Marines wait in the cold for Afghan offensive

OUTPOST BELLEAU WOOD: Take a desert of yellow-orange dust so flat it looks like Mars, with a freezing wind that blows so hard it can lift a large tent.

Add hundreds of U.S. Marines, squads of Afghan soldiers, some Drug Enforcement Administration agents, a few private contractors, along with dozens of armored cars, mine breachers and an improvised helicopter landing zone.

That's Outpost Belleau Wood, a Marine base near the edge of the Taliban-controlled town of Marjah, which the Marines plan to attack in the coming days.

It took barely a week for the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment to create the outpost from scratch.

They bulldozed earth berms to make a protection wall, pitched lines of pup-tents that bend and wobble in the gale, and set up batteries of mortars and 155-millimeter artillery cannons.

"Those guns started shooting the night they got here," said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, as he leaned forward against the wind while walking through the base in full body armor and helmet.

Named after a World War I battle where the 6th Marines earned the label "devil dogs" for the ferocity of their fight against German troops, Belleau Wood lies about seven miles (10 kilometers) north of Marjah.

Several units from the battalion are already pushing in toward the town, where an estimated 600 fighters are entrenched. While the outpost has been hit only once, companies closer to Marjah face daily skirmishes and bombings.

Marjah is the biggest community in southern Afghanistan that is under Taliban control and a center of their logistical and drug-smuggling networks. The NATO command believes restoring government control there would go a long way to discrediting the Taliban among Afghans in a part of the country where the militants have been strong for years.

The offensive proper is expected to be the biggest in the nine-year Afghan war, and troops on the outpost are all waiting for battle.

Dozens of Marine engineers have been rehearsing how to lay out massive metallic bridges they plan to use when troops will need to cross the canals surrounding Marjah. Route clearance teams were also fine-tuning their tactics to detect the bombs that litter the area.

NATO commanders have been very outspoken on their plans to take Marjah. But they've remained tightlipped on one key bit of information: timing.

Few know when the offensive will begin, and those who do are saying nothing. So the Marines are in the starting blocks, waiting in the cold.

"The wait is part of the fight," says Daniel Perez, a Navy medic. "It gives people the time to pump up with anticipation."

Marjah is suspected to be one of the biggest, most dangerous minefields NATO forces have ever faced, and hundreds of the fighters barricaded inside could be planning to fight until death.

But Perez said he hasn't seen anyone frightened by the fight — "or if they are, they're hiding it very well."

He says waiting, however long, doesn't matter for the Marines.

"It's almost like the Olympics," he said. "You train and train and train ... and this is finally the big show."