters and supplies, and frequently Alpha Company bears the brunt of indirect fire in attacks on its compound just a few hundred yards away. A rifle unit, "Alpha Company was getting beat up pretty bad," says Weapons Company Master Sgt. Rodney Abbott. "It was time for the heavy guns to come down."