Screaming Eagles expect Afghan fight to go on

Fort Campbell, Tennessee-Kentucky border

Here in the eyrie of the Screaming Eagles, it is business as usual. There's no feeling we are on the cusp of an announcement that will bring America's longest war to an end.

Six in the morning, it is already sunny and warm. It will soon feel hot to the recruits lined up and ready to be put through their paces. Some say this training programme is the toughest 10 days in the army.

Someone remarks: "This is the face of Obama's surge."

The Screaming Eagles were among the first of the 30,000 troops to go to Afghanistan, and among the last too. For the moment, they are at home.

The 101st Airborne school instructors bark "push-ups", "mountain climb", "jumping jacks". Here the reply is not "yessir" but "air assault". As they are ordered to run to some task, these warriors mutter their mantra: "Air assault, air assault, air assault!"

Image copyright AP
Image caption The 101st Airborne, or Screaming Eagles, is a US Army division trained for air assault operations

It is all about obedience. Of course, these soldiers will do what their commander-in-chief tells them in tonight's speech. So will their generals. But the Pentagon has been arguing hard that President Barack Obama's surge should not turn too fast into Obama's pull-out.

I sense that is the mood of many soldiers, too. They feel that the gains in Afghanistan have been painfully won and they shouldn't be abandoned.

Standing in the early morning sunshine, they sing the song of the 101st: "We have a rendezvous with destiny! We're the soldiers of the 101st! We'll fight till the battle's won!"

But the soldiers don't decide when the battle is won. Indeed, from the Pentagon to the lowest ranks, few have a clear sense of what victory in Afghanistan would look like. But they know it is not what they see on the ground.

'Here to stay'

Image caption Many on the base believe the battle is far from over in Afghanistan

In a barbershop called Stud Cuts, just off the base, a young man is having his head shaved. He returned from his first tour of Afghanistan in the spring.

He tells me that he thinks the troops should stay until the Afghan people can do the job on their own. I ask him if that point has been reached. "It hasn't," he says.

The shop's owner, Nancy Wild-Hatton, set up the shop when her husband, a veteran of the wars in Korea and Iraq, retired. She thinks the battle is far from over.

We will hear a lot in the coming days about whether the pull-out is too quick or too slow. But it is worth remembering that we are only talking about the extra 30,000 troops Mr Obama has sent. David Cameron has said the UK's combat mission will end in 2014. But few think all American troops will come home.

"This is their job and this is what they are trained for. But no one actually thought 10 years ago, especially the younger generation, that this would be happening," Nancy says.

"But it is real - the war is here to stay," she adds.

The president may suggest tonight that the mission in Afghanistan, to degrade al-Qaeda, has been achieved or is within sight.

But I don't think many of the Screaming Eagles think their fighting days are done.