Last month, Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, commander of Marine forces in Afghanistan, presented a surprisingly rosy description of the battlefield to reporters at the Pentagon in a teleconference from his office at Camp Leatherneck.
Improvements were ongoing, he said. Progress was being made. The insurgency had a “financial crisis” on its hands, and the Corps had verified reports of “Taliban thugs” being beaten by civilians and chased away from villages, he said.
Mills took a small handful of questions from reporters during the press conference. Reporters — particularly those who had embedded with Marine units this year — walked away questioning whether things could really have improved that much in the last few months, as more than 70 Marines were killed during the summer “fighting season” in Helmand province.
There’s no reason not take the general at his word. Progress has been made in some areas, such as the Safar Bazaar that was captured by 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., this summer. However, overall security in the province is still uneven at best and a mess at worst, based on a variety of embedded media reports in recent days.
Consider the Sept. 17 death of 1st Lt. Scott Fleming, a platoon commander with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
A report published yesterday by the Examiner newspapers says he was targeted by the Taliban and “assassinated,” and 3/3 is now actively seeking four men thought to be responsible for his death. The Marines are frustrated with a “catch-and-release” policy that allows insurgents to fight within days of being detained in some cases, they told the Examiner. The battalion is based in Nawa, widely described as the district likely to be turned over to Afghan security forces first.
Reports from 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., haven’t been much better. Last week, the AP published a report in which a 2/9 company commander, based in northern Marjah, acknowledged his Marines were in firefights all over, every day.” The Corps has announced the deaths of two 2/9 Marine so far this month.
Finally, there’s the struggles that Lejeune’s 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, faces in the heart of Marjah. The battalion has lost more than a dozen men since deploying in the spring, including two within the last week. As this embedded report suggests, it also appears they’re struggling to gain the trust of at least some Afghan civilians, who must face the Taliban if it is discovered they provide information to Marines. That isn’t something exclusive to 2/6, either — I witnessed it firsthand with 3/6 in northern Marjah in May.
All of this isn’t to say that the war is lost, or won. Difficulties are still widespread, however, and it’s foolish to think otherwise.