Afghanistan — Coalition Makes Steady Progress in Helmand Province

WASHINGTON, July 15, 2010 — Coali­tion and Afghan forces are mak­ing steady progress in Hel­mand province, Afghanistan, the com­man­der of Region­al Com­mand South­west said today.

Marine Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills stood up the new com­mand in June. The area had been part of Region­al Command—South. The gen­er­al spoke to Pen­ta­gon reporters via tele­con­fer­ence from his base at Camp Leath­er­neck, locat­ed north of the provin­cial cap­i­tal of Lashkar Gah.

The general’s com­mand is focused on the cen­tral Hel­mand Riv­er Val­ley.

“It’s key ground,” Mills said. “The bulk of the near­ly 1.5 mil­lion res­i­dents of Hel­mand province live here. Progress here has been steady. I look for­ward to progress to con­tin­ue to show improve­ment over the com­ing months, and I think we’ll expand rapid­ly in the months ahead.”

The NATO forces in the com­mand work close­ly with Afghan secu­ri­ty forces and are part­nered in almost all oper­a­tions, Mills said. He not­ed that the qual­i­ty and quan­ti­ty of the Afghan forces has increased.

“We work with all of the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces and have been very, very pleased at the increase in their capa­bil­i­ty, increase in their man­ning lev­el and the increase in the equip­ment with which they oper­ate,” Mills said.

The price for the steady progress has been steep, the gen­er­al said. The Hel­mand val­ley is key ground to the insur­gency. The Tal­iban con­trolled the region six months ago and there were many areas where coali­tion or Afghan gov­ern­ment forces had nev­er been.

Since launch­ing offen­sives at the begin­ning of the year, the Tal­iban have been con­sis­tent­ly pushed back, Mills said, and is los­ing con­trol over the pop­py crops that fund their activ­i­ties.

Mills cit­ed the Mar­ja cam­paign as an exam­ple of oper­a­tions in Hel­mand. Mar­ja reflects progress that’s been made through­out the province, the gen­er­al said. Six months ago, “any­one not involved with the insur­gency that approached Mar­ja drew fire and drew very accu­rate fire,” he said.

The insur­gents said they were going to die in the fight against the coali­tion, but instead they’ve drift­ed away, Mills said.

“We had ini­tial suc­cess on the bat­tle­field, he said.

And the gov­ern­ment and the coali­tion have built on that ini­tial suc­cess. “Today,… there is an emerg­ing police force down [in Mar­ja],” Mills said. “It has some 140 mem­bers. It patrols in the streets. It runs check­points for secu­ri­ty mea­sures and enforces not only the basic laws expect­ed to oper­ate with­in a town but it also fights the insur­gency when it’s called upon and when it’s attacked.”

There are two bat­tal­ions of U.S. Marines in the area, he not­ed, as well as ele­ments of the Afghan Nation­al Police Force.

Mean­while, the gen­er­al said, schools for both boys and girls have opened and the bazaars are back in busi­ness.

Though the Tal­iban remain in the area, they’re being forced out, Mills said. “And they are becom­ing des­per­ate,” he added. “We are begin­ning to see more and more of that des­per­a­tion reflect­ed in the weapons and the tac­tics they use against us with­in the city.”

The Tal­iban, he said, are sneak­ing into the area at night and plant­i­ng road­side bombs, which are aimed at the pop­u­la­tion.

“The num­ber of chil­dren, the num­ber of women, the num­ber of inno­cents that we treat in our med­ical facil­i­ties, as the result of IEDs with­in Mar­ja, is unac­cept­able,” Mills said. The Taliban’s mur­der and intim­i­da­tion cam­paign shows des­per­a­tion, the gen­er­al said, not­ing the insur­gents have “very lit­tle else to offer the peo­ple of Mar­ja, oth­er than threats.” When the Tal­iban con­trolled Mar­ja, Mills said, there were no schools, because the insur­gents had destroyed them. The insur­gents, he said, also had closed the health clin­ics and destroyed most of the build­ings that made up the bazaars.

The Afghans are fed up with Tal­iban manip­u­la­tion, mur­der and extor­tion, Mills said, not­ing the peo­ple of the region are chas­ing away Tal­iban tax col­lec­tors and recruiters.

“We have reports of Tal­iban recruiters, again, enter­ing vil­lages, not just Mar­ja but through­out the province, and once again being reject­ed and told to dis­ap­pear,” he said.

The peo­ple of the province want to defend them­selves, Mills said, not­ing he ful­ly sup­ports the estab­lish­ment of a local Afghan police force to help deter Tal­iban aggres­sion. Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai approved the con­cept yes­ter­day.

Mean­while, the gen­er­al said, Afghan offi­cials have set up an anti-insur­gent tip line for the region.

The tip line has become “more and more use­ful to us as con­cerned cit­i­zens call in, tell us of IEDs that have been plant­ed, tell us of fac­to­ries pro­duc­ing IEDs, and tell us of strangers who don’t belong in the local neigh­bor­hood who have come in and begun to cause trou­ble,” Mills said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)