Since 2001, the War in Afghanistan has been a sort of tug-of-war with concertina wire, with both sides coming out bloody, battered, and sinking deeper and deeper into a quagmire with no end in sight. From its start in 2001, to the low troop levels in the mid 2000s as the Iraq War picked up, to the massive troop surge in 2009, followed by the official end of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2014, the war has ground on and on.
And now, Marines are headed back to Helmand province for the first time since the Corps pulled out in 2014.
Called Task Force Southwest, the Marines are mostly senior and many have past deployments to the province under their belt, according to The Washington Post. They’ll replace a U.S. Army contingent there and take part in advise and assist operations, working with the Afghan army and national police, and operating out of Camp Shorabak, a small outpost near the remains of the sprawling base that was once the headquarters of thousands of Marines in the province — Camp Leatherneck.
For many Marines, Helmand is defined by violent battles in places like Marjah, Garmsir, Sangin, Kajaki, Musa Qala, and Now Zad, most of which have since fallen back under Taliban control, along with large swathes of the country.
Places where yellow jugs full of homemade explosive rest in freshly dug holes under hastily packed moon dust and dirt. Places where the mix of monotony and fear that comes with patrolling through muddy fields, across foot bridges, and along goat paths is broken only by sudden violence, or dissipates slowly once you make it back to the patrol base.
In 2009 and again in 2011 I deployed to Helmand as part of the surge, which sent 30,000 additional troops charging into Afghanistan, an event which was supposed to end the war, but even with the massive influx of troops and an uptick in operational tempo, nothing sustainable was achieved.
Our hard-won gains in Marjah, where I deployed with 1st Battalion, 6th Marines during the battle to wrest the city from Taliban hands, were overturned last year as Marjah fell to the insurgency. And in Kajaki, where I deployed again with 1/6, and where our unit fought to secure a vital road to the dam and oust the Taliban from the valley, much of that area has also fallen back under Taliban control.
Now, years later and after most of us have gotten out and tried to move on, 300 more Marines are heading back there as the forever war continues without end.
The news that my service would be returning to Helmand feels particularly personal, in large part because it just seems futile. Is there even an end-state in mind, or are we just trying to show our dedication to our allies by putting Marines once again in harm’s way? All the while hamstrung by decisions to maintain a small footprint in Afghanistan — roughly 8,400 troops are there as of last year — not enough to shift the tide, but just enough to say “hey, we’re still here.”
Increasingly, our policy in Afghanistan looks more and more like it’s less about winning, and more about not losing. And if we never leave, we can’t lose.
Recently while reporting from Helmand, The Washington Post’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a former infantry Marine who served in the volatile province, described how one U.S. adviser compared the ongoing fight in Afghanistan to putting a “band-aid on a bullet wound.”
With 300 Marines heading back to Helmand, it doesn’t look like there’s any new policy in place, or that anything will come of this, instead it seems like we’re just changing the band-aid.