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

In Marine Brig. Gen. Roger B. Turner Jr.’s office on this small, dusty base, there is a leather couch, a map of Helmand province and a white board marked with half a dozen goals. One of them reads: “Get thru fighting season.”

That aim — survival — demonstrates how modest U.S. ambitions in Afghanistan have become.

In 2011, when Turner was last in Afghanistan and in charge of thousands of Marines spread across a constellation of outposts in this province, the fighting season was almost distinct, lasting the summer and early fall months as Taliban militants spent revenue from the spring’s poppy harvest on ammunition. Now Turner is the first to admit that the fighting season never really ends, and the small group of 300 Marines here is trying to help the Afghan army hold a fraction of the territory U.S. troops controlled six years ago.

Turner’s unit, called Task Force Southwest, based out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., is the first Marine deployment to Helmand since 2014. His base is wedged between the headquarters for the Afghan army unit responsible for the province — the 215th Corps — and the derelict remains of Camp Leatherneck, the sprawling installation that was once home to thousands of Marines at the height of the war and may now be reopened. A third of Turner’s troops have been to Helmand before, and many of them wear bracelets commemorating their dead friends, steel reminders of the 349 Marines who died in the surrounding countryside.

Flying over Afghanistan with Task Force Southwest (Video: Thomas Gibbons-Neff/The Washington Post)

Task Force Southwest represents what could be the next chapter of the United States’ longest war, which President Trump vowed in a speech Monday to continue fighting. The Marine unit doesn’t have a combat mission — like most U.S. troops in Afghanistan since 2014 — but it’s quietly moving toward a more aggressive, hands-on effort to train and advise Afghan troops, including having Marines get closer to the front lines.

“The stronger the Afghan security forces become, the less we will have to do,” Trump said in his speech outlining his administration’s policy on Afghanistan. “Afghans will secure and build their own nation, and define their own future. We want them to succeed.”

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Trump promised Monday that U.S. troops “will fight to win,” and leaders such as Turner believe the Marines are trying a different approach.

“We can at least see a path forward,” Turner said, adding that the Army unit that had preceded his Marines had controlled the “hemorrhaging” in the province after the 215th Corps suffered record-high casualties in 2015 and lost two districts to the Taliban.

To some of the Marines, though, optimism, no matter how cautious, rings hollow after nearly 16 years of war and new approaches that sound a lot like the old ones.

“You know, it’s like everyone forgot,” said one Marine, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue frankly. “Like someone hit the reset button and now we’re out here again saying, ‘We can do this, we can win this thing.’”

The Marines were sent to Helmand in the spring, not knowing how, or whether, the strategy might change.

The uncertainty made Gen. Robert Neller, the top Marine Corps officer, hesitant to send Marines to Helmand again after he was asked by the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan last fall, according to U.S. military officials familiar with the deliberations. Before Task Force Southwest deployed in April, Neller told the 300 Marines that part of their mission, along with assisting the Afghans, was to “not get blown up.” When Neller visited Helmand in July, and was asked by Marines what they were fighting to achieve, he was blunt that no victory was in sight.

“I can’t guarantee your kids won’t be here in 20 years with another old guy standing in front of them,” he said, according to multiple Marines at the meeting.

The situation in Helmand deteriorated rapidly after the United States withdrew in 2014 as part of the Obama administration’s drawdown, leaving the 215th Corps with no advisers and air support, and a false sense of confidence that they could fight the Taliban by themselves.

Three years later, the 215th has a new commander, and U.S. and Afghan officials are confident that he can keep the Taliban from overrunning the provincial capital and motivate the ranks under him.

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Maj. Gen Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai, stocky and with a thick mustache, is considered a rising star in the Afghan military. His predecessor, Maj. Gen. M. Moein Faqir, was arrested earlier this year on corruption charges, including making his troops pay for their food.

“The new corps commander is a warfighter, he wants to take the fight to the enemy,” said Col.  Matthew S. Reid, the deputy commander for Task Force Southwest. “It’s not all rosy, there’s clearly work to do. … They have got a lot of work to do in their basic institutional fixes — logistics, personnel, pay. The same problems they had in 2010 and 2011, they’ve kind of come back.

The Marines, drawn to Ahmadzai’s aggressiveness, have helped the Afghan commander plan and carry out operations designed to take pressure off the provincial capital and relieve some of the 215th corps’ most beleaguered troops. The missions — called expeditionary advisory packages — allow the Marines to travel with Ahmadzai close to the front, providing him with air support and reconnaissance drones to help his troops advance.

“I have not seen such support from any other unit,” Ahmadzai said of the Marines.

The U.S.-backed operations have opened up some roads leading into Marjah, a town the Marines fought hard for in 2010, and they have also allowed the Afghans to retake a district that the Taliban has held for more than a year.

But despite some progress, the Afghans still fight — for the most part — from checkpoints, leaving them vulnerable to attack and making them difficult to monitor as the locations change hands frequently. The Marines have helped the Afghans set up a system to keep track of the more than 500 fixed positions throughout the province. In a special coordination cell, Maj. Paul Rivera has taught Afghan soldiers and police to plot their positions on Google Earth, and update them daily.

Air support has long been an issue in the province since the 2014 drawdown, and finite resources — including helicopter gunships and reconnaissance drones — need to be tightly scheduled to ensure there is constant coverage. The Afghan air force, still in its infancy, is helping, although the Afghan helicopters and attack planes are usually used only for pre-planned missions. Capt. Brian Hubert, a Marine officer who helps staff the command center at Camp Shorab, said the Afghans ask — often via cellphone — for some sort of air support once a day.

Without Marines in the field to help with targeting, mistakes can happen. Last month, an airstrike directed by the Marines hit a cluster of Afghan local police in the Gereshk district. According to Marines who were in the command center, Turner studied the screen for several minutes — watching what he thought were Taliban, armed and dressed in civilian clothes move around — before authorizing the strike. The Marines, after consulting with Afghans on the ground, were under the impression that no government security forces were in the area. The strike killed about a dozen of the police, including a father and his two sons. The Marines gave out condolence payments to the families, a familiar act during the last time they were deployed to the province.

“Look at Iraq, where you have guys calling for [airstrikes] with an iPad and radios and here it’s an illiterate Afghan who can’t read a map with a cellphone,” one Marine said of the difficulty of coordinating strikes with the Afghans.

To rectify gaps in air coverage, the Marines are looking at putting guided rocket artillery back in the province. With about a 40-mile range and an ability to be fired quickly and in bad weather, the rockets would free up the F-16s flying out of Bagram airbase near Kabul.

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Under the watch of a pair of armed Marines near Camp Shorab, Staff Sgt. George Caldwell trained six Afghan soldiers last week on how to set up a 60mm mortar, a small piece of mobile artillery that needs to be assembled and sighted in before it can be fired. The hope is that the Afghans — after instruction from Caldwell — will then go back to their unit and train their comrades on how to use the weapon.

It’s a familiar event for Caldwell, who spent a number of deployments in Iraq and was last in Afghanistan in 2011. The U.S. military has been training the Afghans in earnest since 2007 with only incremental payoff. Of the 60 students Caldwell teaches, 20 were instructed by Marines the last time they were in Helmand.

As part of their training, Caldwell runs them through “gun drills,” pitting two teams against each other as they race to set up the gun.

One of the Afghan teams quickly assembles the mortar. Caldwell inspects and moves to the other group, which is fumbling with the weapon’s bipod.

“The biggest thing is not doing it for them, and not to interject too much,” Caldwell said. “We only kind of push the hand in the right direction; it’s up to them go forward with it. If we do it for them, we’ll be here forever.”

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