The last time that I flew into Camp Bastion in the back of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in 2008, it was a typical British forward operating base. Tightly packed and ordered. You could walk across it in perhaps 15 minutes at ordinary pace. You got the feeling that everything that was there was needed. The runway was graded (i.e. was not hard concrete but gravel). After a day of C-130 Hercules streaming in to land on it, gauging out a deeper and deeper depression each time, one of the pilots slammed it down for a short military landing, the military’s version of roadmen had to fill it in and flatten it for use within a couple of hours. All very expeditionary.
Forward two years to my arrival in the back of a U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules in May 2010. Even in the back with the engines howling to stop the aircraft, I could tell we had landed on a flat, regular runway. The usual speed at positioning and unloading in a combat zone was there, but we trooped off and onto … a bus! Next stop the passenger terminal—well, tent! But a bus, this was new. Admittedly it was 3:00 a.m. and my escort was as keen as I was to drop me off at my billet. But in the dark of the night, lit only by the familiar orange glow of military lighting with the occasionally white light flooded area, I realized that the drive was taking much longer than I had anticipated. Nothing looked even remotely familiar.
The following day the full scale of the transformation struck me as my escort drove me on a familiarization tour. The Marines had landed! The base was now huge and most of what I was driving through was Task Force Leatherneck. Virtually all of TF Leatherneck is situated in an area that used to be ‘outside’ the old British perimeter. Lines and lines of tents serving as offices, logistics centers and most of all accommodations for the 3,000-plus Americans who arrived in a hurry after President Obama decided that Afghanistan needed its own surge.
And the kit they bring with them. Vehicles of every size and description were parked in rows in every direction. Humvees, MRAPs—all kinds of transport. The main runway looked at least double the length of the old one. Before there had been seven or eight protected hard stands for the incoming helicopters to nestle in to unload and reload cargo, with protection offered if a rocket attack were to develop. Now on the other brand new side of the flight line stand rows and rows of American helicopters—Cobras, Hueys, CH-53s, V-22 tiltrotors—dozens of aircraft out in the open almost oblivious of any external threat (perhaps this will change following the attacks on Bagram and Kandahar airfields as I left?).
Camp Bastion was desert before the war started. The British chose the location because any attacker would have to cross miles of featureless desert to even get close. Today, with the unblinking eyes of unmanned aerial systems that I presume are watching over us, added to the might of the force that is located here, the attacker’s job would be even more suicidal than before.
When the Americans hit town they hit it with everything. There is a small exception to that rule actually, in that troops off duty have little to do other than what they have in their tents. There is some Internet connection, but this is immediately closed down whenever there is a casualty, as was the case when I arrived. The reason is, quite correctly, the military want to inform the casualty’s next of kin before they hear from someone else—or worse, the media. Facebook here is a common and accepted way for the young Marines to keep in touch with their loved ones, and presents a problem to those in authority in terms of leaking information out. But the common thought is that the overall positive effect it has in terms of keeping up the morale currently outweighs the disadvantages it poses.
But aside from the ‘chow hall’ and the ever popular PX store, there is little to do—and these guys do a 12-month tour of duty. Working hours are long with little time off. But these are Marines—and they have come to do a job.
There are exceptions. I have seen individual unit areas that have their own basketball court, a small but well-equipped gym hiding by the flight line, and the ever popular get-togethers in alternate tents.
The difference in a wider context here is that the British base was functional and effective for the size of force that the UK government was prepared to field. But it was holding the Taliban—rather than beating them. The arrival of the U.S. Marines changes the military balance through overwhelming numbers. This surge tactic, with the determination that is driving it, may just be enough to drive the Taliban towards negotiations—really the result that most of the sides in this conflict expect, sooner or later, to happen.