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Top Marine in Helmand: Victory will be a quiet exit

Jun. 1, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, right, talks with regional leaders at a shura outside Forward Operating Base Sabit Qadam in Sangin, Afghanistan.
Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, right, talks with regional leaders at a shura outside Forward Operating Base Sabit Qadam in Sangin, Afghanistan. (Hope Hodge Seck / Staff)
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CAMP LEATHERNECK, AFGHANISTAN — The commander of the skeleton Marine Corps force remaining in Afghanistan has a laundry list of goals he’d like to see accomplished before the last Marines leave later this year: improve the counter-IED capabilities of the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps in Helmand province; boost recruiting and force sustainment for the Afghan National Security Forces, and institutionalize base maintenance and sustainment.

But his top priority is clear: Get everyone out of Afghanistan safely.

“Failure ... would be another high-profile attack as we leave here,” Brig Gen. Daniel Yoo told Marine Corps Times in an interview at his office aboard Camp Leatherneck. “Something like Bastion, or some mass casualty that affects the coalition. ... But that’s not going to happen.”

Yoo took command of Regional Command Southwest in January, overseeing the Marines and coalition personnel in Afghanistan’s Helmand and Nimroz provinces. Replacing Maj. Gen. Walter “Lee” Miller, Yoo became the first one-star to command RC-SW, as well as the officer tasked with supervising its dissolution. There were seven operational Marine bases when he took command, and now there are three, housing fewer than 4,500 Marines.

President Obama’s May 28 announcement that nearly 10,000 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan for two years after 2014 has limited implications for Helmand province, which will not house any of that contingency force. And earlier this year, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos made it clear the Marines were, for all intents and purposes, ready to depart the region.

“My sense is, it’s about as good as it’s going to get,” Amos told a Washington, D.C., audience in February.

With a limited mandate, Yoo has poured resources into security efforts, focusing on a peaceful and quiet withdrawal. In addition to the ongoing ramp-up of base security in the wake of the deadly September 2012 insurgent raid on Camp Bastion, Yoo oversaw the deployment of 155mm howitzers to Afghanistan for the first time since 2011, saying the big cannons would add “capability and capacity” during the retrograde. He also collaborated with the leaders of 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion, the MARSOC unit headquartered on the base, to extend security and patrolling efforts in the surrounding rural areas and villages.

He is furthering negotiations with the commander of the 215th Corps, Maj. Gen. Sayed Malouk, regarding the future of the sprawling 36-square-mile base after the coalition troops pull out. Leatherneck is not the hive of activity it once was, but still houses thousands of structures and complex facilities, such as the massive dining halls and headquarters buildings.

With some 18,000 soldiers to provide security across Helmand and Nimroz provinces, Malouk needs to make tough decisions about what the 215th Corps can manage, Yoo said. Practically, he said, the Marines were looking at giving Malouk a square piece of the base connecting his headquarters at Camp Shorabak with the Bastion airfield, which may be turned into an Afghan regional military airport in coming years.

“It’s a matter of what they can utilize and sustain,” Yoo said. “We don’t want the base to become a millstone for them.”

Marines are seeing signs of success with the fledgling 215th Corps since it took the lead for combat operations last summer, with a largely peaceful election in April and revamped military training harvesting dividends — Afghan training teams now deploy to rural districts to instruct local units.

Still, Helmand remains one of Afghanistan’s most violent provinces, and Yoo said progress should be viewed in context.

“There’s some areas in the United States you don’t go out at night by yourself. So Sangin is still a very dangerous area, northern Helmand is a very dangerous area,” he said. “But they’ve done very well to provide some semblance of stability for Afghan eyes. Maybe not for a Western eye.”

The most pressing problems for the 215th Corps now are administrative, Marine officials said. The logistics side of their military operations, including supply and scheduling, can be inconsistent and disorganized. And units often don’t trust that gear and vehicles they send to the central maintenance depot in Kabul will be returned to them. Yoo said the onus to assist with these long-term problems was not just on Marines and U.S. troops, but on the Afghan government and the international community.

“Anyone who reflects on where Afghanistan is in five years, I think that’s too early,” Yoo said, adding that it might be a decade before the U.S. sees the long-term results of its efforts. “We came here for specific reasons in 2001; I think as we move forward and leave here, it’s really up to the Afghans.”

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