From left, Brig. Gen. John K. Love, Maj. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, Deputy Chief of Staff, Secretary of the navy, the Honorable Ray Mabus, pins the Presidential Unit Citation onto the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade Colors; Sgt. Maj. Ernest K. Ho'opi'i, Sgt. Maj., Marine Corps Installations East; during a ceremony held aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C. on Sept. 14, 2012. (John Althouse/AP)

A brigade of U.S. Marines that evicted Taliban insurgents from a broad swath of southern Afghanistan received the nation’s highest collective military honor at a ceremony here Friday.

Troops of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, who engaged in pitched fighting along the Helmand River Valley, are the first conventional forces in the nearly 11-year-long Afghan war to be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.

The brigade “brought the fight to the heart of the insurgency,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in announcing the award. “You made 58,000 square miles of battle space — that’s 10,000 square miles larger than North Carolina — a more stable and secure place in the world. That’s remarkable. That’s incredible.”

The Presidential Unit Citation recognizes group valor equivalent to individual action that would merit the Navy Cross or the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross.

Under the command of then-Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the brigade conducted the largest
helicopter-borne assault since the Vietnam War in the summer of 2009. The following February, the brigade assaulted the Taliban stronghold of Marja, which led to months of arduous combat. The brigade, which comprised almost 11,000 Marines and sailors, suffered 90 fatalities and hundreds of severe injuries during its year-long deployment.

Although some senior military officers have questioned the decision to send the brigade to Helmand province instead of neighboring Kandahar province, which is more populous and strategically significant, the Marines used their time in Helmand to demonstrate how counterinsurgency tactics — employing military resources to protect civilians from insurgents — could beat back the Taliban.

“The reason you got this award is because you gave all of us hope that the counterinsurgency strategy would work,” Marine Commandant James Amos told a small group of officers from the brigade after the ceremony. “You showed us how it could be done.”

Nicholson, now a major general, noted that the brigade consistently sought to experiment with new ways to improve security, including one of the first large-scale efforts to encourage religious leaders to stand up to the insurgency.

Despite the Marine achievements in Helmand, the counterinsurgency strategy eventually proved to be too costly, troop-intensive and time-consuming to be expanded across every part of Afghanistan that is being contested by the Taliban. The United States and its NATO allies, which have pledged to end their conventional-force combat missions by the end of 2014, are now focusing on training and supporting the Afghan army to lead the fight against insurgents.

It is also not clear whether the security improvements in the brigade’s area of operations will be sustained by the Afghan army and police as the number of Marines in Helmand province shrinks to comply with a force drawdown ordered by President Obama. The province, which once had 20,000 U.S. troops, is slated to have about 6,000 by the end of this month.