As Washington ponders Afghan mission, Marines toil in Helmand

By James Mackenzie

CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan (Reuters) – While Washington works on plans to send more troops to Afghanistan, U.S. forces on the ground are grappling with building an army in the middle of a war their commanders say is locked in stalemate.

It is slow, hot, often frustrating work, ranging from overseeing basic infantry training to trying to create modern logistics systems for an army in which many soldiers cannot read or write.

“There are enormous challenges ahead,” said Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, who led a task force in Helmand five years ago and who has returned as commander of around 300 Marines training and advising the Afghan army and police.

When the Marines left Helmand in 2014, they did not expect to return, but building the Afghan army has been slower than anticipated. Many issues trainers focus on, such as improving army leadership or getting troops off vulnerable checkpoints, are ones American advisers have recommended for years.

Insurgents control five of Helmand’s 14 districts and contest the others, threatening the capital Lashkar Gah, where they have a strong foothold just outside the city center.

Afghan forces are suffering thousands of casualties and without near-daily air strikes by U.S. fighters and helicopters, said Colonel Asmatullah Gharwal, intelligence officer for the Afghan army 215th Corps, “we would probably not be able to defend Helmand province.”

With U.S. commanders declaring that Afghanistan faces “stalemate”, the Pentagon is expected to add between 3,000-5,000 troops to more than 13,000 coalition forces already there though there are no signs it plans to send them into combat.

That would leave the task essentially unchanged – not to defeat the Taliban but to get Afghan forces to a point where they can fight alone and force the insurgents to negotiate.

For Turner, the key is improving army leadership, an issue U.S. advisers have stressed constantly but with mixed success since the NATO-led coalition ended combat operations in…

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