US Marines to deploy to Afghanistan's troubled Helmand province
Around 300 US marines will head to Helmand province in Afghanistan this spring to help a NATO-led mission to train Afghan forces, US authorities said on Friday.
"Approximately 300 marines will deploy to Helmand Province, Afghanistan in spring 2017 in support of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission," a statement from the Marine Corps said, following a request from US Central Command (CENTCOM) and the US forces in Afghanistan.
"[They] will train and advise key leaders within the Afghan National Army 215th Corps and the 505th Zone National Police," it added.
They will also advice Afghan defence and security forces and "assist in preserving gains made together with the Afghans".
The move puts US marines back in Helmand, who left in 2014 as NATO withdrew its forces and let Afghan troops lead the fight against the Taliban.
They were among the first US forces sent to Afghanistan after the 2001 terror attacks in the US. Several thousand were deployed in Helmand, an opium-producing region, where they engaged in bitter combat with the Taliban insurgency.
The administration of outgoing President Barack Obama had hoped to withdraw most US military forces from Afghanistan by now, leaving behind just a small force.
But some 8,400 US military personnel remain in the country, and Washington is now returning the Marines to Helmand.
The Afghan army and police are struggling in the fight against a resurgent Taliban.
In early December General John Nicholson, the chief US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said that Kabul directly controls about 64 percent of the country's population of 30 million, down slightly from 68 percent earlier in 2016.
He said that the Taliban have been especially active in Helmand province and are working opium with traffickers.
"There's a nexus here between the insurgency and criminal networks that's occurring in Helmand that makes Helmand such a difficult fight," he added.
Afghanistan is by far the world's largest opium producer. The UN estimates 2016 production at 4,800 to 6,000 tons, up sharply from 3,300 tons in 2015, while cultivated areas have increased by 10 percent in one year.