KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- Disagreements and coordination problems high within the international military command are delaying combat operations for 2,500 Marines who arrived here last month to help root out Taliban forces, according to military officers here.
For weeks the Marines -- with their light armor, infantry, artillery and a squadron of transport and attack helicopters and Harrier strike fighters -- have been virtually quarantined at the international air base here, unable to operate beyond the base perimeter.
Within immediate striking distance are radical Islamist Taliban forces that are entrenched around major towns in southern Afghanistan, where they control the lucrative narcotics trade and are consolidating their position as an alternative to the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.
But disputes among the many layers of international command here -- an ungainly conglomeration of 40 nations ranging from Albania and Iceland to the U.S. and Britain -- have forced a series of delays.
Unlike most U.S. military operations, even the small details of operations here -- such as the radio frequency used to evacuate a soldier for medical care -- must first be coordinated with multiple military commands.
Then, there have been larger disputes over strategy. Some commanders here want more emphasis on civic action in conjunction with local Afghans. Others believe security must take precedence.
For Marines, who are accustomed to landing in a war zone and immediately going into action with their own plans, the holdup has been frustrating.
Frequent changes among command leaders and unclear lines of authority have made it difficult for the Marines to win general approval for the timing, goals and extent of proposed operations.
Marine operations planning, which is routinely completed in hours or days, has gone on for weeks while they await agreement and approval from above.
"They invite us here ... and they don't know how to use us?" said Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson, commander of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. "We are trying to keep our frustration in check ... but we have to wait for the elephants to stop dancing," Henderson said, referring to the brass-heavy international command.
"The clash is between the tactical reality on the ground and political perceptions held elsewhere," Marine Maj. Heath Henderson, deputy operations officer for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, told his staff. "You can make your own judgments about which you think will prevail."
Including the Marines, there are 17,522 allied troops in southern Afghanistan, including British, Dutch, Canadians, Danes, Estonians, Australians, Romanians and representatives of nine other nations, according to the high command.
These coalition military forces are assembled under the banner of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), commanded by U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, headquartered in Kabul with an international staff.
Beneath McNeill are five regional commands and numerous national military commands. Henderson's Marine battalion and its parent task force, the 24th MEU, officially are under the command of ISAF and McNeill. But they are assigned to work in conjunction with the regional command here and other coalition forces.
Coordination on long-term strategy is complex, staff officers here said, because the commanders and staffs at each level regularly rotate. Regional command south here, for instance, changes every nine months between British, Canadian and Dutch officers.
With one proposed operation temporarily blocked, Henderson told his planners to consider a scaled-back option.
"I think it's a stretch, but let's look at it," he said, adding glumly, "as the sound of desperation seeps into my voice."
The regional command here, RC-South, declined to comment on any command issues. In Kabul, Brig. Gen. Carlos Branco, a senior spokesman for the ISAF, said the Marines "answer to" ISAF but are under the "tactical control" of RC-South. He said ISAF was satisfied that this is the best arrangement to "coordinate and synchronize" combat operations.
In case of a disagreement, McNeill would make the final decision, said Branco, a Portuguese officer.
The problems are magnified when Afghan government officials at the national and provincial level weigh in with their own judgments. The result, some say, is that the counterinsurgency campaign, which is inherently difficult enough, suffers from the lack of a clear vision and strategy.
"We don't understand where we are going here," said Lt. Col. Brian Mennes, commander of Task Force Fury, a battalion of paratroopers just leaving Kandahar after 15 months of counterinsurgency operations here. "We desperately want to see a strategy in front of us," he said in an interview.
NATO's only previous experience with coalition combat came almost a decade ago with the air war against Serbia. Afghanistan is the first time the alliance has attempted to coordinate ground combat among forces that often don't speak the same language or use the same radio frequencies.
With British, Canadian and U.S. forces fighting in close proximity here, for example, their operations officers must agree even on such details as requests for medical evacuation of the wounded: the decisions include who takes the call, whose aircraft responds and where the wounded soldier is taken.
At the staff level, such difficulties usually are worked out with grace and humor and with a warrior's sense of shared mission. In response to a Marine request this week for help with supplies, a British liaison officer was accommodating. "You'll get what we have," he said.
Bigger problems run afoul of conflicting strategies and easily bruised national pride.
At another planning session, a question arose about the capabilities of a British combat unit. "I can tell you they have killed more people than anybody else in this room," a British major declared hotly. There was shocked silence from the roomful of Marines, most of whom have done two or three combat tours in Iraq and don't boast about battlefield exploits.
Meantime, the 2,500 Marines here train, clean their weapons yet again, take long conditioning runs along the dust-choked perimeter roads, and wonder when they're going to begin what they came for.
"This is killing us," says a staff sergeant. "There's only so much training you can do, especially considering that most of my Marines just got back from Iraq."
But living conditions at this huge base are comfortable, with a well-stocked PX, an off-duty recreation area with a Burger King and pizza shop and an Afghan bazaar. Marines sleep on cots in air-conditioned tents, and the food is considered above-par.
"This place is like a resort, and that makes the waiting a lot easier," said Lt. Shaun Miller, 24, a platoon leader from Austin, Texas.