CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan– The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff got a close look at conditions on the ground in western Afghanistan today during visits with a provincial reconstruction team and the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines. The visit gave Navy Adm. Mike Mullen insight into the obstacles and opportunities in the region in ways that briefings or conversations with officials never can.

It was Mullen’s second visit to the region. He was here earlier this year when Marines first moved in to the region.

The chairman flew aboard an Air Force C-130 from Kabul to a dirt airstrip next to the provincial reconstruction team base in Farah. The province is primarily agricultural, with opium poppies its primary cash crop. Some 70 percent of the population lives below the Afghan poverty line.

The PRT here is a mix of Army and Navy personnel, with the sailors from all over the service and carrying a mélange of specialties. Most of the soldiers are civil affairs specialists or members of an infantry unit that provides force protection. State Department, Department of Agriculture and Agency for International Development personnel round out the team.

Mullen held an all-hands call with the base personnel, assigned in a region that’s a hotbed of Taliban insurgents and banditry.

“I’m incredibly proud of the way you are accomplishing your mission,” Mullen told the soldiers and sailors during his all-hands call at the base. “What you are doing is important to our country and ultimately the citizens of this country.” The chairman thanked the servicemembers for their and their families’ sacrifices.

Mullen met with provincial leaders at the base and spoke of the needs of the citizens of the region. Roads, schools, agricultural advice, wells and basic services are in short supply, and provincial leaders look to the Americans for help.

The team leaders explained the transportation difficulties inherent in operations around the region. A portion of the country’s Ring Road links Farah with Kandahar. Dirt roads – some little more than goat trails — link the towns.

The chairman got a bird’s eye view of transportation challenges as he flew to the next stop of his tour at Forward Operating Base Baqwa aboard a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. During the flight, Mullen viewed a landscape not unlike that of Mars. Knife-edge ridges separated valleys with bone-dry wadis at the bottom. Not a single tree or blade of grass marked the route, a testament to the region’s 13th year of drought.

The Baqwa base is manned by Kilo Company 3-8 Marines. “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here,” said one Marine at the base.

Marines patrol the valley and the small villages, Marine 2nd Lt. Kenneth McKenzie, the platoon commander, told Mullen. The young lieutenant was frank and forthright about the job the Marines are doing under tough conditions. Mullen had a tray ration lunch with the Marines at the base and discussed the mission and their contributions to it.

The chairman then choppered to another forward operating base in Delaram. The Marines share that base with an Afghan National Army battalion, called a kandak, and anticipate more kandaks arriving as the base is expanded.

The Marines at the base are training and mentoring the Afghan National Police and the Afghan Uniformed Police.

This base is next to the Ring Road, and supplying it is a bit easier than at Baqwa, the Marines explained.

After leaving Delaram, Mullen flew to the reinforced battalion headquarters on this British base, where the Marines are tenants. The chairman held an all-hands call with the personnel and received a briefing on the lay down of forces in the region and the threats. He then returned to Kabul via C-130 aircraft.

Mullen said he welcomed the visits to get the sights, sounds and smells of life on the sharp end of the spear. At every stop, he spoke with the troops and asked them what they need and what he can do to help their missions. If he didn’t have an answer, the chairman took e-mail addresses so he could write back personally.

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