US troops back in restive Helmand province, a year after withdrawal
By TIM CRAIG | The Washington Post | Published: April 8, 2016
CAMP SHORAB, Afghanistan — The last time the U.S.-led coalition brought a group of journalists here to Helmand province was in October 2014 to document the withdrawal of American and British troops, on a trip designed to signal that U.S. involvement in the war really was ending.
This week, coalition officials brought journalists back, as a way of saying, "Never mind" - and to make the case that the United States may want to consider staying on.
After what was supposed to be a withdrawal from one of Afghanistan's most restive provinces, about 500 soldiers from the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division rushed back into Helmand in February. The Afghan army, left on its own, had failed to live up to expectations. Now, once again, U.S. forces are in place, trying to toughen up a force that remains too timid.
"Every day we come out here, we talk about focus on killing the enemy," said Capt. Tylor Bott, who is helping to lead the training of Afghan soldiers here on base.
Bott's blunt assessment of the task at hand reflects a broader shift in how the U.S.-led coalition has begun framing what is at stake, as the Taliban's annual spring offensive is set to begin and uncertainty remains over the future American commitment to the war.
Though President Barack Obama has slowed down the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, administration plans still call for cutting troop numbers in half by January.
If they fall that far, training missions such as the one being carried out by the 10th Mountain Division will almost certainly end, as U.S. forces pull back toward a central base in Kabul. The U.S. counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan, focused on disrupting efforts by the Islamic State and al-Qaida to broaden footholds here, could also be curtailed.
As Obama weighs what course to follow, the U.S. military has suddenly become more candid in framing its participation in the war, giving journalists greater access and attempting to more closely link the threat posed by al-Qaida to the broader campaign against the Taliban insurgency.
At a news conference in Kabul, Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, chief of communications for the U.S.-led coalition, warned that coalition forces are seeing increased "linkages" between al-Qaida and the Taliban's new leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. The Taliban is also working more closely with the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based militant group responsible for some of the bloodiest attacks of the war, Cleveland said.
He noted that al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri last year pledged allegiance to Mansour, and that Sirajuddin Haqqani, a leader of the Haqqani network, was recently named as a No. 2 leader of the Taliban.
"What that suggests to us is we are going to see them working more closely together," Cleveland said, adding that could dramatically increase the risk to civilians and coalition forces in Afghanistan. "We do think, as soon as they can, they are going to aggressively try to . . . assault provincial capitals, and certainly district capitals, so we are concerned. The question is what do we do about it?"
The reemergence of concern about al-Qaida - which Obama said in 2012 had been "decimated" in Afghanistan - began last fall when Afghan and U.S. Special Operations forces dismantled a 30-square-mile al-Qaida training camp in Kandahar province.
"What we have found historically is, if you take your eye off al-Qaida, and if you don't apply constant and direct pressure on al-Qaida, they got the ability to regenerate very, very quickly," Cleveland said.
In a separate interview, Cleveland denied that his remarks were designed to influence the political debate over future troop levels. Instead, he said, he is just being frank about what coalition commanders are "seeing on the ground."
But in recent weeks, U.S. military commanders have hinted they may be asking Obama to refine his Afghanistan policy before he leaves office in January.
Earlier this year, the former head of coalition forces in Afghanistan, the recently retired Gen. John F. Campbell, confirmed to The Washington Post he had been seeking more authority from the administration to attack the Taliban. Currently, the U.S. military has authorization to target al-Qaida and the Islamic State, but it can only strike Taliban fighters if they pose a threat to coalition forces.
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. John Nicholson, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, have also recently stated publicly that they may recommend to Obama a modification of existing plans for the drawdown. Nicholson, who took over as coalition commander in early March, is drafting a detailed report on the state of the Afghan conflict that he plans to submit to Obama.
"The bottom line is there may be disagreement between the military and civilian officials in the U.S. as to what is the best way forward with military policy in Afghanistan," said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "But my sense is the military is just responding to the situation on the ground."
The coalition media trip to Helmand on Wednesday appeared to be a tacit admission that the 2014 withdrawal of coalition forces from the province may have been too hasty.
After the Marines withdrew, coalition trainers from Kabul had to be flown into Helmand to train the Afghan army's 215th Corps. But the 215th Corps struggled to repel the Taliban last year as it overran several districts in Helmand.
Late last year, Campbell decided to reestablish a more permanent coalition presence here. U.S. troops are now training the 215th Corps in executing offensive missions.
On Wednesday, for example, some U.S. military personnel were helping Afghan troops become more proficient in storming buildings.
In another part of the base, U.S. forces were helping to inaugurate a new command-and-control center while monitoring an Afghan army offensive to retake a highway in northern Helmand. The 215th Corps was also finalizing the deployment of its first aerial surveillance drone.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Chung of the 10th Mountain Division said only about 20 U.S. troops are directly involved in the training. The other troops are needed to secure the base, protect the trainers from insider attacks and provide logistical support, Chung said.
Brig. Gen. Andrew M. Rohling, deputy commander of the 10th Mountain Division, said its soldiers are trying to make sure Afghan troops "are ready to fight" when they go into battle.
"What we bring to the fight is some leadership confidence, and some training, so that when they leave here . . . their vehicles are in order and they have machine guns that have bullets," Rohling said.
And even before Obama's decision, there are signs that U.S. forces in Helmand are digging in for an extended stay.
After arriving in February, the 10th Mountain Division spent weeks eating only Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). But three weeks ago, a contractor opened a full-service mess hall for three hot meals a day - yet another sign it can be hard to end a war.