When it comes to understanding southwestern Afghanistan, it’s a good idea to pay attention to what the U.S.’s counterparts in Great Britain are thinking.
There are currently some 9,000 British forces deployed in Afghanistan, primarily in Helmand province alongside U.S. Marines. Task Force Helmand, as the British forces are known, covers a broad swath of real estate in between the two U.S. regimental combat teams deployed in the region. The British task force’s leadership is based out of Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s capital, and reports to Maj. Gen. John Toolan, commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) and Regional Command-Southwest, at Camp Leatherneck.
Several reports in British media this week highlight that the Royal Marines will be expanding their geographic footprint in Helmand as the U.S. begins its drawdown. It’s not exactly earth-shattering news — Toolan himself said in August that it was coming — but it has led to headlines blaring that the British will have a “larger role” in the region.
Check out this passage from The Guardian, out of London:
Military planners have known since the summer that the Americans are likely to cut the number of US marines in Helmand, as part of the 27,000 personnel that Barack Obama pledged to return home by September 2012. There are 20,000 US marines in Helmand, but the US is considering slashing that to 6,000 – one Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) unit.
British troops would have to extend operations outside the central areas around the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, and move further south and north.
There’s some definite context missing there. Yes, a U.S. Marine withdrawal in Afghanistan already is underway, with 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, recently returning to Twentynine Palms, Calif. The unit was replaced in the Upper Gereshk Valley and Nahr-e Saraj district by elements of 42 Commando, a Royal Marine unit.
Toolan told me in September that the U.S. Marine withdrawal won’t yield significantly more cuts this year, however. In 2012, it could result in additional 4,000 to 6,000 Marines leaving Afghanistan, which would leave the Corps with about 12,000 to 13,000 Marines in country — NOT 6,000.