Taliban Violence Decreases In Marjah

Marine Major Gen. Richard Mills talks to Renee Montagne about operations in Marjah and the Helmand Province in Afghanistan. When they last spoke in April, the general said Marjah was relatively safe, but admitted the Taliban was still there. These day, security is better and the government more effective — including the installation of a new, accomplished district governor this week.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

We're going to hear, now, from the Marine general who runs combat operations in the key province of Helmand, in southern Afghanistan.

We first spoke to Major General Richard Mills last spring, following a much publicized offensive in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. As it turned out, driving out the Taliban out of Marjah was much easier than keeping them out. At the time, General Mills said that the Taliban did control the night in Marjah. Still, when we reached him yesterday, he spoke, mainly, of progress.

RICHARD MILLS: I think that we've seen a steady progress in Marjah. We have seen a steady decline in the number of acts that the Taliban has been able to carry out and I believe that we've seen a steady increase in the support of the people for the government of Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: If you're saying that you're seeing a steady improvement in the situation there, how do you account for the reporting in which there is really a drum beat of the news that Marjah is really not working out very well?

MILLS: Well, I think again it's a matter of expectations. If you stay here in the long term, you will see a steady improvement in the security situation and the government situation on the ground. Are there actions that take place on the ground there which are negative? Yes, there are. Six months ago when we entered Marjah we were posed by formations of insurgents. Today, the insurgents operate in ones and twos and small crowds. They try their best to intimidate the people because they really have very little else to offer the people.

MONTAGNE: Although, terrorism in the sense of terrorizing the people can really have an effect, a multiplying effect.

MILLS: Oh, there's no question. Today, in another town not too far from Marjah, we had a bomb go off in a marketplace that struck a group of women and children, all of whom have been burned very badly over large percentages of their bodies. We are treating them now, here in our facility, hoping we'll be able to save their lives.

And I could give you other examples. They have begun to target the civilians and they've done it lethally, cruelly. I mean people of Marjah are farming people. They live a very basic life revolving around the fields, and yet they have realized their future does not lie with insurgency. It rather lies with what the government of Afghanistan can provide them.

MONTAGNE: The new governor of the district, Haji Zahir, has in fact, shown himself to be someone who can go around the town and talk to people. But the U.S. State Department has said of him, one of the things he lacks is managerial experience and help. Is that going to change soon? I guess I'm asking, the much touted government in a box, was that maybe over sold?

MILLS: Well, it is a very timely question as a matter of fact. I can report to you Haji lost the job yesterday. He was replaced by a new governor who has come down, with some experience, from Kabul to take over. Each of them shook hands and wished each other well and we look for some improvement there in the government.

It is a difficult place to establish. You have to understand there was no government here five months ago, none. And it's a difficult place to attract government employees to. It's a harsh climate, it's a long ways from Kabul, but we're seeing emergence, town by town, of effective governments. It's slow, but we're seeing it and we think it's promising.

MONTAGNE: I've seen Helmand described as a flank of Kandahar, the focus is turning towards Kandahar. Can you put in perspective what you're doing in Helmand that will help support efforts in Kandahar?

MILLS: Sure. Well, Kandahar lies directly to our east. People cross Helmand Province in order to get to Kandahar. That includes insurgent forces and supplies that come up across the border from Pakistan and move through Helmand Province on their way to Kandahar. So what takes place in Kandahar affects what takes place in Helmand, and vice versa. I think that our efforts here, to keep pressure on the insurgents all summer, will have a direct impact on the insurgents' ability to either reinforce Kandahar, to resupply Kandahar during the summer.

MONTAGNE: General Mills, thank you for talking to us again, and we hope to talk to you again soon.

MILLS: I look forward to our next chat.

MONTAGNE: Major General Richard Mills is NATOs regional commander in Southwestern Afghanistan. We reached him at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province.

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