CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — A recent agreement with leaders of the largest tribe in a Taliban stronghold to halt insurgent attacks on coalition forces and expel foreign fighters is working so far, the senior U.S. Marine general in Afghanistan said Thursday.
Maj. Gen. Richard Mills told reporters in a conference call from Helmand province that Marines have come under almost no gunfire in the center of Sangin district in the past month.
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Mills, who commands coalition forces in southwest Afghanistan, expects the violence to pick up once the weather warms but not to the previous levels. The area has witnessed some of the country's heaviest fighting in the war.
Mills announced last month that a deal had been struck between local elders in Afghanistan's Sangin district and Helmand Gov. Gulabuddin Mangal, with the consultation of coalition forces. Shortly after the announcement, six Afghan civilians were killed when their minivan hit a roadside bomb in Sangin district Jan. 15.
Still, the agreement "is holding pretty fast" despite insurgents' efforts to intimidate tribal elders, including shooting one in the leg, Mills said.
The deal was made with the Alikozai tribe, the largest in the Sarwan-Qalah area of the Upper Sangin Valley. The tribe last rose up against the Taliban in 2007 but failed because of a lack of resources and coalition help.
Mills said the tribe's cooperation could help shorten the war in one of the most violent places in Afghanistan.
The biggest challenge will be in stopping fighters not under the control of the tribe's leaders.
Success is far from guaranteed: A similar move by the Shinwari tribe in eastern Afghanistan last year was at first lauded as a major step forward by U.S. commanders until the Afghan government turned against the idea, saying NATO was undermining its authority by working directly with the elders.
Mills said tribal leaders want the progress they see downriver in other towns where Marines have been able to push back the Taliban. Most of the Obama administration's approved troop surge of 30,000 forces a year ago have gone to the south to fight the Taliban in their traditional strongholds.
In those towns there is new lighting, police are largely handling security measures, buildings are going up, and schools are in session, Mills said.
The general added the drop in attacks has helped speed the construction of key roads in Helmand province and reduced the travel time for convoys in one area from three days to eight hours. He said people are also showing Marines the location of improvised explosive devices.
Mills said the arrival of tanks in recent months has also allowed troops to go into areas that were previously off-limits because of IEDs. The tanks have been able to roll over the explosives without major problems.
The Marines are preparing for more bloodshed in the coming months, Mills said. Fighting typically lessens in the winter months in Afghanistan, when snows block fighters from traveling over mountain passes from Pakistan. It picks up again in the late spring and early summer.
More than 20 Marines have been killed in Sangin since mid-October, when the U.S. took over the district from British forces.
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