An estimated 300 Marines are reportedly gearing up to deploy to the Taliban stronghold and top opium-producing province of Helmand, Afghanistan, as part of a task force expected to train members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).
Maj. Kendra N. Motz, spokeswoman for the task force, indicated to Marine Corps Times, that the 300 Marines “will make up Task Force Southwest, and will train Afghans at the battalion-level while advising and assisting at the brigade and division level” when they arrive in the country in the spring.
“The task force consists of experienced, senior Marines, many of whom have deployed to Afghanistan before,” according to Col. Matthew Reid, Task Force Southwest’s deputy commander.
More than half (57 percent) of Helmand, located along the Pakistan border, has fallen under the control or influence of the Taliban, revealed the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a government watchdog agency.
Helmand is considered one of the deadliest provinces for U.S.-led coalition troops and the ANDSF, which includes army and police units.
“Make no mistake: Though we are no longer in a combat role in Afghanistan, it is still a combat environment,” Col. Reid told Marine Corps Times. “As Marines, we train and deploy with a combat mindset.”
Former President Barack Obama, who approved the deployment of the 300 Marines, declared the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan over at the end of December 2014, but American troops continued to engage in the fight.
Obama’s Pentagon repeatedly denied that U.S. troops continued to participate in combat after December 2014.
The U.S.-backed government in Kabul lost control of nearly half of Afghanistan under Obama’s watch.
Helmand, which sits next to Kandahar Province, the birthplace of the Taliban, produces more opium than any other region, making it important for the jihadist group.
“They [the Taliban] receive much of their funding from the narcotics trafficking that occurs out of Helmand,” American Gen. John Nicholson, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told reporters in December. “As you know, Helmand produces a significant amount of the opium globally that turns into heroin and this provides about 60 percent of the Taliban funding, we believe.”
Afghanistan is the world’s top producer of opium and its heroin derivative.