Hundreds of additional US troops are slated to deploy to a volatile province in to bolster the local military against a resurgent Taliban, the Guardian has learned.
By month’s end, a force described as battalion-strength, consisting of mostly army soldiers, will arrive in Helmand province where US and UK forces have struggled in battles for over a decade to drive out the . The infantry battalion will relive a smaller one currently in Helmand.
In keeping with Barack Obama’s formal declaration that the , despite elite forces , defense officials said the additional troops would not take part in combat. But they will help the existing Helmand force defend itself against Taliban attacks, officials said.
officials declined to offer many specifics about an upcoming reinforcement, but they described the mission as primarily aimed at bolstering the performance of the embattled 215th Corps of the Afghan military, through training as well as protecting other troops training Afghans in Helmand.
The 215th Corps has recently had its commander replaced amid performance and corruption concerns, and has endured “unusually high operating tempo for long periods of time”, outgoing US commander General John Campbell testified to Congress last week. It is among four Afghan corps that still have US military advisers embedded within it, despite a recent pullback to advise at higher levels.
“Our mission remains the same,” said Colonel Michael Lawhorn, a spokesman for the US command in Kabul, “to train, advise, and assist our Afghan counterparts, and not to participate in combat operations.”
The Guardian understands the additional forces in Helmand will not increase the current total troop numbers in Afghanistan, which currently stand at 9,800, but will instead be deployed from troops already in the country. Batallion strengths vary, but can constitute a force of up to 800 troops. The incoming battalion, officials said, is comprised of around 200 more soldiers than the one it relieves.
While new advisers make up a significant component of the additional forces, Lawhorn said that another mission of the reinforcement will be to “bolster force protection for the current staff of advisers”, suggesting a concern for the safety of the existing Helmand force amid major recent Taliban gains.
The US military has sounded warnings of a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, in Helmand and beyond, that have prompted significant revisions in Obama’s war plans.
Already Obama has agreed to leave 5,500 troops in Afghanistan past the end of his presidency, but his newly confirmed commander, General John “Mick” Nicholson, told a Senate panel recently that increased insurgent violence will prompt him to , and left the door open to bolstering a force Obama has sought to draw down.
In January, and two others were wounded as they assisted the Afghan military in repelling a Taliban assault in the province that lasted hours.
While the Pentagon initially resisted categorizing the battle as “combat”, press secretary Peter Cook called it a “”, illustrating how the difference between combat and advisory missions can blur in practice.
Opium-rich Helmand has emerged as a Taliban priority, as most of its 2015 attacks focused on the province. Unlike earlier eras of the war, the Taliban have declined to take a winter break and have fought in the province all year.
The Taliban have come close to overrunning a district center in Helmand, Sangin, where more than 100 UK troops died during a war that has entered its 15th year, despite US airstrikes in late December. Kabul is said to control , including the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.
Outgoing commander Campbell, testifying to Congress last week, said that while current rules of engagement prevented US troops who are not engaged in counter-terrorism raids from initiating fights with the Taliban, “I have no restrictions on providing force protection” for troops that train Afghans.
Lawhorn described the reinforcement as a “planned deployment of additional personnel”, but at least one congressional official contacted by the Guardian was unaware of the plan.
Two days after this story was published, a US defense official who would not speak for attribution clarified that the increased troop level represented an “enhancement of the existing force protection mission” for US troops training their Afghan counterparts.
“The battalion will bring a small number of trainers to assist with the efforts to re-man, re-equip and re-train the 215th Corps, but its primary mission will remain force protection,” the official said.