The Marine Corps’ footprint in Afghanistan is changing dramatically as a drawdown in forces continues throughout the summer.
The latest changes include a shift in central Helmand province in which one infantry battalion — 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. — is distributed across Marjah, Nawa, and several other districts, with Afghan forces taking a leading role. Second Battalion, 9th Marines, and 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, both out of Lejeune, left the battlefield recently and were not replaced.
The Corps also has realigned all remaining infantry units to fall under Regimental Combat Team 6, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., as Afghan National Security Forces increasingly lead security operations in Helmand. The change took effect July 5 when RCT-5, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., transferred its powers to RCT-6. RCT-5’s headquarters element was not replaced.
“Over this last year, we’ve really spent the time trying to transition the Afghans into the lead, and to build their forces,” said Col. Roger Turner, commander of RCT-5, in a Marine Corps news release. “They’ve increased their capability and they’ve gotten to where they can really run the show.”
RCT-6, commanded by Col. John Shafer, now includes both the remaining units in northern Helmand and 3/8. Its headquarters elements will be moved from Camp Delaram II to Camp Leatherneck, the Corps’ largest base in Afghanistan. That stands in contrast to most of the last two years, when there were two RCT headquarters in Helmand. One was based at Camp Dwyer in Garmser district, and the other was based at Delaram II, just west of northern Helmand in Nimroz province.
Marine spokesmen declined to specify how many Marines are currently on the ground in Helmand, but stressed that the reduction of forces in Helmand is part of a deliberate plan to shrink the U.S. footprint to the size it was in 2009, before President Obama authorized the temporary surge of about 23,000 troops. That surge effectively grew the Marine presence in Afghanistan from about 8,000 Marines to a peek of more than 21,000.
“The current U.S. plan calls for a drawdown of 23,000 American troops by the end of September,” said Lt. Col. Stewart Upton, a spokesman at Camp Leatherneck. “The numbers the president put out there need to be met. We will have the total forces on the ground we need for the mission.”
Marine officials told Marine Corps Times in May that there were about 15,800 in Helmand at the time. The number is expected to drop to as low as 7,000 by October.
Gretel Kovach of the San Diego Union Tribune is currently embedded with Marine units in Afghanistan. She published this substantial piece over the weekend after joining Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus on a battlefield circulation of Helmand.