KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- For the first time in more than 12 years, U.S. Marines reentered the compound that housed the U.S. Embassy in Kabul today, signifying America's continuing commitment to the people of war-ravaged Afghanistan.
Reentering the embassy grounds for the first time since security concerns forced the embassy's closure in January 1989, nearly 80 Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) arrived without incident and were greeted this morning by Afghans, young and old, who celebrated their freedom from the oppressive rule of the now fleeing Taliban regime.
"Unfortunately, when an embassy shuts down, the Marine security guards and the U.S. Ambassador are always among the last to leave because they have the responsibility to lower the American flag from sovereign U.S. soil before the ambassador leaves," said Col. Andrew P. Frick, the 26th MEU (SOC)'s commanding officer. "I think that it's only fitting that the Marines, "America's 9-1-1 force," who arrived in this theater poised and ready to support not only the assembled task force, but also the U.S. Central Command and the will of America, be the ones to stand with the new U.S. Ambassador as he raises the flag over sovereign American soil. It is a fitting and poignant moment and we're happy to be a part of it," said Frick.
For the Marines and Sailors of the 26th MEU (SOC) and the 15th MEU (SOC), all of whom remember vividly where they were when the tragic events of September 11, 2001 unfolded before their eyes, the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul will hold a special meaning.
"As I watched the events of 11 September, I knew that we would more than likely play a significant role in our Nation?s war against terrorism," said Frick. "But, to be here at this time, and knowing that we not only answered our Nation's call when she needed us, but that we had an integral role in the fall of the Taliban, it really brings it home that we are a representative slice of America and we'll never forget our fallen comrades."
For the Marines, service in the historic city of Kabul is nothing new. Marines first assumed their post there in 1934 with the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries as U.S. policymakers sought to raise the standard of living in the developing nation. For the next twenty years, Afghans continued to strengthen their economy and national infrastructure throughout the late 1930s and well into the early 1950s.
With the rapid growth of the American economy following the end of the World War II and the Korean War, foreign investment also began to rise in the 1950s as America aided not only in the reconstruction of post-war Europe, but also began to invest in Afghanistan with more than $500 million being spent there over the next nearly 30 years. These funds came in the form of grants, low-interest loans, agricultural commodities and machinery as well as a variety of assistance programs designed to further develop Afghanistan's transportation and corporate infrastructure, stimulate industry, expand the educational system and streamline federal and local governments.
From the early 1950s through 1978, Afghanistan continued to modernize its infrastructure with the construction of new dams, roads, power plants and bridges. During the cold war, the United States foresaw a self-reliant Afghanistan as an ally in its drive to contain communism.
Beginning in 1978, the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan began to sour as the government of Afghanistan fell in an April coup. Marines continued to man the U.S. embassy in Kabul and the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph Dubs, was himself a former U.S. Marine and decorated World War II veteran. Never fully able to reestablish strong diplomatic relations with the new Afghan government, Ambassador Dubs was kidnapped in February 1979 and murdered by his captors during a failed hostage rescue attempt. With his death came the termination of all military cooperation between the two countries and financial assistance agreements were reduced until they eventually dissolved in light of the Soviet invasion shortly thereafter.
During this period of turmoil, Marines continued their presence in Kabul and the U.S. government then moved to a diplomatic solution as a means to try to bring about the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Financial aid to the people of Afghanistan came in the form of robust support for the refugee program in Pakistan, thereby reaching a vast majority of the Afghan population on both sides of the Pakistani border.
In 1989, the world, as many had known it, changed dramatically. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first major indicator of a crumbling Soviet "Iron Curtain," the people of Afghanistan experienced great change as well. Following the closure of the U.S. Embassy in January, the 10-year occupation of Afghanistan came to an end in early February as Soviet forces withdrew from Kabul and returned home. This peace did not last, however, when in 1992, the government of Mohammad Najibullah collapsed, sending the government spiraling into the hands of guerilla forces.
By this time, Marines had recently completed efforts in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm and were now involved in Somalia throughout this period. During this time, the people of Afghanistan suffered amidst the power struggle created by rival warring factions who now occupied seats of government.
In nearby Islamabad, Pakistan, especially during the Gulf War, things were a bit more stable; however, it was still dangerous work to be a U.S. Embassy Marine security guard in this region of the world. One such embassy guard was SgtMaj. Gerald N. Lane, the battalion sergeant major for Battalion Landing Team 3/6, the ground combat element of the 26th MEU (SOC). "I was the Det Commander [Marine Security Guard Detachment] from 1989 through 1991 and it was definitely a time to be vigilant on watch," said Lane. "Our embassy [in Islamabad] had been gutted by fire in 1979, so when the air campaign began [against Iraq], we knew fairly well what could happen if things got out of control, so we evacuated our families from the country just to be safe."
As Marines today sift through the charred remnants of the Kabul embassy, following the September 26 fire which pro-Taliban demonstrators set to protest threatened U.S.-led bombings in the country, they and the U.S. State Department certainly have their work cut out for them, said Lane.
"First and foremost, they'll have to determine if the embassy itself and the other buildings in the compound are structurally sound," said Lane, a Dover, DE native. "Once they have that, then the establishment of 'Post 1' the main entrance to the embassy will be the first priority and the recreation of the infrastructure will be key. Cameras, structural reinforcements, housing for the Marines who will stand post here, housing for the Ambassador and his family are all elements which need to be in place before a more permanent Marine presence can be introduced here," said Lane.
For the Marines of the 26th MEU (SOC) here, their current mission is simple: provide security for a U.S. State Department assessment team as it measures the compound's suitability for a continued U.S. presence on the site. But for those who stand watch tonight within the compound's walls, it will assuredly carry a larger significance.
"I think that this war, the war on terrorism, is the first war since World War II that truly is 'America's War,'" said Sgt. David J. Wood, an infantryman with BLT 3/6. "I am very proud to be here, to represent my country, and to represent the people in New York who paid so very much. We all share their pain, and we're here for them," said the Knoxville, TN native.
In the next couple of days, Marines of the 26th MEU will assemble beneath a flagpole within the U.S. embassy compound in Kabul. This pole may be the same one which last felt the tether of the blustery winter wind whipping 'Old Glory' on a chilly Afghani afternoon twelve years ago or it may be a makeshift pole that Marines scour from the debris surrounding the dilapidated buildings of today. In either case, with the first note of their National Anthem, each Marine present will stand tall, salute crisply and remember our fallen comrades in New York City and in Washington D.C.
These Marines will stand alongside the free people of Afghanistan, as they have done since 1934, and remember together the sacrifices of not only the Americans who lost their lives this year to terrorism but also the lives of the U.S. servicemen and opposition group fighters who paid the ultimate price in this conflict to bring peace to this war-ravaged country.