The Marines’ new mission is a difficult one: to assist and train Afghan soldiers and police to defend the provincial capital. The Taliban control seven of the province’s 14 districts and are encroaching on five others. The government fully controls just two, local officials say.
“It’s kind of disheartening — the sacrifices you and your Marines made, and to see it go back to where it was,” said Gunnery Sgt. Ronnie C. Mills, of Kentucky, who is on his second tour of Helmand after serving three tours in Iraq.
During his previous stint in Helmand, Sergeant Mills served in Marja, which was the scene of one of the biggest battles in 2010 after President Barack Obama ordered a troop surge to break the Taliban’s momentum. By the end of his tour in July 2011, Sergeant Mills said, the Marja district was “safe enough to walk down the road, to go to the bazaars.”
Now, the Afghan troops who remain in Marja can be supplied only by air, because the government is struggling to clear and secure the roads leading to the district.
Credit Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Nevertheless, Sergeant Mills said he was hopeful that his team, drawing on their experiences in Helmand, could help the Afghan forces. The Afghans have the “heart and ability,” he said, but need to learn how to fight as cohesive units.
“It will make a huge impact,” he said of the arrival of the 300 Marines. “Everybody here has sacrificed and been here before, and it means a lot to them to see this succeed.”
Helmand played a major role in the recent history of the Marine Corps, and it was once so saturated with Marines that some called it “Marinistan.”
The Marine Corps’ involvement in the province began in 2001, when Jim Mattis, who was then a brigadier general and is now secretary of defense, led about 1,000 Marines into the desert to establish one of the first American bases in the country after the invasion ordered by President George W. Bush.
But only after Mr. Obama ordered the troop surge in 2009 did Marines pour into the province. In the absence of an Afghan security force, the Marines pushed out the Taliban and created opportunities for Afghans to govern their districts. In the process, about 350 Marines were killed in Helmand and thousands were wounded.
“Pretty much my generation, when I came into the Marine Corps, all of the people above me had been here, and those were the people I looked up to,” said Cpl. Allan Oshea, of Alabama, who is on his first tour of the province. “When certain places fell again, it brought tears to people that had been here.”
The challenge facing the 300 Marines as they try to prepare the Afghan forces for the fight ahead was clear during the transfer of authority ceremony. Brig. Gen. Douglas A. Sims, the commander of the departing Army unit that the Marines are replacing, described the difficulties his soldiers had encountered since last fall.
“We spent the first few months in a knife fight with the Taliban, as the enemy pressed hard for Lashkar Gah,” General Sims said, referring to the provincial capital. “The governor and I spoke late into the evening, and early in the morning, with the sound of small arms and RPGs” — rocket-propelled grenades — “clearly audible across the river from his residence.”
He said he had seen more progress since the Afghan Army replaced a corps commander who is in jail now for corruption.
But the biggest challenge for the Marines will be to help Afghan forces regain territory and hold it. Abdul Jabar Qahraman, President Ashraf Ghani’s former envoy in charge of operations in Helmand, said that for a long time the people of Helmand had sided with the Afghan forces, but that the government had repeatedly failed the civilian population and “left them handcuffed for the brutal enemy.” He said he expected that the Afghan forces would struggle to regain the population’s trust.
“There is no contact between the security forces and the local people,” Mr. Qahraman said. “People do not believe the promises of security forces, and the security forces always remain inside their bases, they don’t get out.”
Source: New York Times