At the peak of fighting in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, there were 20,000 Marines battling the Taliban. Now there are 8,000 — and more are heading home every month.
Among the latest to pack up was Regimental Combat Team 7.
At their mission's recent closing ceremony, several hundred Marines gathered in the scorching desert heat at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province. Their tan, pixelated fatigues blended in amidst the vast expanse of sand-colored tents and buildings of the largest Marine base in Afghanistan.
Beads of sweat rolled down the Marines' necks, as the closing ceremony came to order. It was short and simple. The regiment's commanding officer, Col. Austin Renforth, andSgt. Maj.Scott Samuels rolled up and cased the unit's flag. Renforth delivered a quick speech.
"This is part of history," he said. "The last regiment, and we're going home. God bless, semper fi, and prepare to march."
Afterwards, in an air-conditioned conference room, Renforth explains the significance of ceremony.
"Since 2009 we've had a Regimental Combat Team out here, and we were doing a large majority of the fighting out here," he says.
But over the last year, that has changed dramatically. "Every time the Afghan National Security Forces set the conditions that we could back off, we backed off," Renforth says.
The Marines are no longer providing direct combat support or mentoring for Afghan army troops in Helmand. Now, Marines are advising the Afghans on planning, coordination and communication. The United States is still providing air support, medevac, logistics and other assistance that the Afghan forces desperately need — and will for years to come.
"If they come to us with a requirement and a need, we just got to make sure that it's because they truly need it, or they just don't want to do it [themselves]," Renforth says.
Historically, Afghan forces have relied on the United States for fuel or other supplies. The United States is working to break that dependency.
Now that Afghan forces are doing the fighting, they are also doing most of the dying. They are suffering hundreds of fatalities a month — far more than NATO ever did. Renforth says that has to change.
"Nobody can sustain that as a recruiting standpoint, as a sustainment of your force standpoint," he says.
The Afghans have to get better at determining lines of attack, and watching for improvised explosive devices as they drive around in their Ford Ranger pickup trucks, donated by the United States, Renforth says.
"We call them 'Danger Rangers' that they drive around in," he says. "Those are almost catastrophic kills every time one blows up."
Renforth says that another concern for U.S. forces is that as they draw down, they are losing the ability to monitor how Afghan forces are doing in remote parts of Helmand, which is still one of the most violent provinces in the country.
"So we have a saying around here: 'We have to get comfortable being uncomfortable,' " he says. "It's no longer our battle space. It's the Afghans' battle space."
And many parts of the battle space are still deadly. Parts like Helmand's Sangin District, which has seen some of the bloodiest fighting in the country, and where Afghan forces recently called in British advisors as they clashed with the Taliban.
Though Afghan forces didn't earn high marks in that campaign, Renforth says the encouraging thing is that they don't back down.
"The reality is, they are better than the insurgency," he says. "They don't have to be great, they don't have to be Marines; they just have to be better than their opponents, and they are."