Some 13 years after the first Marine deployment to Afghanistan, Marine officials this month identified the last combat unit to leave: 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
In less than a month, the Marine Corps presence in Helmand province, Afghanistan, has dropped from 4,500 to around 4,000, according to official estimates. And that force will shrink even more rapidly in the months ahead as Marines race to send all gear and personnel home by the Dec. 31 deadline.
The drawdown of Marine forces has also brought with it growing pains for the Afghan National Army's young 215th Corps, who will maintain sole responsibility for Afghanistan's southernmost provinces when the U.S. combat mission is ended. When Marine units pulled out of Helmand's embattled Sangin district in early May ahead of the Taliban's fighting season, what followed was a glimpse of the long term and costly struggle the Afghan troops will likely face to maintain control of contested regions.
The New York Times reported in early September that the death toll for Afghan National Security Forces and civilians since the Taliban's offensive in Sangin could be as high as 900, with some Afghan officials worried that the district would fall to insurgents. Marine Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, the commander of coalition forces in Helmand, offered a more hopeful outlook.
"The fighting has been difficult at times, and some checkpoints have exchanged hands several times. However, the Afghan security forces continue to hold all district centers," Yoo told Marine Corps Times via email from Afghanistan. He added that the intensity and force strength of this year's insurgent offensive was not significantly different from historical norms.
"What is noteworthy," he said, "is that last year there was a battalion of Marines to help defeat the offensive. This year, the Afghans are doing it on their own on the ground."
Bringing it all home
While Marines in Helmand have assisted Afghan troops against insurgents in a limited capacity over the summer, sharing intelligence and providing some air-escort support for the 215th Corps' aircraft, Yoo said the fighting has not impacted the pace of equipment retrograde or troop withdrawal.
As of Sept. 1, just under 30,000 pieces of Marine Corps equipment still needed to be moved out of Helmand, Yoo said. More than 32,000 pieces have gone home from Afghanistan since the start of this year. Officials with Marine Corps Installations and Logistics said of the total gear remaining, there are only 6,400 principal end items, or major equipment pieces left, and only about half of those would come back to the States for maintenance and reset.
In mid-August, the Marines decreased their Afghan footprint from three bases to two with the closure of Patrol Base Boldak, a tiny outpost to the south of Regional Command Southwest headquarters at Camp Leatherneck. It took five days to reduce to bare desert a base which may have housed 350 Marines at its peak, said Capt. Jared Reddinger, commander of C company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines — the last unit to inhabit Boldak.
While Camp Leatherneck still needs protection from the south, Reddinger said the tight timeline of the retrograde meant the base had to be closed.
Meanwhile, a flood of Marine units are returning home. The last Osprey squadron to serve in Afghanistan, VMM-261 out of New River, North Carolina, recently ended its Afghanistan mission. That mission extended last fall when Defense Department officials decided to use the tiltrotor aircraft exclusively for long-range medevac operations as force strength attenuated in southern Afghanistan.
Elements of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, have also begun to trickle back to their home station aboard Camp Pendleton, California, as have artillery elements from 5th Battalion, 11th Marines, and air elements from HMLA-467 and HMH-466, the primary light and heavy helicopter squadrons remaining in Helmand.
"We maintain an appropriate force protection posture with the necessary assets to keep our bases safe regardless of the security environment," Yoo said. "We continue to conduct a deliberate and responsible retrograde and withdrawal plan ... in order to conduct a transfer of full security responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces by the end of this year."
For the small contingent of troops remaining on the ground in Helmand, there is good news: The dining facilities at Leatherneck are still serving three hot meals a day — for now.
Yoo said he wouldn't say how long the DFACs would be operating in order to keep the Marines' final departure day unknown to insurgents.
"However," he said, "we will keep the dining facility open as long as possible in order to provide three hot meals a day to our service members and civilian support personnel."
Handing off the fight
For the 215th Corps, the latter part of this year has seen the opening of a new brigade-sized base, Camp Garm Ser, in Helmand's Garmser district. Marine and Navy personnel also oversaw the opening of the region's first surgical trauma center for Afghan forces at Camp Shorabak, the Afghan headquarters adjoining Camp Leatherneck. Yoo said a state-of-the-art hospital for the ANSF in Helmand is under construction.
Camp Shorabak's Regional Corps Battle School, a training hub for the 215th Corps, is now completely Afghan-run, Yoo said, with a shrinking force of U.S. and U.K. advisers observing their progress in a minimized role.
Ahead, the Afghan ministry of defense still must decide how to use the sprawling Leatherneck complex when the Marines withdraw. Yoo said the 215th Corps will use the Bastion airfield to connect with Kabul and support aviation operations. Whether to use all or part of Leatherneck is a strategic decision: The base would require significant manpower from the 215th Corps to maintain and defend it.
In the meantime, U.S. personnel have trained Afghan troops to conduct facilities maintenance including electrical work, plumbing, carpentry, and heating and ventilation.
The final Marine Corps withdrawal may come sooner than the Dec. 31 deadline, but Marine officials will only say that the hand-off ceremony to the Afghan forces is in the works.
"After detailed planning and rehearsal, 215th Corps will assume control as [Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan] forces withdraw," Yoo said. "It will be a professionally conducted relief in place with the Afghans assuming security responsibility for Bastion-Leatherneck-Shorabak."■