End of an Era in Afghanistan as US Marines Pull Out of Key Outpost

PHOTO: Marines and sailors with Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Afghanistan load onto a KC-130 aircraft at Camp Bastion, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Oct. 27, 2014. Staff Sgt. John Jackson/US Marine Corps
Marines and sailors with Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Afghanistan load onto a KC-130 aircraft at Camp Bastion, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Oct. 27, 2014.

It’s a pullout 13 years in the making.

U.S. Marines and the British Armed Forces have formally handed over control of one of the biggest military compounds in Afghanistan to Afghan security forces.

With the handover, coalition troops are no longer responsible for the day-to-day operations at Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion, two adjacent bases that together form one giant compound rising out of the arid Helmand plains.

The Afghan Army now controls the compound. Their personnel, trained by NATO advisers in the past several years, are now responsible for nearly all of the base’s operations. This means everything, from running the barracks, managing supply lines, entry and exit control – even cleaning the latrines.

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For the British military, the transition marks the formal end of all combat operations in Afghanistan. For the U.S. Marines, it marks the end of an era.

From 2001 to 2008, British troops were responsible for security in Helmand, a volatile province in the south often considered the birth place of the Taliban. But in the face of growing Taliban advances, President Obama authorized in 2008 what became known in military and diplomatic circles as “the surge,” the rapid deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. marines to bolster security and keep the Taliban at bay.

At the peak of the surge, about 20,000 U.S. Marines were stationed in Helmand. The province quickly became one of the fiercest battlegrounds in the war. More than 350 people would lose their lives.

Indeed, the biggest battle of the entire Afghan mission was fought there in 2010, in the largely agricultural district of Marjah. The battle involved about 15,000 coalition troops, backed by U.S. air support and the nascent Afghan Army, still in the infancy stages of its training.

As Marines poured into Helmand, Camp Leatherneck grew considerably. It quickly began to resemble a fully functioning military garrison town. Military engineers built roads, traffic lights, a sewage system, even a water treatment facility that could produce 15,000 gallons of drinking water per day.

The warehouse at Camp Bastion alone could store more than 25,000 tons of food. And with the roads outside the base unsafe, nearly all supplies were flown in. As a result, Camp Bastion became the third busiest British airport outside the United Kingdom.

The 1,600-acre compound also became the home base for America’s counter-narcotics program, which is widely seen as a huge failure. Farmers in Helmand grow more poppies now than they did before the war began.

The Taliban, too, had their eyes on the base. In 2012, while Prince Harry was deployed to Camp Bastion as an Apache pilot, the Taliban attacked. More than a dozen fighters managed to infiltrate the base, directly targeting the helicopter landing pads where they believed Harry might have been.

After a firefight that lasted four hours, the attack was eventually repelled but not before the Taliban damaged or destroyed eight U.S. military aircraft, a loss amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.

With Afghan forces now in control of Camp Leatherneck and Bastion, they face an uncertain future. Toward the end of the surge, Taliban activity decreased in Helmand. A statement from the International Security Assistance Force cites the Afghan National Security Forces preparedness as a key factor in the base being hand over.

“Because of the competence, resolve and combined skills of the ANSF,” the statement reads, “insurgent networks have become ineffective in Helmand Province.”

But the statement doesn’t correspondent with evidence on the ground. This summer saw the return of unusually fierce fighting between insurgents and the Afghan army.

There are now concerns that without U.S. Marines on the ground, and the ability to call in coalition air support stationed nearby, the Afghan Army will be unable to hold off further Taliban advances.