by David Jolly
New York Times
February 9, 2016
KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States Army will deploy hundreds of soldiers to the southern Afghan province of Helmand, where government forces have been pushed to the brink by Taliban militants, a military spokesman said Tuesday.
It will be the largest deployment of American troops outside major bases in Afghanistan since the end of the NATO combat mission in 2014. Though the military insists that the soldiers will not take active combat roles, American Special Operations forces have increasingly been drawn into the fighting in Helmand as one important district after another has fallen or been threatened by Taliban insurgents.
Col. Michael T. Lawhorn, a spokesman for the United States military in Afghanistan, said in a statement that the new deployment would provide protection for the current Special Operations troops in Helmand and give extra support and training for the 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army. Afghan forces in Helmand have taken heavy casualties in recent months and have been cut off by the Taliban in many places.
“Our mission,” Colonel Lawhorn said, “remains the same: to train, advise, and assist our Afghan counterparts, and not to participate in combat operations.”
He would not detail the number of troops or the unit involved in the deployment, citing Pentagon policy. But a senior American military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters, said the unit being sent to Helmand, the Second Battalion, 87th Infantry, was slightly smaller than the usual battalion size of 700 to 800 soldiers. On Monday, The Guardian reported that up to a battalion would be sent to Helmand.
The new troops will replace another unit that was already in Afghanistan, the official said, and will not add to the total number of American troops in the country, which stands at roughly 9,800.
The official could not say where the deployment would be based within Helmand but said that the problems in the province demanded the attention of American and Afghan commanders.
“Certainly Helmand is the diciest place in Afghanistan right now, the place where A.N.S.F. have had the most setbacks from without and within,” the official said, using the abbreviation for the Afghan National Security Forces, meaning the army and the police. “It’s part of what matters most right now for the future of the country.”
The additional American soldiers would be “doing some retraining, re-equipping and advising” for the troubled Afghan 215th Army Corps, the official added.
Alarm has risen in Kabul and Washington as a resurgent Taliban insurgency has pushed government forces to the edge. Faced with the possible collapse of the Afghan Army and police in Helmand, the Pentagon began ratcheting up the role of American Special Operations forces there last autumn, stepping up air attacks and putting more advisers on the ground. One American was killed and two were wounded there in early January as Afghan and American troops sought to break a Taliban encirclement of the Marja district.
Some Afghan officials have advocated a bigger role for American troops for months.
The numbers being discussed “aren’t enough; 700 or so troops cannot solve such a big problem,” as Helmand is a very big province, said Lt. Gen. Rahmatullah Raufi, a former Afghan Army general who now commands the Afghan Border Police.
He nonetheless welcomed the Americans’ decision to support the Afghan Army and police in the south, saying, “They’ll be equipped with advanced weaponry, they’ll have better air support and they can fight well alongside the A.N.S.F. They’ll inflict extensive pressure on the enemy.”
“If similar action were taken in other volatile provinces,” he said, “it would be a blow to the enemy and terrorists.”
Under the current security agreement with Afghanistan, American forces are mostly in the country to provide training and logistical support, and as part of a counterterrorism mission targeting Al Qaeda and a splinter group of Islamic State militants. But the American command has interpreted the rules broadly, joining the fight against Taliban insurgents when Afghan forces have broken down, as when the northern city of Kunduz was taken over by the militants last September.
“American forces in Afghanistan, and in this specific case in Helmand, are in the role of train, advise and assist,” said Sayed Zafar Hashemi, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani. “The Afghan forces are on the lead, carrying out the combat mission.”
Helmand has been besieged by Taliban militants since the NATO and United States combat mission ended in 2014, and it has long been one of the most contested parts of the country. The Helmand opium fields are also among the most productive in the world, making the province an economic prize disputed by the insurgents, criminal gangs and corrupt government officials alike. It shares a porous border with Pakistan, where the Taliban’s leaders are based, adding to its strategic value.
The Helmand police and the 215th Army Corps have been ground down, with morale plummeting and desertions increasing as underfed, undertrained and underequipped units fight on without rest. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee last week, Gen. John F. Campbell, the outgoing chief of NATO and United States forces in Afghanistan, expressed concern about the Afghan military. “Ultimately,” he said, “Afghanistan has not achieved an enduring level of security and stability that justifies reduction in our support in 2016.”
The number of American troops in Afghanistan was supposed to fall to 5,500 by the end of 2016. That drawdown now appears to be in doubt, as Lt. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., who will replace General Campbell, told senators in January that he wanted to “re-look” at the military’s needs in the country, considering “what is necessary, what amount of capability is necessary given the current conditions.”
Aimal Faizi, who was a spokesman for former President Hamid Karzai, said that sending more American troops to Helmand again would be a return to an “ill-advised” military strategy that failed to “fight the roots of terrorism.”
Mr. Faizi added: “After 15 years of failed military operations, killings and destruction in Helmand, it is also right to worry that the local people in Helmand will no more see the Americans as a liberating force but an occupying force this time. It is all very unfortunate.”
Matthew Rosenberg contributed reporting from Washington, and Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul.