The Marines’ new mission is a difficult one: to assist and train Afghan soldiers and police to defend the provincial capital. The Taliban control seven of the province’s 14 districts and are encroaching on five others. The government fully controls just two, local officials say.
“It’s kind of disheartening — the sacrifices you and your Marines made, and to see it go back to where it was,” said Gunnery Sgt. Ronnie C. Mills, of Kentucky, who is on his second tour of Helmand after serving three tours in Iraq.
During his previous stint in Helmand, Sergeant Mills served in Marja, which was the scene of one of the biggest battles in 2010 after President Barack Obama ordered a troop surge to break the Taliban’s momentum. By the end of his tour in July 2011, Sergeant Mills said, the Marja district was “safe enough to walk down the road, to go to the bazaars.”
Now, the Afghan troops who remain in Marja can be supplied only by air, because the government is struggling to clear and secure the roads leading to the district.
Nevertheless, Sergeant Mills said he was hopeful that his team, drawing on their experiences in Helmand, could help the Afghan forces. The Afghans have the “heart and ability,” he said, but need to learn how to fight as cohesive units.
“It will make a huge impact,” he said of the arrival of the 300 Marines. “Everybody here has sacrificed and been here before, and it means a lot to them to see this succeed.”
Helmand played a major role in the recent history of the Marine Corps, and it was once so saturated with Marines that some called it “Marinistan.”