By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan, July 10, 2011 – Progress is undeniable in Helmand province where three districts that were once the heartland of the Taliban saw an 80 percent reduction in enemy activity since August 2010, Marine Corps commanders said here today.
Marine Brig. Gen. Lewis Craparotta, the commander of Task Force Leatherneck, and Marine Col. Dave Furness, the commander of Regimental Combat Team-1, spoke with reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta about progress in their region.
Both men said the Marines are fighting a classic counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban. The unit’s area of operations runs from the Kajaki district in the north through Sangin, Lashkar Gah, Marja, Now Zad to the Pakistani border in the south. There are 5,000 Marines and sailors in the area supported by an Army Combat Service Hospital and Air Force engineers.
“The goal is, when we do population-centric [counterinsurgency] and you are fighting with local insurgents, that the people – their relatives if you will – see the benefits of security, see the advantage of the government and see an opportunity for a future,” Craparotta said. “Between our efforts fighting the local insurgency, the gains of the government and the attitudes of the local population, that many of the low-level fighters will decide they may want to side with the government. They are not making any progress and frankly they are losing and many of them know it.”
The insurgency has degraded over the course of the winter and the summer, he said.
“We certainly haven’t seen what some would call the spring/summer offensive,” Craparotta said. “The offensive was more a Marine effort than a Taliban effort, but there is still a ways to go as far as ending the insurgency.”
The Marine role is to get the insurgency to a level where the Afghan security forces can manage it, and let them assume the lead.
Most of the low-level fighters are local, with many of the mid- and upper-level leaders from the border area of Pakistan. “The cells we [were] fighting about two years ago, a leader would command 30 to 40 fighters,” Furness said. “Today those same leaders have four or five people. They are also trying command from Pakistan via cell phone.”
The Marines and Afghan forces also cut off much of the money the Taliban used by interdicting opium poppy and raiding heroin processing places.
“We control the whole Helmand river valley so we severely interdict his ability to move. We also interdict exterior communications lines,” Furness said. “[The enemy] is under pressure from a lot of fronts.”
And the Marines are working closely with Afghan army and Afghan uniformed police units. These forces are getting measurably better.
But a game-changer is the use of local defense forces and local police forces, “since the insurgents are also local, they know who they are,” Furness said. “As we progress and [Afghan national defense] and local forces develop, it’s harder for [the enemy] to work and operate. It’s harder for [the Taliban] to tax the people. It’s harder for [the enemy] to recruit local fighters so the operations become less and less effective.
“Since the beginning of the year, enemy activity has probably been reduced by 80 percent from what I fell in on in August 2010,” the colonel said.
But the war is certainly not over in Helmand, both men said.
“There is an effort for the enemy to get back in to Marja coming in over the Pakistan border where some of the leadership we think is operating,” Craparotta said. “There is certainly an effort to retake Sangin and there is fighting going on in Sangin and Kajaki. So the insurgency is certainly not over. There is still a direct fire and IED threat in Sangin.”
Community involvement is one metric the Marines use to gauge the success of their counterinsurgency. Local shuras and local elders help choose the personnel for the local police. These police are standing up for the people of their villages, the general said.
The number of children attending school is another metric. “Two years ago in Marja there were probably zero children in school,” Furness said. “This September we will probably have 7,000 to 10,000 kids in school in Marja. Now we have the problem of not having enough teachers in the schools for all the kids.”
The thinking is that a poor farming family in the area is not going to send their children to school – something forbidden by the Taliban – if they didn’t feel secure, he said.
Economic development is another measure. Bazaars are popping up that have nothing to do with government or U.S. spending. People are moving back into the villages and marketplaces and earning their livings.
The Marines are also finding weapons and ammunition caches and many are being turned in by locals. “I had one company that found 500 caches in a seven-month tour and probably 90 percent were the result of tips from the locals,” Furness said.
The Marines will continue the counterinsurgency fight, the commanders said. Time is their ally.
“Where we’ve been operating longer, the progress has been greater which is what you would expect,” Furness said. “As security improves the people want to see the advantage of coming on the side of the government. Ideally what we’d like to see is as security improves, we’d like to see governance and development take off.