RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
At the peak of fighting in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, there were 20,000 Marines battling the Taliban. Now, there are only 8,000 left, and more are heading home every month. Among the latest to pack up was Regimental Combat Team 7. They just held their mission's closing ceremony, and afterwards which their commander sat down with NPR's Sean Carberry to reflect on how the fight in Helmand has changed, and what lies ahead.
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SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Several hundred Marines gather in the scorching desert heat at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province. Their tan, pixelated fatigues blend in amidst the vast expanse of sand and tan colored tents and buildings of the largest Marine base in Afghanistan.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Regimental Combat Team 7, forward face.
CARBERRY: Beads of sweat roll down the Marines' necks, as the closing ceremony comes to order.
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CARBERRY: It is short and simple. The regiment's commanding officer, Colonel Austin Renforth, and Sergeant Major Scott Samuels roll up and case the unit's flag. Renforth delivers a quick speech.
COLONEL AUSTIN RENFORTH. U.S. MARINES: This is part of history, the last regiment, and we're going home, God bless, semper fi, and prepare to march.
CARBERRY: Afterwards, in an air-conditioned conference room, Renforth explains the significance of today's ceremony.
MARINES: Since 2009, we've had a Regimental Combat Team out here, and we're doing a large majority of the fighting out here.
CARBERRY: Over the last year, that's changed dramatically.
MARINES: Every time the Afghan National Security Forces set the conditions that we could back off, we backed off.
CARBERRY: The Marines are no longer providing direct combat support or mentoring for Afghan Army troops here. Now, Marines are advising the Afghans on planning, coordination, and communication. The U.S. is still providing air support, medevac, logistics and other assistance that the Afghan forces desperately need, and will need for years to come.
MARINES: And if they come to us with a requirement and a need, we just got to make sure that they truly need it, or they don't want to do it.
CARBERRY: Historically, the Afghan forces have relied on the U.S. for fuel or other supplies, and the U.S. 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.
MARINES: I mean, nobody can sustain that as a recruiting standpoint, as a sustainment of your force standpoint.
CARBERRY: He says that another concern for U.S. forces is that as they drawdown, they're 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.
MARINES: So, we have a saying around here: we got to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It's no longer our battle space; it's the Afghans' battle space.
CARBERRY: 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.
MARINES: And the reality is that they're better than the insurgency. They don't have to be great, you know, they don't have to be Marines. They just have to be better than their opponents, and they are.
CARBERRY: But Marine officers here acknowledge that despite the progress of the Afghan forces in Helmand, they aren't going to drive the Taliban out anytime soon. Sean Carberry, NPR News.
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