The top U.S. Marine commander in southern Afghanistan said today that almost 10 months after the military offensive to take the key town of Marjah concluded, the fight against the Taliban there is "essentially over."
Major General Richard Mills told Pentagon reporters via videoconference that Taliban fighters have been pushed into the desert areas surrounding the town, though they occasionally come back to town and "takes the odd shot at us."
Mills is in charge of Regional Command Southwest, the NATO command responsible for providing security in Helmand Province, an area that has long been a Taliban stronghold.
Located in the heart of the opium growing areas of southern Afghanistan, Marjah had long been under Taliban rule and was a key component in the Taliban's control of the opium trade to fund its operations.
The fight for Marjah was portrayed by NATO officials as the first example of their new strategy to restore security to key population centers and build confidence in the Afghan government's ability to provide public services.
Former NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal described the approach as "a government in a box" because NATO and Afghan government civilians would move quickly to provide aid and public services once military operations wrapped up.
However, the civilian effort lagged as the Taliban continued to launch attacks and intimidated civilians into not working with development projects.
The slow progress of civilian efforts was a key reason why NATO and U.S. officials have been hesitant to go beyond saying that the progress in Marjah has been slower than anticipated.
Shortly after the Marines launched their major offensive to take the town in February, Taliban fighters melted back into the population and launched a guerrilla campaign that continued to target Marines with roadside bombs and sniper fire.
Of equal concern for military planners was the Taliban intimidation campaign against Marjah residents.
Today, Mills said Marjah now boasts a restaurant and the occasional traffic jam in the town's main drag as life has returned to normal with the ebbing of the intimidation campaign and increased security progress over the last few months.
He would not indicate whether that security progress would mean freeing up one of the two Marine battalions still patrolling the city.
Marines are still seeing tough fighting in other parts of Helmand Province, particularly in Sangin District, located in the northeastern part of Helmand province. In the few months since the Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment took over responsibility for Sangin from British troops they have already taken 16 fatalities.
Mills says the fight in Sangin is so tough because the Taliban is desperately trying to control the last bit of terrain it controls in the province.
"It is the last place in which he had his poppy and his narcotics processing plants, the tools that really funded the insurgency. And he is desperate to hold on there." According to Mills, "Once he loses there, he has in fact lost Helmand province and he realizes that. So he's fighting a tough battle and a resilient battle against us in that area."
Mills is confident that the Taliban in Helmand province is on its heels as NATO operations are having an impact on security forces and the civilian population.
"You see a weaker and weaker and a weaker insurgent, each time that he comes back." He noted that Taliban fighters used to launch attacks in groups of as many as 15 fighters, Mills says it's now more common to see them in groups of four to five fighters.