US, UK Declare Victory in Helmand and Go Home
We've handed off operations in Helmand Province to the Afghanistan army.
We’ve handed off operations in Helmand Province to the Afghanistan army.
FP’s Column Lynch (“Don’t Look Now, But the Marines and Brits Just High-Tailed it Out of Taliban Stronghold“):
American and British combat operations formally came to an end in Helmand Province, one of the bloodiest theaters in the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and a primary focus of Obama’s 2010 surge of tens of thousands of American reinforcements charged with beating back the revitalized insurgency.
But there were no White House statements issued Sunday to commemorate the occasion, no press conferences convened to celebrate the day. Instead, U.S. Marines and British forces in southern Afghanistan quietly lowered and folded their flags in a solemn ceremony at Camp Leatherneck, the largest U.S. base to be handed over to Afghan authorities, and Britain’s neighboring Camp Bastion to mark the formal transfer of power to the Afghan Army’s 215th Corps. The two countries lost hundreds of troops in Helmand, but the situation there remains so dangerous that the precise timing of the base closures was kept secret for security reasons.
The landmark passed with little fanfare in Washington, reflecting the degree to which the Obama administration has sought to move beyond a deeply unpopular conflict that marked the opening front in the U.S.-led war on terrorism and took the lives of 3,476 coalition forces, including 2,349 Americans and 453 British nationals. The White House Twitter feed didn’t even mention Afghanistan, devoting its attention to assuring anxious Americans that there is little risk of the Ebola virus spreading across the homeland like some pernicious wildfire.
Military leaders often contend that they are reluctant to publicize the details about base closures or military handovers of power because of security concerns. But it was hard not to suspect that the administration silence on Sunday’s end of Marine military operations in Helmand was driven by concerns about about what the future may portend in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have retaken broad swaths of the country, including large portions of Helmand itself.
There is, to say the least, little reason to think that the Afghan military will be up to the task of holding the province. For their part at least, the Brits are up front about that.
British combat troops will not be deployed again in Afghanistan “under any circumstances”, Michael Fallon has pledged despite admitting the country could face more insurgency attacks.
The Defence Secretary warned there was “no guarantee” Afghanistan would be stable as UK troops pull out of the country and said Islamic extremism would continue there “for a long time”.
“We are not going to send combat troops back into Afghanistan. We’ve made that very very clear. Under any circumstances combat troops will not be going in there,” Mr Fallon said.
“Of course we’ll continue. Nobody’s walking away from Afghanistan. Nato’s made it clear that we will continue our support mission there and much of that now will be training and liaison and helping with intelligence and surveillance and counter-terrorism where necessary.
“But the answer is very straight – no, we’re not going to be recommitting combat troops to Afghanistan.”
He said Britain’s involvement in stopping Afghanistan from becoming a “safehaven for terrorism” meant it had been “mission accomplished” but warned the country still faced the threat of insurgency attacks.
“There is no guarantee that Afghan is going to be stable and safe. What I’m saying to you is that we have given Afghanistan the best possible chance of a safer future,” he said.
Discussing the UK’s overall mission, Mr Fallon said “mistakes were made militarily and mistakes were made by politicians” and added: “clearly the numbers weren’t there at the beginning [and] the equipment wasn’t quite good enough at the beginning.”
He added: “The problem of Islamic extremism was there before we went into Afghanistan and is going to be with us for a long time.”
It’s a sad state of affairs, but one that’s been obviously inevitable for five years or more. There’s a strong chorus of “we’re leaving too soon” out there and it’s powerful in the wake of the collapse of security in Iraq in recent months. But, absent an open-ended commitment, it’s not obvious what the alternative is. There will likely never be a good time to turn responsibility for security to a central government that has never displayed any ability to run the country effectively.