KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- More than seven years after U.S. forces ousted al-Qaida and the Taliban from power here, about 2,500 Marines have arrived in southern Afghanistan seeking to prevent the country from sliding further into Taliban-dominated chaos.
The situation is viewed by senior U.S. officials as so dire, with the Taliban controlling much of this region, that the Marines will focus strictly on combat operations.
That strategy will leave undone what most experts agree is needed for long-term success here: protecting areas cleared of insurgents to enable development and the extension of government services.
"It's all part of counterinsurgency, but at this point [the Marine mission] is more kinetic than not," said Col. Peter Petronzio, commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, referring to their focus on wiping out the insurgents.
The stakes are high. If the Islamist extremist Taliban regains control of Afghanistan, it eases al-Qaida's efforts to re-establish havens here, where the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were planned.
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, has said the United States "risks strategic failure" in Afghanistan.
Arriving by the planeload from Camp Lejeune, N.C., during the past few weeks, the Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit are deep in planning missions and intensive desert acclimatization and training at a dusty, bustling international military base here.
The unit, a combined air and ground strike force, will branch out across southern Afghanistan to strike at Taliban fighters and clear as many areas of them as possible.
But unlike many Iraq communities, where U.S. soldiers cleared out insurgents then held the areas secure to keep them from returning, the Marines in Afghanistan have no such resources.
They "will not hold ground," the Marine commandant, Gen. James Conway, said recently.
That runs contrary to the lessons hard-learned by U.S. forces in Iraq. There, in many neighborhoods in Baghdad and towns like Tal Afar, U.S. troops would clear out insurgents in bloody battles, only to see them slip back in as the Americans moved on.
There are not enough Marines to take on that role in Afghanistan, staff officers say. And the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), composed of 43,000 NATO and other forces, is stretched too thin to help.
"We could come in and sweep out the bad guys and then build a well and put somebody in charge," said a senior staff officer. "Then we leave, the Taliban comes back, wrecks the well and shoots our man in the head."
For now, at least, the shortage of troops sharply limits the Marines to short-term combat operations, according to staff officers here.
Not being able to stay to protect local Afghans, this officer said, "kind of takes away the incentive for anyone to help us."
A shortage of troops has plagued U.S. and NATO efforts here in the past. One key town in southern Afghanistan, Musa Qala, has been "liberated" by NATO forces at least once, but without enough troops to hold the town. Taliban forces moved back in after the allies left.
At a NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania this week, President Bush will cap a long but so far unsuccessful struggle to secure more allied troops for Afghanistan. For several years, U.S. officials have been pressing for at least two combat brigades, about 7,000 soldiers, and badly needed helicopters and other equipment.
It is likely that France will agree to send more troops. But even if such an announcement comes this week, it may be too late to sweep in and take up holding positions behind the Marines.
The sudden diversion here of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which had been assigned to the Mediterranean, signaled the growing alarm in Washington about the situation in Afghanistan.
The 24th is heavily armed, with its 1,200-man infantry battalion and an air squadron with attack and transport helicopters and Harrier strike fighters. Its arsenal holds some 4,000 weapons, from pistols to long-range 155-mm howitzers.
The Marines will fight in coordination with about 7,800 British troops heavily engaged with Taliban forces in northern Helmand Province west of here, and they are well aware they face a powerful adversary. The Taliban claim the region as their spiritual home, and the lucrative drug trade is a powerful inducement to resist being dislodged.
"You are incredibly better trained and better equipped than the enemy you face - and he knows that," Petronzio said of the Taliban at a battalion formation last week. "He absolutely fears and hates you more than any other."
And for the many Marines here who fought in Iraq and may think the Taliban would be easier, Maj. Tom Clinton, the battalion executive officer, had some advice.
"In Iraq, people had been oppressed. Here, they are fighters. They threw out Alexander the Great. And they threw out the British - twice.
"Have a healthy fear and respect for them," Clinton told the Marines, "but don't be paranoid about it."
Comfortably bivouacked here, the Marines are getting itchy to begin operations "outside the wire."
"The hardest thing right now is having patience," said the Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson, a 41-year- old from Washington, D.C., who commands the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines - the core unit of the 24th. "Things'll get going soon enough."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Wood, military affairs correspondent for The Sun, is embedded with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is conducting combat operations in southern Afghanistan into the fall. In the coming weeks, Wood will cover the mission as it unfolds and will also post reports on his blog, Military Watch, at baltimoresun.com/militarywatch.