Coalition Turns Corner in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province

WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2010 — The coalition’s strug­gle against insur­gents in Afghanistan’s Hel­mand province is essen­tial­ly over in Mar­ja and it now comes down to San­gin dis­trict, the region­al com­man­der there said today.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills com­mands Region­al Com­mand South­west, encom­pass­ing Hel­mand and Nim­ruz provinces. Mills and Hel­mand Gov. Gulab Man­gal talked about progress there to Pen­ta­gon reporters today via video uplink from the command’s head­quar­ters at Camp Leath­er­neck, north of the provin­cial cap­i­tal of Lashkar Gah.

“We’ve seen steady and unwa­ver­ing progress in improv­ing the secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion,” Mills said, “[and] a steady with­draw­al of the insur­gents from key loca­tions with­in the province.” Region­al Com­mand South­west stood up in June when the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force divid­ed the for­mer Region­al Com­mand South in half. Mills’ near­ly 30,000-strong force brings togeth­er the First Marine Expe­di­tionary Force, which he com­mands, and troops from the Unit­ed King­dom, Den­mark, Esto­nia, Geor­gia and Bahrain. Mills said these troops, work­ing with increas­ing­ly capa­ble and con­fi­dent Afghan army and police forces, have estab­lished secu­ri­ty in the for­mer hotspot of Mar­ja and are enabling devel­op­ment through much of the province.

“We now see lim­it­ed Afghan-led oper­a­tions against the ene­my by the army, and inde­pen­dent oper­a­tions by the police against insur­gents and crim­i­nal net­works,” Mills said. “Because of that, we have wit­nessed a steady decline in the capa­bil­i­ty of the insur­gency to affect the dai­ly life of the Afghan peo­ple here in the province.” Mills said in much of Hel­mand bazaars are boom­ing, schools are open, road-paving projects are under­way or pend­ing and access to med­ical care is improv­ing. Mar­ja, which last spring was con­sid­ered by the coali­tion as the bat­tle­ground for Afghans’ trust, is an exam­ple of just such progress, Mills said. “The ene­my has been pushed to the very out­skirts … and the dis­trict cen­ter has been cleared of insur­gent activ­i­ty for some weeks,” he said. Afghan police now bear much of the dai­ly secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty for Marja’s pop­u­la­tion cen­ter, with three police sta­tions open and more than 300 uni­formed offi­cers on duty, Mills said.

“Coali­tion forces for the most part now are active on the out­skirts, along the perime­ter, near the deserts –- where the insur­gent remains,” Mills said. “[Insur­gents] have lost the abil­i­ty to impact much on the peo­ple of Mar­ja.

“The bat­tle for San­gin, how­ev­er, con­tin­ues,” Mills added. “It’s the final piece of key ter­rain that the insur­gent can con­test, and he’s fought hard to stand his ground.” U.S. and U.K. units worked hard all sum­mer to expand the “secu­ri­ty bub­ble” around the San­gin dis­trict cen­ter, Mills said, and in recent weeks his Marines have pushed hard and wit­nessed a “con­sis­tent retreat” by insur­gents.

“Our [spe­cial oper­a­tions forces] have played a sig­nif­i­cant role as we’ve main­tained a ruth­less and a dead­ly pres­sure on the insur­gent lead­er­ship,” Mills said. Coali­tion actions have caused insur­gent lead­ers to spend more time out­side the province, with ene­my fight­ers so lack­ing in resources they reload their own ammu­ni­tion because they can’t afford to buy it, he said.

“Our intent is not to throt­tle back,” Mills said, adding the com­mand plans a win­ter cam­paign that will main­tain pres­sure on the ene­my through the tra­di­tion­al off-sea­son. “We’ll move into areas he thought unreach­able by coali­tion forces,” the gen­er­al said. “We’ll give him no rest. We’ll inter­dict his sup­ply lines. We’ll con­tin­ue to build on suc­cess … and move to our vic­to­ry.”

Mills said the ene­my is des­per­ate to hold on to San­gin because it rep­re­sents the final piece of key ter­rain avail­able in which insur­gents exert any con­trol, as well as the pri­ma­ry remain­ing cen­ter of sig­nif­i­cant nar­cotics pro­duc­tion, which funds the insur­gency.

“Once he los­es there, he has, in fact, lost Hel­mand province,” Mills said. “And I think he real­izes that.”

As coali­tion and Afghan forces increase secu­ri­ty in towns and vil­lages, local res­i­dents are more will­ing to sup­port their efforts and defend them­selves, he said. Neigh­bor­hood watch-style arrange­ments see Afghans guard­ing their own neigh­bor­hoods after night­fall, and report­ing of sui­cide bombers and bomb mak­ers is on the rise, Mills said. “Our tip lines are red-hot” with infor­ma­tion on ene­my activ­i­ty from provin­cial res­i­dents, he said.

Mills said he will adjust his strat­e­gy in Hel­mand to take advan­tage of every tool at his dis­pos­al, from the tanks he recent­ly request­ed to a pos­si­ble future imple­men­ta­tion of non­lethal weapons. Both, he said, can reduce civil­ian casu­al­ties.

Non­lethal weapons could offer coali­tion forces a means to con­trol an uncer­tain sit­u­a­tion with­out imme­di­ate­ly putting lives at risk, he said, adding that the tanks will be used to care­ful­ly tar­get an ene­my that often hides among the pop­u­la­tion.

A tank’s optics, stand-off dis­tance and bat­tle armor give coali­tion forces a tool to “bring very pre­cise fires on the insur­gents, and ensure civil­ian casu­al­ties don’t rise -– an issue that we are very con­cerned about here,” Mills said.

He and the gov­er­nor con­fer on every civil­ian casu­al­ty report­ed, Mills said, and arrive at a mutu­al­ly-agreed-upon con­clu­sion, so both can report accu­rate­ly to their supe­ri­ors.

“We have found that most instances of civil­ian casu­al­ties … are sim­ply alle­ga­tions made by the ene­my … to dri­ve a wedge between coali­tion forces and the Afghan peo­ple” he said. Man­gal said when he took office in 2008, Hel­mand was an ene­my strong­hold, but over the past year the province has seen “mas­sive secu­ri­ty achieve­ments.”

Now that most of the province’s pop­u­la­tion cen­ters are secure, his provin­cial gov­ern­ment employ­ees have estab­lished an effec­tive pres­ence in 10 of 13 dis­tricts, he said. “The dis­trict offices … are adding to their capa­bil­i­ties, and they are pro­vid­ing the res­i­dents of those areas with agri­cul­tur­al ser­vices, edu­ca­tion­al ser­vices, and more devel­op­ment of the irri­ga­tion sys­tem,” he said.

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

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