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Top general sees progress in Afghanistan where 10,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton are deployed

July 15, 2010 | 10:55 am

Marja3

Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills expressed cautious optimism Thursday that U.S forces are winning the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan's Helmand province, where 10,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton are deployed.

In a teleconference with reporters in the U.S., Mills said that insurgents are still waging a "murder-and-intimidation campaign" against villagers but added that Afghan security forces are improving.

Also, villagers are beginning to resist the Taliban on their own, particularly when insurgent "tax collectors" come to their homes at night, Mills said.

"I think we've seen the emergence of the people wanting to defend themselves," he said.

Mills is commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Afghanistan, which includes 20,000 Marines, half of them from Camp Pendleton. The force is deployed to a sprawling province that has long been a Taliban stronghold because of the lucrative poppy crop and an ideological affinity felt by some villagers for the insurgents.

"They are being forced to give it up," Mills said of the Taliban hold on the province. "They're getting desperate."

The Taliban strategy of planting roadside bombs is taking a toll on U.S. and Afghan forces and Afghan civilians. "The enemy is despicable," Mills said.

Twelve Marines from Camp Pendleton have been killed in Afghanistan in the past two months by roadside bombs, small-arms fire, ambushes and vehicle collisions.

In the 9-year war, Helmand province has been the deadliest region both for U.S. troops and other coalition forces. Of 1,107 U.S. troops killed, 196 have been killed in Helmand, followed by 145 in neighboring Kandahar province, according to the independent website www.icasualties.org.

  -- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills. Credit: U.S. Marine Corps

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