Col. Peter Baumgarten, outgoing commanding officer of 1st Marine Regiment and Task Force Belleau Wood, at Camp Leatherneck in May. (Hope Hodge Seck / Staff)
The last Marine Corps regimental headquarters will leave Afghanistan this month, handing off its responsibilities as drawdown efforts continue.
The exodus of the 1st Marine Regiment, a 45-man core of base security at Camp Leatherneck and the adjoining Camp Bastion in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, is just one of many departures the base has seen in recent months. Since the end of April, military contingents from Denmark, Estonia, Bosnia, Georgia, Jordan and Tonga have all ended their missions in Afghanistan and departed. The only nations’ flags still flying outside of Regional Command Southwest headquarters at Leatherneck are those of the U.S., the United Kingdom and Afghanistan.
With the departure of the Regimental Headquarters, Task Force Belleau Wood, the base’s security element, will be helmed by 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and the British Royal Air Force’s battalion-sized No. 7 Force Protection Wing.
Though the Marine Corps has a mandate to send the last troops home from Leatherneck and Helmand province by the end of this year, officials maintain that force strength in the region has not depreciated much over the summer, with approximately 4,500 Marines and sailors still assigned to Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan.
“There has been no significant reduction in numbers, and we will always maintain sufficient force protection to ensure the security of the Bastion-Leatherneck Complex,” said Marine 1st Lt. Garth Langley, a spokesman for RC-SW.
Task Force Belleau Wood is making up its lost manpower — nearly 1,400 troops from the coalition partner nations, not counting the 45 from the regiment — with augments from other units still in Afghanistan. The U.K.’s Manoeuvre Battle Group in Helmand has shouldered some task force work, as has 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, and even deployed elements of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command.
The departure of most partner nations does bring some benefits to communication and coordination, officials on the ground said.
“It becomes English-only in terms of the language,” said Col. Peter Baumgarten, outgoing commanding officer of 1st Marine Regiment and Task Force Belleau Wood. “So when you talk Marine Corps and Royal Air Force or Marine Corps and British Army, it synchronizes very easily. And so we gain efficiencies and capabilities just in that purity of the construct.”
Baumgarten said task force officials are also working with a company-sized Afghan unit, the 4th Tolay of the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps, to take on more security responsibilities in the area, with regular perimeter patrols around Leatherneck and increasing levels of “deep” defense at wider perimeters around the base.
“Now they have a lot of other responsibilities around Helmand province and up in [urban centers] Marjah and Lashkar Gah,” Baumgarten said. “It’s a very interesting balance to watch the 215th Corps meet their responsibilities in depth throughout the province and then begin picking up more responsibilities in the defense of Bastion-Leatherneck.”
While Helmand province did see an increase in insurgent attacks in Helmand with the commencement of the Taliban fighting season in May, Baumgarten said, the last few months have seen no significant incidents in the vicinity of the base. The Afghan National Army does not routinely release casualty data for its troops, but a Wall Street Journal report from July reported estimates of more than 100 Afghan soldiers killed or wounded in fighting centered in northern Helmand. Nearly 150 Afghan police and more than 140 civilians were also killed or wounded, according to local estimated cited in the report. Afghan National Security Forces have also taken credit for the deaths of nearly 250 Taliban fighters.
Four Marines have been killed in two separate incidents since the start of this year’s fighting season: Staff Sgt. David Stewart, Lance Cpl. Brandon Garabrant, and Lance Cpl. Adam Wolff, all of 2nd CEB; and Sgt. Thomas Spitzer, of 1/7.
“I think the enemy is at an interesting point right now in terms of strategy,” Baumgarten said. “It’s whether they continue to try to focus on the coalition forces that are here ... or whether they focus on the Afghan National Security Forces that are staying behind as we’re walking away. We don’t have that heavy engagement with the enemy right now that we were perhaps facing in the summer fighting season.”
The 1st Marine Regiment is set to have a ceremony at its home base in Camp Pendleton, California, marking the completion of its responsibilities at Task Force Belleau Wood Sept. 5. Soon after, it will receive a new commander: Col. Bill McCollough, shortly back from Afghanistan where he led a police advisory team at Lashkar Gah. The task force will be led by 1/2 until the “end of days” for Marines in Helmand, Baumgarten said.