General tells Camp Pendleton group that Marines are 'winning the fight' in Afghanistan
The top Marine in Afghanistan, speaking at Camp Pendleton on Thursday, gave an upbeat assessment of the Marines' progress in Helmand province, long a Taliban stronghold.
"They're paying a price but they're winning the fight," Maj. Gen. Richard Mills said at a ceremony in which he relinquished command of the 1st Marine Division. "They're hurting the enemy,” he said. The enemy “is backpedaling, he's desperate.”
While optimism is a common attribute among Marine officers, Mills has seemed more guarded in previous comments about Helmand province.
Mills assumed command of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) in March, with a headquarters at Camp Leatherneck on the edge of the Afghan desert. From there, he commands 20,000-plus troops, about half of them from Camp Pendleton.
Mills made a quick trip to Camp Pendleton to attend the ceremony at which he relinquished command of the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Division to Maj. Gen. Michael Regner.
Assessing progress in Helmand, Mills said, is "both a science and an art." The numbers of schools open, roads being built, and Afghan police on duty are all increasing, he said.
Mills also said there is anecdotal evidence that rank-and-file Taliban are deciding to quit fighting and rejoin Afghan civil society.
Still, the U.S. continues to suffer casualties. Since early spring, 16 Marines and sailors from Camp Pendleton have died in combat. On Thursday, the Pentagon announced that a 22-year-old Marine lance corporal from Camp Lejeune had been killed in Helmand province.
Mills said that the increased use of buried roadside bombs by the Taliban is a sign of desperation. To counter that threat, the Marine Corps has ordered more bomb-sniffing dogs.
"We'd like to get a dog for every patrol that goes outside the wire," he said.
Asked by reporters about President Obama's plan to begin withdrawing U.S. combat troops in July, Mills said that he has no sense of being rushed to achieve results.
"I'm not on a timeline," Mills said. "The guy on a timeline is the enemy. He knows that time is running out for him."
--Tony Perry at Camp Pendleton
Photo: Maj. Gen. Richard Mills addressing a change-of-command ceremony at Camp Pendleton. Credit: Marine Cpl. Zachary Nola.