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Momentum Shifts in Helmand, Pentagon Spokesman Says

By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 3, 2010 – Operation Moshtarak, now in its 18th day in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, is “progressing extraordinarily well” and is moving from the clearing phase to the holding phase, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said today.

“There are still pockets where we believe there to be some Taliban hiding out, perhaps lying in wait,” he said. “We are determined to clear out those pockets, as well.”

Pockets of fighting probably will continue for weeks, he added, even as signs of normalcy emerge there.

Because of the operation, the Afghan government now is in control of the Helmand cities of Marja and Nad Ali, Morrell said.

“The Afghan flag is flying over Marja for the first time in Lord knows how long,” he said. “Markets are open; they’re well-stocked. Commerce is flowing. Displaced persons are returning to their homes. There is a greater sense of security. There is widespread participation in [community meetings]. So things are trending in the right direction there.”

Morrell emphasized that even as progress continues, the job isn’t finished. “I don’t want to sound overly confident,” he said. “There is still more fighting to be done, still more areas to be cleared. Undoubtedly, there are still more losses to suffer.”

While working to bring security to southern and eastern Afghanistan, Morrell said, U.S. troops are working simultaneously to grow and train Afghan forces. “It’s a bifurcated effort. Both of them are very, very important, and we’re spending a lot of time and energy on both.”

The Helmand operation is “shifting the momentum” to give residents more confidence in the Afghan government, he said, noting that Operation Moshtarak is considered the beginning of a 12- to 18-month campaign to change the course in Afghanistan away from the insurgency.

“There is more work to follow, and I don’t think, at the end of the day, there will be many places [for enemies] to hide,” he said. “More importantly, it’s going to become clear to them, as I think it has to the residents of Helmand, that the dynamic is changing, that the momentum is shifting, and that they want to probably reconsider sooner rather than later which side they want to end up on.”

U.S. forces are assisting Afghan initiatives to reintegrate some Taliban fighters into society, Morrell said. “Each of these units that go into Marja, in Nad Ali and so forth, they are working with the State Department, with [nongovernmental organizations], to provide an alternative livelihood to folks who want to lay down their weapons and support the local government and ultimately the central government,” he said.

In answer to a reporter’s question whether the southern city of Kandahar the next focus, Morrell said he’d prefer that such information come from military officials in Afghanistan. But he noted Kandahar’s history.

“Clearly, Kandahar has been the spiritual heartland of the Taliban movement for years,” he said. “It was basically the capital of the country when they ran it. It is a strategically important city, and it is one that is occupied clearly by too many Taliban, too many insurgents. And so it will have to be dealt with at some point.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will discuss the effort in Afghanistan during a meeting with Gitte Bech, the new defense minister of Denmark, tomorrow and during a meeting with Staffan de Mistura, the new United Nations special representative to Afghanistan, on March 5, Morrell said.

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