CAMP BASTION, HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- This British-built fortress, perched on a plateau in southwestern Afghanistan, is well-named. Surrounded by miles of open desert, the citadel has its own concrete runway, water supply, sewage, electricity, Level 3 trauma hospital, even fire mains -- all constructed in the past 30 months. The heavily armed camp is home to British, Danish, Estonian and Czech troops of the International Security Assistance Force. It's also home to Task Force 2/7 -- built around the legendary 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, out of the Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, Calif. -- a good place to prepare for this austere terrain and oppressive heat. Camp Bastion is an outpost of sanity in an otherwise insane part of the world.
Helmand province is the heartland of the Taliban -- the Islamic radicals who won a bloody civil war to rule Afghanistan in 1996. Once in power, the Taliban imposed strict Shariah law and brutalized the largely impoverished Afghan population. Taliban leaders also provided a haven for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida to launch the 9/11 attacks. In November 2001, when they were deposed by the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, many of the Taliban fled south to Pakistan and east to Iran. This spring, they came back -- intent on overthrowing the democratically elected government of President Hamid Karzai. That's when the Marines of TF 2/7 arrived "in country" to train and mentor Afghan army and police forces.
It's been a challenging assignment for the 1,300 Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen of TF 2/7. The unit's area of operations is more than 28,000 square kilometers -- roughly the size of Vermont. There is only one paved highway. Overland transport to some of the 15 forward bases and combat outposts where TF 2/7 operates often takes more than 24 hours of continuous day and night movement. Until this week -- when four CH-53 transport helicopters and four Cobra gunships arrived, the task force had to rely on NATO aircraft for close air support, aerial resupply and casualty evacuation. Parachute drops of food, water and ammunition are regular events.
Before they could train their first Afghan soldier or national policeman, the Marines had to fight their way into the districts where they were to do the mentoring. Since then, they have had to battle the Taliban to keep their overland supply lines open. Lt. Col. Richard Hall, the task force's commander, describes the nearly nonstop gunfights, indirect fire and improvised explosive device attacks as "a very dynamic, complex and often hostile environment." That's putting it mildly.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.
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