Marines with Security Force Assistance Advisor Team 2-215 visit an Afghan National Army outpost near Forward Operating Base Robinson on Feb. 24. (Cpl. Joshua Young/Marine Corps)
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The upcoming Afghan presidential election will be a “defining moment” for Afghan National Security Forces and the Marines advising them, said the senior U.S. adviser to the commander of Afghanistan’s 215th Corps said.
In an interview with Marine Corps Times, Marine Col. Michael Langley said Marines no longer accompany Afghan troops on patrols, as they did just a year ago, and the U.S. advisory force to the 215th Corps may shrink to fewer than 100 personnel by this summer if the Afghan Army continues to prove itself.
Langley, the senior adviser to the 215th Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Sayed Malook, said about 40 Marines comprise the advisory team for the 215th headquarters element, while an equal complement of Marines advises each of the unit’s special kandaks, or battalions, including its engineer, signal and mobile strike force kandaks.
But on April 5, the date of the much-anticipated Afghan presidential election, no Marines will be posting security at polling places, despite open threats of election-day attacks and disruption from the Taliban. All the operational work will be in the hands of the ANA, aided by planning and strategy assistance from U.S. troops.
“From our standpoint as advisers, we’ve done advise and assist in the planning phases, whether planning for shaping operations, or all the way through distribution of ballots to election-day security tasks and then retrieval,” Langley said. “So we’ve helped them plan and forecast and anticipate where friction points are going to be ... we’ve planned with them side-by-side, but they know that they are in the lead. They are in the lead to execute.”
While election-day attacks may take place in more remote precincts, Langley said he is confident that aggressive military patrolling and an information campaign blasted out on Afghan airwaves would counter Taliban propaganda and keep the day, for the most part, stable and secure.
Reports from the battlefield toward the end of the fighting season late last fall indicated that Afghan forces were struggling as coalition troops assumed a diminished role. Afghan troop casualties spiked to a 12-year high, indicating a surge of Taliban aggression. To safeguard morale as tallies rose, the Afghan government discontinued its practice of reporting actual casualty totals, The Wall Street Journal reported.
But Langley is confident about ANSF capabilities this spring.
“For the most part, the insurgents are not doing the straightforward attacking or trying to take district centers, if you will,” Langley said. “Because the ANSF here in Helmand and Nimruz [provinces] have been very proactive in getting out there, in doing aggressive patrolling, the insurgents are not as strong.”
While Langley acknowledges that the 215th Corps continues to take casualties, he said the greatest threat now comes from improvised explosive devices, rather than direct firefights with insurgents. The Marines emphasized aggressive and constant patrolling to the Afghans, he said, to keep insurgents off-balance and minimize their available time to plant roadside bombs.
But, he said, “in their engagements [with insurgents], they’re not losing.”
Where the Afghan forces continue to struggle, he said, is in casualty evacuation operations. With just two Mi-17 helicopters (soon to become four) and a scarcity of trained Afghan flight crews, the ANA continues to lean on Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261, a V-22 Osprey squadron out of Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., to support these operations.
Also lacking for the ANSF are sophisticated counter-IED measures and military intelligence and surveillance, skills that require advanced training and development.
“Intelligence and surveillance, those are things that will come with time as they train up their ranks within their special kandaks,” he said. “Those are going to be the defining things from Resolute Support that will probably be encapsulated into that package.”
The Marine Corps role in that post-2014 Afghanistan mission remains less definite. While Regional Command Southwest, encapsulating Helmand and Nimroz provinces, will eventually be downsized to a train-advise-assist command, Langley said the only timeline the Marines are looking at now is the end of the year — the planned close of combat operations in Afghanistan. Marines, he said, view themselves as being in the fourth quarter of the conflict and are focused on highlighting the greatest remaining needs to shape the Resolute Support follow-on mission.
“We have a lot of definitive decision points between now and the fighting season that will tell where the Afghans are, and then we make the hard decisions on where we can pare down,” he said. “And every day the Afghans are showing that, in a particular area, they have mastered it. That gives us a signal that we can draw down even more. We’re being tailored every day as they get better at developing their fighting force.”