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WASHINGTON, March 3, 2011 -- The fight against insurgents in Afghanistan's Helmand province may have turned the corner and the trend lines are going up, the commander of Regional Command-Southwest said today.

Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, speaking to Pentagon reporters via videoconference, said there has been clear progress in all areas of the command.

The general and his command have been in Helmand since April last year. He formed the new geographical command in July, breaking off from RC-South. There are 30,000 coalition troops in Helmand and Nimruz provinces.

The security situation in the region has made tremendous progress, the general said.

"We have attempted with our winter campaign to maintain pressure on the enemy, and I believe that we have been able to do that," Mills said. "We have seen a steady expansion of our security bubbles as we move out from the areas that we do control into those areas where the enemy still has a presence."

Mills said his command is working with Afghan security forces to "deepen" security in the area. In Sangin, in the northern part of the command, there's been a rapid expansion of the security bubble due to agreements with local tribes who see progress in other parts of the province, and want some security themselves.

Elements of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which arrived in Afghanistan last month, are making progress in the upper Garesh Valley, the general said. The area was a Taliban supply depot, he added, and the Marines are providing security for a new road project that will link the area to Afghanistan's Ring Road system.

In the command's center, United Kingdom forces "are doing a very, very good job of cleaning out the last of the pockets of enemy presence," Mills said. "They are, again, making some real success down there in doing that, and perhaps have even been more successful in getting the Afghan army to operate semi-independently on many of their operations."

The Afghan army has improved dramatically, the general said, noting the Afghans are operating their own air support -- including medevac -- and other assets.

"They have even incorporated their own supporting arms now into their operations in that area, and have been proven quite skillful at the use of 122 mm long cannon," he said.

In Marja, military activity is low and security is excellent, Mills said. He pointed to district community council elections held yesterday where about 1,100 of the 1,500 registered voters turned out as an example of the safety in the city that was once a Taliban stronghold.

"That was all very, very successful with absolutely no security incidents, despite a threat delivered by insurgents that they wanted to break that election up," the general said.

Governance also has made progress and the region has seen a surge in talented people being appointed to district governor positions.

"I'm not a big believer in polls necessarily, but a recent poll down in Nawa indicated that some 89 percent of the local population supported the government, and felt that the government of Afghanistan was now providing them with the basic services that they needed," Mills said.

"In fact," he added, "an independent recent survey showed that 79 percent of the local population throughout the areas controlled by the (Afghan government) felt they had a better standard of living and a more secure way of life than they did just one year ago."

The security and governance progress has allowed development to move ahead. Education is an example of this progress. There are more than 100,000 students in local schools and 20 percent of them are girls.

"That's a huge change and a huge sea change, I think, from conditions that we've seen here in the past," Mills said.

There is a teacher's college in the province, the general said, and cell-phone towers are popping up all over the command.

"Cell phones are extraordinarily important," he said, "both to the social life of the people who live here, to the business life of the people who live here, and just to the feeling of normalcy that I think they really crave: to be able to use a cell phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- something the Taliban has told them they cannot do."

The biggest change in the region, though, is the freedom of movement, Mills said.

"We've seen the people moving about the province in really unprecedented numbers," he said. "That's great for business. We're seeing that has an impact in all of the bazaars, which are doing extraordinarily well. But it also just provides a feeling of normalcy to many of the people."

Still, the insurgency remains a problem, Mills said.

"We are preparing for a counterattack in the springtime," he said. "Our job will be, of course, to gauge how that counterattack will form and what manner the enemy will choose to come after us."

The Taliban and its allies are expected to act, Mills said, in order to regain territory lost over the past six to eight months. The enemy, he added, also is losing its largest source of money: drugs. Thousands of farmers have switched from growing opium poppies to growing wheat, and thousands of acres of land once used for drug crops are now under Afghan government control.

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