Marines stand back as Afghans take lead

Yet the threat of danger never far away even with reduced combat role

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CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan — For Marines training and working with Afghan troops to help secure their war-torn country, danger is ever-present — even at bases operated by their Afghan counterparts.

Marines inside Afghan bases are instructed to keep their guns on the highest readiness condition, and are always accompanied by “guardian angels” — Marines who provide security for those interacting with Afghan troops.

Meanwhile, most Afghan troops are not allowed to carry weapons in their bases, except for security guards.

“There are about 800 Afghans here — 799 of those Afghans are awesome,” Marine Lt. Col. Philip Treglia, the officer in charge of advising the Afghan National Army’s 1st Brigade of the 215th Maiwand Corps, said at Camp Garmsir, an Afghan base near his Marines’ Camp Dwyer. “It’s that ‘one’ you have to worry about, and it’s not because of the Taliban. It’s because he got into an argument that morning.

“Always keep your head on a swivel.”

They’re called “green on blue” attacks — in which Afghan security forces turn their weapons on their coalition partners. At least six have occurred this year, down from 17 at this time last year.

As most coalition combat troops prepare to leave the country by the end of 2014, Afghan forces increasingly are taking the lead in providing for their country’s internal security.

Here in southwest Afghanistan, the Marines have killed, captured and run off so many insurgents that now there are only “low-level criminals” who work for the Taliban and about 70 hard-core Taliban in the immediate area, Col. Treglia said.

Afghan forces should be able to keep the Taliban from returning to the area because they are capable and in positions of power they do not want to give up, he said. In this vast desert area, Afghan troops can easily spot an outsider coming in or someone trying to plant a roadside bomb, and can resolve the situation themselves, he said.

“This is a big time [counterinsurgency] win,” Col. Treglia said.

Coalition officials expect the Taliban to try to mount a comeback in the southwest as U.S. troops withdraw, and Brig. Gen. Mohammad Shujaee, commander of the 1st Brigade, said insurgents are trying to gain back control of areas daily.

“Definitely the enemies are trying to gain control of the southwest area in some parts, but still they have the al Qaeda terrorists and some other Taliban and their sympathizers here,” Gen. Shujaee said. “But as you see, most of their leaders have been arrested, most of them have been disrupted, the [Afghan] forces, they are now capable, and they do not let them to disrupt security in the southwest region.”

Since the Taliban announced its spring offensive April 27, at least 19 coalition troops have been killed.

But Afghan forces are bearing the brunt of casualties — a few hundred every month, and that number is expected to climb during the fighting season, coalition officials say.

“The Taliban know it’s an important season,” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Cliff Gilmore, a regional spokesman.

Otherwise, life is relatively quiet for most troops in southwest Afghanistan, where Marines live in rows of tents or metal containers on top of rocks, gravel or dirt separated by concrete barriers. Sand continuously drifts through the air, and temperatures soon hit triple digits.

During their downtime, many exercise, shoot pool, watch movies, surf the Internet and take online classes. Others read books or go to Green Beans, a coffee shop franchise at U.S. military bases across the country, for spiced chai lattes and other frosty drinks.

The meal choices on some nights included steak, tacos, chicken tandoori and even lobster.

But soon, services would begin drawing down along with the contracted workforce, and hot meals would eventually be replaced by meals, ready to eat — preserved food in foil packets — and Marines would return to the expeditionary posture they began with at the start of the war.

Several young Marines said are happy to be part of the war effort, and had wanted to come to Afghanistan ever since Sept. 11, but they were disappointed they were not leaving their bases often.

“It’s kind of boring out here,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Paul Noland from Deadwood, S.D., a 22-year-old Navy medic. “I want to get out of here and go out and see some stuff, like the Afghans’ way of life.”

“When you’re out on missions, it makes the time go faster,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Greg Rosas, a Navy engineer from Fort Worth, Texas. “Downtime sucks. The more work, the easier it is.”

Nowadays, leaving the safety of Camp Dwyer involves a cost-benefit analysis, one likely made by coalition commanders across the country.

“I have to decide before every mission: Is this worth taking the risk?” Col. Treglia said.

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