The U.S. Marine Corps has returned to Helmand, the restive province in southern Afghanistan where it fought years of bloody battles with the Taliban, to help train Afghan forces struggling to contain the insurgency.
Many of the 300 Marines coming to Helmand as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support training mission are veterans of previous tours in the province, where almost 1,000 coalition troops, mostly U.S. and British, were killed fighting the Taliban.
When they left in 2014, handing over the sprawling desert base they knew as Camp Leatherneck to the Afghan army, the Marines never expected to return. The fact that they are back underlines the problems Afghan forces have faced since being left to fight alone.
Despite a warning from U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis last week that 2017 would be a tough year, though, the tone as the deployment began was positive.
“I was excited to come back,” said Staff Sergeant George Caldwell, who had previously spent eight months in the far south of Helmand that mixed combat operations with training the Afghan border police.
“I have a lot of time invested in Helmand province. We have many, many years of combat operations and we’d hate to see the region become unstable,” he said at the margins of a ceremony marking the Transfer of Authority for the training assignment.
Thousands of Marines served in Helmand over the years between 2009 and 2014 during some of the most intense fighting seen by foreign troops in Afghanistan.
American officers at the ceremony attended by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson promised continuing commitment to helping Afghan forces but the Marines are coming back at a difficult moment.
Their mission this time is not to fight but to train and help Afghan forces, although the strong defensive measures around the base underscore the risk they face in Helmand, one of the heartlands of the Taliban insurgency.
The Afghan army is still reeling from a devastating attack in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif this month in which Taliban suicide commandos killed 135 soldiers, according to official figures and double that number by other accounts.
Some 8,400 American troops are based in Afghanistan as part of Resolute Support as well as a separate counter-terrorism mission against Islamic State and Al Qaeda, but Gen. Nicholson said earlier this year a few thousand more would be required to end the “stalemate” with the Taliban.
The Trump administration is currently conducting a review of U.S. policy for Afghanistan, where American troops have now been stationed for more than 15 years.