Jan 22, 2010

Marines of Mercy !!

Throngs Swarm Around Marines Of Mercy
Officer says troops are excited to 'do something meaningful'
By Mark D. Faram, Navy Times

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — U.S. Marines headed farther into the western villages of Haiti on Thursday to deliver food and water to people who have seen very little as the government announced it would move 400,000 people living in camps to remote areas.

"The Marines are very excited to be here, to deploy and do something meaningful," said Lt. Col. Gary Keim, the commanding officer of Combat Logistics Battalion 22. "They were just glad to make people smile."

About 1.5 million Haitians are homeless after an earthquake Jan. 12. Many are in camps in the capital.

Fritz Longchamp, chief of staff to President Rene Preval, said buses would soon take people to new camps in the eastern suburb of Croix des Bouquets. West of the capital, several hundred Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit have been setting up landing zones for helicopters since the troops' arrival Tuesday.

Massive CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters landed in pastures with pallets of bottled water.

Staff Sgt. Clausele Barthold, a native Haitian who speaks Creole, was among a squad that headed into a remote area to clear a way for aid trucks from Catholic Relief Services (CRS). The area smelled of human waste and decaying vegetables. A cemetery was crowded with above-ground crypts like those in New Orleans.

Buildings along the road were either destroyed or damaged. People stretched sheets and blankets on poles for shelter next to rubble piles that were once their homes.

Cpl. Michael Hardy's radio crackled: Trucks from CRS were on the way. Hardy set up a spot for food distribution behind a partially intact 15-foot concrete wall outside a home. A crowd gathered, and the Marines moved them into a line, but once the people heard the trucks, they tried to push ahead of one another.

When workers started pulling out 110-pound bags of beans, more people appeared and pushed into the wall toward the Marines.

"If I give the word we're shutting this down, we need to be ready to get out of here," Hardy said.

The crowd came close to rioting, and the concrete wall swayed, threatening to topple on the Marines. Barthold warned the crowd in their native language to stop or the trucks would leave.

Hardy told the squad members to move to "Condition Three," or to put a magazine of bullets into their rifles. A quick reaction force of Marines arrived and moved the crowd back as the trucks revved their engines and started to pull away.

It turned out to be the right move. Once the people saw the trucks moving out, they pulled back. Hardy ordered his men to remove the magazines from their weapons. The crowd dispersed, and the Marines headed to the landing zone for a more orderly distribution of food and water.

"Take your fingers off your triggers," Hardy said, "It looks less hostile that way."

Jan 21, 2010

Taliban trying to woo, not kill, the locals

Taliban Overhaul Their Image In Bid To Win Allies
By Alissa J. Rubin
New York Times
January 21, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban have embarked on a sophisticated information war, using modern media tools as well as some old-fashioned ones, to soften their image and win favor with local Afghans as they try to counter the Americans’ new campaign to win Afghan hearts and minds.

The Taliban’s spiritual leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, issued a lengthy directive late last spring outlining a new code of conduct for the Taliban. The dictates include bans on suicide bombings against civilians, burning down schools, or cutting off ears, lips and tongues.

The code, which has been spottily enforced, does not necessarily mean a gentler insurgency. Although the Taliban warned some civilians away before the assault on the heart of Kabul on Monday, they were still responsible for three-quarters of civilian casualties last year, according to the United Nations.

Now, as the Taliban deepen their presence in more of Afghanistan, they are in greater need of popular support and are recasting themselves increasingly as a local liberation movement, independent of Al Qaeda, capitalizing on the mounting frustration of Afghans with their own government and the presence of foreign troops. The effect has been to make them a more potent insurgency, some NATO officials said.
Afghan villagers and some NATO officials added that the code had begun to change the way some midlevel Taliban commanders and their followers behaved on the ground. A couple of the most brutal commanders have even been removed by Mullah Omar.

The Taliban’s public relations operation is also increasingly efficient at putting out its message and often works faster than NATO’s. “The Afghan adaptation to counterinsurgency makes them much more dangerous,” said a senior NATO intelligence official here. “Their overarching goals probably haven’t changed much since 2001, but when we arrived with a new counterinsurgency strategy, they responded with one of their own.”

The American strategy includes limiting airstrikes that killed Afghan civilians and concentrating troops closer to population centers so that Afghans will feel protected from the Taliban.

American and Afghan analysts see the Taliban’s effort as part of a broad initiative that employs every tool they can muster, including the Internet technology they once denounced as un-Islamic. Now they use word of mouth, messages to cellphones and Internet videos to get their message out.

The Taliban can shape the narrative about attacks sometimes before NATO public affairs even puts out a statement. Unlike the NATO press machine, the Taliban are willing to give details, and while some are patently exaggerated or wrong, others have just enough elements of truth that they cannot be entirely ignored.

The new public relations campaign combined with relatively less cruel behavior may have stemmed some of the anger at the insurgency, which tribal leaders in the south said had begun to rally people against the Taliban.

But the most important factor in their growing reach is the ineffectiveness of the central government and Afghans’ resentment of foreign troops. Military intelligence analysts now estimate that there are 25,000 to 30,000 committed Taliban fighters and perhaps as many as 500,000 others who would fight either for pay or if they felt attacked by the Western coalition.

Admiral Smith and others say that according to a recent Defense Intelligence Agency survey, the Taliban’s new strategy has failed to win over Afghans and that even though the insurgency may be carrying out fewer mutilations and beheadings, it still relies on intimidation through night letters, threatening conversations and even assassinations.

Interviews with tribal elders in areas where the Taliban are active suggest a complex picture. Several interviewed in rural Kandahar Province praised the Taliban’s new, less threatening approach, but said that did not translate into enthusiasm for the Taliban movement. At the same time, there is not much liking for either the Afghan government or NATO troops.

“There is a tremendous change in the Taliban’s behavior,” said Haji-Khan Muhammad Khan, a tribal elder from Shawalikot, a rural district of Kandahar Province. “They don’t behead people or detain those they suspect of spying without an investigation. But sometimes they still make mistakes, people still fear them, but now generally they behave well with people. They had to change because the leadership of the Taliban did not want to lose the support of the grass roots.”

The latest refrain of Taliban commanders, their Internet magazine and from surrogates is that the insurgency represents Afghanistan’s Pashtuns, who are portrayed as persecuted by the Afghan government. “Pashtuns are suffering everywhere; if you go and check the prisons, you won’t find any prisoners except Pashtuns; when you hear about bombings, it is Pashtuns’ homes that have been bombed,” said a Taliban commander from Kandahar Province who goes by the name Sangar Yar.

At the moment, the dueling propaganda wars seem to have reached a stalemate.

“People have no choices; they are in a dilemma,” said Abdul Rahman, a tribal elder and businessman in Kandahar. “In places where the Taliban are active, the people are compelled to support them, they are afraid of the Taliban. And, in those places where government has a presence, the people are supporting the government,” he said.

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar.

Jan 19, 2010

Sending in the Marines

Sending In The Marines

New York Post
January 19, 2010

The massive Haitian earthquake has prompted a huge humanitarian response. Now Haitians can only pray that the world -- America, in particular -- makes sure the aid reaches those who need it.

As usual, leave it to the Marines.

Sure, Venezuela's crackpot strongman, Hugo Chavez, accuses the thousands of US troops sent to help victims of actually "occupying" Haiti.

America is dispatching "Marines armed as if they were going to war," fumed El Loco. "There is not a shortage of guns there, my God."
Actually, there is a shortage of guns -- in the right hands, at least.

Haitian President René Préval made that clear: "We have 2,000 police in Port-au-Prince, and 3,000 bandits escaped from prison [in the quake]. This gives you an idea of how bad the situation is."

Reports of looting and roadblocks manned by murderous gangs abound.

Obviously, order is vital for aid to reach those who need it, yet Haiti's police are in no position to handle the crisis alone; Uncle Sam can - and must - help.

US troops already control Port-au-Prince's main airport, while fresh arrivals yesterday put the total American military presence at around 10,000 -- most on ships anchored outside the capital. It remains to be seen whether that's enough. But, again, their help in restoring order and safeguarding the distribution of aid are top priorities.

To be sure, the last thing America needs is another lengthy entanglement -- and, indeed, morphing US relief efforts into an attempt at nation-building would be a mistake.

But today, some jobs can only be done by the swift application of force -- or, at least, the threat of it.

Anyway, the moral duties are clear: US forces can't stand by while Haitians die in the streets for lack of aid.

It's up to the US to step in, restore a semblance of order and save lives.

Jan 18, 2010

Karzai To Attempt a Reconciliation Plan

Karzai Closing In On Taliban Reconciliation PlanBy Rod Nordland and Alissa J. Rubin
New York Times
January 18, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government will soon unveil a major new plan offering jobs, security, education and other social benefits to Taliban followers who defect, according to the spokesman for President Hamid Karzai.

The plan, in the final stages of preparation, will go beyond the government’s previous offers to the Taliban, Waheed Omer, the spokesman, said at a news conference on Sunday. “The mistakes we have committed before have been considered in developing this new plan,” he said. “We have not done enough.”

The reconciliation and reintegration plan is aimed at luring large numbers of the Taliban’s followers, estimated by NATO officials at 25,000 to 30,000 active fighters, to change sides, and has qualified support from American officials. Afghan officials are hoping to finance the plan through pledges from the international community to be made at a London conference on Afghanistan planned for Jan. 28.

Even if such a plan wins international support, serious questions remain about Afghanistan’s ability to carry it out, especially without a functioning national government, a prospect that remained distant on Sunday.

Parliament turned down more than half of Mr. Karzai’s second list of nominees for cabinet ministers on Saturday. On Sunday, Mr. Omer said it was unlikely that Mr. Karzai would be able to complete his cabinet before the London conference, leaving important ministries leaderless.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the American special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that he had discussed the plan with Mr. Karzai and that it was better than previous efforts, adding, “Can’t be worse.”

Mr. Karzai has previously promised amnesty to Taliban fighters willing to lay down their weapons and has offered repeatedly to talk directly with the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, but with little effect.

A relatively small number of Taliban have defected; some 170 came over to the government in late 2009, according to the United Nations.

Chief among the new measures, Mr. Omer said, were strong security guarantees to defecting Taliban that they would be protected from arrest or retaliation. He did not detail what those measures would be, but many defecting Taliban in the past have asked to be integrated into local police forces.

Mr. Omer also indirectly confirmed that the Afghan government might ask that Mullah Omar be removed from the United Nations terrorist blacklist, which freezes the bank accounts of those listed and bans them from international travel.

A private Afghan TV channel, Tolo TV, quoted Mr. Omer as saying that Mullah Omar’s name would “probably” be considered for removal from the blacklist. But on Sunday, Mr. Omer said that it was premature to talk about such details and that the blacklist would not be discussed in London.

American officials have been skeptical about engaging with Taliban leaders who may have close associations with Al Qaeda, and Mr. Holbrooke directly ruled out removing Mullah Omar’s name from the blacklist. “I can’t imagine what would justify such an action,” he said at a media gathering on Sunday.

Although the full details of the government’s plan are not yet clear, some experts have put the cost of carrying it out at $1 billion, mainly for jobs and education programs aimed at reintegrating former guerrillas.

A top adviser to Mr. Karzai, Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai, who helped draft the plan, suggested that number was on target. “If we can spend billions of dollars on military operations and security,” he said in a telephone interview on Sunday, “I think it is worth spending a billion dollars to build peace.”

He cautioned that any plan would have to take into account joblessness among Afghans who had not joined the Taliban, so they would not feel that insurgents were unfairly rewarded while their own loyalty was not.

Mr. Stanekzai did not rule out the possibility of talking with Mr. Omar. “What we need is a top-down and bottom-up approach,” he said.

The presence of some Taliban leaders on the United Nations blacklist was a negative “psychological force” preventing reconciliation talks, he said.

“The people in Afghanistan are tired of fighting and war, and there is a new political will in the region and also in the international community to reconcile with those who are not linked with Al Qaeda,” he said. He said that Mr. Karzai would announce details of the plan in “a couple more days.”

Mr. Holbrooke said he was encouraged by what he called “unambiguous national support for reintegration” of the Taliban’s followers.

“This is not going to end by killing everyone who fights with the Taliban,” Mr. Holbrooke said. What was lacking previously, he said, was “a vehicle for them to come in from the cold.” Without that, he said, “you give people no choice but to kill or be killed.”

“Stanekzai has a good plan, ISAF command has a good plan,” Mr. Holbrooke said, referring to the American-led NATO force in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force.

The NATO force’s top spokesman, Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith of the United States Navy, did not lay out the details of a separate plan, but said Saturday, “We are working closely with the government of Afghanistan as they develop their program.”

Admiral Smith said the program appeared to be “one of the means to resolve the ongoing insurgency.” He said coalition troops would not be involved in reconciliation efforts such as talks with Taliban leaders, “although we would support the government of Afghanistan’s efforts in this area.”

Mr. Omer’s remarks suggested that the government had a softer line than the Americans on talking to Taliban leaders. “We are ready to negotiate with anyone,” he said. “Whoever comes over is welcome.”

A spokesman for the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, ruled out any possibility of negotiations with Mr. Karzai’s government. “We are united and we will remain united against them,” Mr. Ahmadi said in a telephone interview. “There is no differentiation between Taliban moderates and extremists. We are fighting under one name, Taliban, under one leadership.”

Jan 17, 2010

Haiti - Let the Military Lead the Response

Put The Pentagon In Charge
January 15, 2010
By John Barry

Why the U.S. military is the only organization that can effectively manage the chaos in Haiti. And other hard truths about the disaster.

As the international relief effort descends on Haiti, there are certain truths that nobody wants to acknowledge publicly. The first is that few of those still buried under the rubble can be saved. There will, of course, be stories of miracle rescues. But the reality, says Fred Krimgold, earthquake expert at Virginia Tech, is that "a very, very high percentage of the people who are rescued are found in the first few hours. The drop-off is significant after that. By the time the rescue teams and sniffer dogs and fancy equipment arrive, you're really left with the exceptional situations, the freak survivals." Many of those lucky enough to be pulled from the rubble will die too, succumbing to what disaster-relief experts call "crush injuries" from the rubble that entombed them. The toxins these injuries release in the body typically overwhelm the kidneys. Without dialysis, the injured tend to die—and nobody brings dialysis machines to a disaster zone.

The other truth is that the only entity on the planet with the capacity to bring help to Haiti on the scale needed is the U.S. military. The United Nations will find it impolitic to admit this; the big international relief groups, proud of their noncombatant status, will shy from acknowledging it. But it is the reality.

Journalists in Port-au-Prince ask the persistent question: "Who's in charge?" The answer is a quiet-spoken U.S. Special Forces officer from a tiny township on the Kentucky River. Lt. Gen. P. K. (Ken) Keen is deputy commander of U.S. Southern Command, and the man tapped to run the American relief effort in Haiti. It's a task that will tax Keen's diplomatic as well as organizational skills as he navigates the politics of international disaster relief.

Formally, Keen—who is in Port-au-Prince—will take his orders from the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten. Formally, the official with lead responsibility within the Washington bureaucracy is the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Rajiv Shah—who's been in the job for all of one week. Formally, the aid from international donors is pulled together by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

But the reality is that what materials and assistance are delivered to Haiti, how much, and when, will depend almost wholly on a network of relationships established on the ground between the U.S. military, a handful of disaster experts from USAID, and five or six of the biggest NGOs already working in Haiti: World Vision, CARE, Save the Children, Oxfam, and one or two others. As experts from Europe arrive, they will be slotted into this network. In practice, these emergency relief workers are a global cadre; they know each other from years' together at one disaster scene after another. And the roles are clear. The relief workers figure out what's needed, and draw up their lists. The AID liaison staffers with the U.S. military prioritize the requests and sign off on them. The military brings the goods into the country. The big NGOs distribute them, with emergency access to U.S. government funds to hire local contractors.

It's a system built up over 20 years; and—belying the chaos on the streets—it works efficiently. There is even a how-to manual: FOG, it's inappropriately called, the Field Operations Guide, which was intended to be a pocket manual, but has now swollen to 378 pages of accumulated know-how.

But none of this can function except on the bedrock of U.S. military capability, as the first days of chaos in Haiti have again demonstrated. Haiti's communications were destroyed in the quake; the U.S. military's first task was to set up a new network. Supplies couldn't be flown into Port-au-Prince airport until the U.S. military had sent in airport repair and cargo-handling teams.

The port is unusable because many of the wharves are rubble and most of the cranes have collapsed. Heavy-lift helicopters flying off the carrier USS Carl Vinson are the only way of getting most supplies ashore. When the USS Bataan, one of the Marines' amphibious assault carriers, arrives off Haiti with the dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry, their hovercraft will take up the cargo-ferrying effort. To distribute relief supplies around the shattered country, only the U.S. military has the transport; many of the NGOs' vehicles were damaged in the quake. To keep order and reassure a frantic populace, a company of the 82nd Airborne is already there, and a 3,500-strong brigade will be in place over the weekend.

On Friday, the U.S. military was stepping up its leadership role. The Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, said that up to 10,000 U.S. troops would be operating in or near Haiti by Monday, with the possibility of more being added later. And the State Department said Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive signed a document turning over control of the Port-au-Prince airport to the U.S. government indefinitely. These are crucial steps in the right direction.

The U.S. military won't be welcome in Haiti for long. Ironically, one of the first signs of Haitian revival will, predictably, be protests at the American presence. For now, though, it's the American armed forces that stand between Haiti and utter collapse.

Jan 15, 2010

Cuba to allow American flyovers

Cuba Allows American Flyovers From Haiti
New York Times, Jan 14, 2010
By Jeff Zeleny

The United States has struck an agreement with the Cuban government to send medical evacuation flights with victims from the Haiti earthquake through restricted Cuban airspace, an official said, reducing the flight time to Miami by 90 minutes.

Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said an agreement was reached with the Cuban military for evacuation flights from the United States Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay to pass through the airspace over Cuba on their way to Florida.

It was unclear, he said, how many flights could be effected by the new protocols.

An arrangement already exists between the United States and Cuba, where air space can be violated for medical flights to save time in an emergency. But the base commander of the U.S. Naval Station asked the local commander in Cuba to expand the authority to a standing basis.

The Cuban government agreed, administration officials said, and flights were set to begin from Guantanamo Bay to Miami as soon as they were ready to transport patients.

Jan 14, 2010

Marines to attack Marja soon!

Helmand Town May Be First Big Battle In Bigger War
By Anne Gearan, Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military is openly telegraphing a plan to clear out an insurgent haven in what may be the first major battle since President Barack Obama's expansion of the Afghanistan war, hoping that all but the most hardcore Taliban will sit out the fight.

U.S. military leaders have spoken bluntly in recent weeks about a looming assault on Marjah, a town in the southwest Afghan province of Helmand described as Taliban-owned and operated.

"It's been increasingly clear for weeks now about the need to clear out Marjah, so that's going to happen," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told reporters traveling with him in Afghanistan in December. "It's going to happen ... at a time and place of our choosing, but it's going to happen."

The battle would be a keystone in an offensive planned for early this year against a resurgent Taliban-led insurgency. The Obama administration approved the offensive, and an infusion of 30,000 additional U.S. forces, as a way to put the brakes on the Taliban's expansion across southern Afghanistan.

U.S. officials say there is only a narrow path to victory, but that a forceful stand in Helmand and Kandahar provinces will establish U.S. resolve to stick it out. Both sides are girding for a fight.

The U.S. military does not normally comment on the timing or other details of future operations. But remarks from senior military leaders in Afghanistan and Washington suggest they see no point in hiding plans to confront what they said is the last trouble spot in a district where U.S. forces have already cleared several other towns of active Taliban presence.

Marjah, a small town in a farming district some 380 miles southwest of Kabul, is a strategic target because it is a key supply hub for the opium poppy crop and shelters Taliban units thought to have fled the Marines elsewhere in Helmand.

Helmand is the world's largest producer of opium, the main ingredient in the production of heroin, and Afghanistan accounts for more than 90 percent of the world's opium supply. Some of the proceeds from this multibillion dollar trade go to fund the insurgency. Profits also line the pockets of corrupt government officials.

"We're going to go in big," Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, told reporters traveling with Mullen in Helmand. "I'm not looking for a fair fight."

"Marjah is next," Nicholson said, because if U.S. forces are going to protect Afghans from the Taliban - a key component of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's new Afghan war strategy - they need to ensure free passage throughout Afghanistan.

Tensions have intensified in southern Afghanistan as local protesters claiming that international troops destroyed copies of the Quran clashed with Afghan and foreign security forces in Helmand on Tuesday. The tumult left six people dead, Afghan officials said.

Also in the south, 13 insurgents were killed Tuesday by a missile fired from an unmanned drone. The pilotless drones have mostly been used for surveillance, but the airstrike commenced after coalition troops scanned insurgents preparing ammunition and mortar teams moving equipment in the Naw Zad area of Helmand, NATO said.

On Monday, another missile fired from a drone killed three insurgents farther south in the Nad Ali district of Helmand, according to NATO.

During a trip to the region late last year, Mullen chose to fly around the Marjah district rather than directly over it, a sign of how potent the insurgent threat has become there. The area's strategic importance near the provincial capital and a major roadway makes it a propaganda prize as well as valuable real estate.

Military officials said the battle would be designed to minimize Afghan civilian casualties, but the fight, whenever it comes, may involve house-to-house combat and other tactics that put civilians at risk. It is unclear how many true civilians remain in the town itself, although many live in the surrounding 40 miles or so of lush river- and canal-fed farmland.

Although the U.S. military clearly wants to eliminate the Taliban threat around Marjah, some of the big talk may be a deliberate attempt to mislead the insurgents about when and how the assault will come.

By openly discussing their plans for Marjah, military officials risk the possibility that the Taliban will act contrary to their plans and mount a stiff defense that could swell American casualties.

But defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the future military operation, said commanders are banking on the assumption that Taliban foot soldiers may choose to quietly slip back to their civilian lives rather than face vastly superior U.S. forces.

"We are going to put the enemy on the horns of a dilemma," Nicholson said. "He has to decide what to do."

Nicholson said it's impossible to hide the arrival of 10,000 Marines that began last month. Their mission is clear to everyone including the Taliban, the general said.

"There is a certain inevitability to this," Nicholson told reporters as he and Mullen walked through a nearby town, Narwa, without flak jackets or helmets to underline the improved security since Marines confronted militants there last summer and fall.

A small market has reopened in Narwa, whose civilian population scattered more than a year ago and has barely begun to return.

If U.S. forces can flush militants from Marjah, farmers and legitimate merchants will have freer passage on the province's main roadway and the Taliban middlemen will have more difficulty moving the opium crop from farmers' fields, military officials said.

Afghanistan's Interior Ministry claimed its troops confiscated 1.3 tons of opium in one raid in Marjah in 2008.

Marines have moved into strategic Helmand towns one by one since Obama's first infusion of forces last summer. The strategy places the protection of ordinary Afghans from Taliban threats, violence and shakedowns above the killing of militants.

Nicholson said what he called "small-T Taliban," the hired help who go home to their families at night, may walk away while other more committed militants fight or try to flee to yet another haven.

Jan 12, 2010

U.S. General Says Taliban Defeated In 'Heartland'

Marines clear most of key Afghan province

By Jim Michaels, USA Today, Jan 12, 2010

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — U.S. forces have driven the Taliban from most towns and villages in the strategic Helmand province of Afghanistan, leaving incoming troops with the mission of holding key areas and rebuilding the economy, Marine commanders say.

"They've taken on the Taliban, the insurgency, right in the heartland and they've defeated them," said Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills in an interview with USA TODAY.

Commanders warn that Taliban forces remain dangerous and they could mount a resurgence. Six coalition soldiers were killed in attacks around the country Monday. Still, the developments in Helmand could have broad implications for the war because of the province's importance to the Taliban.

Much of the Taliban's leadership and support comes from the mostly Pashtun province and nearby Kandahar. Helmand, the country's largest province, also produces most of the country's poppy crop, which has helped fund the insurgency.Recent attention has been focused on President Obama's orders to send about 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan this year. But an influx of Marines to Helmand province last year has produced dramatic results, raising hopes that the gains can be consolidated and spread elsewhere, Mills said.

"I see us moving away from the clear phase and moving into the hold and build" phase, Mills said.

Commanders say violence could increase if militants shift tactics to more large-scale attacks, such as car and truck bombs. "It's the dramatic strike that I worry about," Mills said.

The commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has also expressed confidence in recent developments. "We've been at this for about seven months now and I believe we've made progress," McChrystal told ABC's World News.The 9,000 U.S. Marines arriving this year will nearly double the number of coalition troops in Helmand province. Mills will take command of the larger force this spring when he moves his headquarters there from this Southern California base.

Marines now control most of the major towns and villages in Helmand and are pushing the Taliban into remote areas where it will be hard for them to thrive or influence the population.

"We're not taking a break during the winter season," said Marine Brig. Gen. Joseph Osterman, who will lead ground combat troops in the incoming command.

Marines plan to launch an offensive to seize Marjah, the Taliban's remaining stronghold in Helmand.