U.S. Marines officially assumed command Saturday of a mission to support the struggling Afghan army, more than two years after they thought they had left Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand Province for good.
The 300 Marines of Task Force Southwest take over for a U.S. Army contingent as the Taliban insurgency threatens to overwhelm Afghan forces in the area.
About half have previously served tours in the province, which has been the scene of some of the most intense and deadly fighting for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Reuters reported. Thousands of Marines fought in Helmand from 2009 to 2014 as a part of the surge that began under former President Barack Obama.
“It feels like Groundhog Day,” Staff Sgt. Robin Spotts, on his third Helmand deployment, told the Guardian.
A transfer ceremony at Camp Shorab — formerly known as Camp Leatherneck — marked the beginning of a new chapter in the Marines’ effort to rid Helmand of the Taliban, which now has complete or partial control of 12 of the province’s 14 districts. On this deployment, the Marines of Task Force Southwest are in Helmand not primarily to fight, but rather to train and advise Afghan forces under relentless pressure from Taliban fighters.
The insurgency has recently notched several victories in Helmand and other regions of the country. An attack by suicide fighters in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif this month killed at least 135 Afghan soldiers. In Helmand, the Taliban is pushing toward the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, reports the Guardian. (RELATED: Taliban Steadily Reclaims Territory Marines Died To Defend)
Although Task Force Southwest is supposed to play a support role, mission leader Brig. Gen. Roger Turner has said he will not limit his troops to non-combat roles. Marines will follow Afghan army units into the battlefield, which means they could potentially engage in firefights with the Taliban.
Some members of Task Force Southwest are eager to help the Afghan army take back control of Helmand, which has become the heart of the insurgency. Staff Sgt. George Caldwell, who has previously deployed to southern Helmand in a mixed combat and training role, told Reuters that he was “excited” to regain ground lost to the Taliban since 2014.
“I have a lot of time invested in Helmand province,” he said. “We have many, many years of combat operations and we’d hate to see the region become unstable.”
About 8,400 American troops are deployed to Afghanistan as part of Resolute Support and a separate counterterrorism mission against ISIS and Al Qaeda, reports Reuters.
Most are usually not involved in direct combat operations, but the danger is real and constant for those who accompany Afghan units into battle. Two U.S. Army Rangers were killed on Wednesday while assaulting an ISIS stronghold in the eastern province of Nangarhar.
Army Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in February that a “few thousand” more troops are needed to break a “stalemate” in the fighting.
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