Maj. Gen. Richard Mills briefs from Afghanistan:
Fighting has "dropped off to virtually nothing" in the Sangin district of Afghanistan, where two dozen Marines from Camp Pendleton were killed and more than 140 wounded in the fall and early winter, the top Marine general in Afghanistan told reporters Thursday.
After weeks of fighting with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment from Camp Pendleton, those insurgents who survived have either fled or gone into hiding, Maj. Gen. Richard Mills told a group of San Diego reporters via teleconference.
Some have gone north into a mountainous area, with Marines in pursuit, he said.
Insurgents, Mills said, are "off-balance and afraid" and unable to receive supplies or reinforcements from Pakistan because Marines have disrupted their "rat lines." Hundreds of insurgents have been killed, he said.
Still, Mills, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), stopped short of declaring victory. He said he expects the insurgents, once the winter is over, to attempt a counter-offensive to regain control of Sangin and other areas in Helmand province, which had long been a Taliban stronghold.
"Is there still some tough fighting for those [U.S.] troops who come here in spring or summer?" Mills asked. "Yes, there is."
Another factor helping the Marines is a deal with the Alikoza tribe in which the tribe would receive construction contracts in exchange for intelligence and other help in the fight against the Taliban, Mills said. The Taliban is "desperate to break the agreement" by attempting to intimidate tribal members but has failed to do so, he said.
About 20,000 Marines and sailors are in Helmand province, about half of them from Camp Pendleton. In the spring, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment is set to return to California, to be replaced by the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, also from Camp Pendleton.
Mills, also set to return to Camp Pendleton in the spring, gave an upbeat assessment of the Marine mission in the province. Schools are opening, village markets are thriving, Afghan security forces are gaining in competency and a key road project from Sangin to the Kajaki dam is close to completion, Mills said.
Once completed, the road will allow work to begin on a long-stalled effort to install an additional turbine at the dam and provide additional electricity to Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Throughout the province Marines and Afghan forces conduct 500 patrols a day, he said. At night, special operations personnel kill or capture insurgent leaders.
The Marines returning soon to Camp Pendleton will "come home with honor" from having bested the Taliban in numerous villages but "the Marines behind us are going to have a good amount of work to do," Mills said.