Marine forces in southwestern Afghanistan have broadly improved security there, but they must keep pushing before U.S. forces in country are reduced next year as part of a planned drawdown, the top officer in the region said.
Marine commanders have more resources and forces available in theater than they ever have, and have pushed the insurgency out of most population centers in central Helmand province, Maj. Gen. John Toolan, commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) and Regional Command-Southwest, said during a phone interview.
However, the estimated 20,000 Marines in Afghanistan will dwindle to about 18,000 by the end of this year, with another 4,000 to 6,000 likely leaving by the end of 2012, Toolan said. That would leave the U.S. with 12,000 to 13,000 Marines in Afghanistan by the end of 2012, after next summer’s fighting season concludes.
“This is the time now – and in next year’s fighting season – to really build confidence within the Afghan security forces that they can do this job,” Toolan said. “We’ll lose a couple of thousand [Marines going home] now, but we’ll lose more next year.”
The Marine drawdown will begin this fall when 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif., concludes its deployment. The unit has patrolled Nahr-e-Saraj district, south of volatile Sangin, where Marines still engage insurgents in firefights. It will be replaced by 42 Commando, a British Royal Marine unit that already has forces operating there.
The looming drawdown creates a sense of urgency to put Afghan security forces in positions of authority. Already, they handle most of the security operations in Nimroz province, a sprawling, sparsely populated region between Helmand and the Iranian border, Toolan said.
The next step is to have them take the lead in Marjah, Garmser, Nawa and other districts in central Helmand that have been largely pacified, allowing Marine forces to shift their focus to the northern part of the province.
RC-Southwest also will lose about 500 British troops by the end of the year as their country also reduces forces in Afghanistan, but Toolan said the effect will be minimal.
There are now about 10,000 coalition forces also under his command, and the number is expected to remain similar next year. In fact, Georgia plans to double its commitment to the mission, sending a second 800-man battalion to deploy with Marine forces next spring.
It’s also possible that the Corps’ area of operations will shift by late 2012, as the Army sends more soldiers to fight in the mountains along Afghanistan’s eastern border.
story by: Dan Lamothe
photo courtesy of: USMC