WASHINGTON – Afghan forces backed by U.S. troops in Afghanistan's turbulent Helmand Province have gained ground in recent months, but the Taliban still maintains control over roughly half the province, according to the senior Marine commander who just returned from a nine-month deployment to the region.
Marine Brig. Gen. Roger Turner said Thursday that as the next unit of Marines takes over in Helmand, there will be a couple hundred more that will be focused on advising smaller Afghan units closer to the fight.
He said the new deployment of Marines, led by Brig. Gen. Benjamin Watson, will be able to work more with Afghan kandaks, which are roughly equivalent to an American battalion of about 600 forces. And the more often that happens, Turner said, the faster the Afghans will make progress in the fight.
"Gen. Watson already has more capability and capacity than I did to advise at lower levels," Turner told a small number of reporters during a briefing Thursday. "The more Afghan centers of control you can touch, the faster you can make progress."
His comments come as violence is spiking across Afghanistan, including a number of high-profile attacks and suicide bombings around Kabul, the capital.
Turner, who deployed to Afghanistan with about 300 Marines last April, returned home in mid-January. Watson has roughly 400 Marines, but more are expected to be focused on the advise-and-assist mission with the Afghan units. In addition, the U.S. military has sent a squadron of A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft to the fight around Helmand Province in order to provide more close air support and target the Taliban drug trade.
Turner said he saw progress during his deployment, describing fierce early fights against large formations of well-organized, well-trained and well-equipped Taliban units. Over time, he said, the Afghan forces — including the National Army's 215th Corps — gathered momentum and were able to take back several regions that had been controlled by the Taliban.
The Afghans' ultimately successful assault to take back the Nawa after a hard-fought battle that lasted eight weeks gave the local forces the confidence to press on and forced the Taliban to shift its focus from other areas, Turner said.
"It was the first time they took back terrain in a Taliban stronghold," Turner said, adding that the Afghan forces have managed to sustain that initiative. He said an infusion of younger commanders who have fought with and learned from the coalition for the past decade or more is helpful.
He added that while the Marines are in combat roles in Helmand, the Afghan troops led the fighting and his forces generally stayed back, away from the front lines. "I'm not going to expose our forces to risk if I don't need to," he said.
Still, the Taliban continues to hold wide swaths of territory in the northern and southern parts of the province.
Afghanistan's Helmand province has long been a prime battleground, particularly the area around Sangin, the insurgency's heartland.
After the U.S. and NATO forces formally concluded their combat mission at the end of 2014 and shifted to a training role, the situation in Helmand began to dramatically deteriorate. The Marine deployment there last year was the first since 2014, and marked a concerted U.S. and coalition effort to increase the training and advising of Afghan forces to make them better able to defend their country.
At the same time, the Trump administration expanded the U.S. military's combat authorities, allowing American forces to more aggressively go after the Taliban and other insurgents, including with more targeted airstrikes.