WASHINGTON - A senior Marine general in Afghanistan on Tuesday declared the battle in the southern Taliban stronghold of Marjah "essentially over."
The commander's assertion of victory in Marjah comes 10 months after thousands of U.S.-led NATO troops stormed the cluster of farming hamlets to rout insurgents and cut off their income from the drug trade.
The campaign took longer than NATO officials had hoped and underscored the complexity of trying to wrest control of an area where Taliban influence remained strong.
Maj. Gen. Richard Mills said at the Pentagon on Tuesday that the enemy had been pushed to the outskirts of the area, where insurgents come in from the desert to take "the odd shot at us." In the more populated areas, Mills said, Afghan police are mostly providing the security on their own.
Mills noted that tough fighting continued in other parts of Helmand province, including the Sangin district, where Marines have taken over a bloody battle from British forces. But he vowed an "aggressive winter campaign" to blunt the potential of a revival by the Taliban next spring.
As recently as late September, Marjah appeared far from pacified. An Associated Press reporter embedded with U.S. Marines in Marjah this fall saw guerrillas staging complex hit-and-run attacks on a daily basis.
Mills' assessment came as both Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates were in Afghanistan to prepare a review of the war and the likely start of troop reductions next year. Gates is also expected to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Petraeus told reporters Tuesday that while there had been some progress in the east, more work must be done to counter the Haqqani network, a stubborn al-Qaeda-linked Taliban insurgent group operating out of Pakistan. According to a senior defense official, Petraeus has already delivered his assessment of the war's progress to the White House, which is preparing a major review of its war strategy. The official said Petraeus expected the review to conclude that the transition of the country's security to the Afghans would likely begin next year as planned, but the pace is still uncertain.
The review is expected to find that the troop surge ordered by the president a year ago has improved Afghan security, the official said. The review is also expected to make recommendations on the size of the Afghan security forces, the official said, though no details were provided.
Gates made his own assessment of the eastern region's security as he met with U.S. commanders and troops at the foot of the mountains just 21/2 miles from Pakistan. The perils of war were brought home as Gates met with members of a platoon that lost six men late last month. The soldiers were gunned down by an Afghan border police officer.
Maj. Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in the eastern region, said Kunar province "is probably the most kinetic province." Troops dropped nine bombs there Monday.
Gates, speaking to a crowd of 325 troops, said he knew the fight was tough but told the soldiers they were making a difference. "We are breaking the momentum of the enemy and will eventually reverse it," he said. But he added, "It will be a while and we will suffer tougher losses as we go."
The troops face a durable enemy in the Haqqani network, an insurgent faction blamed for some of the deadliest attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan. The group is trained and well-financed and moves easily over the border with heavy-duty explosives.
Despite the tough foe, Gates said that the situation was not grim and that progress was evident. Campbell said statistics showed violence levels were dropping around government and community buildings in key districts. And incidents involving roadside bombs have fallen by 40 percent.