HUGE U.S. CAMP ARISES IN AFGHAN DESERT OF DEATH
By Andrew Gray
May 7, 2009
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- A huge U.S. military camp is taking shape in the baking heat of southern Afghanistan for thousands of extra U.S. troops charged with defeating a resurgent Taliban.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Camp Leatherneck, with concrete blast walls and semi-cylinder sand-colored tents, on Thursday as he surveyed preparations for what will be the biggest wave yet in a year that is seeing U.S. troop numbers doubled.
The camp is being constructed in Helmand province next to a British base, Camp Bastion, as Marines and other forces dramatically expand their presence in the most violent area of Afghanistan and heartland of the Taliban movement.
Construction workers clambered on the wooden frame of a new headquarters building as Gates spoke at the camp, where the majority of more than 8,000 marines now flowing into southern Afghanistan are expected be based.
"This place was desert at the end of January. I mean: nothing, said Navy Captain Jeff Borowy," the top U.S. military engineer in southern Afghanistan.
"Now you've got a 443-acre secure facility," he told reporters traveling with Gates.
Miles of sand walls topped with coils of barbed wire line the roads at the camp, linked to its British neighbor by a street nicknamed Atlantic Way.
If placed end to end in the United States, the sand walls at Leatherneck and eight other sites being built for the troop influx in southern Afghanistan would stretch for a distance of 175 km (110 miles).
The marines at Camp Leatherneck are also building a giant parking area for helicopters and airplanes by laying down a mat of metal alloy on the desert floor. With a length of 4,860 feet a width of 318 feet, the mat will be the second largest of its kind in the world and the biggest in a combat zone, said Marine Lieutenant Colonel David Jones, commander of the Marine Wing Support Squadron 371, based in Yuma, Arizona.
The new bases are a tangible sign of the increased resources devoted to Afghanistan by U.S. President Barack Obama, who accused his predecessor George W. Bush of neglecting the war in Afghanistan to focus on the conflict in Iraq, which Obama opposed.
Even before he completed a review of Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy, Obama ordered 17,000 extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan, including the 12,000 Marines.
"We are now resourcing our counterinsurgency appropriately," said U.S. Army Brigadier General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in southern Afghanistan.
"Our allies have done the heavy lifting for us in the southern region for a long time," he added. "The Brits, the Canadians, the Dutch have taken a lot of casualties."
Getting supplies to the remote desert -- named the Desert of Death by local tribesmen because of its extreme summer heat and desolation -- and building the camps in time for the influx of troops has posed challenges, Borowy said. In one innovative attempt to deal with the conditions, marines bagged up recycled water from camp showers and kitchens and used it to prepare sand for the aircraft parking area.
"We're in the middle of the desert so getting water's pretty interesting," Borowy said.
(Editing by Peter Graff)
GATES: AFGHAN-BOUND U.S. TROOPS OUTPACING EQUIPMENT
By Lara Jakes
May 8, 2009
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- Thousands of U.S. troops are being rushed to Afghanistan without the equipment they will need to fight an emboldened Taliban, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and military officials said Thursday.
The equipment delay is "a considerable concern," Gates said as he toured a dusty forward base in south Afghanistan where some 200 newly deployed Marines and sailors are arriving each day as part of the buildup of 21,000 new U.S. troops.
Marines who arrived in southern Afghanistan this week mark the vanguard of the expansion Obama has ordered to reverse a war his commanders say they are not winning. Pentagon officials said the initial Marine units are small advance parties, to be followed by much larger waves of forces in the coming weeks. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe troop movements.
"I heard this on several occasions today, that the equipment is coming in behind the troops and is not here and available for them when they arrive," Gates said at a news conference Thursday night in Kabul before a fly-around through bases in Afghanistan.
Gates attributed the delays to "the amount of equipment that has to be brought in and, frankly, the relatively limited infrastructure in terms of airfields and so on of how to get it in here."
Despite concerns about pressing U.S. military needs in Iraq and insurgents' interference with supply lines, the real problem has been "more a logistical challenge than it is anything else," Gates said. He promised to pursue the problem after he returns to Washington on Saturday.
The scope of the equipment shortage was not immediately clear. One Marine corporal at Camp Leatherneck told Gates during a 15-minute town-hall meeting in sweltering heat that he needed more communications equipment.
The Pentagon has already been grappling with how to beef up mine-resistant patrol trucks that have shown success in Iraq but are not resilient enough to withstand Afghanistan's hilly and rugged terrain.
The equipment shortage leaves U.S. troops vulnerable as the Taliban and other extremist groups are ramping up attacks with Afghanistan national elections approaching.
In a chilling reminder of the risks U.S. troops face, Gates said casualties among American, Afghanistan, and other international security forces are up 75 percent since the beginning of the year.
Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, commander of military forces in Afghanistan's southern region, predicted a surge of violence through the Aug. 20 elections. But Nicholson said he expects the attacks will cease once the Taliban understands that they cannot drive away U.S. and international forces.
"There will be an increase in violence, initially, because the enemy will not easily give up their hold on the population," Nicholson told reporters at Camp Leatherneck. "But this will be a spike, not a continuous upwards slope."
The United States is sending 21,000 troops to add to the 38,000 already in place.
Taliban forces show few signs of backing down as the U.S. ramps up its forces -- underscored by the confrontation with American troops this week in the western Farah Province that resulted in the deaths of dozens of Afghan civilians.
The incident, still under investigation by U.S. and Afghan authorities, came just days before Gates flew to Afghanistan, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai met in Washington with President Barack Obama and other top U.S. officials as well as Pakistani leaders.
At Leatherneck, a Marine asked Gates if U.S. troops in Afghanistan might be sent into Pakistan for peacekeeping missions. Hours later, in Kabul, an Afghan reporter asked a similar question.
In both cases, Gates said no.
"I do not anticipate at all there will be American troops going into Pakistan from Afghanistan to deal with this problem," Gates said.
--AP National Security Writer Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.