A top U.S. commander says he has seen improvement in Afghan forces' capabilities in the fight against Taliban extremists in Helmand Province since the American military returned to the troubled region nine months ago.
But Marine Brigadier General Roger Turner told a Pentagon news briefing on February 1 that Taliban fighters still control about half of the province and the U.S.-backed Afghan troops remain in a tough fight throughout the country’s southern region.
Turner returned to the United States about 10 days ago after completing his stint atop the nine-month rotating leadership command for the coalition’s Task Force Southwest.
Brigadier General Benjamin Watson has replaced Turner as commander of the task force, which will soon have bolstered numbers as the U.S. military builds up its force under a directive from President Donald Trump.
U.S. and NATO forces formally concluded their combat mission at the end of 2014, shifting to a training role.
After the pullback, Taliban fighters seized a sizable amount of territory, especially in Helmand, with local officials estimating that the extremists controlled some 85 percent of the poppy-growing province early last year.
In response, U.S. officials announced that 300 Marines would be deploying to help train and advise security forces in Helmand -- the first Marine deployment to the province since the end of active combat operations.
In the first few months after their April 2017 arrival, Turner told the news briefing, the U.S. Marines were able to assist local Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) to retake some Taliban-held districts and improve security in others and help reduce the ANDSF casualty rate by 40 percent, bolstering their confidence in the process.
Turner added that roads around key cities have become safer and a civilian airport reopened in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, leading to a greater sense of security for residents.
During the briefing, Turner cited gains made in the administrative center of Nawa as an example of success in the Task Force South region.
Afghans forces -- including the National Army's 215th Corps -- successfully took back Nawa after a bloody eight-week battle.
"We knew that the Taliban didn't really have good control of Nawa, because the population there really kind of rejects their presence,” he said.
“So we knew that, and our partners knew that.... They seized the Nawa district in July," Turner said. "It was the first time they took back terrain in a Taliban stronghold."
He cited the emergence of a generation of younger commanders who have trained and fought with coalition forces for improved efficiency of Afghan units.
Turner added that while the Marines have performed in combat roles in Helmand, his forces generally remain in the background while Afghan troops conduct the brunt of the fighting.
"I'm not going to expose our forces to risk if I don't need to," he said.
Turner said his successor will have even more forces to work with during his nine-month term, with an additional 100 troops to join the task force, allowing it to focus on advise-and-assist missions with local forces.
The U.S. military has also sent a squadron of A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft to the fight around Helmand Province, providing more close-air support and to target the Taliban drug trade.
Trump in August unveiled his new strategy for the South Asia region, under which Washington has deployed 3,000 more troops to Afghanistan to train, advise, and assist local security forces,
The comments on battlefield gains come at the same time that the Taliban and other extremists have stepped up their campaigns of violence.
In recent weeks, Kabul has been hit by several deadly assaults, including a massive suicide car bombing in a crowded central area on January 27 that killed more than 100 people and was claimed by the Taliban.