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Helmand province ready to give Taliban cold reception

US Marine Corps News

By Sgt. Jimmy D. Shea, Headquarters Marine Corps

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Last year, when Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills took command of Regional Command Southwest in Afghanistan, he said, “We know there are battles to fight. But we know there are elections to hold, jobs to create and security to bring. I promise you the insurgents will not prevail."

Mills lived up to that promise.

“When [the enemy] shows his face again, he’s going to find a very different battlefield where Afghan army and police are much more confident,” Mills said. He recently returned to Washington D.C., and reflected on the progress and the challenges ahead in Afghanistan.

Throughout the war in Afghanistan, Marines faced heavy Taliban resistance in the southwest provinces, which provides most of the insurgency’s funding through drugs derived from poppy plants.

With command of the 30,000 troops in the International Security Assistance Force, comprised of U.S. Marines and soldiers from Great Britain, Italy, Denmark, Georgia, Bahrain and Estonia, Mills hit the enemy hard with “a very effective winter campaign that brought insurgent leaders out of hiding,” he said.

Once the Marines secured the region with their rifles, they picked up shovels to help build a solid infrastructure.

“Helmand, once a hotbed of the insurgency, is now safe enough for residents to move about freely,” Mills said. “Numerous roads have opened, there is improved telephone coverage, and about 125,000 children go to school – including some 20,000 girls – something the Taliban disapprove of.”

With this new confidence, the natives of Helmand province started to resist the Taliban’s pressure.

“One night the insurgents came and burned down one of the schools,” said Mills. “The next day some of the parents came to the Marines and asked for tents. We gave them some and they set them up at the school grounds and school was on by noon the same day.”

In order to maintain this new infrastructure and confidence of the Afghan people, security and safety were made a number one priority.

Mills focused on improving the Afghans’ ability to fight the Taliban to prepare them for the American withdrawal of forces.

“The Afghan army has grown to about 10,000 soldiers in three brigades in the area, and is increasingly proving its competence,” Mills said. “The Afghan army likes to fight, is good at it, and is not reluctant to take the enemy on.”

Mills’ efforts to make Helmand province a more stable place was evident while he was in command, especially in the Afghan police force.

“The police force has grown to 7,500 officers, most of them patrolling communities they were raised in,” Mills said.

While Mills and the ISAF have made progress in Helmand, the Afghans must continue the momentum as the foreign forces start to withdraw.

“As the [Afghan] military has improved security in southwestern Afghanistan, civilian workers, including State Department foreign service workers, are stepping up to prepare [the] areas to transition to Afghan leadership, which will formally begin in July,” said Derek Hogan, senior advisor to the State Department’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Afghans are being prepared for when they must take matters into their own hands.

“State Department workers have created outreach programs and community councils to act as a bridge between levels of government to handle issues such as the reintegration of insurgent followers into communities, and dealing with corruption,” Hogan said.

“Afghan army and police already have taken over security in many areas of the regional command,” said Mills. “And in other areas, we’ve thinned out our forces significantly."

“The Afghan security forces are growing more competent every day, willing to take on more every day, and are anxious to arrive at that capability,” said Mills. “It will be a slow thinning out process. Hopefully, one day people will wake up and say, ‘Didn’t there used to be U.S. Marines here?’”

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