When a 300-Marine advisory contingent arrived in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province, Afghanistan last April, they found population centers at risk of falling into Taliban control and embattled local troops on the defensive.
But the momentum changed several months in as local forces, bolstered by American air support and assistance, began to mount an offensive campaign, the commander of the advisory mission's first rotation said Thursday.
Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, outgoing commanding officer of Task Force Southwest, spoke to reporters at the Pentagon 10 days after returning from a nine-month deployment to Helmand. The rotation represented the first return of Marines to Helmand since the last elements had been airlifted from Camp Leatherneck in late 2014 at the formal close of Operation Enduring Freedom.
In a matter of months, Turner said, the Marines had been able to help local Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) retake some Taliban-held districts and establish greater security in others, helping meanwhile to dramatically reduce the ANDSF casualty rate and bolster their confidence. But unlike last time, there's no clear exit strategy for the Marines, who appear to represent a significant part of the difference between order and relative chaos in Helmand.
Turner said the population center of Gereshk and provincial capital city of Lashkar Gah were both under heavy pressure when Task Force Southwest arrived. But almost immediately, Marines started helping the ANDSF push back. They focused in on the Taliban-controlled district of Nawa, a small region at the geographic center of Helmand.
"We knew that the Taliban didn't really have good control of Nawa, because the population there really kind of rejects their presence. So we knew that, and our partners knew that ... they seized the Nawa district in July, and the way I've kind of described it was, it was really kind of a Guadalcanal moment, because it was really the first time that they had taken back the reins, especially in something that was kind of a Taliban stronghold."
The World War II Battle of Guadalcanal, which took place in the British Solomon Islands from 1942-43, is widely considered a turning point in the war. It was the start of offensive Allied operations in the Pacific and badly damaged the momentum of Japanese forces, who tried without success to retake the airfield at the heart of the battle.
Similarly, Turner said the Taliban were discouraged by efforts to retake the district, eventually giving up and losing momentum in the process.
"And then, as we expanded to other areas, it forces the enemy to kind of go there and fight, taking pressure off Lashkar Gah, taking pressure off of Gereshk because the enemy's being forced to react in these other areas," Turner said.
While the Marines were in Helmand, he said, roads around the provincial capital became safer and "more permissive" to travel, and a civilian airport in Lashkar Gah reopened, leading to a greater sense of local security.
For the most part, Marines supported all these operations from inside the wire, advising at the higher unit level and helping to coordinate air support and provide intelligence and surveillance using drone assets. But for Afghan forces who face the most physical risk, Turner said casualty rates went sharply down while the Marines were on the ground.
The ANDSF saw a roughly 40 percent decrease in casualties from 2016 numbers, Turner said.
Until recently, casualty rates for Afghan troops fighting the Taliban have been shockingly high; it was widely reported in 2016 that casualties throughout Afghanistan topped 15,000 for just the first eight months of the year, with that figure including more than 5,500 fatalities.
Turner said casualties went down because the Afghan forces put the Taliban on its heels, forcing the enemy to fight in places where they were unprepared. But he acknowledged that the security of American air support overhead played a significant role.
"Afghan forces, effectively enabled, were very aggressive in fighting the Taliban and could overmatch the Taliban," Turner said. "But I think the effectively enabled piece was an important component."
There's now a new rotation on the ground, under the command of Brig. Gen. Benjamin Watson. It's executing a broader "enhanced train-advise-assist" mission, with Marines advising down to smaller unit levels, and additional support from Army advisory elements and other assets.
"Gen. Watson now has more capability and capacity than I had," Turner said.
Current strategy has the Marines supporting Afghan troops as they push outward into Helmand. Turner estimates that perhaps half of Helmand's districts are now Taliban-controlled; the rest are held or contested by the Taliban.
What remains to be seen is if a plan develops to mentor and develop the Afghan forces to the point where Americans can once again leave the province securely in their hands, as Marines attempted to do at the close of formal combat in 2014.
"Those discussions haven't started yet about what happens down the road. Our focus was on reversing the momentum and getting the Afghans back in the lead. Much to our pleasure was that our partners were cooperative and very willing to take the fight to the enemy," Turner said. " ... We really haven't started talking about any sort of exit strategy that I'm aware of."