Marines Hope to Turn Tide in Helmand Province

Camp Delaram, Western Helmand Province, Afghanistan – When our FOX News team was here over a year ago, this was a platoon patrol base. Then, this area was a Taliban free-fire zone and rarely did Marines venture “outside the wire” without some kind of engagement with the enemy – usually an improvised explosive device (IED) planted in the moon dust that passes for dirt here in this arid desert.

When we returned to Afghanistan last autumn, this dusty crossroads town had grown to become the headquarters for a battalion. Today, Delaram is “home” to Marine Regimental Combat Team 2 – and thousands more Marines are on the way. The “Afghanistan Surge” – 30,000 additional U.S. troops ordered here last December by the President is well underway – and dramatically changing this region once known as “the heartland of the Taliban.” By mid to late summer there will be 80,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan – 30,000 more “boots on the ground” in the shadows of the Hindu Kush than in Iraq.

At Camp Leatherneck, two hours by paved road east of here, the Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) that arrived a year ago is being replaced by a Marine Expeditionary Force, more than tripling the number of U.S. and coalition troops in this “battlespace.” The new units even include a battalion of troops from Georgia – the country, not the state. Best of all, says Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, the outgoing MEB commander, “Afghanistan National Army units are stepping up to the task of defending their own country.” He is starting a boot camp for new recruits.

As base perimeters are “pushed out” to make room for arriving units, Navy Seabee construction crews and contractors are working around the clock to build runways, landing zones, fuel farms, billets, mess halls and command centers. As I write this at 0130 in the morning, I can hear bulldozers, cranes and heavy trucks loading and unloading. A concrete batch plant, operated by an Afghan company that wasn’t here a week ago, is now running around the clock.

The new construction and arriving troops are auspiciously timed. Helmand and neighboring Kandahar provinces produce most of the world’s illicit opium – a major source of funding for the Taliban. And this year’s harvest is about to come in.

That would normally be bad news, but this year it may not be. If the Marines and Special Agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) we’re with have their way, the net revenue to the Taliban from this year’s harvest will drop dramatically. They have launched a concerted campaign – as one senior officer put it – to “turn off the opium spigot without turning the people against us.”

Notably, the senior Marine commanders here also fought in Iraq’s Anbar Province and were engaged in creating what came to be called “the Awakening.” There, prominent Sunni tribal leaders were ultimately convinced to stop supporting Baathist and Al Qaeda terrorists. Here, they hope to do the same thing with “part-time-Taliban” and those who have been supporting the movement.

Colonel Randy Newman and Colonel Paul Kennedy commanded Marine Infantry Battalions in Ramadi, Iraq at the height of the Sunni Insurgency. Our FOX News team was embedded with both units during the time when Anbar Province was the bloodiest place on the planet. Now these men command Regimental Combat Teams here in Helmand Province. “It’s not the same fight, but there are many common factors in every insurgency,” Colonel Newman told me this week. “We won over the Sunni tribes in Iraq with persistence, patience and persuasion. We have some different challenges here – but we also have some great new tools – and many of the same great Marines.”

Among the new challenges is opium, which funds much of what the Taliban can do. Among the new tools is the DEA which has the ability to collect very specific, timely intelligence on illicit drugs, and the capacity to exploit that information. The upcoming poppy harvest will put all that capability to the test.

Over the course of the next few weeks, while our FOX News team is on the ground, U.S. and coalition forces are going to make the first concerted effort to interdict the harvesting and processing of opium in one of the most dangerous and unforgiving places on earth. If it succeeds, it could well mean the eventual end of the Taliban insurgency – and even Usama bin-Laden’s Al Qaeda.