An Afghan Strategy Update From A Commander

The pundits and military analysts were out in force after the Obama administration released its review of the Afghan war strategy last week. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Maj. Gen. Richard Mills of the U.S. Marines, commander of combat operations in Helmand Province, about the progress in Afghanistan and the prospects for troop withdrawal.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The pundits and military analysts were out in force after the Obama administration released its review of the Afghan War strategy last week. Boil down all of the opinions and analysis, and you're essentially left with one word: Sustainability.

The review touted tactical progress, particularly in the southern provinces. But questions remain. How can the military sustain that progress? And how can victories in the war transition into progress in the political and diplomatic arenas?

Marine Major General Richard Mills commands combat operations in the southern province of Helmand, and he's on the line from Afghanistan. Hello, General. Thanks for talking to us today.

Major General RICHARD MILLS (Commanding General, Marine Expeditionary Force, Helmand Province): Well, thank you Liane. Thanks for having me on the show.

HANSEN: You spoke with Renee Montagne on MORNING EDITION a few weeks ago, and said you expected some bitter fighting this winter and into the spring. Attacks usually decrease during the Afghan winter, known to be harsh. Why do you expect the insurgents to keep fighting?

Maj. Gen. MILLS: Well, the lull has to be mutual. And it's true that the insurgent here likes to take the winter off, if you will. He wants to go back to his home. He wants to refit, he wants to retrain, he wants to prepare himself for what they called the fighting season over here.

We are not going to give him that luxury this year. We're going to maintain the pressure on him throughout the winter season. We're going to ensure that he has no chance to relax. And we believe that at this point we have him backpedaling, and we have an insurgency that is starting to show some fractures. And we believe that to allow him some time off would only be to help him regained his strength for the upcoming year.

HANSEN: So it's in your opinion, they might not want to fight and you are. And do you still expect a counteroffensive in the spring then, from the Taliban?

Maj. Gen. MILLS: Well, we're going to shape conditions here that if he does decide to launch a counteroffensive in the spring that he will arrive in a much different battlefield. He'll arrive in a battlefield in which the security within the center of the province has been deepened. He'll arrive in a battlefield in which he will find the Afghan security's forces, both the army and the police, much more capable, much better equipped, much better manned, and with an attitude of wanting to take the enemy on, should he decide to raise his head.

I think he will find this winter that he is going to find coalition forces in areas he doesn't expect us in. And he is going to find himself unable really to raise money, to resupply himself, to retrain; most importantly, to get more volunteers and people to join him in insurgency.

HANSEN: The review cites the progress in the fight against the Taliban, but calls that progress fragile and reversible. What do you think are the keys then to sustaining those gains?

Maj. Gen. MILLS: Well, I think there's no question the keys to sustaining the gains that we've seen over the past eight months that Ive been here, the key is the sustainability and the raise in the capability of the Afghan security forces. They are the ones that are ultimately going to be responsible for security within their own province and within their own country.

We've seen a great growth in their capabilities, in their numbers, and in their willingness to shoulder a great deal of the responsibility of providing security for their own people. And I think that's the real key to success here within the province.

HANSEN: You mentioned one of the keys to sustainability is the ability of the Afghans to govern themselves, certainly. And there's a civil service academy to be set up at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand, to actually train Afghans to manage the government.

Considering their high illiteracy rates, and there are much better opportunities available to those Afghans who are literate, how do you make this academy work?

Maj. Gen. MILLS: Well, in trying to attract civil servants to the province, of course, what you have to really appeal to them is both for their sense of ownership here in the province, their sense of family within the province. So the Afghans are very, very interested at the local level and they will stay home if given the opportunity. And I believe they will rally to the cause and want to make Helmand a better place in which to live and to work.

HANSEN: The International Committee of the Red Cross said last week that conditions for humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan are at their worst in 30 years. Youve talked about the military securing urban areas - Marjah, for example - but what about the rural areas where these aid organizations are most needed?

Maj. Gen. MILLS: Well, certainly the rule areas on the fringes of the population centers are now coming unto our attention. Those are some of the areas that we're moving into, areas north of Sangin, for instance, which in years past had been neglected by the coalition forces, while they concentrated on the population areas.

Those areas are now coming under our control. We are pushing the insurgents further and further up into the mountains, and further and further out into the desert where he can't influence the population. And we're beginning again to take control of the rural areas and watch for (unintelligible) influence to spread into those areas.

You know, the international organizations will follow the security. They, of course, have certain conditions they need in order to their jobs. And I think those conditions are starting to be met.

HANSEN: Major General Richard Mills commands the U.S. Marine Forces in Helmand Province. He joined us on the line from Afghanistan. Thank you.

Maj. Gen. MILLS: Liane, you're welcome. Thank you very much for this opportunity.

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