After Afghanistan: What next for the troops?
The last US Marine unit and last British combat forces were airlifted out of their former regional headquarters in Helmand province in Afghanistan on Monday, a symbolic end to more than a decade of US-led fighting against the Taliban.
The withdrawal of foreign troops and handover of the base to local forces is one of the largest operations in winding down the international combat mission in Afghanistan, 13 years after toppling the radical, Islamist Taliban regime.
The move leaves Afghanistan and its newly installed president, Ashraf Ghani, to deal almost unaided with an emboldened Taliban insurgency.
The operation to remove the remaining US and British troops from the combined base of Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion – 24 hours of near-continuous flights between Helmand and Kandahar Air Field, the aviation hub for southern Afghanistan – passed off peacefully as part of a planned drawdown, though there was a sense of déjà vu among some of the soldiers.
“It was surreal,” said Marine communications officer Captain Anthony Nguyen (33) of Houston, Texas. “We’re not refugees or anything, but it kind of reminded me of scenes of Vietnam, of people running to the helicopters ... just this mad dash to the aircraft.”
The US Marines’ HMH 366 Hammerheads helicopter squadron, which flew on the final wave of the airlift, also participated in the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq – a point of pride for the squadron.
“It’s definitely a sense of history,” said Staff Sergeant Ryan Hoover of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
The airlift was the first stop on the way home for the foreign troops; all of them will be flown out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, some within days.
“It’s been a long time away. I’m looking forward to getting back to normal life ... kiss the wife and kiss the kids,” said Major Raymond Mitchell, a Marine from Rocky Mountain, North Carolina, who deployed to Afghanistan in January.
For Britain, the operation was the biggest airlift mounted by the Royal Air Force since the Berlin Airlift in 1947-1948. And Camp Bastion is the largest operational base built by British forces since World War II.
Seventeen waves of two C130 Hercules transport aircraft and two Chinook helicopters transported the last British armed forces from what was at one time home to up to 40 000 troops.
It was a one-way trip. British combat troops will not be deployed in Afghanistan again “under any circumstances”, according to British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. “We are not going to send combat troops back into Afghanistan. We’ve made that very, very clear. Under any circumstances, combat troops will not be going in there.”
The question now is what is going to happen to those soldiers. With promises from all parties to increase spending on the National Health Service, and pay and manpower taking a large part of the defence budget, and with two large aircraft carriers and, later, a new fleet of Trident nuclear missile submarines biting a large chunk out of the budget, the army is in the firing line.
Faced with growing doubts, the government told the Commons defence committee this week that it was “committed to spending 2% of gross domestic product on defence”. This is the Nato target and it would be embarrassing for the British government to fall behind this figure given its rebukes to other European Nato countries that have failed persistently to meet the 2% target.
Britain would continue to meet this target “until the end of the spending review period” in April 2016, the minister of defence told the committee.
The question is whether or not the next government will have the nerve to adjust UK military spending and policy to meet new threats rather than simply cling to what Jonathan Shaw, retired general and former director of Britain’s special forces, calls the “traditional and inherited UK posture”: a “full-spectrum capability, which means having a little of everything in the military toolbox; full geographical scope, ie we can deploy and operate globally”.
Shaw rightly points to Britain’s wider security goals, including “counterterrorism, cyber security, disaster relief and environmental catastrophe”.
The potential beckons for a wide-ranging debate on Britain’s future defence needs, even though “defence” is far down the list of issues concerning the British people, according to opinion polls.
In the meanwhile, the British Army has sent 91 medics to Sierra Leone to help in the fight against Ebola by operating a treatment centre specifically for healthcare workers.
Going it alone
Afghan troops face an altogether different future as they remain on watch for possible Taliban attacks.
Local forces on Tuesday patrolled the perimeter and manned the guard towers of the vast military base left by the US and British forces in the volatile southern province.
A day after the foreign troops left the crucial Helmand base, the Afghan army and police prepared to fight on their own without the safety net of air support and aerial surveillance formerly provided by their Western allies.
What happens next in Helmand – one of the deadliest battlefields of the war that has seen some of this year’s fiercest fighting – could be indicative of Afghanistan’s wider ability to protect itself against the Taliban. Any imminent escalation of hostilities in the province would be a major concern to regional powers.
The Nato-led international military coalition ends its mission nationwide at the end of this year and shifts to a support role with only a few thousand military personnel.
“I’m certain we can maintain the security,” said Major General Sayed Malouk, commander of the Afghan National Army’s 215 Corps that has taken over the base. It is due to become a training centre and house about 1 800 Afghan soldiers.
Malouk said Afghan forces were already fighting mostly on their own without relying on foreign troops. The safety net of US and British forces had been mostly psychological for the past year, he said.
“They were in the battlefield. No district has been taken over by the Taliban,” he said.
The Taliban may not yet control much territory in Helmand but the insurgents, who ruled Afghanistan with a harsh interpretation of Islamic law from 1996 to 2001, have been launching increasingly fierce attacks, testing the abilities of Afghan forces.
About 4 000 Afghan soldiers and police have died nationwide this year fighting the Taliban, along with 66 international forces, according to Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Anderson, the second-in-command for international forces in Afghanistan.
The district of Sangin was particularly contested, in part because it is the hometown of a number of Taliban leaders and also because it lies on a transit route for the lucrative $3-billion opium smuggling business that fuels the insurgency.
US Brigadier General Daniel Yoo, the commander who handed over the Helmand military base, said the Afghan forces had proved their mettle in the fight for Sangin.
“A lot of the stuff you heard about was tactical level, checkpoints changing hands. But never where they lost a checkpoint, they couldn’t take it back,” he said.
He said that while the international coalition had provided some intelligence and close air support, foreign forces did not fire a single shot to help Afghan forces in Sangin. “We didn’t do any fire support for them. It was mostly themselves.”
Yoo met with Malouk over several months to plan the handover of the base and by the time the last international perimeter guards had pulled back to board the final helicopters out of Afghanistan, specially trained Afghan security forces had moved in to take up the exact same positions.
He said he had confidence in the Afghans’ ability to hold Helmand and the base but that if worse came to worst, help was not far away: there are international forces at a base in Kandahar province 160km away.
“Everything that we did for them, they can do from Kandahar,” Yoo said. “They really could.”
Helmand was a major focus of a 2010 troops surge to wrest control back from the Taliban. At its height, the Nato-led force had about 140 000 military personnel from nearly 50 nations.
Camp Bastion and Camp Leatherneck alone once had around 40 000 military personnel and civilian contractors as the regional headquarters for the US-led military coalition.
The Marine Expeditionary Force-Afghanistan were the last Marines unit in the country, while the British forces at Helmand were the UK’s final combat troops.
There will be only 12 500 foreign forces in the country by January 1 2015 – 9 800 of them Americans – to advise and train the Afghan security forces that have been built up almost from scratch in recent years. The British will keep a small contingent at an officer training school in Kabul.
Staff Sergeant Kenneth Oswood of Romney, West Virginia, is one of the few members of the squadron who participated in the Iraq withdrawal and Monday’s Helmand airlift.
“It’s a lot different this time .... Closing out Iraq, when we got there, we were told there hadn’t been a shot fired in anger at us in years. And then you come here and they are still shooting at us,” Oswood said. “It’s almost like it’s not over here, and we’re just kind of handing it over to someone else to fight.”
Troops lowered the American and British flags for the final time on Sunday and folded them away.
The base resembled a dust-swept ghost town of concrete blast walls, empty barracks and razor wire. Offices and bulletin boards, which once held photo tributes to dead American and British soldiers, had been stripped.
“It’s eerily empty,” said Lieutenant Will Davis of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards in the British Army. Camp Bastion was where Prince Harry was based in 2012 as an Apache helicopter gunner.
In all, 2 210 American soldiers and 453 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, when the US-led coalition toppled the Taliban government for harbouring al-Qaeda after the militant group carried out the September 11 2001 attacks on the US.
Nato has led the coalition since 2003 and includes forces from Germany, Italy, Jordan and Turkey.
The US military is leaving behind about $230-million worth of property and equipment, including a major airstrip at the base, plus roads and buildings, for the Afghan military.
“We gave them the maps to the place. We gave them the keys,” said Colonel Doug Patterson, a Marine brigade commander in charge of logistics.
Speaking on BBC television, Fallon said British armed forces had helped strengthen the Afghan security forces, who were now taking on “full responsibilities”.
“It is with pride that we announce the end of UK combat operations in Helmand, having given Afghanistan the best possible chance of a stable future,” he said.
Passing the baton
General Sher Mohammad Karimi, chief of staff of the Afghan National Army, said the insurgency “will keep us busy for a while”.
“We have to do more until we are fully successful and satisfied with the situations,” he said.
Casualties among civilians and Afghan security forces are near all-time highs this year, with hundreds killed and wounded each month in the conflict. The United Nations has reported nearly 5 000 civilians killed or wounded in the first half of 2014, most of them by the insurgency.
Several Afghans at Sunday’s ceremony expressed pride at taking over the base, mixed with sadness that the international forces with whom they have worked with for years are leaving for good.
“We are going to miss our friends,” said Afghan Brigadier General Nasim Sangin. “But we will still be in touch by email.” – Reuters, additional reporting by © Guardian News & Media 2014