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.

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