Helmand Province Makes Security Gains, Commander Says

WASHINGTON, March 3, 2011 — The fight against insur­gents in Afghanistan’s Hel­mand province may have turned the cor­ner and the trend lines are going up, the com­man­der of Region­al Com­mand-South­west said today.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, speak­ing to Pen­ta­gon reporters via video­con­fer­ence, said there has been clear progress in all areas of the com­mand.

The gen­er­al and his com­mand have been in Hel­mand since April last year. He formed the new geo­graph­i­cal com­mand in July, break­ing off from RC-South. There are 30,000 coali­tion troops in Hel­mand and Nim­ruz provinces.

The secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion in the region has made tremen­dous progress, the gen­er­al said.

“We have attempt­ed with our win­ter cam­paign to main­tain pres­sure on the ene­my, and I believe that we have been able to do that,” Mills said. “We have seen a steady expan­sion of our secu­ri­ty bub­bles as we move out from the areas that we do con­trol into those areas where the ene­my still has a pres­ence.”

Mills said his com­mand is work­ing with Afghan secu­ri­ty forces to “deep­en” secu­ri­ty in the area. In San­gin, in the north­ern part of the com­mand, there’s been a rapid expan­sion of the secu­ri­ty bub­ble due to agree­ments with local tribes who see progress in oth­er parts of the province, and want some secu­ri­ty them­selves.

Ele­ments of the 26th Marine Expe­di­tionary Unit, which arrived in Afghanistan last month, are mak­ing progress in the upper Garesh Val­ley, the gen­er­al said. The area was a Tal­iban sup­ply depot, he added, and the Marines are pro­vid­ing secu­ri­ty for a new road project that will link the area to Afghanistan’s Ring Road sys­tem.

In the command’s cen­ter, Unit­ed King­dom forces “are doing a very, very good job of clean­ing out the last of the pock­ets of ene­my pres­ence,” Mills said. “They are, again, mak­ing some real suc­cess down there in doing that, and per­haps have even been more suc­cess­ful in get­ting the Afghan army to oper­ate semi-inde­pen­dent­ly on many of their oper­a­tions.” The Afghan army has improved dra­mat­i­cal­ly, the gen­er­al said, not­ing the Afghans are oper­at­ing their own air sup­port -– includ­ing mede­vac –- and oth­er assets.

“They have even incor­po­rat­ed their own sup­port­ing arms now into their oper­a­tions in that area, and have been proven quite skill­ful at the use of 122 mm long can­non,” he said.

In Mar­ja, mil­i­tary activ­i­ty is low and secu­ri­ty is excel­lent, Mills said. He point­ed to dis­trict com­mu­ni­ty coun­cil elec­tions held yes­ter­day where about 1,100 of the 1,500 reg­is­tered vot­ers turned out as an exam­ple of the safe­ty in the city that was once a Tal­iban strong­hold.

“That was all very, very suc­cess­ful with absolute­ly no secu­ri­ty inci­dents, despite a threat deliv­ered by insur­gents that they want­ed to break that elec­tion up,” the gen­er­al said. Gov­er­nance also has made progress and the region has seen a surge in tal­ent­ed peo­ple being appoint­ed to dis­trict gov­er­nor posi­tions. “I’m not a big believ­er in polls nec­es­sar­i­ly, but a recent poll down in Nawa indi­cat­ed that some 89 per­cent of the local pop­u­la­tion sup­port­ed the gov­ern­ment, and felt that the gov­ern­ment of Afghanistan was now pro­vid­ing them with the basic ser­vices that they need­ed,” Mills said.

“In fact, he added, “an inde­pen­dent recent sur­vey showed that 79 per­cent of the local pop­u­la­tion through­out the areas con­trolled by the (Afghan gov­ern­ment) felt they had a bet­ter stan­dard of liv­ing and a more secure way of life than they did just one year ago.”

The secu­ri­ty and gov­er­nance progress has allowed devel­op­ment to move ahead. Edu­ca­tion is an exam­ple of this progress. There are more than 100,000 stu­dents in local schools and 20 per­cent of them are girls. “That’s a huge change and a huge sea change, I think, from con­di­tions that we’ve seen here in the past,” Mills said.

There is a teacher’s col­lege in the province, the gen­er­al said, and cell-phone tow­ers are pop­ping up all over the com­mand.

“Cell phones are extra­or­di­nar­i­ly impor­tant,” he said, “both to the social life of the peo­ple who live here, to the busi­ness life of the peo­ple who live here, and just to the feel­ing of nor­mal­cy that I think they real­ly crave: to be able to use a cell phone 24 hours a day, sev­en days a week -– some­thing the Tal­iban has told them they can­not do.”

The biggest change in the region, though, is the free­dom of move­ment, Mills said. “We’ve seen the peo­ple mov­ing about the province in real­ly unprece­dent­ed num­bers,” he said. “That’s great for busi­ness. We’re see­ing that has an impact in all of the bazaars, which are doing extra­or­di­nar­i­ly well. But it also just … pro­vides a feel­ing of nor­mal­cy to many of the peo­ple.”

Still, the insur­gency remains a prob­lem, Mills said. “We are prepar­ing for a coun­ter­at­tack in the spring­time,” he said. “Our job will be, of course, to gauge how that coun­ter­at­tack will form and what man­ner the ene­my will choose to come after us.”

The Tal­iban and its allies are expect­ed to act, Mills said, in order to regain ter­ri­to­ry lost over the past six to eight months. The ene­my, he added, also is los­ing its largest source of mon­ey: drugs. Thou­sands of farm­ers have switched from grow­ing opi­um pop­pies to grow­ing wheat, and thou­sands of acres of land once used for drug crops are now under Afghan gov­ern­ment con­trol.

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

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