The Washington Post

A Marine general comes home

A Marine general who’s been in the thick of the fight in Afghanistan dropped by The Post the other day with some things to say about the war — and about the home front.

Maj. Gen. Rich Mills commanded U.S. and allied forces in Helmand province for a year, until the end of March. In an area where the Taliban had made substantial inroads, Gen. Mills said his troops had made “steady and significant progress” against the enemy.

“Tactically, we beat him in every engagement,” he said. “More important, I saw a significant upgrade in the Afghan Army”-- with more and better-trained soldiers under improving leadership.

As a result, freedom of movement for civilians improved markedly. In an era where male adult literacy is 10 percent and female literacy 1 per cent, Mills said parents are desperate to send their children to school--and now, in Helmand, are able to do so, whereas in the past threats from the Taliban made it impossible for schools to operate.

Asked about the July deadline for beginning to draw down U.S. forces, Mills demurred, saying such decisions would be made at higher ranks. But he said, “I still see work to be done in the country, that needs conventional forces. It’s all about risk — how much risk are we willing to accept, and where are we willing to take the risks?”

Morale among Marines is high, he said, as reflected in reenlistment rates that have stayed up even as bonuses have decreased. Care packages from home, although not always perfectly calibrated to troopers’ needs (“You need any baby wipes?” the general asked. “I’ve got some”) are much appreciated.

But Mills said it was jarring to move from the middle of the fight, where nothing else is on the agenda, back to the United States, where Afghanistan seems so distant to so many.

“You come back here, and you realize that the American public is focused on a lot of other things,” he said. “The news comes and goes from the front page.

“When you have 100,000 troops still being shot at -- and 100,000 families afraid every day of getting bad news -- you expect a little more attention to be paid.”

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog.


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