U.S. Commander Sees Progress, Challenges
The commanding general of the U.S. Marine advance into Helmand Province said today he expects the operation to shift to a new phase following a few more days of “very tough work” in rooting out Taliban fighters.
Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, said the Marine units would soon shift their focus from flushing out the Taliban from villages along the Helmand River valley and turn to the work of improving the lives of local people.
“We’re just trying to clean up a couple areas that we think the Taliban have been pushed into,” said Nicholson during a visit to Garmsir District in southern Helmand.
“We have about three or four more days of very tough work, then I think we will move into what we will consider framework operations,” he said, referring to counterinsurgency missions aimed at increasing security, governance, and economic well being for the population.
The operation in Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand province involved more than 4,000 Marines who staged a major assault over the past two weeks into areas long controlled by the Taliban. The aim is to establish security and government presence in the Taliban heartland, and gradually to extend government authority south to the border with Pakistan.
Nicholson said he was encouraged at how the operation has unfolded over the last two weeks. “Frankly, we’re feeling pretty good about where we’re at,” he said.
But he said major challenges remain.
A top priority in coming weeks will be to track down the networks that have been placing roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices. The bombs are killing Afghan civilians and security forces as well as Marines, and are also impeding the use of roads.
“Finding and eliminating the IED cells is going to be one of our principal jobs,” he said. “The IED problem is real. Eighty percent of our casualties are caused by IEDs.”
Another challenge as the Marines establish themselves in outposts will be to convince skeptical Afghan villagers that they are here to help for the long run. Nicholson said that most civilians who the Marines encounter seem either positive or neutral about the increased military presence.
“It’s a very pragmatic people and they are not going to jump on any band wagon,” he said.
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