Marines with Regional Corps Battle School train Afghan soldiers to improve their proficiency with 60mm mortars in May 2013. (Staff Sgt. Ezekiel R. Kitandwe / Marine Corps)
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Senior coalition military commanders in Afghanistan will shake up their command structure as part of the ongoing drawdown in forces, eliminating regional commands in favor of smaller headquarters units, U.S. military officials said.
The shift will come next year as the International Security Assistance Force overseeing the war shifts from Operation Enduring Freedom to Operation Resolute Support, the new name for the mission as coalition combat operations end and Afghan forces begin to fully manage the war themselves. The personnel at each of the coalition’s two-star headquarters across the country will thin and become known as Tactical Advise and Assist Commands, or TAACs, said Marine Maj. Gen. Joseph Osterman, deputy commander for ISAF Joint Command in Kabul.
The command and control of coalition operations will be handled more from Kabul as a result, Osterman said. Things like intelligence and the clearance of artillery fires “will be done more centrally, rather than on the RC level,” he said.
In Helmand province, that will mean the formal end of Regional Command Southwest, based at Camp Leatherneck, the largest U.S. Marine installation in Afghanistan. Current plans call for a force of 4,800 Marines in Helmand as the transition occurs, focused primarily on aviation, logistics, intelligence analysis and other shortfalls in the Afghan military. That’s down from about 21,000 in 2011. There were some 7,000 Marines earlier this year, and 6,000 now. Similar transition is expected to occur in other parts of the country, which the coalition splits into six regional commands.
The force in Helmand will become known as Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, said Lt. Gen. John Toolan, commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif. It will be commanded by Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo and deploy early next year. The Corps used the same name in 2009 and early 2010, but replaced it as the U.S. surged thousands of forces into the country in an attempt to break the Taliban’s momentum.
Changes in Helmand
The top commander in Helmand now is Maj. Gen. W. Lee Miller. He oversees RC-Southwest and II MEF (Fwd.), which deployed early this year.
Afghan forces have sustained hundreds of casualties some weeks this year. Still, they have shown they can fight tactically, so Marine adviser teams have moved from working primarily with their maneuver units, known as kandaks, to higher headquarters for the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, Miller said.
“Our advisers are working with the Afghan National Security Forces to develop the institutional capacity, processes and procedures which will enable them to sustain themselves as a security force and succeed over time,” Miller said. “This includes train-the-trainer programs so the Afghans can build on their own experience to sustain their entry level and specialized skills.”
The Corps took another major step in the drawdown this summer when Brig. Gen. George Smith redeployed to the U.S. He had been overseeing the advising of Afghan forces in the region, but it is now done by Miller’s operations section, Miller said. The reduction in coalition troops in Helmand is counterbalanced by growth in Afghan forces: There are now about 18,000 soldiers across four brigades and 11,000 police in Helmand and neighboring Nimroz province.
Toolan, whose Marines deploy with Yoo next year, said he anticipates the next phase of the drawdown will call for a single Marine infantry battalion to be in Helmand province. It will work primarily as a heliborne quick-reaction force, responding to security threats as they arise. Third Battalion, 7th Marines, deployed this month, and is expected to replace 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, in coming weeks downrange. Both units are out of Twentynine Palms, Calif.
“As the numbers come down, you can’t be everywhere but you‘ll need to be able to respond everywhere,” Toolan said. The shift in the mission is “moving so fast and it’s so dynamic, I just can’t afford to take my eye off the ball.”
Miller said the remaining Marine grunts in Helmand provide force protection and serve as a QRF when needed. Recently, they were involved in “a recovery operation executed on short notice” and the reinforcement of the U.S. consulate in Herat, a city in western Afghanistan. It was attacked Sept. 13 by insurgents who set off car bombs at the facility’s external gate, officials said.
Afghan forces are still heavily engaged with the Taliban in northern Helmand province, primarily in Sangin district, Osterman said. The area showed signs of improvement in 2012, but a New York Times report on Sept. 11 said the Afghan National Army is “in trouble” there and have failed to stop insurgents from taking over several villages in the region.
Osterman advocated taking a longer view, noting that Afghan forces have improved dramatically over the last few years.
“We’ve seen a bunch of senior-level commanders up in there, and they’ve really put a lot of resources against it,” he said of the Taliban in Sangin. “But the Afghan forces have actually held their own pretty well.”