Marine commandant expects 'rolling transition' in Afghanistan
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- The surge of U.S. Marines and other forces in southwestern Afghanistan has broken the Taliban's grip on a former stronghold, allowing coalition forces to begin turning over security to Afghans, commanders said.
"It will be a rolling transition to more training and advising and assisting and less of the counterinsurgency operations," Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, told USA Today during a short visit to Afghanistan. "The Afghan security forces will be in the lead and we'll be in support."
The transition comes as the United States plans to withdraw 23,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of September, leaving about 68,000 U.S. troops nationwide. The pullout was ordered by President Obama, who wants most combat forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Obama ordered a troop surge of 33,000 more than two years ago to reverse gains made by the Taliban. Many of those initial forces were Marines sent to Helmand province, a former Taliban stronghold and the world's leading poppy growing region.
The number of U.S. Marines in the Helmand region has declined to 13,000 from a peak of 21,000 last year. At the same time, the size of Afghan security forces in the region has grown to 15,000 soldiers and about 8,000 police.
The gradual shift of security duties in Helmand to Afghan forces will have implications nationwide, analysts said.
"This is a big test case for the future of Afghanistan," said Seth Jones, an analyst at the RAND think tank.
Marines and other coalition forces are maintaining combat capabilities as they advise and support the Afghans. Commanders said Afghan security forces have proved themselves able and have held ground coalition forces took from the Taliban over the past two years throughout the Helmand River Valley.
Marine Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, commander of Regional Command Southwest, said the shift to the Afghans is an "evolution" of the mission. "It's not a run for the door," he said.
For years, Taliban fighters enjoyed sanctuary in parts of this province, which is divided by a wide river that flows from the snow-topped Hindu Kush mountains into plains and farmlands. Militants used the heroin poppy crops to fund operations, but in late 2009, a surge of U.S. forces led by Marines began arriving here and started fighting its way up the river valley.
Today, the Taliban is out of most population centers, forced to the fringes of the province. The number of attacks in northern Helmand, the most volatile area, has declined to 25 to 30 a day from 125 to 130 a year ago, said Marine Col. John Shafer, commander of Regional Combat Team 6 in Helmand.
From March to July this year in the Helmand region, insurgents detonated 570 roadside bombs, down from 761 last year.
"The insurgency cannot generate anything that can threaten the Afghan security forces at this time," Shafer said. "Another couple punches, I think they're going to go down," he said of the Taliban.
The Taliban has not given up on Helmand. Gurganus said Taliban fighters have overrun checkpoints manned by Afghan security forces, but the Afghans have returned to wrest them back. The Afghans have been taking on an increasingly larger share of the fight here.
From mid-March to mid-July, 147 members of the Afghan security forces were killed in action in the Helmand region, up from 57 in the same period last year, according to Regional Command Southwest. During that period, 31 coalition troops were killed in action, down from 50 troops a year ago.
Afghan security forces lack some critical capabilities, including air support, medical evacuation helicopters and surveillance drones.
Afghanistan is in negotiations with the United States and NATO about a residual force after 2014 that will be able to provide some of the needed support.
Analysts said Afghanistan's government must expand services, support local leaders and improve the economy if it wants to maintain stability.
"We've definitely seen progress in Helmand," Jones said. "Whether that is sustainable is the $64,000 question."
U.S. commanders are confident the gains here can be maintained. Amos said he believes the drawdown of coalition forces will encourage the Afghan government to take action to hold on to the coalition gains.
"There will be a lot of motivation to figure it out," he said.