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 an 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 beyond the roads — and sustained the highest casualties of the Afghan war. During the first three months of operations in Sangin, more than two dozen Marines died; 150 others 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 the 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.