Marine official says there is more ‘tough fighting’ ahead in Afghanistan

Marines from Camp Pendleton and other bases are making progress in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan but there is more “tough fighting” ahead as the war enters a critical year, the top Marine general in Afghanistan told local reporters.

Nine Marines have been killed this month in southern Helmand province, on the Pakistani border. A helicopter was downed by enemy fire, a rarity in the nine-year conflict. Buried roadside bombs continue to take their toll on Marines and Afghan civilians.

Still, Maj. Gen. Richard Mills said he believed advances were being made in routing the Taliban, winning the allegiance of Afghan civilians, and training the Afghan army and police force. But there will be more combat, he said.

“I think we have some sacrifices we’re going to have to make,” Mills said Friday in a teleconference from Camp Leatherneck, the Marine base in Helmand province.

Under a surge of forces authorized by President Obama, the U.S. has about 20,000 Marines in Afghanistan, half of them from Camp Pendleton. The percentage of troops from Camp Pendleton probably will increase in the coming months as battalions from Camp Lejeune, N.C., return home.

The Marine leadership, including Mills, is from Camp Pendleton.

Asked about Obama’s desire to have U.S. combat troops depart next year, Mills was cautious: “There’s a job that needs to be done here and it takes time to do it.” The Afghans, he said, are “very, very concerned that we may leave them prematurely.”

One key to success, Mills said, is training the Afghan police force, historically beset by corruption and incompetence. He characterized progress as “baby steps but progress nonetheless.”

“What you have to do in this area of the world is to manage expectations,” he said. “Make sure people know what progress is.”