Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines Regiment patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in 2012. (AFP via Getty)
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Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo (Marine Corps)
CAMP LEATHERNECK, AFGHANISTAN — Helmand province was a Taliban stronghold when U.S. Marines led a surge of U.S. forces into the region in 2010.
Beginning in Marjah, a poppy-growing town in the Helmand River valley that had been controlled by the Taliban, Marines began securing one village after another in tough fighting. At its peak there were about 20,000 Marines in Regional Command Southwest, which includes the province.
Today, about 4,500 American troops remain in the region and Helmand is noticeably less violent than it was about four years ago when the Afghan surge began.
Those changes were highlighted in a brief change-of-command ceremony Wednesday as Maj. Gen. Lee Miller, commander of Regional Command Southwest, turned over authority to his replacement, Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo.
Under leaden skies with a smattering of snow on the ground a small band played and the outgoing headquarters packed up its unit flag for the trip back to the United States. It was an understated ceremony that belied some of the dramatic changes in the region.
Army Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, who head’s the coalition’s joint command headquartered in Kabul and attended the ceremony, said violence in the region has declined 46 percent during the past two years.
Those results were achieved while the number of coalition troops declined and Afghan forces have assumed the lead in the fight against the Taliban.
U.S. forces are no longer engaged in fighting the enemy directly. The mission of the incoming force here is to advise and assist the Afghan security forces, which officers say are growing more effective.
“They’re good warriors,” Miller said in an interview.
He said they still require assistance in building the institutions and systems, such as logistics, that are required for an army to sustain itself in the field. “We need to be there to help them do that,” Miller said.