Apr 28, 2010

Marines Stablize Marjah

Marines Stabilize Afghan Town Of Marjah

Morning Edition (NPR), 11:00 AM, April 27

RENEE MONTAGNE: And ahead of that Kandahar offensive that Jackie just spoke of, U.S. forces have been focused on southern Afghanistan. Earlier this year, the military drove the Taliban out of their stronghold in the town of Marjah. Twenty thousand U.S. Marines are now trying to make the town and the surrounding areas more stable.

Marine Major General Richard Mills arrived in Afghanistan earlier this month to take over command of all Marines in the country. We reached him in southern Afghanistan to get an update on the Marjah operation.

Major General RICHARD MILLS (United States Marine Corps): If you go to Marjah today, you will find a city that is free of the Taliban, that has schools that are open, a marketplace, a bazaar. I think the other thing that would strike you would be the relative security of the streets. It's certainly not a totally safe place now, but overall, security has improved. So far I think things have gone very well.

MONTAGNE: Well then, what do you say to reporting that some of the people in Marjah say when night falls, many of the streets go back to belonging to the Taliban?

MILLS: There is still a presence in the area. No question about it. And I think when you look at the importance of Marjah to the Taliban; it is the center of, really, their psychological homeland, if you will. They drew a lot of support from the narcotics trade that was there. So I think that some of what you see is a residual effects to the Taliban refusing to give it up. But, I think if you look at the results on the ground, you'd see a different story.

People are more safe and they're really voting with the children, the fact that they're children are free to come to schools, the schools that had been outlawed and closed by the Taliban. The Taliban have been reduced, there, really, to a war of terror. They have really disappeared from the city other than when they come in at night to plant their IEDs and to try to strike fear into the hearts and try to turn the people away. And to date, that everything has not worked.

MONTAGNE: Now, I know you've only been there and taken command in just the last few weeks, but what has been your experience when you've talk to local leaders and both tribal leaders and also elected leaders there in the province?

MILLS: Well, I think from the elected leadership perspective, I think that they are positive about what's happening within the province. They've seen great change. Marjah, of course, the one that everybody hears about, but there are towns like Nilesat, the town that was abandoned by over 30,000 Afghans when the Taliban took over. No one lived there. It was riddled with IEDs and mines. It was a fortified position by the Taliban. We took it back from them. People flocking back. And that's not unusual. I could give you three or our other examples of towns here, within the province, where life has come back. Bazaars are open. You hear music in the streets.

Is the fight over? No, not really. But it's headed in that direction. And I think that as the people feel more secure, they are beginning to change sides.

MONTAGNE: When you speak about changing sides, that was, of course, key to the regions in Iraq that were the heart of the insurgency. And you're a veteran of Anbar province. The key though, there, was a movement known generally as the Awakening movement, that really brought together tribal leaders who turned on insurgents. There's nothing that formal going on in southern Afghanistan, either Kandahar or Helmand. Does that make this just that much more of a challenge for you?

MILLS: Not really. I think that you can try to draw too many lessons from our experiences in Iraq, where you had a very, very homogeneous population, a strong sense of tribal belonging and the sheiks who could decide what the tribes would do. You don't have that same set up here in Afghanistan. Here you have the elders who are a little more - they stand back. They're willing to work with us but it's not the same dynamic as we found in Iraq. There's a different dynamic here that requires a different approach.

MONTAGNE: General, thank you very much.

MILLS: Well, thank you, Renee. Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Major General Richard Mills, speaking to us from Leatherneck in Helmand province. He is the new commander of all U.S. Marines in Afghanistan and we'll be checking in with him over the next year.

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