BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – American troops in Afghanistan donned shorts and sneakers Friday to run in memory of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, as they fight a war that was born of that day but now faces waning public support.
About 1,000 service members ran about 5.5 miles at the main U.S. base, both to commemorate the anniversary and remember troops who have died in nearly eight years of fighting.
The U.S. and its allies first invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to oust the Taliban regime for sheltering Al Qaeda leaders who planned the attacks. The Taliban were quickly routed, but the militants regrouped and have mounted an increasingly strong insurgency over the past three years.
Organizers of Friday's race, which also was held at two other bases, called it an act of defiance against insurgents who have killed more American troops this year than in any other since the beginning of the conflict. August was the deadliest month for U.S. troops so far, with 51 killed.
"Our soldiers are running in the heart of Taliban territory, where the attacks on America were planned," a military statement said.
Soldiers in the early morning run at Bagram said their mission has grown beyond those autumn days of 2001 when priority No. 1 was to get Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden.
"It's more about establishing Afghanistan's government and the freedom of the Afghan people," said Army Capt. Jeremy McHugh, 38, of Petersham, Mass. He says he's still fighting terrorism, just very indirectly.
The attacks of eight years ago have faded into the background for many U.S. troops here. It's unclear if bin Laden is even in Afghanistan, and few say they'll be ready to declare "mission accomplished" if he's caught.
As soldiers snacked on oranges and sports drinks after the race, they talked about getting medical supplies out to nearby villages or training Afghan counterparts or improving the government.
A memorial service was planned at Bagram later in the day, timed to coincide with the moment when the first plane hit the World Trade Center in New York.
Many on the U.S. base, including Sgt. Joshua Applegate of Springfield, Miss., cite the Sept. 11 attacks as the reason they signed up for the military or re-enlisted. Applegate was in high school when the planes hit the towers, and enlisted two years later though he said he had wanted to do it right away.
"I like my country too much not to," said Applegate, who arrived in Afghanistan in April. He facilitates transport and other logistics.
President Barack Obama shifted the spotlight away from Iraq this year and ordered a surge in troops to Afghanistan, where the conflict had worsened while money and troops were focused elsewhere.
But as violence and deaths continue and officials suggest even more troops may be needed, opinion polls in the U.S. suggest Americans may be tiring of a conflict that some say is unwinnable and now seems far removed from the effort to find bin Laden.
In mid-July, an AP poll indicated that 53 percent of Americans opposed the Afghanistan war and 44 percent supported it. In August, an ABC News-Washington Post poll found that 51 percent said the war was not worth fighting, while 47 percent said it was worth it.