Roughly 300 Marines are en route to Afghanistan to help Afghan troops stop the Taliban from swallowing more of the hard-fought territory for which so many Marines have bled and died, Marine Corps Times has learned.
The deployment of Marines from the II Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, will be the largest Marine deployment to Afghanistan since 2014, when the U.S. military's combat mission known as Operation Enduring Freedom officially ended.
By the end of April, the Marines will be in Helmand province as Task Force Southwest, replacing the Army's Task Force Forge. During their nine months in Helmand, the Marines will train the Afghan National Army's 215th Corps and the 505th Zone National Police in marksmanship, indirect fire and small-unit tactics and other skills, Marine Corps officials said.
Helmand province is becoming increasingly dangerous for U.S. troops. In March, three American soldiers were shot at an Afghan military base in an apparent insider attack and in February, a Special Forces soldier was severely wounded in Sangin.
"Make no mistake, though we are no longer in a combat role in Afghanistan, it is still a combat environment," Col. Matthew Reid, deputy task force commander, said in January. "As Marines, we train and deploy with a combat mindset."
The Marines are returning to Afghanistan at a time when security is the worst it has been since the Taliban fell in 2001, said Peter Bergen, a military analyst and vice president of the New America think tank.
"That's based on the assessment by U.S. military commanders that the Taliban control or contest a third of the population, which is about 10 million people," Bergen told Marine Corps Times.
But unlike the Iraqi army in 2014, Afghan troops and police are fighting the insurgents, as evidenced by their soaring casualty rates, Bergen said. The Afghan troops in Helmand will definitely benefit from the Marines' advise-and-assist mission.
To counter the Taliban's momentum on the battlefield, the U.S. should make clear that its commitment to Afghanistan is open-ended instead of setting arbitrary dates to withdraw U.S. troops, he said.
"I think that was one of the problems the Obama administration had: Announcing withdrawals that came and went and really made no sense from any kind of point of view," Bergen said. "They tended to undercut the government. They also, obviously, were really helpful to the morale of the Taliban."
Since most U.S. troops left Afghanistan three years ago, the Taliban have captured much of southern Afghanistan, including Sangin, where nearly 50 Marines have died in fighting through the years.
Most of the gains that Marines achieved in southern Afghanistan from 2009 to 2014 have been either reversed or have not been built upon by Afghan security forces, said Caitlin Forrest, an Afghanistan expert with the Institute for the Study of War.
Having taken Sangin, the Taliban can now launch offensives against strategic cities such as Kandahar, Lashkar Gah and Tirin Kot, Forrest said.
Given the current strength of Afghan security forces and the level of U.S. support, an outright military defeat of the Taliban is unlikely, she said. The Taliban are also unlikely to negotiate for a political solution as long as they have the upper hand.
"They're winning the war," Forrest said. "They're winning actual terrain and population control. They have no incentive to actually go to the table, especially as they are getting additional support from other malign regional actors, such as Russia and Iran."