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US Marines pack up in Afghanistan as Taliban wages spring offensive

It's the beginning of the end of an era for U.S. Marines stationed in Afghanistan.

It was the summer of 2012 and the most dangerous part of the mission – when soldiers get complacent and make mistakes. So, even in 130-degree heat, Cpl. Randy Derstine and his men of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, patrolled hard in the mountainous, heavily disputed Kajaki Dam area of Helmand province.

Between missions, they broke their remote firebase down to the nails and plywood. They were going home. Derstine’s commanders explained that this was not your usual “RIP” or swap-out with a follow-on unit. (In the military RIP stands for “Relief in Place” – not “Rest In Peace”).

This was nothing less than the end of an era – U.S. Marines had been active in Helmand since the spring of 2008, when a pre-surge Marine company inserted by helicopter into the Taliban stronghold of Garmser. 

Over the past five years, successive Marine units pushed Taliban fighters from their dug-in positions in the "Green Zone," the fertile, built-up areas along the Helmand River.

Fighting in the birthplace of the Taliban was often fierce – at least 500 Marines died, more than 4,500 were wounded – the highest casualties among U.S. fighting forces in Afghanistan. But now it was almost over. 

By July this year, Afghan forces will be in charge of security throughout the country. And by the end of 2014, U.S. Marines will be out of Afghanistan and back at their home bases.

As the rest of the U.S. military draws down, it must grapple with the logistical nightmare of figuring out what to do with 1.38 million pieces of equipment: What is fit to be repacked and sent home versus what is beyond “use by” dates or too costly to ship, and will be left behind. 

But for the Marines, it’s a much more clear-cut issue. “We take it all,” explained Col. James Clark, standing in a triage area at Camp Leatherneck, the Marines’ headquarters in Helmand.

“Lithium batteries, armor, lubricants. We take our Marines and sailors and we take our gear. What we can’t recycle, we burn.” According to Clark, the massive recycling will save the U.S. taxpayer some $150 million. “It’s a pretty good bargain for the American people,” Clark said.

Anja Niedringhaus / AP

More than ten years after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.

Weeks later, when Derstine’s unit flew back to Camp Lejeune, N.C., they reunited with their loved ones and each took a well-deserved month of leave. Derstine and his wife, Alexi, found a new apartment.  They enjoyed homemade smoothies and DVD movies. Both share a passion for running and in October they competed in a half-Iron Man triathlon.

But, before long Derstine was back training, this time for deployment with the Marine Corps Special Operations Command, sometime this spring. The 21-year-old Pennsylvanian’s dream of becoming a Special Operator was coming true.

So far, the fears of the Afghans Derstine left behind – that the Taliban would take back Kajaki as soon as the Marines left – have not come to pass. Though his full battalion of about 600 Marines was replaced by a single company not even half that size (the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif.) the local Afghan Uniformed Police have taken up much of the slack.

They have proved to be an effective, self-starting force – going toe-to-toe with the Taliban, holding what the Marines had cleared and even taking ownership of other contested areas on their own.

U.S. military officials say they believe there are currently some 3,000 to 4,000 Taliban fighters in all of “Regional Command Southwest” – the heart of the fight in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. But they face about 20,000 Afghan soldiers and 9,000 police, supported by the 1/1 Marines.

It’s late spring, so the new fighting season has just begun. U.S. commanders say they hope the Taliban gets their message: You’re outnumbered and outgunned – it’s unwise to push the fight.  But Taliban commanders know that winning back the Kajaki Dam area would mean owning the precious water and source of power for the whole region.

They may not be listening.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News Foreign Correspondent based in London who has covered Afghanistan since the 1980s. He’s the author of “Scythes & Rounds,” an Afghan war e-play published by Cyberpress.

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