WASHINGTON — U.S. troops are draining out of southwest Afghanistan, while those set to remain are quickly shifting toward training Afghan security forces, Marine Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus, commander of Regional Command-Southwest, said Wednesday.
About half of the Marines who were scheduled to leave Helmand province in the second phase of surge recovery -- which will reduce overall U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan to 68,000 -- are gone, he said.
Gurganus, speaking by video link from Camp Leatherneck in Helmand, declined to specify how many Marines would remain in Helmand. The Marine’s pre-surge presence there of about 8,000 grew to about 21,000 in early 2011.
But he predicted that Afghan security forces will be able to maintain security as the Marines draw down.
“It looks like we’re making an exodus of a lot of Marines out of this province, but at the same time you have to take a look at how the capabilities and how the number of the Afghan security forces has developed,” Gurganus said.
Before the surge, only one brigade of the Afghan army existed in Helmand, but two more have been established and a fourth is taking form. Only one battalion is fully independent, but several are able to operate with only sparing help from NATO advisors.
Although the Marines remain in combat, particularly in the northern reaches of Helmand where pockets of Taliban resistance remain, the drawdown is reshaping the mission to one focused on increasingly sophisticated training, he said.
“We’re starting to hand over some of the training responsibilities” to indigenous troops skilled enough to train their countrymen, he said. “Training the trainers is really becoming a large part of our focus now.”