POSTED: 12:11 p.m. HST, Dec 7, 2010
LAST UPDATED: 1:51 p.m. HST, Dec 7, 2010
WASHINGTON — A senior Marine general in Afghanistan on Tuesday declared the battle in the southern Taliban stronghold of Marjah "essentially over."
The commander's assertion of victory in Marjah comes 10 months after thousands of U.S.-led NATO troops stormed the cluster of farming hamlets to rout insurgents and cut off their income from the drug trade.
The campaign took longer than NATO officials had hoped, and underscored the complexity of trying to wrest control of an area where Taliban influence remained strong.
Maj. Gen. Richard Mills told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday the enemy has been pushed to the outskirts of the area, where insurgents come in from the desert to take "the odd shot at us." In the more populated areas, Mills said Afghan police are mostly providing the security on their own.
Mills said tough fighting continues in other parts of Helmand province, including the Sangin district where Marines have taken over a bloody battle from British forces.
He vowed an "aggressive winter campaign" to blunt the potential of a revival by the Taliban next spring.
"We will move into areas we thought were unreachable by coalition forces. We will give them no rest," Mills told Pentagon reporters via video link from Afghanistan.
As recently as late September, Marjah appeared far from pacified. An Associated Press reporter embedded with U.S. Marines in Marjah this fall saw guerrillas staging complex hit-and-run attacks on a daily basis.
Mills' assessment comes as President Barack Obama is evaluating his war strategy a year after committing an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to the fight.
A formal White House review, which could be made public next week, is expected to report modest gains against the Taliban that could let the U.S. start to bring some troops home next year as planned. Obama has already said that a troop reduction must begin next July, although the pace of withdrawals remained uncertain.
But the review also is expected to find that the military has not completely secured even small districts in southern Afghanistan — a necessary milestone before U.S. troops can begin to pull out of those districts in significant numbers.
Marjah has become a symbol of the problems facing NATO troops in Afghanistan. More than 7,000 ground troops launched a nighttime invasion of the area last February, and NATO officials said the effort would pave the way for the Afghan government to rush in aid and start delivering public services.
Efforts to create a civilian government in Marjah were painfully slow, and U.S. troops struggled against roadside bombs and sniper attacks from an enemy that could blend in with the local population.
Mills declined to say how soon it might be before U.S. troops could be withdrawn in significant numbers from Helmand province, noting that heavy fighting continues elsewhere in the area.
Other military officials say fighting remains tough on the eastern Afghan border where Taliban fighters cross at will from Pakistan.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, told reporters Tuesday that while some progress had been made in the east, more work must be done to counter the Haqqani network, a stubborn al-Qaida-linked Taliban insurgent group operating out of Pakistan.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Afghanistan on Tuesday, where he visited a military base in eastern Kunar province. He told reporters that he sees progress.
"We are breaking the momentum of the enemy and will eventually reverse it," he said. But he added, "it will be a while and we will suffer tougher losses as we go."
Associated Press Writer Lolita Baldor contributed to this report from Afghanistan.