HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- Until five months ago, Forward Operating Base Jackson in Sangin was an island in a Taliban sea. Patrol bases were ringed by Taliban flags, about 100 to 200 meters out, to dramatize the state of siege. Everywhere beyond the main road was enemy sanctuary. Each spring the fertile land along the Helmand River bloomed red with poppies from horizon to horizon. Thirty-five drug processing labs helped fund the Taliban.
In October about 1,500 Marines arrived, took the offensive, pushed into the territory -- and sustained the highest casualties of the Afghan War. During the first three months of operations in Sangin, more than two dozen Marines died; another 150 were wounded.
But the Marines, as usual, got the better of the killing -- counting more than 400 insurgent dead. In the end they owned the ground. War-weary locals have begun cooperating and providing information. Morale of Afghan army and police has improved. Farmers are being given other seeds to replace poppies. Though the region is not fully pacified, the Marines have quickly established themselves as the toughest tribe in this part of the Taliban homeland.
The Afghan surge -- involving about 40,000 additional coalition forces and more than 70,000 new recruits to the Afghan army and police -- has made swift progress. And these advances are accumulating into a strategy. Coalition forces are moving north up the Helmand River valley, connecting their gains to Kandahar next door, hoping to expand the security bubble toward Kabul.
Near Kandahar, Tabin is one of a string of villages that the Taliban controlled last summer but lost to the coalition. Local insurgents have been fighting not just for the last few years but since the Soviet Union was the enemy. Yet the American Army has succeeded where the Russians did not. Troop strength has more than tripled in this area. Taliban weapons caches and IED factories have been destroyed. Village leaders are cooperating. During this visit, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (trailed by the press, including myself) walked down the main road in Tabin. Six months earlier, according to an American officer on the scene, an armored vehicle would not have dared to make the trip.
It is possible for progress in a war to be real but not sufficient. Current coalition efforts are as great as they will ever be. Is their scale, in the vastness of Afghanistan, large enough?