CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – Days after handing over all security duties to local forces, the head of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade - Afghanistan said he believes that Afghans have good control of their country.
"I am optimistic that they will continue to provide security to their nation," said Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, commanding general of MEB-Afghanistan and the last commanding general of International Security Assistance Force's Regional Command Southwest.
Afghans are taking the majority of combat casualties in their country because they're doing most of the fighting, Yoo said. He has had conversations with Afghan government leaders, and said he believes they will maintain control as coalition forces end their combat role there and begin a support mission.
On Oct. 27, the MEB turned over Camp Leatherneck to the Afghan National Army's 215th Corps, effectively ending the Marine Corps' mission in the country. Yoo said there are no more regular missions for Marines there, but Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command may have a presence.
"From the conventional side, we won't be going back," he said at the MEB's Nov. 6 homecoming here. About 75 Marines from the MEB's headquarters element returned to California, ending their final deployment to Afghanistan.
Related Reading: NATO: Afghan security deaths up as they lead fight
The transition of military duties coincides with two transitions in Afghanistan: Ashraf Ghani became president in late September, creating a political power shift, and Yoo said the upcoming winter fighting season tends to "reset" combat operations. While the country's government and security forces are in flux, Yoo said he is confident that the Afghan officials and military will maintain the relative peace there.
"There's a little risk to that," he said. He did, however, said he still sees government corruption and the poppy industry as ongoing problems.
Next year, ISAF will start Resolute Support, a non-combat mission where coalition partners will train, advise and assist Afghan security forces.
Shutting it down
The Marines who returned from Camp Leatherneck said that they appreciate that their homecoming is a symbol of the end of the war in Afghanistan.
"It was my third time there, and it felt historic," said Capt. Jeremy Kim, the base operations officer.
But other than the history, they were relieved that Camp Leatherneck, the gritty base that thousands of Marines called home, is only left in their memories.
"I can't say there's anything I'd miss," Kim said.
Kim deployed there twice before, and said the demilitarization of Camp Leatherneck was the biggest change since his first tour in 2009. This time, he spent the last two weeks cleaning up trash just to eliminate Marines' traces, he said.
Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Aaron Spaulding first deployed to Afghanistan in 2001 and said the conditions were austere back then.
"There was nothing there in 2001. No base," he said. "I lived in a fighting hole I dug."
Through four tours, Spaulding said he saw the steady build-up and dismantling of U.S. military infrastructure there. By the time he left, except for a few freshly-abandoned buildings, he said it was almost as austere as when he first arrived.
"It was kind of a zombie land," he said.
But leaving Leatherneck for the last time in the final days of the combat mission felt good, he said.
"You have no idea," Spaulding said. "It felt kind of historic for me."
As the Corps transitions to a smaller, more agile expeditionary force, families are also transitioning to a life where loved ones no longer deploy to Afghanistan.
Nora Patterson was waiting for her dad, Col. Doug Patterson, a logistics officer, to return. He had deployed five or six times over the last decade, and she said she's looking forward to him being home all the time.
"It's going to be a weird adjustment," she said. "I think it made it easier that it was the last one; it made it go quicker."■