- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2017

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — It was just five years ago, at the massive base in the southern Afghanistan province of Helmand, that the Marine Corps suffered the largest loss of American combat aircraft since the Vietnam War.

The harrowing 2012 attack on Camp Bastion, the British complex adjoined to the Marines’ Camp Leatherneck in the Taliban’s spiritual homeland, decimated the Corps’ only squadron of AV-8 Harrier jump jets in the country.

Along with destroying or severely damaging eight Harrier fighters and one Air Force C-130 Hercules, the Taliban strike killed two Marines, providing a violent, high-profile reminder that the Marines and NATO were not safe in southern Afghanistan — even on their own bases.

Maj. Paul Rivera reported to Camp Leatherneck shortly after the attack, assigned to the team charged with ensuring such a Taliban assault could never happen again. Five years later he is set to head back to the flat, dusty plains of southwest Afghanistan this spring. But this time his mission, along with the other 300 Marines assigned to Task Force Southwest, is much different.

At Forward Operating Base Sierra, there is a mock-up of an Afghan qalat, a kind of fortified village, made up of plywood and converted Conex shipping containers, complete with fabricated minarets and a fake pharmacy. It is here at the Marines’ fabled North Carolina base that task force members are completing their final redeployment exercises.



And it is here that Maj. Rivera recalls the intensity of the Bastion attack and its aftermath.

“At that time, everything was starting to fall back to Leatherneck,” in accordance with the Obama administration’s plan to withdraw all Marines from Helmand in 2014, Maj. Rivera said. “As everything started to collapse in, [Bastion and Leatherneck] became a big target.”

The combat-focused, “trigger-puller” mentality he and other Marines needed in Helmand at that time is a far cry from the training and advising operation facing the task force now as it prepares for its new deployment. “My role has changed completely,” Maj. Rivera said, adding the contrast between his mission in 2012 and the one now in the works “is a huge paradigm change.”

“It’s a game of inches, and that is what [the Afghans] are there for,” Afghan army adviser Lt. Matthew Somers said. “It’s inch by inch, moment by moment.”

Riding shotgun

U.S. and NATO military advisers helping mold the fledgling Afghan Army into a fighting force that could hold its own against the Taliban and other extremist groups has always been a part of the American combat mission in Afghanistan. But after the official end of that mission in late 2015, training the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces has been the main priority for roughly 8,400 American troops still in the country.

Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in Afghanistan who had been “in the driver’s seat” during the height of the war moved to “riding shotgun” with the Afghans leading the way, Maj. Rivera explained.

“I can’t drive the car, but I can give advice and make sure the kids are safe in the backseat,” he said.

For its part, Task Force Southwest will be responsible for advising the Afghan army’s 215th Corps and the 505th Zone Police unit of the country’s national police force, both based in Helmand. As part of the weeklong mission rehearsal, Marines are confronted with a range of combat scenarios from dealing with roadside bombs and casualty evacuations to artillery attacks and insider threats from rogue members of the Afghan forces.

But they also drilled in the art of military diplomacy, spending as much time inside office trailers negotiating with Afghan expatriate role players serving as stand-ins for senior Afghan army and police commanders, refining the patient give-and-take dialogue to push local security operations in the right direction. Outside the trailers, younger Marines with the task force’s security element practice Dari or Pashto greetings and building rapport, with role players serving as their counterparts on the Afghan security detail.

“It’s all patience, patience, patience,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. Henry Gonzales, a senior noncommissioned officer with the Task Force element assigned to the 215th Corps. Before being assigned to the task force, Sgt. Gonzales saw first-hand during multiple tours in Iraq how patience, respect and trust were paramount in adviser operations. He stood guard duty, walked foot patrols and conducted operations alongside his Iraqi counterparts in Ramadi, building critical trust.

The biggest challenge, especially for the Marines deploying for the first time, is knowing and respecting their Afghan counterparts and the culture they come from.

“You have to show them respect. If you lose that, then that’s it,” Sgt. Gonzales said. “If you disrespect them somehow, they are going to remember. And they have long memories.”

Navy Lt. Cdr. Michael Mercado, the senior medical adviser for the task force team working with the 215th Corps, said he focuses on the ways the two very distinct cultures are alike.

“There are commonalities [between us]” he said. “We love our families, we love our children and we can build upon that,” he added.

Managing the delicate balance between war and diplomacy is one the Marines in Task Force Southwest will have to master, as their mission requires the advising teams to be even more hands-off with their Afghan counterparts this time around.

“Now, I’m not even in the car anymore. It’s like [being] in a trailer behind the car, making sure everything stays tied together,” Maj. Rivera said.

“This is a government that is still building,” even while fighting a reinvigorated Taliban insurgency, said Col. Matthew Grosz, head of the adviser team working with the 215th. But the mounting challenges facing the Afghan security forces, who still only hold sway over 40 percent of the country, has senior U.S. brass searching for a way to alter the war’s dynamic.

Stalemate

As Task Force Southwest was preparing for its final mission exercises in Jacksonville, North Carolina, the head of U.S. Central Command was in Washington telling Congress the Afghan war had devolved into a stalemate.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month, Gen. Joseph Votel told lawmakers that he believed the only viable way to tip the scales in the Kabul government’s favor would be to send in additional U.S. forces into the country. “I do believe it will involve additional forces to ensure that we can make the advise-and-assist mission more effective,” the four-star general said during the March 9 Senate hearing.

Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top American commander in Afghanistan, a month earlier delivered much the same stark assessment.

Neither general officer provided specifics to Congress on how many more U.S. troops would be needed in Afghanistan. While President Trump has focused heavily on the fight against Islamic States in Syria and Iraq, the Pentagon and the White House have yet to make any decisions on troop levels for the Afghan war.

For Task Force Commander Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, silence on Afghanistan from Washington, coupled with the Obama administration’s deadline-driven strategy, has set the stage for the current stalemate in Afghanistan.

The Trump White House has provided little to no overall guidance on Afghanistan. But Islamic State has made significant inroads into Southwest Asia by co-opting disgruntled Taliban leaders and symbolically establishing the Islamic State faction in eastern Afghanistan.

Believed to be headquartered in eastern Nangarhar province, the Islamic State spinoff claimed responsibility for a suicide attack against the Afghan military’s main hospital in Kabul. Clad in medical garb, the Islamic State gunmen killed 30 and wounded 50 before Afghan security forces ended the siege.

“It’s a long-term problem, and we probably should have had a much longer view of this, from a policy perspective, right from the start. This was [never] going to be a quick win,” Gen. Turner said in an interview with The Washington Times here. “It [is] unwise to think that we were going to be able to come in and, in a couple of years, kind of get it back” given the chaotic history of the Afghan war, going back to the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.

“We should have had that [mentality] early on,” he said.

But the danger of repeating past mistakes on the new deployment is on the minds of all the military advisers in Task Force Southwest.

“We got our orders as Marines, and we are good at taking orders,” Maj. Rivera said. “But who controls the clock is really the Afghans.”

(Editor’s note: A quote in the original story was incorrectly attributed to Lt. Cmdr. Mercado. This has been fixed, and the story has been updated.)

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