The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I see my old battalion assigned to Helmand again and I wonder: What is the point?

A US Marine with 1/3 Marines Weapons company carries an M240 machine gun over his shoulder during a patrol over farmland in the northeast of Marjah on February 14, 2010. (PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The Pentagon recently announced that an undisclosed number of U.S. soldiers will be sent to Helmand province in southern Afghanistan in a “force protection” role. It’s a minor story, perhaps, considering the overall number of troops deployed to Afghanistan is not expected to increase beyond 9,800 and the troops will replace a unit already there. But it’s a shift at the tail end of a war most Americans do not even remember is happening anymore. The war is over, President Barack Obama said. Who cares about a lousy transfer of what’s been reported to be about 500 U.S. troops?

The soldiers in question are with the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division, which is the unit I served with during two tours in Afghanistan. And they are heading towards one of the deadliest battlefields NATO endured in its never-ending mission in Afghanistan. U.S. Marines and the British military, in particular, paid a terrible price against intransigent locals and Taliban fighting hard to hold onto what they consider their homeland.

[Pentagon will boost the number of troops in southern Afghanistan]

Nearly a thousand coalition troops lost their lives in Helmand, including hundreds of U.S. Marines. Now, after declaring a specious victory and leaving Helmand to the tender mercies of a corrupt government and the Taliban, the Pentagon is worried about the province, after pulling out and declaring victory. What kind of farce is this supposed to be? And remember, we’re not entirely sure just how many troops are heading there, or exactly what they’ll be doing. “Force protection” covers so much ground that it could mean practically anything.

In a teleconference earlier this month from Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, the deputy chief of staff for communications for the Operation Resolute mission, was vague in describing the mission.

“I’m not going to get into the details of the disposition of the particular units that are here, but I will say it is a normally scheduled unit rotation, and part of that unit will be operating in Helmand, and we are increasing the number of advisers that we have in Helmand province,” Shoffner said. “We’re also deploying soldiers, we’re positioning soldiers to provide force protection. And I’ll go as far as that.”

Obama was partly elected on the idea that he was going to end the wars that President Bush pushed us into. He partially succeeded. He accomplished most of his troop withdrawals, but now there has been an explosive revival of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It does not matter how much time passes, we still seem to be stuck in 2004. And now the Pentagon “surging” a few hundred troops back into Helmand province may be the greatest joke of all.

[For Afghanistan veterans, the war will never end]

We might as well tattoo “We are here for appearances” on their foreheads. After 14 years, thousands of lives, and untold billions of dollars, now a battalion that had been deployed five times before and lost over a hundred lives is being held out as a fig leaf for a failed war. Soldiers from 10th Mountain have been in Afghanistan since the early days of Operation Anaconda in 2002. And it seems they will be there until the end, whenever that might be.

I served with 2-87 in the godforsaken mountains along the Pakistan border in Bermel in 2006 and again in 2009 to the volatile province of Wardak. Now I see my old battalion assigned to Helmand and wonder what is the point. What will a few hundred troops do now that ten of thousands of troops over many years could not before?

The Afghan National Army has been essentially rolled over by the Taliban in Helmand, among many  other areas. The Afghan National Police are a grim, widely corrupt militia that includes child soldiers.

The town of Marjah in Helmand, where U.S. Marines paid a heavy price taking it from the Taliban following the troop surge, is now 90 percent controlled by the Taliban. Just last month, an American soldier was killed and two others wounded alongside heavy Afghan casualties there.

More than a hundred British soldiers lost their lives trying to secure the district of Sangin in Helmand. This endeavor they largely succeeded, but that is almost all gone now. The Afghan government controls a few government buildings and a couple small army outposts. The Taliban patrol the town’s center and own the countryside. On Feb. 6, the Afghan soldiers defending the government buildings suffered 9 dead, 7 wounded, and three captured. The day before, it was 4 dead and 7 wounded.

[Why the end of Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan matters]

It is little more than a lopsided siege, and a single battalion of U.S. troops in a “non-combat” role are not going to reverse the collapse that is coming. By 2010 there were nearly 20,000 Marines in Helmand alongside thousands of British and other coalition troops, and it still took years to even moderately pacify the province.

A gradual disintegration is spreading across Afghanistan. According to the United Nations, 2015 saw over 11,000 civilian dead or wounded, the heaviest casualties suffered since the war began in 2001. Improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers, and hit-and-run attacks on soft targets are relatively cheap and easy for the Taliban, and they take a heavy toll on civilians simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Afghan government forces are not exactly noted for their precision firepower either. As in every war, it is the innocent who suffer the most.

U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, the outgoing commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, testified to Congress on Feb. 4 that without changes “2016 is at risk of being no better, and possibly worse, than 2015.” He has recommended wider rules of engagement and more embedding with Afghan forces. These recommendations could have come from any testimony from the last 14 years.

[A Taliban fighter survived the attack on Afghanistan’s Camp Bastion. Will he get the death penalty?]

It is clear that beyond some residual forces and already appropriated reconstruction and aid funds, the United States has essentially washed its hands of its Afghan venture. Troops, money, and occasionally blood, will continue to be spilled into Afghanistan for years to come, perhaps for decades, but it is difficult to see any scenario beyond a bloody, worsening deadlock that will only get worse by the year.

“Now more than ever,” Campbell said, “the United States should not waver on Afghanistan.”

We have already wavered, and 2-87’s deployment to Helmand is merely the window dressing trying to cover the mistakes of the past.

Stephen Carlson served two tours in Afghanistan as an infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division. He lives in Austin, Texas.