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With Marines Gone, Can The Afghan Army Hold Off The Taliban?

U.S. Marines board a C-130 transport plane as they withdraw from Camp Leatherneck, their huge base in southern Afghanistan. This marked the biggest handover yet to the Afghan army, which is facing a tough fight with the Taliban in Helmand province and other parts of southern Afghanistan. (AFP/Getty Images)

The desert sun beat down on the U.S., British and Afghan troops gathered at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. The Marines rolled up their flag as it came down, along with the NATO and British banners.

With the ceremony on Sunday, the Afghan army is now in command of Camp Leatherneck and neighboring Camp Bastion, the former British base.

As the U.S. military presence winds down in Afghanistan, this was by far the biggest transfer yet, and it marked the end of a Marine mission here that began in 2009. At the time, British forces were in charge of Helmand province, but they weren't able to subdue the Taliban. So the U.S. sent in the Marines, and at the peak, 20,000 of them were battling the Taliban in this part of the country.

The Taliban haven't been defeated in Helmand, and the departure of the Marines raises questions about whether the Afghan army will be able to fend off the Taliban.

"This transfer is a sign of progress," said Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, the last commander of Regional Command Southwest, which is now effectively dissolved. Closing out this mission is a personal bookend for him. He was a Marine lieutenant colonel in the force that stormed into southern Afghanistan in 2001.

Between then and now, more than 350 Marines died in Helmand province. In addition, more than 450 British troops were killed fighting here.

"And they will always be in our thoughts and hearts," said Yoo.

The U.S. still has around some 20,000 military personnel in Afghanistan, including a small Army base in Helmand province that is expected to remain for a few more months.

However, the American combat mission throughout Afghanistan is set to conclude by the year's end after more than 13 years of war. The U.S. and Afghanistan recently signed a security agreement that calls for the U.S. to keep nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan over the next two years to help the Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism operations.

After Sunday's ceremony, some of the Marines headed straight to the airfield, others went to finish packing, and a few manned the guard towers for their last watch.

Lance Cpl. Javonte James, with 3rd Platoon of Alpha Company of the 1-2 Marines out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., said it was a great honor to be part of the last Marine unit in Helmand.

"We're worn out. But at the same time, the war is over, it's time to go home," he said.

He said he had faith in the Afghan army, which is facing a tough fight in Helmand. The Taliban have inflicted heavy casualties this year on Afghan forces, who have lost nearly as many troops in 2014 as NATO has lost in the province since 2001.

Looking out the tower, James says he's shocked how quickly the base was torn down.

"One minute you see a building, and the next it's gone," he said.

This base once housed more than 40,000 personnel. It was a small city. The last time I was here in 2013 the base was still bustling with thousands of troops and contractors.

Now, it looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic zombie movie. There is an eerie stillness. The only sounds are generators humming in the distance and the sound of fighter jets circling overhead. They are providing security, now that the base's surveillance hardware has been dismantled.

As far as you can see, there are empty buildings and razor wire fences surrounding vast expanses of nothingness.

As the Marines prepared to depart, a convoy pulled out of the adjoining Afghan base. The Afghans followed Alpha Company along the base perimeter. At each tower, two Afghans got out and replaced the Marines on duty.

They quickly shook hands, the Marines wished their replacements well, and then they headed to the flight line.

Over the next few hours, Marines squeezed themselves into a variety of helicopters and C-130 cargo planes.

There are no seats in the planes. The troops sat on their backpacks in the cargo bay for the flight to Kandahar. One looming question: What would come next for the Marines?

Capt. Joseph Wiese served in Iraq in 2009 and helped the Marines transition from that war to Afghanistan.

"What the heck's going on in Syria?" he asks. "What's going on in the rest of the world? Before, we were [preparing] to go to Afghanistan, and now the world's not any safer, so job security looks good."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

There were once some 20,000 U.S. Marines battling the Taliban in southwest Afghanistan. Now there are none. The last Marine battalion in Helmand Province packed up and left over the last couple of days. Now they are at Kandahar Airfield on their way home. NPR's Sean Carberry followed the Marines in their final 24 hours in Helmand.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: The desert sun beats down on the U.S., British and Afghan troops gathered at Camp Leatherneck. The Marines and the remaining British combat troops here are handing over Leatherneck and neighboring Camp Bastion to the Afghan army.

DANIEL YOO: Please stand for the lowering of the NATO, United Kingdom and United States flags.

CARBERRY: And with this ends a mission that began in 2009. At the time, British forces were in charge of Helmand province, but they weren't able to oust the Taliban, so the U.S. sent in the Marines. While the Taliban haven't been defeated in Helmand, the fight has now been handed over to the Afghans.

YOO: This transfer is a sign of progress.

CARBERRY: Brigadier General Daniel Yoo is closing out the Marine mission. It's a personal bookend for him as he was part of the Marine force that stormed southern Afghanistan in 2001. In between, more than 350 Marines died in this province.

YOO: And they'll always be in our thoughts and our hearts.

CARBERRY: After the ceremony, some of the Marines head straight to the airfield. Some go to finish packing, and others man the guard towers for their last watch.

Lance Corporal Javonte James is with the third platoon of Alpha Company of the 1-2 Marines out of Camp Lejeune. He says it's a great honor to be part of the last Marine unit in Helmand.

JAVONTE JAMES: We're worn-out. But at the same time, the war is over with. It's time to go home.

CARBERRY: He says he has complete faith in the Afghan army, though the Taliban have inflicted heavy casualties on Afghan forces this year. In fact, Afghan fatalities in the Helmand this year are approaching the total number of NATO service members killed in the province since 2001. Things are pretty quiet for third platoon until about 1:30 a.m. Suddenly, a number of the marines start folding up their cots and packing their makeshift camp.

ANTHONY NACCARATO: So right now we're just pretty much breaking down our platoon position.

CARBERRY: Lieutenant Anthony Naccarato is commander of the third platoon.

NACCARATO: We've had rehearsals over the past few weeks working out all of the kinks. I'm pretty confident we got it.

CARBERRY: Just after dawn, a convoy pulls out of the adjoining Afghan base. They follow Alpha Company along the base perimeter. At each tower, two Afghans get out and replace the Marines.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: Hey, good luck, man. Good luck.

CARBERRY: They quickly shake hands and the Marines head to the flight line.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: Yes, let's do it.

CARBERRY: Over the next few hours, Marines cram into helicopters and C-130 cargo planes.

There are no seats. The troops sit on their backpacks in the cargo bay for the flight to Kandahar. As they take off, they leave behind a number of questions, such as what is the future for the Marines with this combat mission over? Alpha Company Commander Joseph Wiese shared some thoughts on that while visiting his Marines on tower duty last night. He served in Iraq in 2009 and was part of the Marine transition from that war to Afghanistan. Wiese says this transition doesn't necessarily mean the Marines can stand down.

JOSEPH WIESE: What the heck's going on in Syria? What's going on in the rest of the world? So before we were posturing ourselves to go to Afghanistan. Now, you know, the world's not any safer, so job security looks good.

CARBERRY: And the questions for the Afghans - whether their army can defend and maintain the bases handed over and whether they'll be able to handle the Taliban on their own next year. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kandahar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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