Helmand has become almost dull for Marines, with Afghans now leading combat

McClatchy NewspapersMay 1, 2013 

— One statistic about the war in Afghanistan has stood out for weeks: the single U.S. Marine killed so far in 2013.

For years, the Marines have fought and died in Helmand, a hot, dusty province in Afghanistan’s south that’s earned a bloody place in corps lore, right beside the likes of Anbar province in Iraq. It’s been by far the deadliest province for the U.S-led coalition, where more than 900 international soldiers have been killed, including more than 350 Marines.

But the days of heavy combat and casualties in Helmand are over, at least for conventional American troops. And soon that might be true across Afghanistan. In the next few weeks, Afghan security forces are expected to reach one of the biggest milestones of the 11-year-old war: They’ll officially take the lead in the last remaining pockets of the country where they haven’t already.

The changes in Helmand are the most graphic example of what that means.

Marines are no longer walking the harrowing foot patrols that once were common in much of the province. Instead, they mainly work on large bases, teaching and mentoring Afghan security forces, and simply packing up to leave.

Some Marines are still exposed to risk, including those who run supply convoys and help clear the roads of bombs, and at least 30 have been wounded this year in the northern part of Helmand. But it’s the Afghan army and police that are doing the real fighting in the province – and taking the bulk of the casualties.

"I can’t think of a scenario where we’re out there right with them anymore," said Brig. Gen. George W. Smith, the deputy commander for the NATO regional command in Helmand who oversees the coalition’s work training and advising the Afghan army and police.

Mentoring or assistance on a combat operation, he said, is now done "one terrain feature" behind the Afghans, meaning the Marines hang back, observing, and ready with assistance such as a medevac helicopter if an Afghan soldier or police officer suffers a wound serious enough to put life or limb at risk.

None of this means the fighting has stopped or even slowed. Instead, the Afghans are now taking nearly all the casualties. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defense declined to provide casualty figures for Helmand, but U.S. officers there said they thought the climb in Afghan losses roughly corresponded with the decline in coalition casualties.

In Helmand, the shift in who’s doing the fighting marks a huge change since the peak of fighting two and three years ago.

Once, there were more than 21,000 Marines in Helmand spread across nearly 300 bases, some of them outposts with fewer than half a dozen men. There were constant firefights, sometimes several a day. Now there are just more than 8,000 Marines, and they’re clustered mainly on a handful of large bases, behind elaborate layers of security.

Behind those walls, some Marines are frantically inventorying and packing up trucks and equipment to ship home while others are advising Afghans on advanced skills: how to train other troops, render medical assistance, plan operations and improve the Afghans’ notoriously unreliable supply chain.

No longer are the lessons taught out on patrol.

Typical was a recent day at Camp Shorabak _ the Afghan base adjacent to the Marines’ giant Camp Leatherneck _ which is home to the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps.

Outside one end of a building, Sgt. Matthew Nickelsen, a Marine from Dana Point, Calif., was teaching Afghan soldiers how to train other Afghans to operate the iconic U.S. M2 .50-caliber machine gun. A hundred yards away, other Marine and U.S. civilians were teaching another group how to use 60 mm mortars, a new addition to the Afghan arsenal that the NATO-led coalition hopes will make up for the Afghans’ lack of air support. The Afghans under training were expected take their skills back to their companies to instruct others.

The Marine advisers were working out of a military training center that the coalition wants to turn into a regional school to improve soldiers’ skills after they’ve gone through basic training and been in the ranks for a while.

It’s hoped that the school will become a model that’s replicated across the country, said the adviser group’s commander and the lone member of the British army assigned here, Maj. Joseph Power.

The Afghans are good at fighting and can be great, with the proper equipment and training, he said. But the attrition via desertion and casualties is staggering, and it’s crucial for the long-term health of the army that it shift to a modern cycle of fighting, leaving and then getting additional training, rather than just having basic training and then being permanently on duty.

"They don’t think about training a sustainable force, partly because they just don’t look at it that way, and partly because we’ve always been there to help keep them going," he said.

It took the United States about three decades to develop a similar approach, and the Afghans have only a couple of years.

The changes are particularly noticeable in the southern half of Helmand, where the Marines once had more than 200 bases. Now they’re clustered in about half a dozen larger bases mainly strung along a 100-mile stretch of the Helmand River.

As of early last week, not a single Marine had been killed or wounded in action in the southern half of Helmand this year, said Lt. Col. Carl E. Cooper Jr. of Ruston, La., the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. The 3/9 is the lone remaining U.S. infantry battalion in the southern part of the province.

"The security here is provided in whole by the Afghans," Cooper said. "Our operations are to enable them in a few areas, but frankly it has become a rarity to be asked to support them in an operation."

Maxim magazine once put Camp Dwyer, the main Marine base in southern Helmand, on a list of the five most dangerous places in Afghanistan. Now it’s among the calmest. The base is so large it has a bus system to move Marines from their living quarters to work, chow and recreation. It’s surrounded by desert, and attacks are rare.

Having trained to fight and fight aggressively, many of the younger Marines on their first tour of duty are bored.

"I don’t think the word is exactly ‘useless,’ but there’s not much more we can do here," said Lance Cpl. Christian Cappucci, 20, of Townsend, Mass. "It’s unfortunate that there’s no combat. I wish I had seen it earlier."

His unit is tasked with security for Dwyer, which means he at least gets to go outside the base for patrols. They stick so close, though, there’s not much chance of action. Basically they just patrol the desert just outside the base, partnering with Afghan soldiers who stop passing cars on the two desert routes around the base.

Over near the Helmand River, a few kilometers away, there’s a tree line, and every time Cappucci sees it, he gets a feeling that the Taliban could be found there in the cover. But it’s out of bounds.

He eyes that tree line and wishes.

"It’s aggravating, because it’s right there, and you can almost reach out and touch it, but we can’t go there," he said.

Lt. Col. Cooper, the commander of 3/9, said he was aware of that sentiment. From the beginning of the deployment, he said, his officers have pushed the message that not being in combat means the Marines have reached the goal of helping the Afghans take responsibility for their own security.

"We push down the consistent message that this is what winning looks like," he said.

Eager young infantry Marines such as Cappucci may be glum, but elsewhere on the base, 1st Lt. James Atkinson, 26, of Boca Raton, Fla., was all but whistling while he worked at the overwhelming job of tracking all the Marine equipment that’s being collected and sent back to the United State.

It’s the challenge of a lifetime for a logistics guy, and Atkinson was bursting with cheer as he played his spreadsheets and a stream of Marines poked their heads in every couple of minutes with more questions about stuff to be shipped.

At one point, 25 percent of all the Marine Corps’ gear was in Afghanistan, but in the past year that’s been cut to around 9 percent.

Since October, Atkinson has helped whittled down the rows of massive armored trucks, generators, portable communications towers and other Marine gear in southern Helmand from about $390 million worth to about $180 million.

"It’s not sexy for the grunts," he said. "But for us in logistics, this is why we’re here."

Online correction: This version corrects the name of the Marine in the next to last graph to Atkinson, clarifies near the top that some Marines are still engaged in dangerous tasks and clarifies that the reference to no Marines killed or wounded in action in the southern half of Helmand province is for this year.

Email: jayprice@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jayinkabul

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