US, UK end combat operations in Helmand, hand over two bases

The end of the overall combat effort in Afghanistan will officially come at the end of the year, but this handover in Helmand Province marks the real withdrawal from the longest war in American history. The US and UK officially ended combat operations in the country’s most unstable province, where the Taliban has attempted for years to gain a stronghold. In a ceremony earlier today, the two Western nations handed over two bases to the Afghan government, Camps Bastion and Leatherneck, which have turned into “ghost towns” in the transition:

The U.S.-led military coalition officially ended combat operations in Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand province Sunday, an event marked with the ceremonial handover of a sprawling desert base to the Afghan army.

U.S. and British troops played their national anthems and lowered their flags Sunday, leaving the tricolor Afghan flag to fly on its own over the joint base of Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion. …

Foreign troops are leaving a province that is far from secure. Helmand is the Taliban’s historic heartland and it is Afghanistan’s prime opium-growing province. Northern Helmand, in particular, has seen heavy fighting in recent months as the Taliban sought, but failed, to seize and hold ground. The Afghan army and police have pushed back their advances, but they have taken heavy casualties.

“Helmand has been particularly dangerous,” said U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, commander of the U.S.-led coalition, at the ceremony. “But I think Afghanistan is a much better place than it was. Each year it continues to get better.”

That optimism isn’t shared among the rank and file. CBS Philadelphia played remarks from a Marine corporal who is glad to be going home, but convinced that his son will have to come back:

“I’m worried that my son has to come back, the future generation of Marines,” Cpl. Matthew Thompson said. They “will have to come back and start over again — much like Iraq.” Like Iraq, the war will not end with our departure. Unlike Iraq, this will be more of a tribal war than a sectarian affair. This isn’t a pitched battle between Sunnis and Shi’ites but a struggle for supremacy on the part of Pashtuns (whose leadership is the Taliban) over the other tribes of Afghanistan. Also unlike Iraq, the US and UK will depart not with the potential for a marauding army to form, but with one already in the field and attempting to seize ground — especially in Helmand.

Corporal Thompson has good reason to worry. Despite the failure of our policy in Iraq, we are about to duplicate it in Afghanistan. If the Taliban learned to mind its own business and not host terrorist networks in areas it controls, the best that we can possibly hope is that we won’t have another major terrorist attack against the US plotted on Afghan soil. Given their determination to maintain the alliance with al-Qaeda, the corporal’s fear is probably the most likely outcome.