WASHINGTON, Dec. 8, 2010 — Residents of Afghanistan’s Helmand province have more usable roads, more food, and better health care and education than they did even six months ago, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills said yesterday.
Mills commands Regional Command Southwest, which encompasses Helmand province. Mills and Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal briefed Pentagon reporters yesterday via video uplink from Camp Leatherneck, the command’s base near the southern province’s capitol of Lashkar Gah.
Mills commands a force of U.S. Marines and other combat and support troops from the United Kingdom, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia and Bahrain. The troops and their Afghan army and police counterparts have improved security and are enabling development through much of the province, he said. Mills also credits Mangal for Helmand’s success.
“He is responsible, really, for all of the progress we have made here within the province over the past seven or eight months, and he has left his imprint on the people here through better governance, better development and better security,” Mills said. Mangal served as a colonel in the Afghan army, and also worked in the country’s Ministry of the Interior. He held the governorship in two other provinces, Paktika and then Laghman, before accepting appointment as Helmand’s governor in 2008.
Mangal’s initiatives in Helmand include the Afghan Social Outreach Program, which works to foster stronger relationships between the provincial government and district residents, and the Provincial Counter-Narcotics Strategy, which includes a “food-zone” program aimed at helping farmers move from poppy cultivation to growing food crops. Under the food program, Mangal’s administration offers seed, fertilizer and saplings to farmers who agree to grow wheat, other grains, vines or fruit trees instead of poppies. Mills and Mangal described from the governmental and military perspectives the changes they’ve seen in Helmand. Mills said his forces have built on the previous efforts of United Kingdom troops since the International Security Assistance Force established the southwest regional command in June.
Coalition and Afghan forces have driven the enemy out of Marjah and are expanding their hold in Sangin, the province’s final insurgent center, Mills said. The command’s current effort is to hold the center districts and maintain improved security there, Mills said, adding, “I’m putting a lot of time and troops into deepening that hold.”
Coalition civilian-military cooperation in the province is very good, he said.
“All of it is linked very carefully with the direction the governor gives us as we move along,” the general said. “From the international community, of course, we have the provincial reconstruction team, which has been on the ground here for several years. It’s U.K.-led [and] it deals with the development and the governance piece of our lines of operation.”
The team is based in Lashkar Gah and includes U.S. civilian and military representatives who work daily with the governor on civil projects, education and health issues, he said. A State Department presence established at Camp Leatherneck bolsters the command’s efforts to address developmental, economic and gender issues among Helmand residents, Mills said. Civilian contributions also are key in the district support teams working in the population centers to “help raise the caliber and the capability of the local government,” he said. Mills said civilian-military cooperation is led by a team that includes the governor, the leader of the provincial reconstruction team, the leader of the State Department element, and himself as the military commander.
The team ensures unity of effort in providing Helmand’s people with “not simply feel-good projects, but enduring projects that will last for years and will raise the caliber of their lives,” he said.
Projects underway include canal and road work, food programs, gender initiatives, and about 300 community improvement projects, at a cost of $57 million, he said. Mangal, speaking through an interpreter, said coalition forces and the Afghan national army and police forces’ improved capabilities have paved the way for better living conditions throughout Helmand.
In 2008, only six of the province’s 13 districts had an Afghan central government presence, and only within the district centers. Government offices that did exist in the districts lacked the capability to furnish basic services, Mangal said. Now, provincial government offices are active in 10 of the districts, Mangal said, providing local residents with agricultural and educational services, as well as improving the irrigation system.
Provincial-district coordination improves daily, the governor said. “At five districts in Helmand province we have community councils, which [are] a very important part of the social outreach program,” he said. “The members of these community councils [represent] the local residents of those districts, and they are working shoulder to shoulder with our representatives down at the district level.”
Infrastructure improvements in the province include a doubling of power production, a new airport, and new roads leading from the capitol to districts throughout the province, he said. Expanding the crop base and reducing poppy cultivation is not only key to developing the region’s primarily agrarian economy, but will curb corruption and deny a major source of enemy funding, Mangal said.
During Taliban control of the province from 2004 to 2008, he said, land under poppy cultivation expanded from 29,000 hectares to 103,000 hectares. Mangal said his food-zone program has reduced the percentage of poppy cultivation since 2008 by 40 percent. In 2008, the province didn’t produce enough wheat to feed its own population. Through the food-zone program, this year’s production in the province provided a surplus of 60 to 70 thousand metric tons of wheat exported to other areas of Afghanistan, the governor said.
Mangal said he is hopeful the decrease in poppy cultivation will reach 50 percent of 2008 levels by May 2011. British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Helmand on Dec. 6, and commented on the improvements he saw there. At the Helmand Police Training Center outside Lashkar Gah, Cameron presented graduation certificates to newly qualified Afghan policemen. There, he announced the United Kingdom’s $52 million plan to build or refurbish 48 Afghan police stations, including seven to be opened by spring.
Cameron also announced that the United Kingdom will double the number of its Reaper aircraft in the area, giving increased support to ground operations. The aircraft provides live, detailed images of the area in which troops are operating, 24 hours a day, allowing commanders to make more informed and effective decisions to defeat the enemy, he said. The Reaper also is armed, and has proved successful in helping to detect and destroy enemy targets and bomb-making networks in Afghanistan. After six visits to Helmand, Cameron said, he sees grounds for cautious optimism.
“The amount of ground that’s covered by the forces is up, the amount of markets that are open, the number of provincial and district governors that are in place, the number of schools that are open, the level of security –- there are lots of signs of positive improvement,” the British prime minister said.
(Editor’s Note: Some information for this article was provided from an International Security Assistance Force news release.)
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