Weapons and other forms of "lethal aid" continue to make their way into Afghanistan's Helmand province, and are the top concern of the recently departed commander of U.S. forces in southwestern Afghanistan.
The majority of the insurgency's lethal aid in Helmand comes through Bahram Chah, a dusty, isolated town only a few miles from an illegal border crossing into Pakistan, Maj. Gen. Charles "Mark" Gurganus said Thursday. It is a known hub for narcotics trafficking, weapons smuggling and other illicit activity, and more than 70 miles south of the bend in the Helmand River.
"Right now, the 'de facto' border is along the southern end of the Helmand River as it makes a turn," said Gurganus, the commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), which returned to the U.S. from a year-long deployment in March. "So the insurgents have got a way in, and being able to stop that is a challenge. We spend a lot of effort doing it, though."
Gurganus' comments came during a wide-ranging breakfast discussion in Washington with about 20 journalists and British Brig. Gen. Stuart Skeates, the deputy commander for I MEF (Fwd.). Handling the problems in Bahram Chah is particularly difficult because it is so far from the rest of the infrastructure in Helmand, including drinking water, Gurganus said.
Marines have run clearing operations in the region since U.S. forces were surged in Afghanistan in 2010, including a four-day raid in March 2011 that killed at least 50 insurgents. In the fall, an Afghan Border Police commander told Marines and an embedded Marine Corps Times reporter that it won't be possible to push south into the town without more manpower and larger weapons.
There is progress in many other parts of Helmand, however. Although intelligence estimates suggest between 2,000 and 3,000 insurgents remain in the region, Afghan forces trained by the coalition now have the lead in overseeing security in most parts of the province, and are improving their skills in route clearance, emergency medicine and other specialized areas, Gurganus said.
Asked to characterize whether the U.S. is winning the war, he said "using the term 'winning' is appropriate."
"Does that mean we have won?" said the general, who has been nominated to receive a third star and become director of the Marine Corps Staff at the Pentagton. "The answer to that question is no. There's another part to that: 'Will we win?' We won't. The Afghans will. I define success as setting the conditions for the Afghans to take over their own security, their own government, and they then have an opportunity to decide what to do with it."
Back to austere living
Over the next year, U.S. forces in the region must continue to work with their Afghan counterparts to decide which coalition bases will be turned over to the Afghans and which ones will be bulldozed. That is is being driven by a strategy in which the Afghan police will protect population centers, with the Afghan National Army on the perimeter defending those areas, Skeates said.
"We started our tour with 193 bases across Helmand province and Nimroz, and by the time we left we were down to 45," Skeates said. "We have got to move out on this smartly, and we have got to continue making progress closing bases and handing them over to Afghans while at the same time giving them ability to run these bases."
One of the challenges in closing bases is providing adequate time for contractors assisting on them to close down and move out, Gurganus said. Marine and British forces both started in an expeditionary manner in Afghanistan, and will return to it as the drawdown continues, meaning more austere living conditions are coming for many of the forces that remain.
"There will come a day where you won't be able to get ice cream at the chow hall anymore, and you're going to have to eat out of a brown bag called an MRE," Gurganus said. "We're OK with that."