Trump’s Afghan strategy paying off

By Shashank Bengali - Los Angeles Times

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — When U.S. Marines entered the Afghan military’s operations control center at an airfield here in April, they found a scene of confusion.

Afghan officers were coordinating operations against Taliban insurgents using paper maps taped to the walls. They were uncertain of the locations of key mosques, hospitals, bridges — even their own ground troops.

The war was going badly in Helmand, one of Afghanistan’s most volatile provinces and the deadliest for international forces in 16 years of hostilities. Since the Marines left in 2014 as part of a U.S. military drawdown, Afghan forces were losing scores of troops every month and had watched the Taliban march up to the outskirts of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, lobbing rockets inside the airfield.

Seven months after a Marine-led task force returned, Helmand has become one of the few bright spots in the Afghan war, offering a blueprint for President Donald Trump’s troop surge, which will raise the number of American service members training and advising Afghan soldiers and police from 11,000 to about 15,000.

At the outset, a few dozen Marines moved into a series of low-slung buildings at Bost airfield outside Lashkar Gah, which houses an Afghan army brigade, the provincial police headquarters and the regional military control center. The Marines cleared cobwebs and old clothes out of a storage room and converted it into a mess hall where they dine on military rations, or eggs and instant noodles Afghans bring from a local market.

Next door, separated by a chain-link fence, is the control center where Marines have helped Afghan officers replace static maps with Google Earth, plot civilian buildings and ground troops with multicolored icons, and process intelligence from the field.

“We’ve seen them exponentially increase their ability to manage the battle space because they can visualize it,” said Maj. Paul Rivera. “It’s like going from being color-blind to seeing in color.”

By re-engaging in Helmand, Rivera added, “it’s like we turned the lights back on.”

New strategy

The U.S. military’s Task Force Southwest, led by 300 Marine advisers, has revitalized Afghan forces and increased airstrikes during a sustained government offensive that has pushed the Taliban away from major towns and highways and eliminated the threat to Lashkar Gah, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.

While the Marines’ deployment to Helmand took shape in the last months of the Obama administration, their mission encompasses one of the main goals of Trump’s troop surge, which Pentagon officials say is to get U.S. mentors out of large bases and closer to where Afghans are fighting in order to have a greater impact on the battlefield.

“I think we’re doing what’s in the new strategy now, within the capability and capacity we have,” said Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, commander of the task force based at Camp Shorab, a small outpost next to the sprawling emptiness of Camp Leatherneck, an abandoned base that once housed more than 20,000 NATO troops.

Roughly one-third of Turner’s troops have previously served in the province, etched in Marine lore for the bloody battles fought here in 2010 and 2011. Some 350 Americans lost their lives helping Afghan forces secure key districts — only to see many fall back under Taliban influence after they withdrew.

Different mission

The new mission is different. While U.S. special operations forces still conduct secret raids, the Marines in Helmand, like the rest of conventional U.S. troops in Afghanistan, don’t patrol highways or visit mud-walled villages anymore. They advise government troops from inside military bases, provincial offices and operations centers lined with monitors streaming surveillance footage.

That has meant far fewer U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan — 13 this year compared with nearly 500 in 2010, when there were 10 times as many American troops here.

But in a bid to break what Pentagon officials have described as a stalemate in the 16-year war, the Trump administration has expanded military commanders’ authorities to conduct airstrikes and deploy advisory units farther into the field, potentially putting them at greater risk.

Trump has set no end date for the troop commitment and Pentagon planners have declined to specify the numbers or destinations of the extra U.S. forces. That is a reversal from the Obama administration, which announced its intention to pull all U.S. troops out by 2014 before abandoning that plan when security deteriorated.

“The enduring commitment to Afghanistan is hugely impactful to our partners, and I think to the population it’s the same thing,” Turner said.

“I think they want us to be here and they want us to help make things better here. And I think it’s had an impact on the enemy too, because now they can’t just wait us out.”

Success story

In July, with American F-16 jets and Apache attack helicopters supplying airstrikes, Afghan soldiers and police recaptured Nawa, a large town south of Bost airfield. They took down Taliban flags and presented them to their Marine advisers as gifts.

The provincial government has begun to reopen schools and clinics in Nawa. Unlike in the past, when Marines tried to install basic social services in liberated districts, commanders are leaving governance to Afghan officials.

“The focus is security and defeating the Taliban,” said Col. Matthew Reid, the task force’s deputy commander. “(Fixing) governance, corruption, narcotics _ that comes later. First you need to win the fight.”

By aggressively attacking the Taliban, Reid said, the Afghans suffer fewer casualties. In the month ending Sept. 21, 36 Afghan soldiers in the Helmand-based corps were killed, the lowest total for that month in five years.

But the Afghans need American support to remain on the offensive. Pentagon officials say the troop increase will allow U.S. forces to reach beyond Afghan corps headquarters and into smaller bases to directly advise brigade and battalion leaders and coordinate more airstrikes.

Advisers have also helped the Afghans make better use of their burgeoning air assets, including surveillance drones.

Afghans attribute their recent successes to the Marines. At a training facility outside Shorab, as recruits practiced infantry maneuvers in a dirt field, instructor Mir Ahmad Malangzai said that after he was injured in a roadside bomb blast last year, Americans trained him to teach a course in detecting explosives.

“It’s with the Marines’ support and cooperation that we’ve reached this level,” Malangzai said. “If they leave again, things will 100 percent be reversed.”

A soldier with the Afghan army leaves the landing site as an Afghan Mi-17 takes off during training near Camp Shorab, in Helmand Province. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
A soldier with the Afghan army leaves the landing site as an Afghan Mi-17 takes off during training near Camp Shorab, in Helmand Province. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

By Shashank Bengali

Los Angeles Times

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