Road out of Afghanistan: On the ground with US troops in potential final push

The recent battle for the Kajaki Valley in Helmand Province, which ended with few casualties and Taliban fighters in flight, may mark the last major operation for US troops in Afghanistan.

Robert Burns/AP
Marine Gen. John Allen, left, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, and Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan, right, the senior U.S. commander in Helmand Province, confer at Combat Outpost Alcatraz on Nov. 23, just north of Sangin in north-central Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

A group of marines huddles around the top enlisted marine in their unit, who had come to visit newly established US patrol bases throughout the Kajaki Valley in Helmand Province.

A week earlier, they had been part of a force of 600 marines and several Afghan Army and police units who flooded the valley. Though US forces have made progress throughout Helmand during the past year, Kajaki had remained one of the last major areas still under Taliban control.

Now, with several US Marine and Afghan military bases established in the valley and little resistance from the Taliban, the Helmand operation appears to have been more successful than many marines had expected.

Looking to inspire a platoon that had three men medevacked during the initial assault and had been living outdoors without tents or cots since the operation began, the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment's Sgt. Maj. Larry Harrington tells the group of assembled marines, "It started for me in Kandahar in 2001, and now I'm seeing the end of it."

While the insurgency continues, the war is indeed nearing its end for the marines in Helmand and for other International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) units elsewhere in the nation. With all the surge forces scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of next summer, and troop levels expected to keep falling from there, this operation is quite possibly the last major US Marine offensive designed to gain and hold new ground for the rest of the war.

"From my perspective, it's the last piece of real estate that ISAF forces are going to really clear," says Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan, the ISAF commander in the southwest region of Afghanistan.

This ending battle echoed many that had come before, with the US overrunning its foe, the Taliban choosing to flee more often than fight. But a big question lingers over the durability of the gains. Marines express optimism that the lessons learned over the decade-long war will help them stabilize the area and hand it over to the Afghan government.

A decade of war in deadliest province

There are some 140,000 international forces in Afghanistan, a little less than 100,000 are American. US and international troops came here more than a decade ago following the Sept. 11 attacks, when the ruling Taliban regime refused to hand over Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Since then the war has grown into a large nation-building effort with the United States alone investing more than $70 billion on development projects designed to strengthen Afghanistan's government and social institutions. Meanwhile, some 1,843 US and 970 international service members have lost their lives here. Another 14,342 have been injured.

Throughout the Afghan war, the south – Helmand in particular – has seen the most fighting. More than 795 international troops have been killed in Helmand, more than in any other province and nearly twice as many as in Kandahar, the second-most deadly province.

There are about 30,000 foreign forces in Helmand, equivalent to about one-third of the US force in Afghanistan. The area has been the primary responsibility of US Marines and British troops.

But will the improvements hold?

Although there are numerous indications that international forces have made progress in Helmand, there are just as many questions among locals about how long these improvements will last.

A report released by the New America Foundation in October found that while locals in Helmand say the Taliban are weaker now compared with 12 months ago, 49 percent of the population say they believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed in Helmand and Kandahar say that violence will lead to a civil war after international troops withdraw in 2014.

In the face of continued skepticism from the Afghan population, the US Marines pushed into the Kajaki Valley to take this last Taliban stronghold in the hope that it could make the difference for the region's lasting stability. Kajaki is of particular importance because of a dam there that provides electricity for much of southern Afghanistan.

Though many marines say Afghan forces in Helmand are increasingly capable, they also say that it was important to take advantage of the Marine presence here to clear out the Kajaki Valley. Afghan forces still lack the specialized equipment and troop levels necessary to conduct the type of major assault required to clear an area this large under insurgent control.

"Once we leave, I think Afghan forces will absolutely be able to have the manpower to hold it, but that initial going in and trying to secure something like this, that does take a lot of force and power that they initially wouldn't have," says Capt. Brandon Turner, operations officer for 1/6 Infantry Battalion.

'Surprised' by lack of fighting'

During the initial assault, the marines and Afghan forces faced about two days of resistance that cost the lives of two marines and injured a handful of others. Shortly after, most of the valley went quiet.

The marines had expected to face much heavier fighting. Once inside the valley, they found a number of abandoned Taliban bunker complexes that indicated insurgents had been ready for a battle.

"Their unwillingness to fight surprised me," says Lance Cpl. Terr­ence Moran, a marine from 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1/6 Infantry Battalion.

When the operation started, the marines and Afghan forces inserted into the valley from the north, south, and center, which many say caused insurgents in the area to feel overwhelmed.

"I think they expected us to come from one direction, and only that direction, so they were confused," says Moran.

Prior to the operation there had been no bases inside the valley, except for a small US base next to the dam. Taliban domination of the area had grown so strong that locals said the roads leading in and out of the valley were unsafe, and villagers around the dam lived virtually under siege.

"The situation in Kajaki was really bad before the operation," says Ghulam Ali Baryal, a tribal elder from Kajaki. "People were stuck in the area around the dam. They were concerned that there would be food shortages because no food or supplies were arriving to the city and the farmers couldn't export their crops outside Kajaki."

Marines bring hard-won lessons to bear

As is the plan throughout Afghanistan, the marines will gradually cede ground to their Afghan counterparts as they leave Helmand. For now, there is much optimism among the marines working here.

After 10 years of the US-led war, it's common for soldiers and marines inheriting the security responsibility of an area to be hampered by the mistakes of the unit that preceded them, or even those of units that were stationed in the area years before. But the 1/6 Infantry Battalion is the first international unit based in Kajaki Valley.

"Kajaki is kind of like a blank slate for us," says Lt. Stephen Grodek, who commands Bravo Company's 1st Platoon.

Many marines say they hope they can take what they've learned in a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and apply it here.

One example: When the military began to focus heavily on development projects as part of their strategy to "win the hearts and minds" of the Afghan people, units would make big promises about what services they could provide. Many were broken, causing locals to lose faith in foreign forces. Marines say it is now critical to keep expectations on both sides in check and promise only what they can provide.

"We were able to take the lessons we learned in other districts ... so you don't come in and create the wrong expectations or start inadvertently working through the wrong people. We're able to take a lot of those lessons and do it the right way in Kajaki," says Lt. Col. George Benson, commander of 1/6 Infantry Battalion.

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