By Lisa Daniel American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 27, 2011 – Enemy fighters are beginning to make their annual spring resurgence in Afghanistan, but are resurfacing as a weakened force with less support from local residents, a U.S. military commander said today.
Marine Corps Gen. Richard P. Mills spoke with journalists at the State Department’s Foreign Press Center here, along with Derek Hogan, the State’s senior advisor to the department’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mills returned to the United States three week ago at the end of his command of the International Security Assistance Forces’ Regional Command Southwest in Afghanistan’s Helmand and Nimruz provinces.
The southwest provinces are critical to the insurgency, Mills said. The area is at the center of the Pashtun community and provides most of the insurgency’s funding through drugs derived from poppy plants that are plentiful in the Helmand River valley.
The regional command there is made up of U.S. Marines and soldiers from Great Britain, Denmark, Georgia, Estonia, and Italy, who mitigated the insurgency with “a very effective winter campaign” that brought insurgent leaders out of hiding, Mills said.
“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,” the general said. “He’s not going to find the same Helmand province. He’s going to find a very cold reception” from residents.
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.
“The Taliban burn schools, we build them,” Mills said.
The Afghan army has grown to about 10,000 soldiers in three brigades in the area, and is increasingly proving its competency, Mills said. “The Afghan army likes to fight, is good at it, and is not reluctant to take the enemy on,” he said.
Afghan police is also flourishing with 7,500 officers patrolling communities, mostly those they were raised in, he said.
As the military has improved security in southwest Afghanistan, civilian workers, including the U.S. State Department’s foreign service workers, are stepping up to prepare areas to transition to Afghan leadership, which will formally begin in July, Hogan said.
“Because of the military’s great gains, we are able to shift our focus to a diplomatic surge,” he said. “That means the conflict in Afghanistan will come to an end by a political solution.”
Seven Afghan provinces have been identified for transitioning to Afghan forces, but the process can take as long as 18 months, Hogan said. NATO ministers agreed in November to a process for transitioning Afghan provinces, and “we must make sure each [step in the] process is met before we move on to the next one,” he said.
The start of the transition in July should not be viewed as a NATO exit strategy, Hogan said. “What we should see over the next months and years is a more clearly articulated plan that ISAF is diligently working on,” he said.
State 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, Mills said, “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,” he said. “It will be a slow thinning out process. Hopefully, one day people will wake up and say, ‘Gee, didn’t there used to be U.S. Marines here?’”