When thousands of US Marines flooded into Helmand eight years ago, they demonstrated Barack Obama’s resolve to quash the once and for all and leave a peaceful province for Afghans to take over.
Two years after the US flag was lowered, however, the Marines are back, in a sign that things turned out rather differently.
“It feels like Groundhog Day,” said Staff Sergeant Robin Spotts, on his third Helmand deployment. About half of the 300 Marines who have arrived over the past two weeks have served in Helmand before. Even the flag raised in a ceremony on Saturday was the same, having been kept at the Pentagon since October 2014.
Afghanistan reels from Taliban's deadliest attack on army since 2001
The situation now is worse than when they left. Areas where the had outposts and walked the bazaars are now inaccessible even for Afghan forces. Of the province’s 14 districts, only two are firmly under government control.
In Marjah, seized in in 2010, the district centre receives provisions from the air. Sangin, the deadliest district in the country for both US Marines and British troops, fell to the Taliban again in March, though US forces downplayed the moment.
On first sight, Helmand looks different to the returning Marines. Camps Leatherneck and Bastion, which sprawl over 10 square miles, once housed 40,000 foreign troops including 20,000 Marines and as many as 7,000 British soldiers. Now named Shorab, the windswept base is a ghost town.
The Marines’ role will be different, too. Brig Gen Roger B Turner, who leads the mission, has said he will not limit his troops to non-combat roles, but they will primarily train and advise Afghan forces.
“If I do get to leave the wire, I get to do what I love to do,” said Corporal Allan Oshea, 23. “Every Marine has a hope for that.” From a military family, Oshea said he felt honoured to be in Helmand. “Do I want to go out and do the whole war fighter thing? Yes, I do. But I’m going to do what I’m told.”
Staff Sergeant George Caldwell, who previously spent eight months in the far south of Helmand that mixed combat operations with training the Afghan border police, said: “I was excited to come back. I have a lot of time invested in Helmand province. We have many, many years of combat operations and we’d hate to see the region become unstable.”
Foreign troops in Afghanistan still end up in the line of fire. On Thursday, two US soldiers were killed and a third wounded by suspected friendly fire during an operation against Isis in Nangarhar where the US , the Moab, on 13 April.
Helmand has been a hellish place, made worse by sweltering summer heat and dust storms. The Taliban are stronger in Helmand than anywhere else. About 350 US Marines have been killed in the province.
The Taliban are now encroaching on the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, and have periodically managed to block the main highway to Kandahar.
I feel like an enduring dedication to this place was always needed
Brig Gen Douglas A Sims, who commanded the outgoing army unit, described staving off the Taliban as “a knife fight”. The Afghan army’s 215th Corps in Helmand, with whom the US marines will be working, struggles not only with record-high casualties but deep seated corruption that has gutted finances and morale.
Though reforms have been slow, the Afghan government plans to review security and political leadership in all 34 provinces. Following a Taliban assault on an army base in Mazar-i Sharif last week in which at least 140 soldiers were killed, the army chief and defence minister have been replaced with younger officials. Turner pinned his hope on a new generation of leaders.
“These guys are younger, more steeped in the the current fight and the current training, and they are more efficient in the battle space,” he said.
As advisers, the Marines will follow the Afghans into the battlefield. The day before they assumed control of the US mission in Helmand, the Taliban announced its annual fighting season. Helmand is poised to be the main battleground.
Spotts wasn’t surprised to be back for another fighting season: “I feel like an enduring dedication to this place was always needed. I think they just need to make it a priority and stick to it.”