Marines ready to roll, with nowhere to go: Still plan missions — but for Afghan, not U.S., forces

  • U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. David Denseley, center, from Salt Lake City, Utah assists the Afghan National Army mortarmen clean out the bore of a 60mm mortar at a mortar range near Camp Shorabak, Helmand province, Afghanistan on May 4, 2013. (Credit: Staff Sgt. Ezekiel R. Kitandwe/U.S. Marine Corps) U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. David Denseley, center, from Salt Lake City, Utah assists the Afghan National Army mortarmen clean out the bore of a 60mm mortar at a mortar range near Camp Shorabak, Helmand province, Afghanistan on May 4, 2013. (Credit: Staff Sgt. Ezekiel R. Kitandwe/U.S. Marine Corps)
  • Credit: Marines watch proudly as their Afghan National Army students graduate from a class on using 60mm mortars at Camp Shorabak, Afghanistan on May 9th, 2013. Credit: Kristina Wong/The Washington TimesCredit: Marines watch proudly as their Afghan National Army students graduate from a class on using 60mm mortars at Camp Shorabak, Afghanistan on May 9th, 2013. Credit: Kristina Wong/The Washington Times
  • An Afghan National Army soldier graduates from a course on 60mm mortar systems, taught by coalition instructors at the Regional Corps Battle School on May 9, 2013 at Camp Shorabak in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (Credit: Kristina Wong/The Washington Times)An Afghan National Army soldier graduates from a course on 60mm mortar systems, taught by coalition instructors at the Regional Corps Battle School on May 9, 2013 at Camp Shorabak in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (Credit: Kristina Wong/The Washington Times)
  • Afghan National Army soldiers march in formation on May 9, 2013 at Camp Shorabak, an Afghan base in Southwest Afghanistan where they live, train and take courses. (Credit: Kristina Wong/The Washington Times)Afghan National Army soldiers march in formation on May 9, 2013 at Camp Shorabak, an Afghan base in Southwest Afghanistan where they live, train and take courses. (Credit: Kristina Wong/The Washington Times)
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First of two parts

CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan — As U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, “hurry up and wait” — which many enlisted personnel have long referred to jokingly as their standing order — applies now more than ever, illustrated by a recent operation briefing at this Marine base.

About a dozen Marines gathered on a wooden deck outside their command post to be briefed on a mission that would make them moving targets for Taliban fighters: escorting a top Marine adviser to a meeting with Afghan tribal leaders across 30 miles of scorching desert to Marjah, a key district in Helmand province.

The hourlong convoy would take them via a route where roadside bombs — the No. 1 killer of U.S. forces in Afghanistan — had been buried. Just days before, three British soldiers were killed when their heavily armored vehicle hit a 220- to 330-pound bomb.

Insurgents would be able see the Marines’ convoy kicking up sand from miles away. Surveillance would be required to make sure the Taliban did not “back lay” roadside bombs that would hit the convoy on its way back from Marjah.

“Let’s put it this way: If we get hit, we won’t feel it,” Marine Lt. Col. Philip Treglia, the officer in charge of advising the Afghan National Army’s 1st Brigade of the 215th Maiwand Corps, said during the briefing.

The mission to Marjah was to accompany Brig. Gen. Mohammad Shujaee, commander of the 1st Brigade, to an Afghan National Army “shura” with top district officials. The meeting was to show that, although the Marines had pulled out of the district two weeks earlier as part of the U.S. withdrawal from the country, they were still there to support the Afghan forces they had trained during the past few years.

It would mark the Afghan leader’s first return to Marjah, and the first time they were going without any Marine bases in the immediate area. The Marines’ Combat Outpost Hansen, just north of the district, had just been closed, and there would be no backup in the area other than Afghan forces.

Local informants said about 100 insurgents would be in the area, 1st Lt. Mike “Buck” Leblanc said during the briefing. There were also reports there would be as many as 1,000 insurgents, he added.

“I’ll bring another magazine,” an enlisted Marine shouted, making those around him laugh. Reports of 100 insurgents often grow to 1,000 because of redundant information among Afghan intelligence officers.

The shura was considered a “high-level target” because so many Afghan officials would be in one place — Gen. Shujaee; several battalion commanders; Marjah’s district governor; the chief of police and other officials.

The Taliban were expected to try to exact revenge against the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, which had killed 26 insurgents at the beginning of March during a poppy-clearing operation.

In addition, the Taliban’s spring fighting season had kicked off just a week earlier, and enemy activity in Regional Command Southwest had increased, although coalition officials could not say by how much, since their ability to track incidents across Afghanistan had decreased as combat forces were being pulled back, said Marine Lt. Col. Cliff Gilmore, a regional spokesman.

Moreover, Marjah would be a significant place for the Marines to make an appearance, being where the first major offensive of the 2009 U.S. military surge had begun.

A total of 290 coalition forces died in Helmand during the first summer when all surge forces were in place.

But despite the planning, the briefing and other preparations the Marines had dutifully carried out, their mission was canceled the next day, with “hurry up and wait” echoing in their heads.

Gen. Shujaee’s boss — Maj. Gen. Sayed Malook, commander of the Afghan army’s 215th Corps — decided to visit troops at Camp Garmsir, an Afghan base adjacent to Camp Dwyer. Gen. Shujaee would greet his boss at the camp, and Col. Treglia and his men would stay at Dwyer.

The canceled mission is emblematic of the Marines’ new role in southwest Afghanistan: Afghan forces now take the lead in operations in the southern part of Helmand and in 80 percent of central Helmand.

“Most of the time, we only hear about missions from the Afghans after they’re done,” Col. Treglia said.

Tomorrow: Drawing down and “green on blue” attacks

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