The top Marine commander in southern Afghanistan said an innovative local defense initiative in the former Taliban stronghold of Marja had finally brought the contested town under NATO and Afghan control, a rare bit of good news from the battlefield as the Obama administration concludes a broad review of its Afghan strategy.
Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills told National Journal in a phone interview that the “fight in Marja is essentially over,” with coalition forces flushing the remaining Taliban fighters to the town’s outskirts and helping the Afghans open new schools, government offices, and medical facilities there.
Mills said many of the gains were the result of a new U.S.-funded program that pays local villagers to guard their neighborhoods against Taliban encroachment. The general said more than 300 Marja residents were taking part in the security program, which is called the Interim Security Critical Infrastructure initiative, or ISCI. Though Mills did not specify how much they were paid, Afghans taking part in similar programs typically earn the equivalent of $100 a month.
Those participating are vetted by the United States and allowed to use their personal weapons while on patrol, but they don’t receive arms or ammunition from the American forces in Helmand.
“Back home, you’d see these kinds of guys out on the Fourth of July directing traffic,” Mills said. “Here, they’re out at night defending their neighborhoods and their families.”
The isolated farming town of Marja has long been a symbol of the coalition’s struggles -- and unfulfilled promises -- in Afghanistan. Thousands of U.S. and Afghan troops mounted a major offensive into the town 10 months ago and were able to take control of most of the area in three weeks with virtually no casualties.
But the Taliban fighters never really left, however, and the insurgents quickly began returning at night to harass local residents and kill those cooperating with the United States or Afghan government. Several local tribal elders were beheaded, and an ambitious American effort to rebuild Marja and create new jobs took far longer than hoped.
Mills acknowledged the difficulties but said conditions in the town had improved markedly in recent months. His relatively optimistic assessment is widely shared within the ISAF high command in Kabul, and the Obama administration’s December review will point to the possible progress in Marja as a sign that the broader war strategy is achieving results, according to people familiar with its findings.
“Some of the expectations that had been set early in that battle were perhaps unrealistic,” Mills said. “We’ve got that sorted out now.... What’s left of the Taliban there is mostly the dregs.”
Mills said Marines were still involved in heavy fighting in other parts of Helmand, including the town of Sangin, and cautioned that outreach efforts to the armed group had not yet persuaded many fighters to lay down their weapons and rejoin the country’s political process.
But he said there were other signs of progress. Coalition forces have helped open more than 100 new schools throughout Helmand, and local residents have sharply increased their cooperation with NATO and Afghan forces. On Tuesday, for instance, Mills said a local resident called a coalition tip line to say he’d been forced to drive a suicide bomber to a target in central Helmand. U.S. forces used helicopters to track the car and managed to get the informer safely out. The bomber was the only casualty.
“The bomber blew himself up, and that was just fine with me,” Mills said.
The gains in Helmand have come at a high cost. The province, the center of Afghanistan’s drug trade, is by far the most violent part of Afghanistan. At least 623 NATO troops had died there at the end of 2009, according to icasualties.org, which tracks battlefield fatalities. U.S. officials in Helmand say that 172 more coalition troops have died this year, including 107 Americans.
“There’s steady progress, but it’s been paid for in coalition blood, paid for in ANSF blood, and paid for in the blood of the local population,” Mills said, using an acronym for the Afghan National Security Forces. “The violence is still too high.”