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‘Band-Aid on a bullet wound’: What America’s new war looks like in Afghanistan’s most violent province

Soldiers secure a landing zone near Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan on Oct 4. 2016. (Photo by Thomas Gibbons-Neff/ The Washington Post)

CAMP SHORAB, Afghanistan — Earlier this month, a small district center just south of this desolate U.S. base came under attack from Taliban militants who threatened to overrun the local police. Frantic calls arrived from Afghan officials: They needed air support.

In a U.S. command center, a steel hut of plywood walls and a dozen video monitors piping in drone feeds and satellite imagery, soldiers began directing aircraft to the area. Redhanded 53, the call sign for a gun-metal-gray twin-engine propeller plane loaded with sensors, arrived overhead just in time to watch a truck loaded with explosives slam into the main police station.

[U.S. widens war in Afghanistan, authorizes new action against Taliban]

Within an hour, the Americans had marshaled an armed Predator drone in the skies over the battle in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. But the commanding officer, Col. D.A. Sims, and his troops were unable to determine whether the men with guns on the ground were Taliban or Afghan soldiers. So Sims directed the Predator to fire one of its two hellfire missiles into an adjacent field — a $70,000 dollar warning shot just to let the militants know that the Americans had arrived.

The Oct. 3 battle is a microcosm of what is happening across Afghanistan: Taliban fighters that show enormous resilience despite being on the wrong side of a 15-year, $800 billion war; an Afghan army that still struggles with leadership, equipment, tactics and, in some units, an unwillingness to fight; and the world’s most sophisticated military reduced at times to pounding fields with its feared armaments.

The future of the U.S. role in Afghanistan after a decade and a half of war has received little attention in the presidential campaign and debates. But the next administration will be bequeathed a strategy that is doing “just enough to lose slowly,” said Douglas Ollivant, a senior national-security-studies fellow at the New America Foundation.

Considered the birthplace of the Taliban — and the hub of the Afghanistan’s opium trade — Helmand is a hard-fought battlefield that runs deep with symbolism and blood. But despite a 2010 surge into the province by U.S. forces — the biggest military operation of the Afghanistan war — military reports now estimate that 85 percent of Helmand is controlled by the Taliban.

“We’re like a Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” one U.S. adviser said of the U.S. presence.

‘Holding the Helmand Line’

It is a scene that has played out continuously since the Obama administration surged 30,000 troops into Afghanistan in 2009: U.S. forces torn between doing the Afghans’ job for them, or watching from the sidelines as they attempt to build a capable military from scratch.

“The Army’s bringing security, and I’ll give them a D-minus, and they have a D-minus because of the [airstrikes] we’re bringing,” said Army Col. Jeremy McGuire, the U.S. officer in charge of advising the Afghan military in Helmand. “It’s a passing grade.”

Not their job: Turning Afghanistan’s special forces into regular troops

The balance between assistance and dependence, though, has proved elusive, as advisers such as McGuire say that aiding the Afghans with airstrikes — once available only for the self-defense of U.S. troops and Special Operations missions — has injected a new type of reliance on the U.S.-led coalition.

U.S. air support was a temporary measure approved by President Obama in June. On paper, it grants U.S. forces the ability to strike targets that will deliver “strategic effects” on the battlefield. In reality, the new strikes in Helmand were used to keep Afghan forces on “life support,” McGuire said.

The airstrikes have also inadvertently encouraged Afghan security forces to continue relying on checkpoints rather than becoming more mobile. Their static approach damages their ability to counter the Taliban, according to the Americans. Frequently, U.S. strikes are used to keep a checkpoint from falling or after they do fall, to help the Afghans retake them.

Despite a renewed dependency on U.S. forces, Afghan casualties are at unsustainable levels across the country. U.S. military documents show that in one week in August alone, more than 100 Afghan forces were killed, and nearly 300 were injured. The casualties, along with inconsistent leadership, has led, in some areas, to dangerously low morale in both the Afghan army and various branches of the police forces. The result is the almost daily abandonment of police and army checkpoints that are looted by the Taliban. Of the 540 checkpoints in Helmand, Afghan police have abandoned 112 of them, and the army has lost 30, McGuire said.

The Afghans “are too spread out across too many checkpoints, but that’s the story in all of Afghanistan,” McGuire said. “The reason we’re probably staying alive is because we are keeping district centers and provincial capitals from falling, but that’s about all the assets we really have.”

In 2011, at the war’s peak, the United States had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. Since then, it has slowly reduced its numbers. The remaining 9,800 U.S. forces are spread across the country alongside their counterparts in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The United States is scheduled in 2017 to decrease the number of its troops to 8,400 — unless the next president decides otherwise.

As U.S. forces draw down in 2017, the number of advisers here will increase from 25 to more than 100. The soldiers who do security for Camp Shorab will be replaced by civilian contractors, and in the spring, the U.S. Army’s mission in Helmand will rotate out to be replaced by a familiar presence in the province: the U.S. Marine Corps.

“The Afghans ask every day for airstrikes,” McGuire said. “It kind of becomes old, especially when you can’t provide [them] five airstrikes. You can only provide one, and that’s if the [Taliban] is outside with an AK-47 shooting at someone.”

[U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan was an ‘exceptional Green Beret’]

As the Afghans hemorrhage casualties, lose ground and try to provide security for a handful of districts, the Americans in Helmand have become interlocutors for most of the parties involved — including the Army, the provincial governor and Helmand’s police chief, all while striking the Taliban and helping prepare Afghan units for another year of fighting.

In Helmand, according to U.S. military officials, the situation could be better today had it not been for a decision at the end of 2014 to leave the Afghan Army unit covering the province — the 215th Corps — without any U.S. or NATO advisers. The decision, deemed “an acceptable risk” by the U.S. military, allowed what gains had been made by the unit since 2009 — with a massive amount of U.S. support — to quickly disappear. According to one Corps adviser, the 215th suffered more than half of the Afghan security forces’ casualties in Afghanistan for all of 2015. Their casualties this year, though, are down 50 percent.

In response to the 215th’s rapid degradation in the winter of 2015, the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan rushed in what is called an “expeditionary advising package,” a term of art for advisers needed to stave off disaster in some of Afghanistan’s more embattled regions.

What started in February 2015 as seven advisers and four interpreters living alongside the 215th Corps’ leadership in the derelict remains of Helmand’s largest base has subsequently turned into what is now known as Task Force Forge with roughly 550 soldiers, civilians and contractors. Its motto: “Holding the Helmand Line.”

‘They like to know there are Americans there’

Camp Shorab, located in Helmand’s desert and built among the ruins of two previous installations there, has grown into a base complete with a mess hall, showers, WiFi, a small post exchange and an Afghan-run shop that sells souvenirs and haircuts.

Even with Forge’s presence here and nearby Task Force Lethal — an American unit made up of an infantry battalion, medical-evacuation helicopters and gunships, stationed at Camp Dwyer — the 215th throughout this year has been able to conduct only small-scale operations to clear parts of Helmand’s main north-to-south road, Route 601.

Earlier in the year, the 215th had to give up two districts — Musa Qala and Nawzad — to the Taliban to start rotating units off the front lines for a much-needed rest and refit. In recent weeks, Afghan forces also pulled out of the southern town of Khanashin to provide more security in Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah. The move was a welcome one by the U.S. forces because directing air cover to the southern district was becoming increasingly difficult.

In Marjah — one of the cities that had some of the heaviest fighting when the U.S. Marine Corps was in Helmand in 2010 — Afghan Army units have been forced to huddle in the town’s center. Roads in and out of Marjah are impassible because of roadside bombs, forcing the unit’s commander there to request that his forces be airlifted out, leaving behind their equipment, including U.S.-supplied Humvees.

Lashkar Gah has also been under attack since late August, with reports of Taliban militants getting closer to the city limits each day. Earlier this week, a bomb-laden vehicle exploded in the city, forcing the Afghans to rush in 300 commandos to bolster its defenses.

Currently, U.S. forces have an expeditionary advising package at the city’s adjacent airfield, and though that contingent was supposed to withdraw earlier this month, it will probably stay in place for the foreseeable future. Consisting of roughly 50 soldiers from Task Force Forge and a small contingent of advisers, the group is a “show of force” against the Taliban and a morale booster for the city’s residents.

“They like to know there are Americans there,” one soldier said. “And they know Americans will defend their own.”

Yet for the nearly constant fighting across Helmand, the war can seem like a distant one at Camp Shorab.

“The only thing we see of Afghanistan is what’s on these screens and outside that door,” Task Force Forge’s assistant operations chief, Capt. Chris Cummings, said, gesturing toward the entrance to his command center.

[As U.S. air war over Afghanistan shrinks, a tug-of-war for Afghan aircraft]

The soldiers here — including elements of the first and second squadrons of the Army’s 3rd Cavalry Regiment, based out of Fort Hood, Tex., and some German soldiers — spend their days helping refuel aircraft, providing security for the advisers at the camp and standing through eight-hour posts in Shorab’s machine-gun emplacements.

The nearby airfield, controlled by the Afghans, has to be secured every time a flight comes in, so the soldiers rush out in pickups and Land Rovers to ensure the planes’ passengers get off safely. The sentry positions, stocked with junior soldiers — some of whom had to look up Helmand province on the Internet before deploying — are the only evidence that Shorab is in a combat zone. The last time the base received any indirect fire was when another Army unit was standing up Shorab in the spring.

Although the routine on the ground for the Americans is a mixture of security operations and training the Afghans, what happens in the sky is more complicated. With troop numbers a fraction of the war’s peak, getting aircraft over Helmand is a daily scheduling dilemma.

Blocks of the day can be covered by myriad aircraft, some armed, others not. And while most of the aircraft are used to look for the Taliban, they also are employed to find Afghan security forces as their commanders are often unreliable at reporting where exactly they are located.

By nightfall during the Oct. 3 battle, the Afghan army had secured much of the district center, called Nawa-i-Barakzayi. It had required American air power. After the warning shot into the field, Sims used the second hellfire missile on the drone to hit a vehicle surrounded by Taliban. F-16 jets then killed at least two fighters with guided 2.75-inch rockets that hit their targets as they ran down a goat path. Apache gunships also arrived to rake a handful of more militants with their 30 mm cannons.

The Afghan commander eventually reported that he had lost 15 of his men and that seven were wounded.

“We killed 12, and the Afghans lost 15,” one American officer said. “Does that count as a loss? Because it’s certainly not a win.”

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