Enemy 'Weakened,' Afghan Security Forces 'Capable'

Major Gen. Richard Mills commands Marines and NATO troops in southern Afghanistan. He is about to finish his assignment, and he talks to Renee Montagne about the progress he's seen.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There's also been fierce fighting west of Arghandab, in the fertile Helmand Valley. Over the last year, we've been checking in with Major General Richard Mills, who commands all U.S. Marines in Helmand. He's just wrapped up his tour of duty, and so we wanted him to look back, to reflect, in particular, on one town - Sangin - where more Marines have lost their lives than any other place in Afghanistan.

Major General RICHARD MILLS (Commander, U.S. Marines, NATO Regional Command Southwest, Afghanistan): Sangin is a much better place than it was when we last spoke for a number of reasons. First of all, the efforts of some very brave Marines who pushed out the security perimeter around the district center. It's been pushed well out. And probably most importantly, back in January, the large powerful tribe that lives there asked to arrange a security agreement with the provincial governor, and also to include us in that security arrangement.

It was a huge step, in which a group of elders approached us and over a series of negotiations said that they would get their young men to lay down their arms in return for some developmental projects and for a very important road that they wanted to go through their area that would open the entire area up to commerce and business. And although the battle over there is not over yet, it's rapidly coming to a conclusion.

MONTAGNE: President Karzai announced just recently the formal handoff of security from the U.S. and NATO troops to Afghans forces will begin in July in some parts of the country including part of Helmand Province. I gather Lashkar Gah, the capital, is going to be protected by Afghan national army troops.

Does this mean that you're going to lose some of your Marines? You're going to send some of those Marines home.

Maj. Gen. MILLS: Right. Conditions in Lashkar are very good. Lashkar Gah has seen, just last week during the Afghan New Year, a large concert that was held in the old stadium where the Taliban used to hold their public punishments, to include the amputation of limbs. And in that stadium this week, however, we had 15,000 Afghans who listened to a very popular female singer. And they partied well into the night. All of the security for that arrangement was made with Afghan policemen and with Afghan army. The Marines

What that opportunity will give me then as we turn over security responsibilities in Lashkar Gah; it will give me the opportunity to take some of those forces and reapply them elsewhere within the province where I could use a few more troops.

MONTAGNE: Might this level of success mean though that troops would be sent home...

Maj. Gen. MILLS: No general ever wants to fight with a smaller force, I can assure you of that. And I think conditions on the ground will dictate how large this force remains and for how long it will remain.

MONTAGNE: And as you prepare to leave, what are you hoping to see completed or made permanent?

Maj. Gen. MILLS: I think what I would like to see made permanent - and I believe it is becoming irreversible - is the improvement in the Afghan security forces. I think that is the baseline which we have to have. I think the other thing though is that probably the most satisfying piece of this job, has been the fact that I have been able to see the results of improved security.

We do have a province now where there's 100,000 students in school. Last year, that was a third of that. And we're beginning to see people have a normal life. All of those things, I think, somehow make the sacrifice worthwhile. You know, my low point is that every day I have a wall of pictures here of my men who have died, and women. And so I owe it to them and to the people in Afghanistan to have hopefully have done a little bit towards making their lives better. And I think our efforts here have done that.

MONTAGNE: General Mills, thank you for talking to us this past year.

Maj. Gen. MILLS: Well, thank you for what you do. It's important that the story get out on what's happening over here. So thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Major General Richard Mills has just completed a year-long tour as commander of all troops in southwest Afghanistan. He spoke to us from Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province.

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