Marines with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 7, prepare to conduct mission rehearsals July 20 on Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, in preparation for a partnered operation with their Afghan National Security Forces counterparts. (Cpl. Kowshon Ye / Marine Corps)
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The next steps of the Marine Corps’ withdrawal from Afghanistan are about to get underway as the last regimental combat team headquarters and a one-star general return to the U.S. in August.
Regimental Combat Team 7, commanded by Col. Austin Renforth, will redeploy to Twentynine Palms, Calif., after more than 10 months downrange, Renforth said. The unit oversaw Marine ground combat operations across Helmand province, where Marine forces have based the majority of their operations in Afghanistan since 2008.
Instead of sending another full RCT headquarters, comprising about 250 Marines, the Corps will deploy a smaller number from 2nd Marine Regiment, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., Renforth said. Many of them will serve short deployments of a few months and be sent home as deemed possible by higher headquarters, II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) and Regional Command Southwest, led by Maj. Gen. W. Lee Miller.
“Really what we are doing is flattening our staff, and this is the catalyst for getting our numbers down,” Renforth said. “Getting rid of a headquarters and having these guys report directly to the RC headquarters is, I think, the right thing to do at this time.”
There are now about 66,000 U.S. forces across Afghanistan. That figure includes about 8,000 in RC-Southwest, including some 7,000 Marines, said Lt. Col. Cliff Gilmore, a Marine spokesman at Camp Leatherneck, the Corps’ largest base in Afghanistan. Those numbers will fluctuate during the upcoming rotation between RCT-7 and the elements of 2nd Marines deploying, Gilmore said.
Marine commanders plan to shrink to about 4,400 U.S. military personnel in RC-Southwest by next February, Gilmore said. That figure is still dependent on decisions made by President Obama and Gen. Joseph Dunford, who is overseeing the coalition war effort as commanding general of the International Security Assistance Force, with headquarters in Kabul.
Marine commanders in Afghanistan also expect the next command structure will be a smaller Marine expeditionary brigade, Renforth said. That also reflects the drawdown, since a MEB is typically commanded by a one-star general, rather than a two-star. The Corps had a one-star officer, then-Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, overseeing operations in Helmand in 2009 and early 2010, but then-Maj. Gen. Richard Mills took over that spring as the U.S. footprint there expanded to more than 20,000 Marines.
Another major change coming in Helmand is the August redeployment of Brig. Gen. George Smith, who has served since early this year as the deputy commanding general for security assistance in RC-Southwest. That occurs as security improvements in Helmand allow the Corps to bring some security force assistance adviser teams home early this summer, Commandant Gen. Jim Amos told reporters in Washington in June.
Changes on the battlefield
The drawdown reflects continued changes on the battlefield. There were hundreds of Marine bases across Helmand province as recently as last year, but the Corps has steadily reduced its footprint to a few major operating bases.
In southern Helmand, the only base the Corps now uses regularly is Camp Dwyer in Garmsir district, Renforth said. It has been a major forward operating base for several years and is now home to the majority of forces with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, and a brigade headquarters for the Afghan National Army. Other bases that once housed battalion headquarters, including FOBs Hanson, Geronimo and Delhi, all have either been turned over to Afghan forces or demilitarized.
In northern Helmand, the Corps still has a larger footprint, but even there it is shrinking. Elements of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, are distributed across Sangin, Kajaki, Musa Qala and Now Zad districts, Renforth said. A battalion of Georgian forces also is based in and around Musa Qala, but a second Georgian unit has been pulled from northern Helmand to pull security around Camp Leatherneck, Renforth said.
In June, Dunford said Afghan forces, including the Army and police, were sustaining more than 100 casualties across the country in some weeks. One of the places the insurgency struck the hardest across Afghanistan was in Sangin, where they waged a multi-day fight with Afghan forces as U.S. forces mostly observed.
Renforth acknowledged the pace of casualties then wasn’t sustainable but said things have improved since. The centers in each district are relatively safe, even as the outskirts remain troubled by insurgents, he said.
“We’re trying to help them as much as we can to put them in the position to survive, but I think they’ve actually done pretty well overall,” he said. “I think they’re certainly giving more than they’re taking, and that’s not necessarily written all the time. But we can’t allow the Afghans to take a high rate of casualties. Nobody can sustain that.”
Marines aren’t in hazardous situations nearly as often since the transition to the security force assistance mission occurred last year, but Renforth said they still get outside the wire regularly to pull security patrols around their bases and to ship supplies around the battlefield.
“Our Marines are all getting off the FOB,” he said. “Certainly, we have to expand our own security bubble. You have to have kind of an active defense.”