A battalion of 500 U.S. Army infantrymen is being sent to southern Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand Province where the Taliban have made a comeback, Fox News has learned. The decision, confirmed by defense officials, is a sign of military escalation in the country even as the Obama administration tries to draw down.
The battalion is meant to relieve a company of 150 soldiers, giving the U.S. Army nearly 350 more soldiers to prevent the Taliban from taking over volatile Helmand province. The Army’s 2-87 infantry battalion, part of the 10th Mountain Division based at Ft. Drum, N.Y., was scheduled to deploy to Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan this winter — but instead will be sent to Helmand, according to defense officials familiar with the order.
The additional soldiers will provide increased “force protection” for a team of special operations forces training and advising the Afghan Army’s 215th Corps, which has suffered from desertions and poor leadership, according to the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
The 500 soldiers will not increase the overall number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. That number will remain at 9,800, according to defense officials.
A spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan says the new Army troops will not “participate in combat operations.”
During a Pentagon press briefing taking place at the same time of the Helmand battle in January, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook refused to call the ongoing firefight “combat.”
“It is safe to say that Afghanistan is a dangerous place” Cook said, when asked by Fox News if a “combat mission” continues in Afghanistan. “That mission has not changed for the U.S. troops on the ground – providing training and assistance to those Afghan forces,” he added.
The Guardian first reported that a U.S. Army battalion would be sent to Helmand.
Prior to the drawdown in 2014, 378 U.S. Marines and 450 British soldiers died in Helmand in some of the fiercest fighting since combat operations began in Afghanistan after 9/11.
The 500 soldiers deployed there have to occupy a former U.S. base in Afghanistan turned over to Afghan forces at the end of 2014.
This development comes less than a week after the outgoing U.S. commander for U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan told lawmakers that rules of engagement prevent U.S. forces from striking the Taliban unless in self-defense.
“Our country has made the decision that we are not at war with the Taliban,” Gen. John Campbell told senators. The State Department does not include the Taliban on its foreign terrorist organizations list.
As it stands, by end of 2016, the U.S. military will reduce to 5,500 troops from 9,800 currently – a slower pace than originally laid out by President Obama.