The Marine officer accompanying me suddenly exclaimed in dismay, and I looked up. Ahead of us was a U.S. cargo plane, with the American flag visible inside, stretched across the interior. Here that only means one thing: death.
As we watched, the crew carefully removed the body from the plane, carrying it to a waiting vehicle on a stretcher. I could see the green plastic body bag glinting in the burning sun.
It's hard to describe the feeling. You're standing there and the reality of this war just slaps you in the face. There it is. Someone's son, brother, best friend. Dead.
A small group of soldiers walked from the plane toward us. Two of them were in full gear, carrying their rifles and packs. It was obvious they had escorted the body on the first leg of its journey home. They walked past us with heads bowed, not talking to each other. Just silent.
I understood. The weight of it all is overwhelming at times.
More U.S., NATO and Afghan soldiers are dying here now than at any other time in this war. And the frustrating part for me is that I saw it coming years ago. In my many reports from this country for CBS News and "60 Minutes," I tried to drive home the point that this is where the country was heading. I tried to get officials and top commanders to admit it on camera, something few were willing to do until about a year or so ago. I think I was one of many journalists here who knew this is where the country was heading. I know I spoke to many Afghans who told me so.
Now I found myself heading south, to the violent, opium-rich province of Helmand once again. Further south in Kandahar, three British soldiers on a foot patrol were killed by a roadside bomb. This month looks like it will be even more deadly for U.S. and NATO troops than last month - which was the deadliest since the start of the war in 2001, with some 75 killed.
There have been no deaths so far in the town of Dahaneh, where U.S. Marines began a major assault Wednesday morning, just before dawn.
In a move described by one of the operation planners as "ballsy," the Marines dropped in behind enemy lines, only about 50 meters from two major Taliban compounds. It is no surprise that they immediately started taking fire from the two buildings and the fighting continued for hours.
I tried to get a sense from the Marines here at the Brigade headquarters where the operation was planned and is being supported, why this town matters. Why did they choose a tiny place where about 2,000 Afghans live in the middle of nowhere to launch this big attack?
The Taliban has also covered almost every inch of ground there with roadside bombs to keep the Marines out. It hasn't worked. Marines still come through there and at least one has been killed, several more wounded. No one likes to talk about the specific nature of injuries, but these are not lightly wounded - there were several double amputees.
Now with the Marines taking Dahaneh from the Taliban, their access to the north will be dramatically restricted. This area had been considered lost to the Taliban, even by local Afghan officials who call it the "black hole".
There was no hope of having any voting there in next week's presidential election. There may still not be any. But now at least there is a chance that people will be able to go to the polls in Dahaneh. But it's still just a chance - the town is not yet secure and many of the people living there have fled the fighting.
Convincing them that the Taliban will not be able to come back will not be easy. The Marines have to do that in order to fulfill what is now their primary mission - protecting the Afghan people.
"Killing the Taliban is secondary to that," a senior Marine officer told me. "It's the people who are going to win this war and without them we have nothing."
The "people" don't have faith that the Marines or the Afghan soldiers with them are going to stay. They've never even seen either of them or any other foreign force in their town before. And they know the Taliban will be back the first chance they get to exact bloody revenge against anyone who was seen helping the United States.
What's more, there are many other areas in Helmand and the south of Afghanistan that are now under Taliban "influence."
How many people will be able to vote there?
The answer is clearly none. But what this latest U.S. operation has done is take the minds of the Taliban off their plans to disrupt the Afghan presidential election, and focus on their immediate survival.
No one here at Camp Bastion is declaring victory. There are too many old hands in this war now, who know the road is long and aren't even sure what victory here would actually look like anymore.
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