The Marine Corps will send a new task force of military advisers to southern Afghanistan’s restive Helmand province this spring, returning to a region where tens of thousands of Marines fought during the Obama administration and hundreds were killed.
About 300 Marines with a unit called Task Force Southwest will deploy, advising the Afghan army’s 215th Corps and Afghan national police with the 505th Zone. The forces will work in part from a large Afghan installation known during earlier Marine operations as Camp Leatherneck, but will be based in other locations and could face combat, senior Marine officers said Friday.
“We’re viewing this as a high-risk mission that really requires training that is going to ensure that our Marines are capable of countering a full-spectrum threat,” said Brig. Gen. Roger B. Turner Jr., who will lead the mission. “We’re not in any way viewing this as a noncombat mission or anything to take lightly.”
Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, asked the Marines to replace a similarly sized Army unit called Task Force Forge as it rotates home, Turner said. Marines were pulled from Helmand in October 2014 as part of President Obama’s planned withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan, but Afghan forces have struggled mightily there to maintain security against a resilient Taliban.
Turner said the Marines who will deploy are a seasoned, senior force, about half of whom have deployed to Helmand at least once before. The senior ranks of those involved reflect the mission, which primarily calls for advising senior Afghan army and police officials.
“We had to pull very senior Marines in all functional areas to match up with their counterparts and really provide a level of expertise,” Turner said. “Because the Afghans have made some good progress on a lot of these areas. . . . It’s not a simplistic mission. They’ve really gotten to a point where our level of advising needs to be pretty sophisticated to match where their capabilities are.”
Marine officials began preparing for the deployment last fall, with Turner and others visiting Afghanistan in October. The Washington Post reported a Marine deployment to Helmand was likely then, but the service did not confirm it until Friday.
The task force’s headquarters will be formed primarily from members of 6th Marine Regiment at Camp Lejeune, N.C., with other advisers coming from across the service to fill specific needs. Senior Marine officials did not say why the service will take over the mission in Helmand, but it is expected that there could be several rotations of Marine task forces there in coming years.
“We will do this mission as long as we are required,” said Lt. Gen. William D. Beydler the commander of Marine Forces Central Command. “We are preparing for that now.”
Marines were among the first combat forces in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Several infantry units were deployed there through 2006, but the service pulled nearly all of its forces out then as the Iraq War dominated resources and attention in the Pentagon.
By 2008, Marine combat troops were back in Afghanistan. Two Marine infantry units arrived in Helmand province, joining British forces in an increasingly violent area. Obama dramatically expanded the amount of Marines there with a decision in late 2009 as part of a broader effort to surge forces into the country and provide stability. The number of Marines in Helmand grew then from about 11,000 to more than 21,000 by the following summer.
Hundreds of Marines were killed in dusty districts like Marja and Sangin, where poppy plants and improvised bombs both dominated the countryside. The service began removing Marines from the region at Obama’s direction in 2011, as the United States increasingly shifted responsibility for security to the Afghan forces they trained. In October 2014, the Marines left Helmand entirely, turning over Camp Leatherneck to the Afghans.
Despite that history, Beydler said Friday that he does not see any symbolism in Marines returning to Helmand now.
“This was a mission that came up, and we were ready to assist with it,” he said. “We’ll continue to work very closely with our Army counterparts, who continue to do missions just like this.”
Task Force Forge, the existing Army unit, includes an advising element and about 200 soldiers who provide base security. It grew out of a temporary effort to fortify Afghan forces in February 2015 as they struggled to stop Taliban gains across the province. The main portion of the force is at Camp Shorab, a small outpost the overlooks the old, tattered remains of Camp Leatherneck.
Another 50 soldiers were posted in the fall in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, providing security for the city’s airfield and training Afghan police with the help of National Guard soldiers. The U.S. base there was supposed to be a temporary measure after coalition troops were rushed to the area in August as Taliban fighters closed in on the capital, but as of last month were still stationed there.
U.S. military officials have not said whether they anticipate that the overall number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will change. There were 8,400 American troops deployed there at the end of the year, but that number could change after Donald Trump takes over as president.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to this report.
This story was originally published at 3:36 p.m. and republished with additional details.