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?
"For the first time since the (earliest stage) of the Afghan war," Gates told me, we have "the resources, both civilian and military, and the strategy in place ... to actually put us on the path to success, rather than sort of holding our own." The mission, in his view, has been refocused on achievable goals: "Deny the Taliban control of populated areas. Degrade their capabilities. And expand Afghan national security forces to the point where they can handle a degraded Taliban threat." We are "going into places the Taliban have controlled for years," explained Gates. This is undermining the Taliban's economic support from the drug trade, pushing insurgents into remoter regions and giving local government a chance to take
Afghans must eventually defend these gains -- a heavy weight on a slim thread. Yet American officers in Helmand and Kandahar told me they were impressed with their Afghan army counterparts, whom one American officer described as "solid and eager." When the first Americans arrived in Helmand a little over a year ago, there were five coalition soldiers on the ground for every one from the Afghan security forces. Now that ratio is one-to-one. The Afghan police have always been a harder case -- often untrained and predatory. But the coalition is taking a new approach, organizing the Afghan Local Police (ALP) -- nominated by village elders, vetted by coalition forces, charged with extending security into rural areas. The current $12 billion spent annually by the U.S. to train Afghan security forces is too expensive to be sustainable, but it seems to be working.
This progress is about to be tested. The green leaves of spring also provide cover for Taliban returning from Pakistan. American commanders anticipate a strategy of assassination against Afghans who participate in community structures such as the ALP. "We are expecting violence to pick up," said Lt. Col. Jason Morris at FOB Jackson. "They've started moving forces here. They'll try to reassert their authority, but they'll have a hard time doing it. They will be met at every turn."
How does this fighting season differ from that past 10? "When (the Taliban) come back this spring," Gates responds, "it's no longer their home-court advantage. We hold the home-court advantage now."