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Back to the Future or Forward to the Past? US troops back to Helmand in force

February 9, 2016

Summary:  US combat troops are sent back into Helmand to support the Afghan army. 

The Guardian is reporting a significant group of US troops going back into Helmand province to support the seemingly faltering performance of the Afghan National Army:

The Guardian, 8 February, 2016: Hundreds of additional US troops are slated to deploy to a volatile province in Afghanistan 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 Taliban….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 [and]…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.

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…

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…

While the Pentagon initially resisted categorizing the battle as “combat”, press secretary Peter Cook called it a “combat situation, but [US troops] are not in the lead intentionally”, 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 only three of Helmand’s 14 districts, including the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.

This has a worrying feel of a drip, drip return to major international operations.  I tried previously, as the ISAF mission closed down, to hazard a few thoughts about the circumstances under which NATO might ever return to Afghanistan.  Although I said “if they ever leave”, I could/should have been a little more careful to point out the risk of mission creep for those remaining residual forces.

How badly does Mr Obama want to declare “mission accomplished” in the last year of his presidency?

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