Special delivery: Afghanistan

Marines attached to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, NATO International Security Assistance Force, lay down AM2 airfield matting while in Kandahar province in Afghanistan. The matting is essential in the support of aircraft.

Signs that Charleston Air Force Base is gearing up to support a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan are everywhere, with cargo moving in crates or being stored almost anywhere there's space.

In recent weeks, all types of equipment needed to supply troops in the field and their rear-base support units has been shipped east from here, including water purifiers, tent-housing frames, showers, air-conditioners and kitchens.

Another high-profile cargo is a special type of do-it-yourself airfield matting. It comes in the shape of thousands of plank-like panels that, when spread on the ground and assembled like a puzzle, can create a 6,000-foot-long runway in a remote desert almost overnight.

While officials say Iraq is not being ignored, everyone around the base agrees the focus has quickly turned toward fighting the Taliban and a potentially lengthy stay in Afghanistan.

"Eighty percent of the cargo is going to Afghanistan," Lt. Col. Robert Neal Jr., 437th Aerial Port Squadron commander, said Wednesday.

President Barack Obama recently ordered the U.S. war effort to refocus, dispatching 17,000 additional soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan to join the 38,000 American troops already in the country.

Charleston's role in that shift is similar to running a priority mail service. Items that can be moved at a slower pace are flown out of other North American bases, while equipment that comes with an "immediacy" label flies east on one of the base's 56 C-17 cargo planes.

One of the higher priority items has been the airfield planks, considered a harbinger of a larger military presence since Afghanistan is landlocked and air traffic and weaponry are a priority. By one estimate, as much as 32 acres of the easy-to-assemble planks are being shipped from here, the modern equivalent of the quick airfield construction that was born in World War II and perfected through Vietnam.

The 12-foot-long sheets, made of aluminum alloy, are assembled in a fashion similar to the tongue-and-groove method of modern flooring. They can greatly speed up airfield construction because it means bypassing more time-consuming methods of concrete construction.

Other signs of the Afghanistan shift are airmen talking about small-arms and chemical-weapons training. Some already are schooled in predominant Afghan languages, Dari and Pashtu.

Air Force Maj. Jason Engle, an operations officer, said the fact that the base is emphasizing Afghanistan is no big deal. Service members, he said, realize that getting stationed overseas comes with the territory in joining the military.

"I think they realize they are going to be deployed."