The comments come as the Trump administration weighs adding several thousand U.S. troops across Afghanistan to the 8,400 present to boost the abilities of Afghan security forces, which have suffered thousands of fatalities in each of the past few years. President Trump is expected to make a decision on the plan this month, U.S. officials said.
Thousands of Marines fought in southern Afghanistan. Now, the service is going back.
Turner’s unit, known as Task Force Southwest, numbers about 300 service members and replaced an Army unit named Task Force Forge on April 29. The new mission returns Marines to a part of Afghanistan where more than 20,000 were based in 2010 and 2011 at the height of a troop surge that included more than 100,000 U.S. troops across the country.
Helmand province has long been considered Afghanistan’s most violent province and was the site of hundreds of Marine deaths between 2008 and 2014. Security across Helmand has continued to deteriorate on the whole since the Marines left — a point illustrated recently in March, when Afghan soldiers in Helmand’s hotly contested Sangin district moved their base of operations out of the district’s center after months of conflict with Taliban fighters.
The Marine task force’s headquarters is at Camp Shorab, an Afghan base that was once the site of a sprawling Marine installation known as Camp Leatherneck. Thousands of Marines worked from there as combat troops fanned out across Helmand province in small formations, patrolling on a daily basis.
Turner, speaking from his headquarters Friday, said that none of his troops have seen any combat in their first few weeks deployed, but they are traveling from Camp Shorab regularly. Task force advisers also are based in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, and have already visited the headquarters of each brigade of Afghan troops with which the unit partnered.
“We’re still seeing a lot of the same activity that we were seeing years ago from the Taliban. They are still scattering IEDs everywhere,” the general said, referring to improvised explosive devices. “They still kind of indiscriminately target people. They arrest people, they put them in jails, and they extort their families and they extort the farmers for their poppy production and tax them. . . . It’s more of the same.”
The task force assists the Afghan army’s 215th Corps and Afghan police from the 505th Zone, which combine to provide security in Helmand. U.S. military officials say the advising comes at the “corps level,” meaning it focuses primarily on advising upper echelons of Afghan leaders in the region. The Trump administration and the Afghan government are mulling the placement of more U.S. advisers alongside Afghan officers who lead smaller battalion-size formations.
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Turner said the Marines returned to Helmand to find that some of the same Afghan military and police officials they worked with during the surge, which occurred from late 2009 to late 2014, are still influential. Significant territory in Helmand province was lost to the Taliban in 2016, but Turner said that his advisers have found that past work the U.S. military put into training Afghan forces has not been lost.
“I think maybe that’s a narrative that’s out there,” he said. “That these forces have been completely degradated, and that’s just not true. Some of their combat capability might be degraded, but everything is still there and if some of these issues are fixed, they can be back up to where they were in 2012, ’13, ’14.”
Turner said that he has found that there are places where Afghan brigades are already capable and that adding U.S. advisers to the mix actually would be “step backwards.” In other places, he said, it could be helpful. He cited issues such as paying soldiers and maintaining vehicles, both of which require coordination with the central government.
“It’s really about understanding what tasks are coming down the Afghan chain,” he said. “What are they being tasked to do by the [Interior Ministry] or [Defense Ministry] and the president of Afghanistan, what is their capability and capacity to accomplish those missions, and how can we support them in that?”