Marines with 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment and the Afghan National Army provide cover taking enemy sniper fire during a security patrol in November 2010 in Sangin, Afghanistan. The Marines departed their last two forward operating bases in the Sangin late Sunday night, bringing one of the most costly and combat-intensive chapters of the Corps' work in the country to a close. (Cpl. David R. Hernandez/Marine Corps)
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SANGIN, AFGHANISTAN — The Marines departed their last two forward operating bases in the Sangin district of Helmand province, Afghanistan late Sunday night, bringing one of the most costly and combat-intensive chapters of the Corps’ work in the country to a close.
The nearly 300 Marines remaining in Sangin convoyed back to Camp Leatherneck under the protection of the 2nd and 3rd Brigade of the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps, which led route clearance operations and provided safe passage over the six-hour journey.
Sangin is perhaps best known for the “Dark Horse” deployment in late 2010 and 2011, in which 25 troops from 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines were killed in intense fighting during a single seven-month tour.
Marine leaders would later hail the work of 3/5 and the units that followed in driving the insurgents away from Sangin’s population centers, doing so at great cost. In total, roughly 50 Marines lost their lives in combat here, leading some to dub it the ‘Fallujah of Afghanistan,’ recalling the Marines bloodiest battle in the Iraq War, 2004’s Operation Al Fajr, or Fallujah II.
“We smacked [the Taliban] pretty hard all summer, and we continued to punch them in the throat,” the then-commanding officer of 1st battalion, 7th Marines, Lt. Col. David Bradney, said of the unit’s 2012 deployment to the region.
The final bases standing in Sangin—Forward Operating Base Sabit Qadam and FOB Nolay to its south—were all but empty by the time the troops departed May 4th. At Sabit Qadam, where a contingent from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines maintained a security presence as the last infantry unit in the region, the final months in Sangin were quiet, a stark comparison to previous years when the sound of machine gun fire woke troops in the mornings. At FOB Nolay, a small Security Forces Adviser Assistance Team taught the 2nd Brigade computer skills and sat in on battle briefs, maintaining an “advise minimize” role designed to promote the Afghan Army’s independence.
The Marines’ departure from the north of Helmand province, a region that remains one of the greatest hotbeds of insurgent activity in Afghanistan, marks a turning point in the drawdown of the war, as well as a public act of faith in the ability of the Afghan Army to maintain its own security in the region.
The test now begins for the Afghan troops in the region, who Marines described as strong and willing fighters, but weaker on the logistical and administrative elements of war-fighting, including centralized communication with Kabul, the equipment maintenance pipeline, and air support for medical evacuations.
On the day leading up to the two-day pullout from the region, Marine and Afghan officials embarked on something of a goodwill tour, stopping over at Nolay as well as FOB Ouellette and Checkpoint Yakchal, two Afghan-run bases within the region.
At Oulette and Yakchal, commanders of corresponding ANA elements paraded in front of their troops, who stood crisply at attention.
Brig. Gen. Mohammed Nasim, commander of the 3rd Brigade, gave his troops a message of encouragement mixed with realism.
With the departure of the Marines, he said, “I’m 100 percent confident that our security situation is going to get worse; but it’s going to get better.”
Regional Command Southwest commander Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, who addressed Marines from the advising team at Nolay, said leaving before the start of the summer fighting season, as the poppy harvest was ending, would give the Afghan soldiers the opportunity to prove themselves.
“No one knows what the summer fighting season holds; no one knows what it’s going to be like as we lift off. But I think most of you know, working with the Afghans, the institution…is going to evolve. It’s going to evolve into what works best for the Afghans,” Yoo said. “…You should be proud of what you’ve done right now. You all will be the last Marines out of Sangin; it’s going to be historic.”