US Marine Corps, Task Force Southwest, 81mm mortar training before deployment to Helmand, Afghanistan, by Sgt Lucas Hopkins (02 March 2017)

US Marines Back in Afghanistan

The U.S. Marine Corps has returned to Helmand, the restive province in southern Afghanistan where it fought years of bloody battles with the Taliban, to help train Afghan forces struggling to contain the insurgency.

Many of the 300 Marines coming to Helmand as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support training mission are veterans of previous tours in the province, where almost 1,000 coalition troops, mostly U.S. and British, were killed fighting the Taliban.

Back in Camp Leatherneck

When they left in 2014, handing over the sprawling desert base they knew as Camp Leatherneck to the Afghan army, the Marines never expected to return. The fact that they are back underlines the problems Afghan forces have faced since being left to fight alone.

Despite a warning from U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis last week that 2017 would be a tough year, though, the tone as the deployment began was positive.

“I was excited to come back,” said Staff Sergeant George Caldwell, who had previously spent eight months in the far south of Helmand that mixed combat operations with training the Afghan border police.

“I have a lot of time invested in Helmand province. We have many, many years of combat operations and we’d hate to see the region become unstable,” he said at the margins of a ceremony marking the Transfer of Authority for the training assignment.

From Intense Fighting to Hard Training

Thousands of Marines served in Helmand over the years between 2009 and 2014 during some of the most intense fighting seen by foreign troops in Afghanistan.

American officers at the ceremony attended by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General John Nicholson, promised continuing commitment to helping Afghan forces, but the Marines are coming back at a difficult moment.

Their mission this time is not to fight but to train and help Afghan forces, although the strong defensive measures around the base underscore the risk they face in Helmand, one of the heartlands of the Taliban insurgency.

Taliban Taking Back Control

The Afghan army is still reeling from a devastating attack in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif this month in which Taliban suicide commandos killed 135 soldiers, according to official figures and double that number by other accounts.

Large stretches of Helmand, source of much of the world’s illegal opium supply, are in the hands of the Taliban insurgents, who have steadily pushed back Afghan forces, who now control less than 60 per cent of the country.

Map showing Helmand province, Afghanistan

Map showing Helmand province, Afghanistan

ANA Corruption

Corruption and poor leadership are still an issue, despite efforts to stamp out problems such as bribery, troops selling weapons and ammunition or non-existent “ghost soldiers” kept on the rolls to allow their pay to be stolen.

In March, a previous commander of the Afghan army 215 Corps in Helmand was arrested, a year after he had been sent to the province to root out fraud and corruption in the unit.

“There’s some of that,” said Captain Zachary Peterson, part of the Army-led Taskforce Forge handing over to the Marines of Taskforce Southwest.

“But you can’t let one bad apple make you be down on the group as a whole, when the majority of these guys are good people and they want to see good things for their country.”

He said Afghan forces had made major improvements in conducting offensive operations against the Taliban, who on Friday announced the start of their annual spring campaign, when warmer weather usually leads to heavier fighting.

“Their attitude and their op tempo right now, all the operations they’re doing, are really encouraging,” he said.

Task Force Southwest Full Mission Rehearsal

Task Force Southwest completed a full mission rehearsal in preparation for the deployment to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Feb. 27 to March 3.

Approximately 300 Marines and Sailors with the unit used the week-long exercise to further refine and sharpen their advisory and combat skills. In theater, the Marines will train, advise and assist the Afghan National Army 215th Corps and 505th Zone National Police.

“The full mission rehearsal is the first chance for us to get together as a Task Force in the field to collectively work on the skills we’re going to need downrange,” said Col. Matthew Reid, the deputy commander of Task Force Southwest. “This is a chance for us to put it all together, to coalesce as a team and get ready to go downrange to do what we need to do in order to be successful.”

The Marines held advisory meetings with Afghan role players, conducted medical drills and a Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel training mission, and executed a live-fire mortar range integrated with both fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.

“We’ve gotten to practice those scenarios, build team unity and standard operating procedures, and we’ve definitely seen improvement over the last couple of days,” said Lt. Col. Scott Welch, the deputy commander for the Afghan National Police training team.

Task Force Southwest composited in December of 2016, and has since trained on all facets of their upcoming deployment, but mostly within their separate sections. The full mission rehearsal, however, brought together the unit’s command element, security force company and advisory teams, which provided a realistic training environment comparable to the circumstances surrounding the current situation in Afghanistan.

“We’ve been able to replicate the conditions we’re going to see in theater to the maximum extent possible,” said Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, the commanding general of Task Force Southwest. “We’ve been able to go through and exercise all the separate missions we’re going to do, but put it together as a team.”

The unit’s largest section by far is its security element, which consists of short and medium-range arms capabilities. While they will not be directly advising the Afghan forces, their role is vital to the unit’s success.

“The security force is responsible for not only the security of [our camps], but also providing security for the advisors, aiding in our mission to train advise and assist our Afghan counterparts,” said Sgt. Daniel Chalmers, a squad leader with Task Force Southwest.

Through the use of role players, the unit has also worked vigorously to adapt an understanding of the Afghan culture. Welch, who deployed as an advisor during both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, believes this understanding will lead to increased rapport and productive relationships.

“Respecting their customs and courtesies, though different from ours, is paramount to us. We want to become part of their team,” said Welch.

“Afghanistan has a different culture. There are cultural nuances. So we train the advisors to understand that because the Afghans have different perspectives and different ways of thinking,” said Turner. “It’s important the advisors understand that [because] it makes them more effective at working with their counterparts.”

Task Force Southwest is scheduled to deploy in the Spring, and will be the largest group of Marines in Afghanistan since combat operations ended in 2014. This time, the Marine Corps’ role is not one specifically of combat, but of positively influencing their Afghan partners to help thwart the presence of terrorist groups in the province.

“We have strong ties there as Marines and we’re going to capitalize on those relationships,” said Reid. “Helmand Province is where we succeeded in the past. I think we can capitalize again on the fact that we’ve been there before and that we can provide them with some type of sustainable, secure environment… We’re going to be successful by making the Afghans successful.”

Thousands of US Troops Still in Afghanistan

Some 8,400 American troops are based in Afghanistan as part of Resolute Support as well as a separate counter-terrorism mission against Islamic State and Al-Qaida, but Nicholson said earlier this year that a few thousand more would been required to end the stalemate with the Taliban.

The Trump administration is conducting a review of U.S. policy for Afghanistan, where American troops have now been stationed for more than 15 years.

While most are no longer usually involved in combat operations, the dangers they still face were underlined last week when two army Rangers were killed in the eastern province of Nangarhar fighting Islamic State militants.

Last month, three U.S. soldiers were wounded in Camp Shorab itself, the network of bases of which the Marines’ Leatherneck facility was once a part, when an Afghan soldier opened fire on them in a so-called “green on blue” incident.

The base is a dusty expanse of barbed wire fences, checkpoints, huts and blast walls with a faint smell of latrines in the air. Movement is restricted and security remains high, placing an additional strain on the troops.

“This is a small, cramped position,” said army Chaplain (Capt.) Sidney Aaron, who helps look after morale and welfare.

“My soldiers and these Marines, they go out every day, they have to be on guard, 24/7, so it is a long time.”

Sources: Voice of America; DVIDS.

Photo: Marines with Task Force Southwest fire an 81mm mortar during a full mission rehearsal at Camp Lejeune, N.C., March 2, 2017. The week-long training event allowed Marines with the unit to enhance their advisory and combat skills in preparation for an upcoming deployment to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Task Force Southwest is comprised of approximately 300 Marines, whose mission will be to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Army 215th Corps and 505th Zone National Police. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Lucas Hopkins)

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