As Marines Exit Afghan Province, a Feeling That a Campaign Was Worth It

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CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- On a whirlwind Christmas tour of Helmand Province in 2010, Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, visited 11 bases in a single day. At one, thousands of Marines showed up for prime rib, dust-covered and grim-faced after weeks of dodging and delivering gunfire, seeing comrades killed, and sleeping on dirt. Helmand had become Marineistan.

Against the judgment of some Pentagon officials, the corps had made the province the defining battleground of its Afghan campaign, concentrating forces here and launching aggressive assaults into Taliban-controlled districts. Along the way, the Marines took some of the heaviest casualties of the war: about 360 killed in action and more than 4,700 wounded, many grievously.

Today, the Marine force in Helmand has shrunk to fewer than 7,000, from a peak of 21,000. Of 240 NATO bases that once dotted the province, just 44 remain. Daily firefights have been replaced by occasional skirmishes, and casualties are rare -- one Marine killed in action this year. At sprawling Camp Leatherneck, their headquarters, lots once packed with armored vehicles are as desolate as frontier ghost towns.

As if to put an exclamation point on the exodus, General Amos used a trip last month to visit not just infantrymen but also a logistics company that has been assiduously shipping matériel home, trying to beat the Army to the exit.

"Two years from now, this place is going to be empty," General Amos told the company. "What you're doing here will have paid off."

But as the Marines shift from Helmand to assignments in the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific, a question looms: Was it all worth it?

General Amos says he has little doubt that it was. The number of violent events, from gunshots to roadside bombs, has dropped in almost every district since 2010, Marine commanders say, though the figures are still being finalized. Roads have been paved and markets secured, allowing commerce to grow in places like Marja, Nad Ali and Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital. Civilian casualties are down by 20 percent.

As Marine and British forces have drawn down, the Afghan National Army has grown, to almost four brigades with more than 16,000 soldiers. Those forces now patrol much of southern Helmand independently, the Marines say. In a few months, they will be responsible for securing the rest of the province with much less, and more distant, NATO support.

"I think history has proved it was the right thing to do," General Amos said of the decision to increase the Marine presence in Helmand. "It doesn't mean it's not dangerous. It doesn't mean it couldn't turn overnight. But I don't think it's going to turn."

Others are not so sure, and they see a Taliban resurgence as soon as the Marines depart. Helmand's poppy harvest, which provides 40 percent of the world's opium supply, remains a coveted prize. In several northern districts, violence has gone up in the past year. And government corruption is so rampant -- the local police are routinely accused of shaking down and sexually abusing residents -- that loyalty to the government remains shaky at best.

"You will never get people to take a risk on behalf of a government that is hurting them," said Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has worked in Afghanistan for most of the past decade, including as a senior adviser to the United States military.

In their internal briefings, the Marines acknowledge widespread lawlessness stemming from conflicts among corrupt officials, tribal leaders and drug gangs. "This is Chicago in the 1930s," Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus, the departing commander of NATO forces in Helmand, said in one briefing.

And while the Marines see progress by the Afghan Army, they concede that it is lacking basic abilities, including surveillance technology, systems to train and equip troops, helicopters to evacuate casualties, and medical professionals to treat them.

Though NATO is helping build a hospital in Lashkar Gah, American officials do not know whether the Afghan government can staff it.

Yet the Marines express few doubts that they will leave Helmand better off than when they arrived. "We created a security bubble that has allowed governance to shoot up," General Gurganus said. "I won't tell you it's blossomed. But there are leaves."

Their focus now is on packing -- trying to get their equipment through the limited transportation pipeline quickly enough to beat the rush when the Army pullout begins in earnest, but not so fast as to leave units without vital equipment.

At Camp Leatherneck, entire warehouses are filled with Marines inventorying and packaging equipment. Mine-resistant trucks sit in lots awaiting transport to Middle Eastern ports, where they will be loaded onto ships and sailed to the United States, as well as to Okinawa and elsewhere in the Pacific.

During the troop increase, a quarter of all the Marine Corps' equipment was in Helmand, General Amos estimated. Worried that it would take years to move it all out, the Marines created a special unit under the tutelage of specialists who had worked in Iraq. Since last summer, the unit has moved two-thirds of the Marines' matériel out of Afghanistan.

Soon, the Marines may shrink Camp Leatherneck itself, wrapping what remains into Camp Bastion, the British base and airfield next door.

There are still combat troops in Helmand, of course, and memories of the fierce fighting are evident along walls of the command center at Camp Leatherneck, where photographs pay homage to every NATO service member killed in Helmand. Two years ago, those memorials fit on one wall; today they hang along three separate corridors.

Yet as General Amos toured outposts in two districts, the war felt all but over.

At Forward Operating Base Jackson in Sangin district, once home to the Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, which lost 25 Marines in seven months between 2010 and 2011, only a few platoons remain.

"Now, Afghans are fighting Afghans," said Lt. Col. Donald Tomich, the commander of the battalion currently there.

During the height of the troop increase, some Marine battalions were expected to rotate through Helmand more than once. With that history in mind, Lt. Col. Carl Cooper, the battalion commander at Forward Operating Base Geronimo in Nawa district, completed a briefing by declaring, "We'll be back."

General Amos corrected him. "You'll be going somewhere," he said. "But it won't be to this part of the world."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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