Hundreds of additional US troops are slated to deploy to a volatile province in Afghanistan to bolster the local military against a resurgent Taliban, the Guardian has learned.
By month’s end, a force described as battalion-strength, consisting of mostly army soldiers, will arrive in Helmand province where US and UK forces have struggled in battles for over a decade to drive out the Taliban.
In keeping with Barack Obama’s formal declaration that the US is not engaged in combat, despite elite forces recently participating in an hours-long battle in Helmand, defense officials said the additional troops would not take part in combat. But they will help the existing Helmand force defend itself against Taliban attacks, officials said.
US military officials declined to offer many specifics about an upcoming reinforcement, but they described the mission as primarily aimed at bolstering the performance of the embattled 215th Corps of the Afghan military, through training.
The 215th Corps has recently had its commander replaced amid performance and corruption concerns, and has endured “unusually high operating tempo for long periods of time”, outgoing US commander General John Campbell testified to Congress last week. It is among four Afghan corps that still have US military advisers embedded within it, despite a recent pullback to advise at higher levels.
“Our mission remains the same,” said Colonel Michael Lawhorn, a spokesman for the US command in Kabul, “to train, advise, and assist our Afghan counterparts, and not to participate in combat operations.”
The Guardian understands the additional forces in Helmand will not increase the current total troop numbers in Afghanistan, which currently stand at 9,800, but will instead be deployed from troops already in the country. Batallion strengths vary, but can constitute a force of up to 800 troops.
While new advisers make up a significant component of the additional forces, Lawhorn said that another mission of the reinforcement will be to “bolster force protection for the current staff of advisers”, suggesting a concern for the safety of the existing Helmand force amid major recent Taliban gains.
The US military has sounded warnings of a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, in Helmand and beyond, that have prompted significant revisions in Obama’s war plans.
Already Obama has agreed to leave 5,500 troops in Afghanistan past the end of his presidency, but his newly confirmed commander, General John “Mick” Nicholson, told a Senate panel recently that increased insurgent violence will prompt him to re-evaluate troop requests, and left the door open to bolstering a force Obama has sought to draw down.
In January, a US special forces soldier died and two others were wounded as they assisted the Afghan military in repelling a Taliban assault in the province that lasted hours.
While the Pentagon initially resisted categorizing the battle as “combat”, press secretary Peter Cook called it a “combat situation, but [US troops] are not in the lead intentionally”, illustrating how the difference between combat and advisory missions can blur in practice.