Holiday in Afghanistan

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 27, 2009

GOLESTAN, AFGHANISTAN -- The Marine Corps Osprey, an unwieldy, gray contraption that flies like an airplane but lands like a helicopter, raced through the sky before it slowed to a hover and alighted several hundred yards from this tiny village.

Several hundred Afghans raced out of low-slung mud houses to catch a glimpse of the strange aircraft carrying the Marine commandant, Gen. James Conway. He'd come from the Pentagon to offer Thanksgiving greetings to about 50 Marines manning one of the primitive bases here.

For the Marines at the Golestan base and some three dozen other small outposts and patrol bases scattered throughout surrounding Helmand province, the Thanksgiving holiday offered a brief respite before President Obama unveils his new strategy for Afghanistan next week.

The strategy is expected to include more than 30,000 additional troops, White House officials say. The first tranche of new forces, consisting of about 9,000 Marines, is destined for Helmand. Once on the ground, the troops will push into some of the Taliban's toughest sanctuaries, which U.S. commanders have held off confronting until more U.S. or Afghan forces come on line.

"It's going to get busy out here," Conway told the Marines on Thanksgiving Day. "There are places where we don't go out here. These are the places that we are going to have to crack open."

The bloodiest year of the Afghanistan war for U.S. forces is likely to get more violent, the commandant seemed to be warning.

On Thanksgiving, the Marines in southern Afghanistan still walked patrols and fired artillery rounds, but almost everyone slowed their pace a bit.

At the larger U.S. bases in Afghanistan, workers from Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka dished out turkey, ham, stuffing and six kinds of pie to Marines. In more remote spots such as Golestan, troops made do with prepackaged meals and whatever they could find in the local market -- potatoes, onions, carrots and fresh-baked bread. A few days earlier they had bought and slaughtered a goat.

"We got some country boys in this platoon," said Lt. Daniel Nagourney, a military policeman at the base.

The Marines at Golestan and the 31 other combat outposts and small patrol bases throughout Helmand province had been promised a turkey dinner at some point over the next four days. But the region's lack of paved roads meant that it would have to be delivered by air. There simply weren't enough helicopters for everyone to receive a hot meal on the same day.

The Golestan Marines would have to wait. As Afghans looked on from the edge of the village, the Marines clustered around their four-star commandant. The general promised the troops that flagging support for the war in the United States did not mean that the American people were turning their back on their troops.

Before he left for Afghanistan, Conway was asked by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to gauge the Marines' morale. At each of his eight stops, including Golestan, Conway told the troops that he wasn't worried about their spirit.

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