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Over Thanksgiving the line at Burger King on Bagram Air Base sometimes stretched to 30 or more military personnel waiting on Whoppers. And the lines at the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan are likely only to get longer.
About 9,000 Marines will be the first to reach the war zone as part of a surge in forces announced by President Barack Obama Dec. 1 at West Point, ending a 92-day White House review of the war. The forces will likely deploy before Christmas and take up posts in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province to form what the president outlined as a three-point strategy- "core elements"-to boost the U.S. military response, bolster Afghanistan's civilian government, and partner with Pakistan in bringing down al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Depending on improving conditions, the president said, he will begin bringing combat troops home mid-2011.
At Bagram it was not the wider war but its curtailment that drew concern. "There is a low probability that things can get squared away in 18 months," said a military contractor working on the base, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to security. "If the Afghan fight is 'in our vital national security interest' as [the president] announced, then it is blatantly duplicitous that we should put a timeline to it."
At the same time, locals who work on or near the base see its expanding structure-to Burger King has been added pizza delivery and a top-of-the-line sporting goods store-and wonder just how "temporary" is the U.S. presence. "We keep delivering the wrong message-to ourselves, to the population," said the contractor.
From over there, the positive message of the president's decision is the adoption of the counterinsurgency strategy favored by Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command. That strategy was in some areas on hold pending the White House review, meaning that Marines in Helmand, who currently number about 11,000, have battled supply shortages and Taliban encroachments since July. Despite those challenges they have succeeded, similar to Anbar Province in Iraq, according to the contractor, by "getting off the base and working within the tapestry of the populace to hunt down" bad guys.