Last year when we were in this part of Helmand province, there were four Marine battalions providing security and mentoring Afghan soldiers and police. Now there is just one -- 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment -- the last Fleet Marine Force unit in which I served. I admit to bias in favor of these young Marines, with whom I share a special bond.
Since our two-man Fox News team arrived last month, Chuck Holton and I have traveled much of the same ground we covered on previous trips when we were reporting on Americans and our allies in this long war. On this trip, we have interviewed and listened to, documented and hiked many miles with nearly 700 of the 68,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines remaining in Afghanistan.
We also have spoken with hundreds of American contractor personnel -- more than on any of our previous trips. That's because there are so many required to implement the Obama administration's "exit strategy." In a surreal exercise of political and financial accounting, we now have civilians performing essential tasks that U.S. military personnel used to carry out before the "Obama drawdown" began in the midst of this year's "fighting season." Seeing as civilian contractors do not count in the military end-strength numbers, the White House and Pentagon can show they are "ending operations in Afghanistan on schedule."
As the members of 3/8 begin their retrograde back to the United States, they are bringing with them tens of millions of dollars worth of heavy equipment accumulated over the past 11 years of war. It's a herculean feat requiring a full-time, 24/7 effort. On outposts soon to be turned over to Afghan forces or "demilitarized" and abandoned, the troops pull security duty, go on patrols, train the local Afghan army and police, and pack, load and move 26-ton armored vehicles, mine-clearing equipment, trucks, generators, communications gear, water and fuel systems, and entire armories. The work goes on day and night.
There is little time for meals, a shower or rest, much less talk of politics at home. Nonetheless, some of them do find time. To the extent they can, they follow the debates -- particularly on larger bases where contractor-provided dining facilities offer air conditioning and big-screen televisions.
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.