US Marines yesterday returned to Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand Province, where US troops faced heated fighting until NATO’s combat mission ended in 2014, in the latest sign foreign forces are being increasingly drawn back into the conflict.
The deployment of about 300 marines to the poppy-growing southern province, first announced in January, came one day after the resurgent Taliban announced the launch of their “spring offensive” and as US President Donald Trump’s administration seeks to craft a new strategy in Afghanistan.
Commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan General John Nicholson attended a handover ceremony marking the return of the prestigious force, the marines first to be deployed in Afghanistan since 2014, a reporter said.
Part of a troop rotation, they are to arrive in stages, eventually taking part in NATO’s train, assist and advise mission.
Helmand for years was the centerpiece of the US and British military intervention in Afghanistan — only for it to slip deeper into a quagmire of instability.
The militants effectively control or contest 10 of Helmand’s 14 districts, blighted by a huge opium harvest that helps fund the insurgency.
About 30,000 people fled fighting in the province last year, mostly fleeing to provincial capital Lashkar Gah, with the city at times practically besieged.
The roads from neighboring districts are heavily mined by the insurgents.
The US has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan with about another 5,000 from NATO allies. Nicholson has called for a few thousand more to help break the stalemate against the insurgents.
US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis warned of “another tough year” in Afghanistan when he visited Kabul this week as part of consultations on the Trump administration’s review of Afghan policy.
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