KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Frustrated by their decreasing military role in Iraq as they hand over to Iraqi security forces, many U.S. soldiers are itching to join the war in Afghanistan.
When they get there, though, some are shocked by the escalating violence and relatively spartan conditions.
Bloodshed has fallen sharply in Iraq in the last two years, and the U.S. military is drawing down troops and equipment ahead of a full withdrawal by 2012. Many U.S. military resources are being shifted to Afghanistan, where the death toll among U.S.-led NATO forces has leaped in recent months.
With 53 killed up to October 29, last month was the deadliest for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the start of the war against the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies eight years ago.
“I’m looking forward to decisively engaging the enemy and destroying him. Right now the center of focus is in Afghanistan, that’s where we need to be,” said Staff Sergeant Peter Dazo, an artillery man, speaking at a U.S. airbase in Kuwait.
Young, keen and on-message, others waiting for a pre-dawn flight for their first deployment to Afghanistan said they would be glad to finally put their battle skills to use.
U.S. combat troops pulled out of urban centers in Iraq in June under a U.S.-Iraqi security pact, which also calls for a full withdrawal by the end of 2011. Iraqi security forces are taking the lead as U.S. troops spend more time in bases.
“In Afghanistan I will be able to do my job. In Iraq it’s not really an infantryman’s job,” said Corporal Jason Fahrni.
Sectarian carnage unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has abated, but bombings and shootings remain common — twin suicide bombings killed 155 people in Baghdad last week. U.S. deaths, however, fell to record lows in recent months.
The thrill of leaving Iraq for more action in Afghanistan quickly wore off for one U.S. battalion after a string of deaths since they began to arrive in Kandahar in April.
Taskforce THOR, which clears roads of bombs and other explosives, is reeling after the loss of 11 members, and a monument to the dead has already been erected at their newly built headquarters at Kandahar airfield.
“It was good at first, as we were getting to do our job more. But as the missions went on we started to lose people ... people you worked with every day and joked around with are gone,” said Sergeant Marshall Wright.
First Lieutenant Matthew Fitzgibbon said the unit had made a far greater impact in Afghanistan than it ever would have in Iraq, but morale was down.
One of the battalion’s platoons had recently been taken off the front line after four members were killed by a roadside bomb, he said.
“Obviously morale is down. Anyone who isn’t down about losing a colleague needs a bit more time to look at the big picture,” he said.
Facilities at Kandahar airfield — NATO’s main air transport hub in Afghanistan and a garrison for some 20,000 troops and contractors — pale in comparison to most large U.S. bases in Iraq, which resemble small towns.
Dining halls at U.S. bases in Iraq are famed for their premium ice cream and well-stocked dessert bars. There are recreation activities, such as video game and poker tournaments, and large shopping centers.
The more limited facilities in Afghanistan are being further reduced under a plan by U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, leader of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, to improve logistics and reduce distractions to troops.
Once stationed at a large base in Iraq, THOR now spends days at a time at remote frontline outposts in Afghanistan. They built their own headquarters in Kandahar after finding the building assigned to them full of rotting wood and rodents.
“Iraq — all you can eat cheesecake,” said taskforce specialist William Gatlin. “Here, not so much.”
Editing by Michael Christie