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Marines deploy to Helmand as war in Afghanistan winds down

Lt. General John Toolan, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, addresses his men before they depart from Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 13, 2014. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force will depart for duty in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Like tens of thousands of Marines who went before them, the Marines and sailors of I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) have prepared for their deployment to Afghanistan by studying everything from marksmanship to Afghan culture.

But this deployment will be different.

This unit will not be patrolling villages looking for insurgents or looking to coax Afghan elders into supporting the Afghan government.

The California unit — part of which deployed this month — is the last major Marine command to deploy to the country in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Some 4,000 Marines and sailors will serve under the I MEF banner in Afghanistan over the coming year. They’re

charged with supporting Afghan forces, safeguarding the April presidential elections, shutting down sprawling Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, sending equipment home and preparing for a possible postwar presence.

What that postwar presence will look like is up in the air: Afghan President Hamid Karzai has yet to sign a deal to keep American troops in the country past the end of this year. That means the Marines of I MEF (Fwd) headed for Afghanistan without knowing exactly how long they’ll be there or whether anyone will replace them when they leave.

When they heard about their mission, one of the first things the Marines asked was, “What does the end look like?” said Col. Peter Baumgarten, commander of 1st Marine Regiment and Task Force Belleau Wood, which will provide security for the base during the deployment.

“I said, ‘Time out, guys. Let’s not even focus on that, because you can really steer yourself in circles trying to think about what the end looks like: ‘How do you defend this and get all the stuff out of here?’ ‘Who is the last guy to leave?’ ” Baumgarten said.

Instead, they have focused on the more immediate concern: keeping Camp Leatherneck, as well as the co-located British Camp Bastion and the adjacent Afghan Camp Shorobak, safe.

While infantry units in 2010 or 2011 would have prepared for counterinsurgency operations, targeting insurgents and taking kinetic action, Baumgarten said, these infantry Marines studied base security and the details of past breaches –- including the September 2012 attack at Camp Bastion, which killed two Marines and destroyed six aircraft.

The Marines learned all they could from past attacks and vulnerabilities, Baumgarten said, while recognizing that future attacks are unlikely to follow the same playbook. One of the complicating factors of keeping the base safe will be that fewer coalition troops are out fighting insurgents far away from the base, he said, which could make Leatherneck more of a target.

The number of U.S. servicemembers in Helmand province has decreased significantly, from more than 20,000 during the surge in 2010 to about 5,000 now, Marines said. Those numbers will continue to wane as the deployment wears on.

But while Afghan security forces have taken the lead in operations through the province, the threat to U.S. and coalition troops remains. The unit that I MEF (Fwd) replaces in Regional Command-Southwest has lost nine servicemembers in its yearlong deployment — two Marines were killed in combat operations in December alone.

The Marines will be living and working on the base and must keep the entry points and perimeter secure, and be able to anticipate what is going on outside the base so they can foil attacks before they reach the gates, Baumgarten said.

“I find myself constantly thinking back to the line of the 9/11 commission … something along the lines of, ‘a failure of imagination to understand how terrorists could hijack four airplanes, in the United States, simultaneously and fly them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center,’” Baumgarten said. “What I’ve talked to my staff about is this failure of imagination. How do we get into the mind of the enemy? Get into his decision-making process, so we’re not surprised?”

Lt. Col. Sidney Welch, commander of Combat Logistics Battalion 7, said his unit might help with I MEF (Fwd)’s retrograde effort in Helmand, as well as provide general logistics support to the unit.

Getting people and gear home from Afghanistan will be a significant challenge that previous Marine units there have not faced, said Col. Patrick Gramuglia, commander of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, I MEF (Fwd’s) aviation element. Usually, the Marines only have to bring and take home their personal gear — they leave trucks, MRAPs, planes, computers and other equipment for the next unit.

“Certainly I think it’s easier to flow things in than it is to continue to try to do the mission and flow things out,” Gramuglia said. “There is an incredible amount of intellectual rigor being put into that problem, both at the wing and at the MEF level.”

Those decisions will involve choosing the best routes to use to send heavy equipment out of the country, and sending the right gear home at the right time — so the troops at the base at the end of the deployment are not left without the equipment they need.

The Marines will be working more closely with coalition troops than before, as an integrated force, “Shoulder to shoulder and joined both at the head and the hip,” said Brigadier Rob Thomson, a British Army officer who spoke to Stars and Stripes via email from the United Kingdom. A British brigadier is rank-equivalent to an American brigadier general.

Thomson will be the deputy commander of RC-SW. American Marine Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo is the commander of I MEF (Fwd) and will command RC-SW.

The unit worked with Thomson and other international officers during its predeployment training. The coalition includes members of the military from Great Britain, Georgia, Jordan, Estonia and Denmark, Baumgarten said.

Baumgarten, Welch and Gramuglia traveled to Camp Leatherneck earlier for a site survey, which was particularly helpful since each served multiple tours in Iraq but none of the three has deployed to Afghanistan.

Living on and providing security for Camp Leatherneck will be different for many of the infantry Marines than previous tours, when they might have spent the majority of their deployments living and sleeping far from chow halls, coffee shops, phones and computers. Still, Baumgarten and the other leaders have reminded their Marines that “the comforts of Bastion/Leatherneck can be fleeting.”

As the deployment stretches on and more buildings and amenities are shut down, the Marines are likely to be eating meals, ready to eat – MREs – and living in a more “expeditionary” style than what Marines living at large bases overseas have become accustomed to, the leaders said.

At the same time, servicemembers in the Helmand region must continue to help the Afghan army and police build momentum against the Taliban, Thomson said.

“The Afghan Army and Police have made really important strides forward – in terms of their capabilities and their capacity – and when I visited in November this year, are very much in the lead in Helmand. We need to help them build institutional resilience,” he said.

The unit will help make sure the April presidential elections, and the political transition afterward, go smoothly. That mission, along with the shifting political landscape, makes some of the end goals of the deployment uncertain.

Lt. Gen. John Toolan, commanding general of I MEF — the parent unit of I MEF (FWD) — said in October that the deploying Marines must remain vigilant, as the war against terrorism will not end when the U.S. leaves Afghanistan.

“You are making a difference,” Toolan said at I MEF (Fwd)’s battle colors ceremony. “It’s going to be a tough job.”

Baumgarten said the Marines know they will face uncertainty, but will overcome any challenges they face.

“We’re good at adapting,” he said. “We may not be the world’s best planners, but we are among the world’s best executors.”

And the leaders said they and the Marines they command are looking forward to what will likely be a yearlong tour.

Welch said Marines are “fighting for that opportunity to deploy.”

“One of the worst things you can tell a Marine now — it’s a lot different than 2007 — is, ‘You’re not going to deploy,’” he said.

Gramuglia said the men and women of the air wing are eager to leave a good memory of how the Marines have performed in Afghanistan.

“People join the Marine Corps to deploy, and to be able to deploy to combat is even more sought after, as a Marine. Being able to be a part of the history is very exciting,” he said. “When I was a squadron commander, we had the only CH-46 squadron in Iraq. I used to tell the Marines, ‘Everybody wants to be us right now.’ I think that’s the same with most Marines. There are 180,000 people in the Marine Corps right now, and everybody wants to be us.’”

hlad.jennifer@stripes.com
Twitter: @jhlad
 

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