Inside the Marines' new mission in Afghanistan: taking back territory previously won

Sgt. John Verhage III, a surveillance sensor operator with Task Force Southwest, is shown here in February in Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan's Helmand province.


By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: April 16, 2018

BOST AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — In a dusty open-air building with houseflies buzzing, Marines here received a call for help. Afghan forces had been ambushed by Taliban fighters wielding machine guns and wanted an American airstrike so they could break free.

Within 20 minutes, an A-10 attack jet responded, killing the fighters with guided weapons and allowing Afghan forces to continue an April 1 offensive in Helmand province's Nad-e Ali district, said Marine Capt. Jesse Gonzalez, an intelligence officer. It was a success in the Marines' eyes: The strike occurred after Afghan forces provided enough information for the United States to carry out the airstrike, even though there were no U.S. troops on the ground.

But the operation shows how far expectations have been lowered after more than 16 years of war, with U.S. and Afghan forces seeking to recapture areas that were once under U.S. control.

"We want to get away from just, 'We're receiving fire at this position,' " said Maj. Wilson Moore, the senior Marine in an operational coordination center with the Afghans. "Well, where is the fire coming from? How heavy is the fire? What kind of weapons are they shooting at you with? . . . Help us out."

Afghan government control in many areas outside of Kabul evaporated as the United States cut its troop numbers in Afghanistan from more than 100,000 in 2011 to fewer than 10,000 by late 2016. President Donald Trump authorized a more muscular strategy last August, enabling the military to carry out hundreds of airstrikes each month while boosting the number of troops from about 11,000 to more than 15,000.

The air campaign, paired with additional U.S. military advising, has helped stop the disintegration of security, but it has meant sending U.S. troops back to regions where they once engaged in direct combat with the Taliban during a surge in 2009.

Trump has promised repeatedly that the United States will win in Afghanistan, but what that means is unclear. U.S. commanders say that the most likely path to declaring victory is reaching a political settlement with the Taliban. But the insurgents had control or influence in 56 percent of Afghanistan's 407 districts as of last fall, according to a U.S. military assessment. In fall 2016, the government controlled 72 percent.

The U.S. intervention continues despite Trump's announcing recently that he wants to bring home all U.S. troops from another war zone Syria as soon as possible. But Trump has shown more patience with Afghanistan, noting pointedly last summer that the consequences of a rapid exit are "both predictable and unacceptable."

Under Trump's strategy, the Marines' goals are modest. On the ground, they appear to consist of bolstering Afghan forces, preventing the fall of a major city and perhaps most important in terms of continuing the mission keeping U.S. military fatalities as close to zero as possible, considering Americans' exhaustion with an unpopular "forever war."

U.S. military advisers work side by side with Afghans at headquarters like Bost airfield, just south of Lashkar Gah, a city of 200,000. The Marines do not venture onto the battlefields themselves but refer to Afghan forces as "our guys," provide firepower from a distance and offer pointers with the belief that the United States could be in Afghanistan for years to come.

The legacy of bloodshed in Helmand stretches back more than a decade and includes more than 20,000 Marines deployed simultaneously at the height of President Barack Obama's troop surge. The economy is driven by vast fields of opium poppy plants, and U.S. officials say the Taliban acts like a criminal gang as it processes and smuggles the drug to fund its operations.

Security disintegrated almost immediately after the last Marines went home in October 2014, turning over to Afghans the sprawling desert remains of their largest bases, Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion. The situation mushroomed into a crisis by 2015, as scores of Afghan soldiers were killed each month and the United States deployed Special Operations troops to help stave off disaster. The Taliban was resurgent enough that there was concern about the insurgents' seizing Lashkar Gah in 2017.

Last spring, a 300-member Marine Corps task force helped the Afghan army push the Taliban away from the city. A second rotation of Marines took over in January and is focused on helping to control the most populous areas ahead of Oct. 20 parliamentary elections, which have been rescheduled several times since 2015.

"The focus is on central Helmand," said Brig. Gen. Benjamin T. Watson, the Marines' top commander in Afghanistan. "There is a number of districts where there is little to no [government] presence . . . and they are not places where we intend to invest."

The Afghan government and the Marines believe they have Lashkar Gah and the smaller city of Gereshk under control. They also have expanded security as far south as Garmser district center and as far west as Marjah district center. But most of those two districts and many others remain under Taliban influence or control.

One of the largest problems is that the local Afghan National Army unit, the 215th Corps, is still understrength. It is supposed to have about 18,500 soldiers but has just over 9,000 amid years of combat and a nationwide competition for soldiers. Marines see the commander of the 215th Corps, Maj. Gen. Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai, as an effective leader but say he faces problems that include heavy combat casualties, desertions and fuel shortages.

Most of the Marines work from Camp Shorab, a dusty base that was carved out of the larger installation that once included Leatherneck and Bastion.

The Marines, using pickup trucks or golf-cart-size all-terrain vehicles, shuttle back and forth daily from their camp to the 215th Corps headquarters at an adjoining Afghan base named Camp Shorabak, which is decorated with rose bushes and painted bright pink and green. Ahmadzai, a stocky officer with a thick black mustache, said in an interview that he has been promised an additional 2,000 soldiers by the Ministry of Defense.

The Afghan army launched a three-week operation, Maiwand 12, in March that focused on clearing supply lines from a brigade headquarters at Camp New Garm Ser once known to Marines as Camp Dwyer to two Afghan bases in Marjah that Marines first established in 2010. The 215th Corps experienced little enemy contact but withdrew afterward, leaving Marine commanders to assess that the Afghan forces had moved too quickly into the operation.

Ahmadzai said he is thankful to Trump for the additional help. There is no plan to clear the remainder of Marjah this spring, but he wants to do so eventually to allow residents who fled violence to return home.

"In Marjah, there is no population, so we will not have elections for the trees," Ahmadzai said. "The people who used to reside in Marjah, they already moved to Lashkar Gah."

The hands-off advising role is a big culture shift for Marines who have fought in Helmand before. Several who served there before said they are not frustrated to be back and always thought Marines would return.

First Sgt. Robert L. Krieger III compared Afghanistan to South Korea, where U.S. forces have trained since the Korean War was paused with a 1953 armistice. He said he fired his rifle 100 days straight in combat as a platoon sergeant in Marjah in 2010 but is now focused on making sure the Marines deployed around him have what they need.

"Do I talk about all the people that I've been around that we've lost? No," Krieger said. "I keep that inside. One day, I'll come to grips with it, but right now, that's my focus."

Gunnery Sgt. Mary K. Grimaldi said she previously deployed to Helmand as the intelligence chief for an aircraft squadron a few months after her cousin, Staff Sgt. James M. Malachowski, was killed in Marjah on March 20, 2011. She wears a steel memorial bracelet with his name on it.

"It's hard knowing that someone that I know took their last breath just a few miles away. But I want to make sure that his life and everyone else's all the other treasures that have been lost here are not in vain," she said. "I think that if we just grew tired and threw our hands up and went home, then all of it would be for naught."

A soldier with Afghan National (ANA) Army 215th Corps photographs Maj. Gen. Wali Mohammed Ahmadzai, commanding general of ANA 215th Corps (right).