US to send more troops to Helmand

Move to support Afghan forces in province where Taleban militants have gained ground

KABUL • The US Army will deploy hundreds of soldiers to the southern Afghan province of Helmand, where government forces have been pushed to the brink by Taleban militants.

It will be the largest deployment of US troops outside major bases in Afghanistan since the end of the Nato combat mission in 2014.

Colonel Michael Lawhorn, a spokesman for the US military in Afghanistan, on Tuesday said the new deployment would provide protection for Special Operations troops in Helmand and give extra support and training for the 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army.

Afghan forces in Helmand have taken heavy casualties in recent months and have been cut off by the Taleban in many places.

"Our mission remains the same: to train, advise and assist our Afghan counterparts, and not to participate in combat operations," said Col Lawhorn.

He would not reveal the number of troops or the unit involved, citing Pentagon policy.

But a senior military official, who asked not to be named, said the unit being sent to Helmand, the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry, was slightly smaller than the usual battalion size of 700 to 800 soldiers. On Monday, British newspaper The Guardian said up to a battalion would be sent to Helmand.

The new troops will replace another unit already in Afghanistan, the official said, and will not add to the total number of US troops in the country, which stands at roughly 9,800 service members.

The official could not say where the deployment would be based in the province.

"Certainly Helmand is the diciest place in Afghanistan right now, the place where ANSF have had the most setbacks from without and within," the official said, using the abbreviation for the Afghan National Security Forces, comprising the army and the police.

The US troops would be "doing some retraining, re-equipping and advising" for the troubled Afghan 215th Army Corps, the official said.

Though the military insists that the soldiers will not take active combat roles, Special Operations forces have increasingly been drawn into the fighting in Helmand as one important district after another has fallen or been threatened by Taleban insurgents.

Faced with the possible collapse of the Afghan army and police in Helmand, the Pentagon began ratcheting up the role of Special Operations forces there last autumn, stepping up air attacks and putting more advisers on the ground.

One American was killed and two were wounded there early last month as Afghan and US troops sought to break a Taleban encirclement of the Marjah district.

Some Afghan officials have advocated a bigger role for US troops for months. The numbers being discussed "aren't enough; 700 or so troops cannot solve such a big problem", as Helmand is a very big province, said Lieutenant-General Rahmatullah Raufi, a former Afghan army general who now commands the Afghan Border Police.

He nonetheless welcomed the US decision to support the Afghan army and police in the south, saying: "They will be equipped with advanced weaponry, they'll have better air support and they can fight well alongside the ANSF. They will inflict extensive pressure on the enemy.

"If similar action were taken in other volatile provinces, it would be a blow to the enemy and terrorists."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2016, with the headline 'US to send more troops to Helmand'. Print Edition | Subscribe