CAMP HANSEN, Afghanistan -- This austere U.S. Marine base in the Marjah district of Helmand province is headquarters for 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment -- famous for action during World War II on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa. Dubbed "America's Battalion," the unit has adopted a new slogan in Afghanistan: "Front Toward Enemy" -- the label placed on devices such as claymore mines and anti-tank rockets. It's appropriate here in the southern Helmand River valley.
Lt. Col. J.D. Harrill, the 2/8 battalion commander, is a hero in his own right -- and so are his Marines and Navy corpsmen. He was awarded the Silver Star, our nation's third-highest award for valor, during the battle for Ramadi, Iraq. Back then, the capital of Anbar province was the bloodiest place on earth. When he and his Marines arrived here in January, more than half were already veterans of gunfights along the Euphrates River and in the shadows of the Hindu Kush. When they moved into this canal-laced heartland of the Taliban, they had to fight their way in.
Maj. Jamie Murphy, the battalion operations officer, put it this way: "For nearly four months, we had multiple gun battles and (improvised explosive device) strikes every day. The Taliban threw everything they had at us. For weeks on end, our Marines were 'canal-hopping' through fields laced with (homemade explosives) and lined with snipers. By May, it was changing. Now we're winning. We know it, and so does the enemy."
When I asked Maj. Murphy what turned things around, he pointed to the nearby Afghan National Army outpost and a dark green Ford Ranger with Afghan police markings and replied, "Our partnering with them."
In Washington and Kabul, they describe "partnering" as the "next-to-last step to a full transition." The goal: By the end of 2014, Afghan national security forces are supposed to be fully responsible for security and stability in this country. It's the final phase of this transition, "sustaining," that has people here -- Afghan, allied and American -- so concerned because of proposed funding cuts. In short, the government in Kabul cannot afford to keep 305,000 Afghan soldiers and police in the field without major outside financial support.
The specter of a future funding cutoff hasn't affected the performance of the troops -- American or Afghan -- we're seeing here. On previous trips, our Fox News team has been embedded with U.S. units across the length and breadth of Afghanistan. We've accompanied highly trained, well-equipped Afghan commandos and special police units partnered with American special operations forces and Drug Enforcement Administration agents from the mountains north and east of Jalalabad to the western border with Iran and here in the southern desert in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. We expected them to be good, and they are.
Surprising to us are the effectiveness and capabilities of the "conventional" military and police forces we're seeing on this trip. Apparently, I'm not the only one. Lt. Col. Harrill put it succinctly: "We're ahead of where I thought we would be. Working and fighting beside us, they have come a long, long way in the last five months."
Unfortunately, that perspective doesn't get covered by the so-called mainstream media very often. Instead, the American people are fed a steady diet of bad news from this decade-long war. This week, the InterContinental hotel in Kabul was assaulted by nine suicide terrorists, who killed 10 hotel guests and staff members and two Afghan policemen before the attackers were killed by Afghan police and soldiers. For days afterward, the potentates of the press described the event as "proof the Taliban can attack at will" and evidence "the Karzai government cannot even protect the capital." Here's some good news that you didn't see or hear.
The Kabul hotel attack -- a smaller, less sanguinary version of the one in Mumbai, India, in November 2008 -- was against a "soft target" that was "protected" by a private security force, not a government facility. Afghan police and military units responded immediately, cordoned off the site and cleared the building without the aid of any coalition forces. A night vision-equipped NATO helicopter was provided to deal with three terrorists who made it to the roof of the building. Not impressed? For those who think Afghan troops aren't doing enough of the fighting, try this:
Last week, two Afghan police officers were alerted by locals that a Taliban suicide bomber was en route to kill the district governor during a meeting with U.S. officials. When the two policemen confronted the terrorist, he opened fire, killing one of the officers and seriously wounding the other.
Though shot in the chest, the wounded officer, Mohamad Dhalan, was able to return fire, killing the terrorist before he could detonate his bomb. The wounded Afghan policeman was treated at the scene by a U.S. Navy medical corpsman and then airlifted by a U.S. Army "Dustoff" helicopter to the 115th Combat Support Hospital at Camp Dwyer, headquarters of U.S. Marine Regimental Combat Team 1. The officer's left lung was punctured, and he had lost nearly half of his body's blood through a severed artery. When the U.S. doctors put out a message throughout the Marine camp that there was an urgent need for AB-negative blood to save the life of a wounded Afghan cop who had saved the lives of several Americans, scores of Marines, soldiers, sailors and civilian contractors lined up to donate blood. (Look for the video on my Facebook page.)
U.S. Army Col. Trish Darnauer, commanding officer of the hospital, says "the blood drive saved the life of a lifesaver." Marine Lt. Col. Don Wright, the RCT-1 executive officer, summed it up: "It's the right thing to do, and brave men like him are our tickets home."