SAN DIEGO, Calif. The month of May brought a kinetic blow against terror in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, as America’s longest war rages on. In a fiery 10-day stretch from May 17-26, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan executed a series of precision strikes. Over 80 senior Taliban leaders were killed according to a May 29 Task Force Southwest (TFSW) Marines’ report. The 300 Marines who form Task Force Southwest are a vital contingent in NATO’S Resolute Support’s three-fold mission. Their job is to strengthen Afghan forces and rebuke Taliban advances.
After Obama’s 2014 combat drawdown, security in Helmand province faltered and the capital, Lashkar Gah, was in danger of falling to the Taliban. Task Force Southwest was organized to help local forces, struggling with bad leadership and corruption.
TFSW influence includes the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, Afghan Local Police, Afghan National Civil Order Police, National Directorate of Security, and smaller security forces. Daily work to train, advise, and assist is paramount to stop terror’s casualties and encroachment.
A Taliban failed attack leads to a substantial lethal takedown of leadership.
On May 24, four High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) rockets were launched at Musa Qal’ah, where a high-level meeting of Taliban commanders was taking place. They had gathered after a failed coup in the remote city of Farah. Heavily armed Taliban collapsed eight Afghan police checkpoints in Farah. Their aim was to free prisoners, take over a bank, and other government buildings. They did not succeed.
U.S. Marine Corps intelligence tracked 50 Taliban leaders from Farah and other locations converging at their command and control node in Musa Qal’ah to plan their way forward. They were met with HIMARS.
The HIMARS delivery resulted in more than 50 casualties in one strike alone. Among those killed, “were multiple Taliban district governors, intelligence commanders and key provincial-level leadership from Kandahar, Kunduz, Herat, Farah, Uruzgan, and Helmand provinces,” says Capt. Joshua Benson, TFSW spokesperson.
The deputy shadow governor of Helmand was also reported as killed in the strikes.
A new Task Force Southwest Marine rotation arrived in January 2018. These seasoned warfare experts have continued to train, advise, and assist Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).
In a May 29 briefing, U.S. Army General John Nicholson, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and Resolute Support commander, credited ANDSF’s efforts with an 80% success rate defeating enemy attacks on district centers. In TFSW’s area of operations, no district center has been attacked or overrun.
A season of fighting where poppies grow and money flows.
Helmand Province is the fertile home of the world’s largest opium poppy harvest. Afghanistan poppies produce more than 90% of illicit heroin globally.
“Helmand has been the financial engine of the insurgency,” states Nicholson.
This insurgency rose up when the Taliban abandoned peace talks in April. Nicholson believes the Farah Taliban offensive was a distraction from their activity in Helmand to relieve pressure on them there.
Nicholson credits those showing an offensive mindset and tactical abilities in Farah. Local Afghan Forces prevented the fall of city structures. Within 18 hours of the attempted siege, a team of over 500 Afghan commandos and Special Police sped towards Farah. Within 24 hours Afghan Forces, supported by the Afghan Airforce and enabled by the U.S, drove the gunmen out and pursued them.
Many levels of success are seen in the fighting abilities of Afghan Forces. For those responsible to help ANDSF with security and peace-keeping in Helmand, the fighting is more than sending our aircraft out for air support.
“We use kinetic strikes from both ground based and air assets in the “assist” portion of our mission. We are targeting the Taliban every single day and executing strike packages to facilitate ANDSF freedom of movement and offensive operations,” says Capt Benson, adding, “The only difference in this kinetic environment is we are not outside the wire conducting clearing operations.”
For strike operations, HIMARS fills a crucial role for the Marine Corps as a precision indirect fire weapon system that accurately engages targets at long ranges (in excess of 40 miles). The rockets carry high volumes of lethal precision fires, reaching austere locations in any kind of weather. Looks like a thing out of Star Wars, aimed at eliminating terror.
U.S. Marines of Task Force Southwest help ANDSF maintain a sharp edge and high-operational tempo.
Also on May 24 in a separate airstrike, Benson reports,
“U.S. Air Force A-10’s struck a Taliban Red Unit commander for Helmand and an associate while they were transiting in Sangin district.”
The following day May 25,” U.S. Air Force A-10s also killed a shadow district governor and destroyed a shadow district headquarters in Nahr-e-Saraj.”
May 26, “an MQ-1C Gray Eagle killed a senior improvised explosive device facilitator, who had been coordinating improvised explosive device operations against Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, international forces and the people of Afghanistan for the last 13 years,” summarizes Benson.
Additional Marine strikes around the province during May 17-24 killed more than 10 Taliban.
“These strikes represent one of the largest blows to Taliban leadership in the last year,” said Nicholson, adding, “The cumulative effects of which will be felt nationwide for quite some time.”
“The Taliban draws 60% of their revenue from narcotics and criminal activity. This group in Helmand, in particular, is very involved in criminal activity. They seek to continue instability so they can profit from the drug trade…this has been one of the more well-equipped and well-paid Taliban networks.”
What happened to the peace talks?
Before the Taliban announced their springtime offensive on April 25, enemy-initiated violence had dropped a substantial 30% below the five-year average, February through April 2018. This drop, reported by Nicholson, occurred within six months of the implementation of Trump’s South Asia Strategy and concurrent with peace talks in February.
“The goal of the South Asia Strategy is reconciliation,” says Nicholson, “and as President [Ashraf] Ghani says, ‘It’s a been a game changer.’”
“We had the elements of a peace proposal outlined by the Taliban in an open letter to America and a formal peace offer by President Ghani,” Nicholson adds. “His proposal was unanimously endorsed by the international community at the Kabul Peace Process Conference and at the Tashkent Conference.”
Even in April, when fighting increased, violence was still 10-12% below the five-year average.
“I call it talking and fighting.” says Nicholson “and as the SECDEF has said, “Violence and progress can co-exist. And that’s what we are seeing.””
A mighty force may be many or few.
Some may say by 2012, fighting in Afghanistan was in withdrawal, yet violence remained. A weakened insurgency had not been vanquished, as proven in September 2012, when fifteen Taliban dressed in Army uniforms, launched a vicious surprise attack on a Marine Corps airfield at Camp Bastion in Helmand. A heroic firefight ensued on the ground and from the air, killing all but one of the attackers, who was captured.
Two Marines were killed, others wounded, and millions in aircraft and equipment were set ablaze.
With insurgency on the rebound this past year, the TFSW Marine band of brothers are hard at work. They are doing what took thousands of Marine counterparts to do in pre-drawdown years when coalition bases around Afghanistan were bulging at the seams.
For all, fighting is bloody, fierce, and multi-faceted. Task Force Southwest Marines do more with less. While they train, advise, assist…and strike – they must handle logistics, manpower oversight, basing and operational movement, and support a resilient economic transition.
In a seemingly unavoidable war, Task Force Southwest Marines have bit off a big chunk to get Afghanistan to stability and safety. They carry the ‘tip of the spear’ that former Marines who served and died on Afghan soil wielded valiantly. Today’s security and offensive gains signal an amazing turn of events. Afghanistan can begin to own its pathway to peace, thanks to their resolve and the tremendous support given by TFSW Marines.
The expanded competence and confidence of Afghan Forces is real – it’s happening – each time they take the offensive edge from their attackers.
Counterterrorism is a key mission of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan operations.
The U.S. top two targets remain Islamic state Khorasan Province (IS-K) and Al Qaeda. The focus is on IS-K geographical regions like Kunar and Nangarhar, where deadly fighting has occurred, forcing hundreds of U.S. airstrikes and tactical operations on the ground by U.S. Special Operations troops. IS-K flies its black flag in the Jowzjan region, where its leader, Qari Hekmatullah, was recently killed, along with unnumbered fighters. While the terror groups vie for supremacy, the U.S. vows to maintain pressure.
The Shias in Afghanistan are targets of more sectarian fighting propelled by IS-K. Indiscriminate bombing of religious sites and voting centers are evidence of this.
On May 30, 8 terrorists, in a captured Humvee, attempted to penetrate the heavily-fortified Ministry of Interior Headquarters in Kabul. Afghan Guards recognized the attackers’ ‘old style’ Army uniforms as suspicious. This familiar tactic resulted in a sharp firefight with the exception of one captured. Sadly, one Afghan comrade was killed and a few wounded.
“It’s obviously a concern if the enemy is wearing our uniforms that might cause a hesitation or delay,” warns Nicholson.
Helmand alone is no place for a delay, where U.S. Marines have a clamp on terror, far from the comforts of home.
Never before has there been a grassroots peace movement in Afghanistan.
With their explicit rejection of Afghan government peace initiatives, the Taliban has continued to attack more remote district centers to inflict casualties and avoid air power retribution, alludes Nicholson. Violence begets violence until someone changes it.
Afghan citizens have begun an independent nationwide grassroots movement, not aligned with the government. The people are calling for all parties to enter into ceasefires and peace talks. Events were held in over 20 provinces. A group is walking from Helmand to Kabul to present demands to the government.
What will it take to get a sustained 100% absence of terror? Progress does exist and determination is collectively growing, as courageous Afghans walk across their war-torn country. Who will be the ones to write a new legacy for Afghanistan?
The Afghans are not fighting just for themselves, but for all of us that face the same if evil goes undeterred. With millions upended, thousands of children orphaned and injured by war, we can only hope for impassioned voices to thunder and each step towards peace to count.