Democracy Dies in Darkness

Checkpoint

For U.S. troops in Afghanistan, new questions about where to be in combat

February 8, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Marine Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, the former commanding general of Task Force Southwest, is shown here in Afghanistan with his Marines on April 29, 2017. (Photo by Sgt. Lucas Hopkins/ Marine Corps/)

When Marine Brig. Gen. Roger Turner’s task force deployed to Afghanistan’s most violent province last spring, it came with an uncertainty: To what degree would it be necessary to deploy U.S. troops in harm’s way as the military helped the Afghan government beat back the Taliban?

Turner characterized the dispatching of about 300 U.S. troops, primarily Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., to Helmand province ahead of their deployment as a “high-risk mission” where combat was possible. The advisers were initially deployed to advise at the “corps level,” a description the U.S. military uses to describe U.S. service members who coordinate and plan with senior Afghan officers in operations, but don’t accompanying Afghan troops on combat operations.

Related: [Thousands of Marines fought in southern Afghanistan. Now, the service is going back.]

In August, President Trump announced that after months of deliberation, he would not withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and in fact would modestly increase the size of the U.S. military presence and expand what those already deployed could do. That would include allowing U.S. troops to advise Afghan kandaks, a distinction that could put Americans in grave danger more frequently.

That turned out to mostly not be the case. Turner, meeting last week with a small group of reporters at the Pentagon, said his forces saw indirect enemy fire about 20 times over several months, significantly less often than U.S. units deployed to Helmand had experienced in the past. As first reported by Marine Corps Times, none of the Marines in the task force earned the Combat Action Ribbon, a culturally important award in the service that recognizes those “who have actively participated in ground or surface combat,” including facing firefights and roadside bomb explosions.

Turner said it is “too simplistic” to say that the Marines hadn’t been in combat just because nobody earned the ribbon, and that the conversation about it has been frustrating. But he added that in Helmand, he and other commanders didn’t see a need to directly maneuver alongside Afghan troops after Washington added that as a possibility.

“They were doing it themselves, and they were willing to do it,” Turner said of the Afghan troops. “It’s their country, and they were willing and able to take the fight to the enemy. With our ability to enable them, they were ready to go.”

Related: [‘It’s like everyone forgot’: On a familiar battlefield, Marines prepare for their next chapter in the Forever War]

That stands in contrast to what a new conventional Army unit at the center of the administration’s strategy in Afghanistan is training to do when it deploys this spring. The 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, a newly formed unit of about 800 Army advisers with several hundred more soldiers deploying to provide security, has been training for months to advise at the kandak level, and accompany Afghan troops on combat operations.\

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Oct. 7, 2017 marks 16 years since the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Here are key numbers to know about how that conflict has unfolded and how President Trump is changing it. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

“We’ve been able to communicate to our team that although Afghan tools are first, and Afghan solutions are first, a lot of times that trust is built on the front lines, shoulder to shoulder with them,” said Capt. James Gaffney, a team leader in the brigade. “It’s not doing it for them, but demonstrating shared risk.”

As detailed in a Washington Post story today, pre-deployment training has put the U.S. soldiers through scenarios in which both they and the Afghan troops they are advising are notionally ambushed and killed. The training includes responding after suffering a casualty, and calling in medical evacuation.

U.S. commanders are weary of explaining how they plan to use the new Army adviser unit, citing operational security. It also isn’t clear if the next rotation of Marines in Helmand may be more aggressive. Brig. Gen. Benjamin Watson, the new commander of Task Force Southwest, left open the possibility in an interview last month with Task & Purpose.

Turner, asked about the Army advisers’ training, said that he thinks it is probably smart to have the brigade “train to the limits of the way they might be employed.” Then, once they are in Afghanistan, commanders can decide how to use them, he said.

Where that goes now is unclear, but American troops are often inclined to do as much as they can within the directives their senior commanders dictate.

“I believe that me putting myself in the friction point where the fighting is the thickest at the right time can persuade and provide a good example for which the Afghan soldiers can follow,” said Staff Sgt. Ryan Mathes, who served in the elite 75th Ranger Regiment before volunteering to join the adviser brigade. “That’s what I intend to do.”


Dan Lamothe covers he U.S. military and the Pentagon for The Washington Post. He joined the newspaper in 2014. He has covered military operations for more than a decade, embedding with U.S. troops everywhere from the battlefields of Afghanistan to the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean.

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