MORE INSANITY: As Washington ponders Afghan mission, Marines toil in Helmand

More insanity in “Sand Land.”

When the Marines left Helmand in 2014, they did not expect to return, but building the Afghan army has been slower than anticipated.

Many issues trainers focus on, such as improving army leadership or getting troops off vulnerable checkpoints, are ones American advisers have recommended for years.

One might logically ask, why are we still there?

Insurgents control five of Helmand’s 14 districts and contest the others, threatening the capital Lashkar Gah, where they have a strong foothold just outside the city center.

Afghan forces are suffering thousands of casualties and without near-daily air strikes by U.S. fighters and helicopters, said Colonel Asmatullah Gharwal, intelligence officer for the Afghan army 215th Corps, “we would probably not be able to defend Helmand province.”


July 17, 2017


A U.S. Navy Corpsman and U.S. soldier take part in a helicopter Medevac exercise in Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 6, 2017.REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

A U.S. Navy Corpsman and U.S. soldier take part in a helicopter Medevac exercise in Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 6, 2017.Omar Sobhani

CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan (Reuters) – While Washington works on plans to send more troops to Afghanistan, U.S. forces on the ground are grappling with building an army in the middle of a war their commanders say is locked in stalemate.

It is slow, hot, often frustrating work, ranging from overseeing basic infantry training to trying to create modern logistics systems for an army in which many soldiers cannot read or write.

“There are enormous challenges ahead,” said Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, who led a task force in Helmand five years ago and who has returned as commander of around 300 Marines training and advising the Afghan army and police.

With U.S. commanders declaring that Afghanistan faces “stalemate,” the Pentagon is expected to add between 3,000-5,000 troops to more than 13,000 coalition forces already there though there are no signs it plans to send them into combat.

That would leave the task essentially unchanged – not to defeat the Taliban but to get Afghan forces to a point where they can fight alone and force the insurgents to negotiate.

For Turner, the key is improving army leadership, an issue U.S. advisers have stressed constantly but with mixed success since the NATO-led coalition ended combat operations in 2014.

For years, the government’s hold on Helmand, one of the world’s major opium-producing regions, has been undermined by corruption reaching to the senior ranks of the military.

The last commander of the 215th Corps, appointed to clean up the unit last year, was arrested after stealing his own soldiers’ food and firewood.

But the Americans have been impressed by his successor, General Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai, a former commando who has replaced about 50 senior officers.

Turner said the government in Kabul was now more serious about replacing ineffective leaders.

“When we were here before, you could have a completely ineffective leader in position and you’d pretty much just have to deal with it.”

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