US Marines Return to Helmand

The U.S. Marine Corps has returned to Helmand, the restive province in southern Afghanistan where it fought years of bloody battles with the Taliban, to help train Afghan forces struggling to contain the insurgency.

Many of the 300 Marines coming to Helmand as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support training mission are veterans of previous tours in the province, where almost 1,000 coalition troops, mostly U.S. and British, were killed fighting the Taliban.

Marines face tough year

When they left in 2014, handing over the sprawling desert base they knew as Camp Leatherneck to the Afghan army, the Marines never expected to return. The fact that they are back underlines the problems Afghan forces have faced since being left to fight alone.

Despite a warning from U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis last week that 2017 would be a tough year, though, the tone as the deployment began was positive.

“I was excited to come back,” said Staff Sergeant George Caldwell, who had previously spent eight months in the far south of Helmand that mixed combat operations with training the Afghan border police.

“I have a lot of time invested in Helmand province. We have many, many years of combat operations and we’d hate to see the region become unstable,” he said at the margins of a ceremony marking the Transfer of Authority for the training assignment.

Intense fighting

Thousands of Marines served in Helmand over the years between 2009 and 2014 during some of the most intense fighting seen by foreign troops in Afghanistan.

American officers at the ceremony attended by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson promised continuing commitment to helping Afghan forces but the Marines are coming back at a difficult moment.

Their mission this time is not to fight but to train and help Afghan forces, although the strong defensive measures around the base underscore the risk they face in Helmand, one of the heartlands of the Taliban insurgency.

List of challenges

The Afghan army is still reeling from a devastating attack in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif this month in which Taliban suicide commandos killed 135 soldiers, according to official figures and double that number by other accounts.

Large stretches of Helmand, source of much of the world’s illegal opium supply, are in the hands of the Taliban insurgents, who have steadily pushed back Afghan forces that now control less than 60 percent of the country.

Corruption and poor leadership are still an issue, despite efforts to stamp out problems such as bribery, troops selling weapons and ammunition or non-existent “ghost soldiers” kept on the rolls to allow their pay to be stolen.

In March, a previous commander of the Afghan army 215 Corps in Helmand was arrested, a year after he had been sent to the province to root out fraud and corruption in the unit.

“There’s some of that,” said Captain Zachary Peterson, part of the Army-led Taskforce Forge handing over to the Marines of Taskforce Southwest.

“But you can’t let one bad apple make you be down on the group as a whole, when the majority of these guys are good people and they want to see good things for their country.”

He said Afghan forces had made major improvements in conducting offensive operations against the Taliban, who on Friday announced the start of their annual spring campaign, when warmer weather usually leads to heavier fighting.

“Their attitude and their op tempo right now, all the operations they’re doing, are really encouraging,” he said.

More than 8,000 US troops

Some 8,400 American troops are based in Afghanistan as part of Resolute Support as well as a separate counterterrorism mission against Islamic State and Al-Qaida, but Nicholson said earlier this year a few thousand more would been required to end the stalemate with the Taliban.

The Trump administration is conducting a review of U.S. policy for Afghanistan, where American troops have now been stationed for more than 15 years.

While most are no longer usually involved in combat operations, the dangers they still face were underlined last week when two army Rangers were killed in the eastern province of Nangarhar fighting Islamic State militants.

Last month, three U.S. soldiers were wounded in Camp Shorab itself, the network of bases of which the Marines’ Leatherneck facility was once a part, when an Afghan soldier opened fire on them in a so-called “green on blue” incident.

The base is a dusty expanse of barbed wire fences, checkpoints, huts and blast walls with a faint smell of latrines in the air. Movement is restricted and security remains high, placing an additional strain on the troops.

“This is a small, cramped position,” said army Chaplain (Capt.) Sidney Aaron, who helps look after morale and welfare.

“My soldiers and these Marines, they go out every day, they have to be on guard, 24/7, so it is a long time.”

U.S. Marines stand at attention during a transfer of authority ceremony at Shorab camp, in Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 29, 2017.

'It feels like Groundhog Day': US Marines return to Helmand province

When thousands of US Marines flooded into Helmand eight years ago, they demonstrated Barack Obama’s resolve to quash the Taliban once and for all and leave a peaceful province for Afghans to take over.

Two years after the US flag was lowered, however, the Marines are back, in a sign that things turned out rather differently.

“It feels like Groundhog Day,” said Staff Sergeant Robin Spotts, on his third Helmand deployment. About half of the 300 Marines who have arrived over the past two weeks have served in Helmand before. Even the flag raised in a ceremony on Saturday was the same, having been kept at the Pentagon since October 2014.

The situation now is worse than when they left. Areas where the US military had outposts and walked the bazaars are now inaccessible even for Afghan forces. Of the province’s 14 districts, only two are firmly under government control.

In Marjah, seized in one of the largest operations of the war in 2010, the district centre receives provisions from the air. Sangin, the deadliest district in the country for both US Marines and British troops, fell to the Taliban again in March, though US forces downplayed the moment.

On first sight, Helmand looks different to the returning Marines. Camps Leatherneck and Bastion, which sprawl over 10 square miles, once housed 40,000 foreign troops including 20,000 Marines and as many as 7,000 British soldiers. Now named Shorab, the windswept base is a ghost town.

The Marines’ role will be different, too. Brig Gen Roger B Turner, who leads the mission, has said he will not limit his troops to non-combat roles, but they will primarily train and advise Afghan forces.

“If I do get to leave the wire, I get to do what I love to do,” said Corporal Allan Oshea, 23. “Every Marine has a hope for that.” From a military family, Oshea said he felt honoured to be in Helmand. “Do I want to go out and do the whole war fighter thing? Yes, I do. But I’m going to do what I’m told.”

Staff Sergeant George Caldwell, who previously spent eight months in the far south of Helmand that mixed combat operations with training the Afghan border police, said: “I was excited to come back. I have a lot of time invested in Helmand province. We have many, many years of combat operations and we’d hate to see the region become unstable.”

Foreign troops in Afghanistan still end up in the line of fire. On Thursday, two US soldiers were killed and a third wounded by suspected friendly fire during an operation against Isis in Nangarhar where the US dropped its largest non-nuclear weapon, the Moab, on 13 April.

Helmand has been a hellish place, made worse by sweltering summer heat and dust storms. The Taliban are stronger in Helmand than anywhere else. About 350 US Marines have been killed in the province.

The Taliban are now encroaching on the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, and have periodically managed to block the main highway to Kandahar.

Brig Gen Douglas A Sims, who commanded the outgoing army unit, described staving off the Taliban as “a knife fight”. The Afghan army’s 215th Corps in Helmand, with whom the US marines will be working, struggles not only with record-high casualties but deep seated corruption that has gutted finances and morale.

Though reforms have been slow, the Afghan government plans to review security and political leadership in all 34 provinces. Following a Taliban assault on an army base in Mazar-i Sharif last week in which at least 140 soldiers were killed, the army chief and defence minister have been replaced with younger officials. Turner pinned his hope on a new generation of leaders.

“These guys are younger, more steeped in the the current fight and the current training, and they are more efficient in the battle space,” he said.

As advisers, the Marines will follow the Afghans into the battlefield. The day before they assumed control of the US mission in Helmand, the Taliban announced its annual fighting season. Helmand is poised to be the main battleground.

Spotts wasn’t surprised to be back for another fighting season: “I feel like an enduring dedication to this place was always needed. I think they just need to make it a priority and stick to it.”

Marines Return to Helmand Province for a Job They Thought Was Done

CAMP SHORAB, Afghanistan — Before the American flag was lowered, folded and retired and the last of the Marines left the Afghan province of Helmand in 2014, their commander offered some optimistic parting words.

The commander, Brig. Gen. Daniel D. Yoo, said the Marines had done their job, one of the largest undertakings in the force’s history. At the peak of the war in southern Afghanistan, more than 20,000 Marines flooded the Taliban stronghold, pushing the insurgents out of several districts in Helmand. In their place, the Marines helped Afghan forces establish the combination of security and essential services that became known as a “government in a box.”

Afghan forces would now be responsible for security in Helmand, General Yoo said, “and I am confident in their abilities to continue to succeed.”

It did not quite turn out that way.

Since 2014, resurgent Taliban militants have gained territory, and the Afghan security forces have lost men at such high rates that entire units have needed to be replenished. The local “government in a box” arrangements have mostly crumbled.

So on Saturday, the Marines returned to Helmand with a force of 300; roughly half of them had previously served in the province. The same flag that was lowered in 2014 and then stored at the Pentagon office of the commandant of the Marine Corps was raised again at the 6,500-acre Camp Shorab, which the Marines will be sharing with the Afghan Army’s struggling 215th Maiwand Corps.

The Marines’ new mission is a difficult one: to assist and train Afghan soldiers and police to defend the provincial capital. The Taliban control seven of the province’s 14 districts and are encroaching on five others. The government fully controls just two, local officials say.

“It’s kind of disheartening — the sacrifices you and your Marines made, and to see it go back to where it was,” said Gunnery Sgt. Ronnie C. Mills, of Kentucky, who is on his second tour of Helmand after serving three tours in Iraq.

During his previous stint in Helmand, Sergeant Mills served in Marja, which was the scene of one of the biggest battles in 2010 after President Barack Obama ordered a troop surge to break the Taliban’s momentum. By the end of his tour in July 2011, Sergeant Mills said, the Marja district was “safe enough to walk down the road, to go to the bazaars.”

Now, the Afghan troops who remain in Marja can be supplied only by air, because the government is struggling to clear and secure the roads leading to the district.

Nevertheless, Sergeant Mills said he was hopeful that his team, drawing on their experiences in Helmand, could help the Afghan forces. The Afghans have the “heart and ability,” he said, but need to learn how to fight as cohesive units.

“It will make a huge impact,” he said of the arrival of the 300 Marines. “Everybody here has sacrificed and been here before, and it means a lot to them to see this succeed.”

Helmand played a major role in the recent history of the Marine Corps, and it was once so saturated with Marines that some called it “Marinistan.”

The Marine Corps’ involvement in the province began in 2001, when Jim Mattis, who was then a brigadier general and is now secretary of defense, led about 1,000 Marines into the desert to establish one of the first American bases in the country after the invasion ordered by President George W. Bush.

But only after Mr. Obama ordered the troop surge in 2009 did Marines pour into the province. In the absence of an Afghan security force, the Marines pushed out the Taliban and created opportunities for Afghans to govern their districts. In the process, about 350 Marines were killed in Helmand and thousands were wounded.

“Pretty much my generation, when I came into the Marine Corps, all of the people above me had been here, and those were the people I looked up to,” said Cpl. Allan Oshea, of Alabama, who is on his first tour of the province. “When certain places fell again, it brought tears to people that had been here.”

The challenge facing the 300 Marines as they try to prepare the Afghan forces for the fight ahead was clear during the transfer of authority ceremony. Brig. Gen. Douglas A. Sims, the commander of the departing Army unit that the Marines are replacing, described the difficulties his soldiers had encountered since last fall.

“We spent the first few months in a knife fight with the Taliban, as the enemy pressed hard for Lashkar Gah,” General Sims said, referring to the provincial capital. “The governor and I spoke late into the evening, and early in the morning, with the sound of small arms and RPGs” — rocket-propelled grenades — “clearly audible across the river from his residence.”

He said he had seen more progress since the Afghan Army replaced a corps commander who is in jail now for corruption.

But the biggest challenge for the Marines will be to help Afghan forces regain territory and hold it. Abdul Jabar Qahraman, President Ashraf Ghani’s former envoy in charge of operations in Helmand, said that for a long time the people of Helmand had sided with the Afghan forces, but that the government had repeatedly failed the civilian population and “left them handcuffed for the brutal enemy.” He said he expected that the Afghan forces would struggle to regain the population’s trust.

“There is no contact between the security forces and the local people,” Mr. Qahraman said. “People do not believe the promises of security forces, and the security forces always remain inside their bases, they don’t get out.”

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