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Huge U.S. camp arises in Afghan Desert of Death

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A huge U.S. military camp is taking shape in the baking heat of southern Afghanistan for thousands of extra U.S. troops charged with defeating a resurgent Taliban.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Camp Leatherneck, with concrete blast walls and semi-cylinder sand-colored tents, on Thursday as he surveyed preparations for what will be the biggest wave yet in a year that is seeing U.S. troop numbers doubled.

The camp is being constructed in Helmand province next to a British base, Camp Bastion, as Marines and other forces dramatically expand their presence in the most violent area of Afghanistan and heartland of the Taliban movement.

Construction workers clambered on the wooden frame of a new headquarters building as Gates spoke at the camp, where the majority of more than 8,000 marines now flowing into southern Afghanistan are expected be based.

“This place was desert at the end of January. I mean: nothing, said Navy Captain Jeff Borowy,” the top U.S. military engineer in southern Afghanistan.

“Now you’ve got a 443-acre secure facility,” he told reporters traveling with Gates.

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Miles of sand walls topped with coils of barbed wire line the roads at the camp, linked to its British neighbor by a street nicknamed Atlantic Way.

If placed end to end in the United States, the sand walls at Leatherneck and eight other sites being built for the troop influx in southern Afghanistan would stretch for a distance of 175 km (110 miles).

The marines at Camp Leatherneck are also building a giant parking area for helicopters and airplanes by laying down a mat of metal alloy on the desert floor. With a length of 4,860 feet a width of 318 feet, the mat will be the second largest of its kind in the world and the biggest in a combat zone, said Marine Lieutenant Colonel David Jones, commander of the Marine Wing Support Squadron 371, based in Yuma, Arizona.

The new bases are a tangible sign of the increased resources devoted to Afghanistan by U.S. President Barack Obama, who accused his predecessor George W. Bush of neglecting the war in Afghanistan to focus on the conflict in Iraq, which Obama opposed.

Even before he completed a review of Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy, Obama ordered 17,000 extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan, including the 12,000 Marines.

“We are now resourcing our counterinsurgency appropriately,” said U.S. Army Brigadier General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in southern Afghanistan.

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“Our allies have done the heavy lifting for us in the southern region for a long time,” he added. “The Brits, the Canadians, the Dutch have taken a lot of casualties.”

Getting supplies to the remote desert -- named the Desert of Death by local tribesmen because of its extreme summer heat and desolation -- and building the camps in time for the influx of troops has posed challenges, Borowy said. In one innovative attempt to deal with the conditions, marines bagged up recycled water from camp showers and kitchens and used it to prepare sand for the aircraft parking area.

“We’re in the middle of the desert so getting water’s pretty interesting,” Borowy said.

Editing by Peter Graff