Insurgents Lose Momentum in Helmand, NATO General Says

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)

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