The U.S. Marines will deploy a 300-person task force to southwestern Afghanistan this spring to help local security forces beat back Taliban gains in the restive Helmand province.
The deployment will last nine months, marking the first in what's expected to become a series of similar rotations for the Marines, officials said Friday. Security in Helmand, a long-time Taliban stronghold that's home to the abundant poppy crop fueling Afghanistan's lucrative heroin trade, has deteriorated precipitously since U.S. forces largely withdrew from the province in 2014. The Marines say they are preparing to encounter hostile conditions.
The task force will serve in an advise-and-assist role, said Lt. Gen. William Beydler, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command. Task Force Southwest, as it will be known, is in the midst of a five-month training workup. Once in theater, the Marines will work alongside "key leaders" from the Afghan National Army's 215th Corps and the 505th Zone National Police "to further optimize their capabilities in that region," officials said.
"Afghanistan remains a dangerous and dynamic environment," Beydler said. "And our aim, training and advising the Afghan forces, is to preserve and build upon the gains they've made. Marines will face risk in this new assignment."
There are approximately 8,500 U.S. troops assigned to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Most are concentrated at major installations in the capital, Kabul, and at the international coalition's main airfield in Bagram. Their chief focus is supporting the Afghan security forces' campaign to thwart the Taliban. A separate mission is focused on secretive counter-terrorism operations, including efforts to target Islamic State loyalists who've seized territory along the Pakistan border in Nangarhar province.
Task Force Southwest will comprise mostly more-senior military personnel pulled from units across II Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, including from the 6th Marine Regiment, officials said. They will be focused on enhancing the Afghans' ability to gather and interpret battlefield intelligence, and on improving upon their logistical coordination and other areas where key "challenges and capability gaps persist," said Brig. Gen. Roger B. Turner Jr., the task force commander.
"The challenges they have," Turner said, "are really intel operations, integration, logistics, sustainment of their forces, administration and things like that." The Afghans have made considerable progress, he later added, a reality that drove the commander's decision to tap personnel with considerable experience. "It’s not a simplistic mission," Turner said. The Afghans have "really gotten to a point where our level of advising needs to be pretty sophisticated to match where their capabilities are."
Turner is a combat-decorated officer who led the 5th Marine Regiment from 2011-2013, time that included a yearlong combat tour in Helmand province. Previously, as an infantry battalion commander, he led combat forces during two deployments to Iraq's Anbar province.
His Marines are replacing an Army unit, Task Force Forge, which has filled a similar advisory role for much of the last year. It's not immediately clear why the Marine Corps is supplanting the Army for this mission, although the Marines did accumulate deep experience in the region between 2009 and 2014, during what would become the war's most violent period. Regardless, officials are planning to own the role for the foreseeable future.
"We will do this mission as long as we are required," Beydler said.
Turner's task force will be distributed throughout various parts of Helmand, officials said. They declined to identify specific districts. However, one base of operations will be the Marines' former hub in Afghanistan, a sprawling facility known as Camp Leatherneck, where tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel were deployed through the years. The base abuts a coalition airfield.
Lance Cpl. Jedidiah Morgan, Lance Cpl. Michael Pavlik, and Cpl. Patrick McCall take overwatch positions on rooftops, the best way to see over a maze of high compound walls in the Sangin area. Second Squad, Third Platoon of Baker Co., 1st Battalion, 7th Marines operates out of Patrol Base Fulod, in the "Fish Tank" section of Sangin, an area that has been historically dangerous due to it's high walls, and narrow alleys. PB Fulod in Sangin, Helmand on May 1, 2012. (James J. Lee/Marine Corps Times)
The Afghans have seen security erode in several Helmand districts, including Marjah, Sangin and in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. All have experienced resurgent violence as a determined Taliban seeks to reclaim lost ground and once again push out any political and security entities loyal to the central Afghan government.
"We're viewing this as a high-risk mission that really requires training to ensure our Marines are capable of countering the full spectrum of threat," Turner said. "We're not in any way viewing this as a noncombat mission, or something to take lightly. We're following the situation [in Helmand] closely ... to make sure the training and force protection is commensurate with that threat."
Some estimates suggest the Taliban has retaken more than 80 percent of Helmand province, erasing gains that came at great cost — in money spent and in lives lost — to the U.S. and its military forces. Earlier this week, the Taliban launched a large-scale attack on the Sangin district center, with local sources warning of its potential collapse.
It's a major setback for the Afghan government, which is reeling from a bloody fighting season in which Afghan security forces sustained nearly 15,000 casualties during the first eight months of 2016, according to a recent report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a government monitoring agency.
"It is not uncommon for the southern districts of Afghanistan to see elevated Taliban activity during the winter months," Captain Bill Salvin, a spokesman for Operation Resolute Support, told Military Times. "The weather there is more conducive to year-round fighting. The Taliban has engaged Afghan forces in Sangin district, but our Afghan partners maintain control of the district and continue to fend off Taliban advances."
Holding a special place in the annals of Marine Corps history, Sangin claimed the lives of nearly 50 U.S. Marines, 25 of those from 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, a unit known as Darkhorse. Another 100 British troops also lost there lives due to the violence there.
AS AFGHANS REGROUP, TALIBAN WREAKS HAVOC
A tenuous security environment is not unique to Helmand. Violence continues to haunt several regions in Afghanistan. Nine American service members were killed in action there throughout the last year, according to Defense Department statistics. Another 70 were wounded by hostile activity.
For the U.S. and NATO forces deployed to Afghanistan, the challenges are cyclical. While Afghan forces seek to rebuild following an exhausting 2016 fighting season, Taliban militants continue to wage war across the countryside. Today, of Afghanistan's 407 districts across 34 provinces, 258 are under government control, according to the inspector general's report. Thirty-three districts, areas spread across 16 Afghan provinces, are under insurgent control.
Nearly 120 districts remain "contested," the report says.
Nevertheless, senior U.S. officials describe the situation with an air of optimism. "We feel good about the situation right now in Afghanistan with regard to the support we’re providing," Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said this week. "In terms of bolstering the Afghan security forces, improving their fighting capabilities so that ultimately they can secure the country on their own, we see progress there."
However, the Afghans have been plagued by high attrition, raising questions about their ability to survive another brutal fighting season. The Afghan army comprises about 169,000 soldiers, but last year suffered a 33 percent attrition rate — a 7 percent increase from 2015, according to in inspector general.
Afghan forces are spending the winter working to "regenerate capability and capacity," NATO officials say. Their training includes air integration operations to assist Afghan special forces in calling in combat air support.
"Before March of 2016, the Afghan air force had no ground-attack aircraft," the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, told Pentagon reporters last month. "They've added eight aircraft for this and — and have also, more importantly, added about 120 Afghan tactical air controllers. So not only are they adding the attack aircraft, they're adding the capability to control those aircraft on the ground.
"When you look at the amount of the population secured by the government, it equates to roughly two-thirds, about 64 percent," he said. "There's also great confidence expressed in the Afghan security forces. And roughly three-quarters of the population say they have faith and confidence in the Afghan security forces."
Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter: @adegrandpre. Shawn Snow is Military Times' Early Bird editor. On Twitter: