Marine Sgt. Dustin Harrington, a squad leader with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, leads his Marines to a nearby compound during a patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Dec. 19. (Cpl. Austin Long/Marine Corps)
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When Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo takes charge as the top Marine commander in Afghanistan this month, he will find the Corps has made significant headway in preparing for complete withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014.
Only 4Marine bases remain to be shuttered or transferred, ranging from Camp Leatherneck — the center of operations in Regional Command Southwest — to the smallest forward operating bases, according to Lt. Col. Cliff W. Gilmore, the senior Marine public affairs officer there.
In February 2013, when Maj. Gen. Walter Lee Miller,commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), took charge of Marine operations, 46 bases —including 24 British bases — were operational in RC(SW) which includes Helmand and Nimroz provinces. His Marines still shouldered the primary responsibility for maintaining security.
Yoo, the commanding general of I MEF (Fwd.), will become the last Marine to command combat troops in Afghanistan after more than a decade of war. He will focus on his Marines’ effort to mentor high-level Afghan personnel and coordinating an organized withdrawal.
The first half of the I MEF (Fwd.) command element deployed to Afghanistan on Jan. 4 from Camp Pendleton, Calif. Another 150 Marines will follow Jan. 12.
Once established at Camp Leatherneck, the unit will oversee about 4,000 Marines, including elements of 1st Marine Division and 1st Marine Logistics Group out of Camp Pendleton, and elements of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif. The 3rd MAW is set to take over for 2nd MAW, out of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., in early February.
The terms of the drawdown remain uncertain. U.S. and Afghan leaders have hammered out a status-of-forces agreement for the continued presence of an unspecified number of U.S. troops after 2014 as a training and counterterrorism force, but President Hamid Karzai has yet to sign it.
The question will linger for months, but some small number of U.S. troops likely will remain in the country as advisers. It is too early to tell, however, if Marines will be among them.
As forces shrink, many top-level billets are being downgraded a rank. For example, Miller, a two-star general is being replaced by Yoo, a one-star. A similar move was made when Col. Scott Jensen took command of 2nd MAW (Fwd.) from Brig. Gen. Gary Thomas on Dec. 9. Jensen will run air operations until 3rd MAW (Fwd.) arrives.
A big job ahead
With about 5,000 Marines now serving in southern Afghanistan, and thousands of vehicles and pieces of equipment left in country, Yoo has a big job ahead, but one that will focus more on shipping gear home than on maintaining regional security.
The seven remaining bases are located in Now Zad, Musa Qala, Sangin, Washir, Garmser, Lashkar Gah and Nahri Saraj districts of Helmand, Miller said in written responses to questions from Marine Corps Times. Most bases are not in district centers, however, as the Afghan National Army and police have taken primary responsibility for security, he added.
But Marines are still patrolling and engaging the enemy regularly, for now. Recently, Marines in the Nad-e Ali district of Helmand took fire from enemy forces and accidentally killed a 4-year-old child while returning fire, Reuters reported Jan. 10. The accident is being attributed to poor visibility, but the incident is creating further strain between the U.S. and the Karzai administration, which renewed calls for an end to unilateral U.S. military operations in Afghan homes and villages.
Despite the incident and continued security operations, the primary focus is now teaching Afghan forces to operate independently, Gilmore said.
“In terms of independent security operations, our role is limited to force protection of our own bases and personnel; the Afghans have taken lead security responsibility and though we advise them in planning and after-action reviews, they conduct nearly all of their security operations independently. Our direct support is generally limited to [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] and air [casualty evacuations], though they now have a limited rotary wing CASEVAC capability,” Gilmore said.
Miller said mentoring, at the brigade level or higher, means pairing his experts with their Afghan counterparts.
“My intelligence officer, operations officer, logistics officer, even my finance, personnel and public affairs officers, all work directly with their Afghan Army and police counterparts on a daily basis in a mentor role to train, advise and assist them in becoming a sustainable, professional and modern security force,” he said.
Miller is confident the transition is generally on the right path.
“These things will continue to improve and develop during Brig. Gen. Yoo’s time in RC(SW),” Miller said. “We’ve also made a lot of progress on retrograde and redeployment of equipment during our time here, so I know we’ll have a good handoff to Brig. Gen. Yoo and his I MEF team. They are positioned to excel at advising and have plenty of flexibility built in so they can adapt as the mission evolves.”
The last Marines in country will likely live in austere conditions.
“I expect living conditions will be expeditionary for the last Marines out,” he said. “That is the nature of the business when you are a Marine and draw down your physical footprint — but they’ll have the basics needed to get the job done: food, shelter and solid security.”