The question is, what happens next? Other allies—France, for one—have suggested that Afghanistan's U.S.-backed government will need to hold reconciliation talks with insurgents from the former Taliban regime but not until some level of security is established. Earlier this year, the American ambassador to Afghanistan sought advice from a former Taliban commander, asking what ISAF could do to reduce popular support for the Taliban. Reconciliation steps are important in Afghanistan, note allies, who see the fight here as a classic counterinsurgency struggle.
Such campaigns place a premium on unity of command, which can be tricky to achieve, notes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Stephen Biddle. "You can easily imagine thousands of operations at cross hairs with each other," he says. "It's tremendously easy to let everything splinter, and that's if everyone's from the same country." And here, that's not the case. As a result, there have been some glitches. Most recently, when marines here first arrived, they were in a holding pattern for a month while ISAF's Regional Command South, led by Canada, wrestled with how exactly to use them and what precisely would be their operational goals.
Further, there is what some military officials describe as lingering U.S.-British tension over the handling of operations in Basra, Iraq, earlier this year, when the U.S. military was training Iraqi security forces for a mission that the Iraqis executed prematurely in the area under British security oversight. While British forces were said to feel left out of the loop, their sentiment left some U.S. forces nonplused. "Brits are so enamored with what they did in [Northern] Ireland," says one senior U.S. military official. "They think they have all this great [counterinsurgency] background, but at the highest levels, they are very politically sensitive and not very aggressive. In Afghanistan, I have seen them reach in and say, 'This colonel here has too many casualties.' "
But these are differences among higher-level officials and not among the soldiers in the field. "The Brits are great," says one marine, to widespread nods among comrades in the courtyard around his austere outpost in Helmand. British troops here, for their part, return the sentiment and express wonder at the myriad small restrictions on U.S. troops—such as prohibitions against wearing civilian clothes like jeans or sandals or against having a beer during their downtime, as is permitted soldiers from some other nations.
On a recent evening, down the road from a U.S. Marine outpost in Helmand province, a Scottish soldier played a plaintive sunset serenade, the "Marine Corps Hymn," on his bagpipe. As they settle in for a long, hot summer, these troops are keenly aware that they are fighting a tenacious enemy together.