U.S. Marines, British troops end mission in restive Afghan province

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from The Washington Post,

Thirteen years ago, U.S. Marines sneaked across the Pakistani border into what was then Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. On Monday, the last Marines sneaked out, leaving behind a province that is still battling the influence of the Taliban.

In an elaborate 20-hour departure mission kept secret to evade attack, the Marines and British forces ended their operations in Afghanistan by withdrawing from Helmand province after more than a decade of battles there tested both militaries’ ability to fight in a landlocked nation.

Located in rugged southern Afghanistan, Helmand was the site of some of the bloodiest battles of the war, and the province came to symbolize the coalition’s broader struggle to contend with the country’s tribal rivalries, porous border and lucrative poppy trade. Since the forces arrived in Afghanistan in 2001, about 350 Marines and 407 British soldiers have been killed in Helmand.

About 24,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, most on four large NATO coalition bases, but President Obama plans to more than halve that number by January and reduce it further in 2016. What happens next in Helmand, where Afghan security forces are now in charge, will serve as an early barometer of whether such a rapid drawdown can take place without leading to more violence in the country.

“We are doing exactly what our commander in chief has asked us to do,” Capt. James M. Geiger Jr., commander of a U.S. Marine weapons company, said late Sunday, a few hours before he started his journey back to the United States. “We have taken great pride in this mission. We are the last Marines and were protecting the reputations of our brothers who paid the ultimate price.”

Coalition and Afghan commanders say the reported strength of the Taliban is exaggerated. They say Afghan forces control all population centers in Helmand. Afghan forces also repeatedly repelled Taliban attacks on checkpoints during the summer fighting season, officials said.

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