'Progress Made' In Afghanistan's Helmand Province
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Welcome back to the program.
RICHARD MILLS: Well, thank you, Renee. It's a great opportunity to speak with you.
MONTAGNE: After last year's announcement, General Petraeus gave this troop increase, generally, you know, 12 to 18 months to show results. So we're here at the one year mark. Where are you at there in Helmand/
MILLS: Well, I think we're beginning to be the beneficiaries of this surge. We've had a chance to work through most of the province. And I think that we're seeing very, very satisfactory progress across the board.
MONTAGNE: Now, when you say work through most of the province you mean you've actually pushed into most of a province that was once pretty much entirely controlled either by drug lords or Taliban?
MILLS: That's correct. We have focused on the river valley itself - the Helmand River valley itself, because there's where most of the population lives here. We have looked at the population centers and put our main effort in those population centers.
MONTAGNE: Well, you know, we have talked about different towns there. Marja was the focus of a lot of attention. Results there have been mixed.
MILLS: But let's talk a little bit about Marja, because I know that's one you've been following. If you could come over and visit today I would take you down to the district center, where across the street is a very nice restaurant that's opened up - two dining rooms. You can get a really nice chicken dinner there. There's three major bazaars in town, all three flourishing. All of the activity now - all the enemy activity in Marja's been pushed to the perimeter, where a few lone insurgents creep back, usually at night, and try to intimidate some of the locals. And have not done a very good job of it.
MONTAGNE: And there's another place in Helmand Province - Sangin - where I gather the fighting is extremely fierce, possibly some of the most deadly in this war. What is going on there?
MILLS: It's been tough fighting. It continues to be tough fighting. I think that Sangin is Marja, perhaps five months ago. And we are going to remain focused on that mission up there, and we will win.
MONTAGNE: Now, I do gather there's something new on the way that will give you more to work with and that's tanks. Why tanks and why now?
MILLS: I'll tell you why. First of all, the weather has changed here, so the ground is harder and less swampy, if you will, in many places. And conditions on the ground where we're fighting now lend themselves to the use of some armored vehicles. And they give me some great range and standoff distance against an enemy whose latest tactic is to try to lure you into IED belts. And when used with infantry can be very, very effective in the areas that we're in.
MONTAGNE: There is, though, General Mills, symbolism about tanks in Afghanistan, as you would well know. I mean, today you see in all parts of the country rusted hulks of Soviet tanks and pretty potent symbols of defeat.
MILLS: So I think the tank has perhaps gotten a little bit of a bad reputation here, and unfairly.
MONTAGNE: Well, I just another quick last question, which is the Obama administration will finish its review of its Afghan strategy, really soon. In Helmand, is the fight where you thought it would be when we first spoke last spring?
MILLS: I think we're moving along about the pace that I had anticipated. Do we have work to do? Yes. Are there casualties ahead? Unfortunately there are. Will there be some bitter fighting this winter and into the spring? Yes, there will be. There is still some hard rowing to be done.
MONTAGNE: General Mills, thank you for talking to us and hope to talk to you again soon.
MILLS: Thank you, Renee. And I look forward to talking to you soon.
MONTAGNE: Major General Richard Mills commands U.S. Marines in Helmand, Afghanistan.
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