WASHINGTON, Oct. 27, 2010 — Insurgents in Afghanistan’s Helmand province have lost the momentum to NATO and Afghan forces, and those forces will continue to take on the Taliban all through the winter, the commander of NATO’s Regional Command Southwest said today.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills said NATO and Afghan forces already are seeing a reduction in violence, but that the plan is to give the Taliban no rest.
Historically, fighting in Afghanistan dies down during the tough winters and insurgent groups use the time to rest and refit, but Afghan and NATO forces plan to weigh in on that matter, the general said.
“The ‘off-season’ takes two to tango,” he said during an interview at his headquarters. “[The enemy is] not going to get an off-season. He’s not going to get to go home and relax. He’s not getting two weeks in Florida.”
The general said he wants forces to continue to go after the insurgents in his region, which encompasses Helmand and Nimruz provinces. Most of the action in the regional command follows the Helmand River valley and the Ring Road.
“[The enemy] is going to be pounded,” he said. “We are going to break his supply lines, [and] we are going to hunt him down where he stays. When his leadership leaves because they are afraid, we’re going to pressure him all winter.”
At the same time, he said, NATO forces will work to ensure Afghan army and police units are bulked up and have more capabilities. The Afghans already are operating independently in the region, and Mills said he wants new tricks in their bags by the spring.
“When the fighting season begins in April, it isn’t going to be the same stadium – it’ll be a different playing field,” he said.
Mills said no one has given him a timeline on operations in Helmand, but he thinks the enemy has a timeline.
“I think he’s losing the population, I think he’s lost the momentum, and I think he’s losing resources,” Mills said. “And I think he’s playing the only card left in his deck, which is murder and intimidation, and we’re going to solve that as well.”
The province still is dangerous, but it has pockets of security and stability. Mills described three levels of the Taliban threat in the region with the first and largest being locally based insurgents who work for a variety of reasons, being most often for money.
“There is a large unemployment problem,” the general said, “and a lot of them are recruited by their elders to go out and serve the insurgency really as a job.”
The next level of the threat is middle managers, Mills said. These insurgents typically were local warlords who earned their power through the poppy trade.
“They see their power – which was based on poppy, based on opium, based on corruption – waning,” he said. “They are loathe to give up that power to the government of Afghanistan. They are fighting and struggling to maintain that power.”
Finally, the general said, there is a professional cadre of Taliban who come to Afghanistan from Pakistan to train and give overall strategic guidance to the insurgency, he said. The border area is porous, and Pashtu tribes live on both sides. “The tribes don’t necessarily recognize the boundaries,” Mills said.
The tribes are important, but in a way that’s different from the effect tribes have had in Iraq, the general said. In Iraq, individual leaders made decisions and the tribes would follow. The dynamic is different in Afghanistan, he said.
“Here, there is more group leadership among the tribes,” he explained. “There is more discussion and more consensus building in the tribes.
“We are able to deal with the elders in some places very well,” he continued. “In other places, they are on the fence, waiting to see who wins this thing, and in some areas they are openly hostile. It’s all dependent on how long we’ve been there and how much interaction they’ve had with us, and how much we’ve been able to show them the positive influences of what the [Afghan government] can do for them.”
Part of this is investing in quality-of-life projects, Mills said. The government also uses Afghan police and soldiers to bring in the “real benefits that the Afghan government can provide that the Taliban and the insurgents never brought in,” he added.
The biggest motivator among Afghans in Helmand is getting an education for children, the general said. He estimated that less than 10 percent of the province’s men can read and write, and probably less than 1 percent of the women can. The only education under the Taliban came from religious schools that taught the Quran by rote, he said.
The very act of registering children for school is a repudiation of the Taliban, Mills noted.
“That’s what the enemy strikes at,” he said. “You want to draw a crowd of bad guys? Build a school. Get children to come to school. [The Taliban] will come in at night and will threaten and they will intimidate and tell people not to let their children go to school. But the elders and families are pushing back on the Taliban and saying, ‘No, my children will go to school.’ ”
The government has a school open in Marja – once an area so dangerous that aircraft weren’t allowed to fly over it. Intimidation still occurs, Mills said, but that hasn’t stopped parents who bring their children. “That’s a real vote for the future,” he added.
The longer Marines and other NATO forces have been in areas, the general said, the more secure the areas become and the more cooperative local residents become.
“Nawa is one of the areas we are looking to transition [to Afghan security control],” Mills said. “In many ways, it has been turned over. It has a good police force, a very nice bazaar, and you can walk around without [protective gear].”
People drive from Nawa to Lashkar Gah – the provincial capital – all the time, he said, noting that the police can handle the occasional threats that arise as criminal actions and not as existential crises. And as the transition continues, Mills said, he hopes it’s almost imperceptible.
“We are maintaining a very low profile,” he said. “The 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, are down there, [and] they have done a great job. What we want to do is as we give up areas, we don’t want to make a big show. We’re not pulling down the Marine flag and sending up an Afghan one. The way I’d like to do it is one morning people in and around Nawa wake up and say, ‘Hey, didn’t there used to be Marines here?’ That’s that way it should be done – easing out of our forces.”
Marja – once a Taliban stronghold – is another example. Marines have been in the area only since March.
“When we got to Marja, [the people] wanted no part of the local police, because they were thugs and thieves,” Mills said. “Now we’ve got 311 police officers in Marja; 100 are local men. There are three police stations located near the bazaars, so they are no longer huddled around the district center. And we have moved the Marines – slowly – out of the center … toward the periphery.”
The Marines have embedded mentor teams with the Afghan police, and the local people are seeing much more of “a protect and serve” environment, the general said.
And the Afghan government is becoming more professional in the region, Mills said. Afghan public health and education experts are taking office and beginning the process of getting basic services to the people. The low education level poses a challenge in finding civil servants, he acknowledged, but he said government and NATO officials are working on the problem.
The general said his Marines in Task Force Leatherneck are doing well.
“Everywhere you go, you will find Marines who are charged up and motivated, who are focused on the job,” he said. “There is a feeling out there that we are going to get this thing done, and we are going to do it right.
“These young kids today are brave, motivated, focused, intelligent and work extraordinarily well with the combined team – British, Danes, Estonians, and with the Afghan army,” he added.
Roadside bombs remain as the largest coalition killer in Afghanistan, the general said, and officials are approaching the threat systematically. Mine-resistant, ambush-protected all-terrain vehicles have been a big help, Mills said. The Marines received great and realistic training before deploying, he added, and the units get new technological solutions and new practices all the time.
Mills said he’s especially pleased with the performance of bomb-sniffing Labrador retrievers. “We want more of them – hundreds more,” he said. “They are very good, and the Marines fell all ‘warm and fuzzy’ when they see them. The troops love them.”
It is a tough fight here, the general acknowledged. In the summer, troops sweated through days when the temperature exceeded 130 degrees. While life on this camp is good, he added, conditions are a bit more primitive at the combat outposts in other areas of the province. Every time the Marines go outside the wire, he said, they face the danger of death.
But they carry on.
“They are here because their country sent them here,” M ills said. “They are here because this is the mission they’ve been assigned, and they are here because they truly believe they are doing the right thing in confronting the terrorists that threaten the United States of America. They know they are making a difference.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)