US and UK troops pull out of Afghanistan’s Helmand province

Handover comes amid deadliest period on record for Afghan forces

Marine listening to music before withdrawal from Camp Bastion in Helmand province at the weekend.  The last US  marines unit and British combat troops in Afghanistan have officially ended their operations. Photograph:  Omar Sobhani

Marine listening to music before withdrawal from Camp Bastion in Helmand province at the weekend. The last US marines unit and British combat troops in Afghanistan have officially ended their operations. Photograph: Omar Sobhani

 

Combat operations in the province of Helmand officially ended yesterday for US marines and British troops stationed there, bringing an end to a decade-long struggle to keep a major Taliban stronghold and the region’s vast opium production in check.

Officials commemorated the handover during ceremonies at Camp Leatherneck for the marines and Camp Bastion for the British forces, conjoined bases that made up the coalition headquarters for the region.

The Afghan army’s 215th Corps will assume full control of the camps, a 6,500-acre parcel of desert scrubland in southwest Afghanistan – and with it responsibility for securing one of the most violent provinces in the country.

Some US combat troops will remain in Afghanistan through the end of the year, but the closing of Camp Bastion signified the end of British operations in the country. During the nation’s long tenure in Helmand, which began in 2006, British forces lost 453 servicemen in the conflict.

Deadliest period

Areas once deemed relatively secure grew problematic in the summer, while trouble spots became engulfed in violence.

Nowhere has that fight been more apparent or deadly than in Helmand. Helmand was the first site of the United States’s 2010 troop surge, when thousands of military personnel were dispatched into Afghanistan to beat back a resurgent Taliban. Hundreds of coalition troops lost their lives to ambushes and roadside bombs in the bleak deserts and verdant valleys of Helmand.

Districts such as Sangin and Marja, home to some of the most violent fighting of the past 13 years, became household names as the United States wound down its war in Iraq and accelerated its involvement in Afghanistan.

For the British forces, Helmand was the centerpiece of a multi-year counter-narcotics effort that largely failed to stem poppy cultivation.

The province, which is home to more than 80 per cent of the nation’s opium production, remains the heart of the illicit drug trade. According to a UN report, 2013 saw more land used to cultivate the crop than any year since the international community began to record the figure.

Still, officials yesterday expressed cautious optimism that the Afghans would be ready to handle the fight on their own. While the Taliban tested districts throughout northern Helmand, claiming checkpoints, causing hundreds of casualties and sowing fear into the local population, the movement failed to claim any district centres from the government.

Insurgent networks

In reality, locals say, the Taliban have never been stronger in the province. In the face of western assertions, they added, the Taliban have claimed stretches of area surrounding the government centres and have dominated rural areas, as well as the flourishing drug trade.

Perhaps more worrisome are the trends that developed in northern Helmand over the past five months. Unlike years past, the Taliban massed in large groups to contest government forces, a previously unthinkable dynamic given the presence of coalition air support.

“Their departure will have an impact on people’s lives and security in Helmand,” said Muhammud Fahim Musazai, the governor of Helmand’s Greskh district.

“We will face some problems, like other areas of Afghanistan where the foreigners have left and the Taliban entered afterward.”

Sangin district, in particular, became a weather vane of the changing war. Reports of hundreds of Taliban attacking police checkpoints surfaced early in the district.

Whispers of cease-fire deals between local army commanders and Taliban militants also emerged in Sangin, causing a stir in Kabul, where officials denied the accounts and doubled efforts to quell the insurgency.

“The bases that are closing down in Helmand province will definitely pave the ground for the Taliban to hold the power in the area,” said Haji Ibrahim, a tribal elder from Sangin. “Our security forces are not able to kick out the Taliban.” – (New York Times service)

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