CAMP PENDLETON — The general in charge of U.S. Marines in Afghanistan said Monday that progress was being made in wresting a key southern province from Taliban control but cautioned that the process was slow and difficult to measure.
Marine Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland also said the Marine Corps was ready to send more troops to Afghanistan if asked by top U.S. officials. "Everything we're doing is preparing to put more forces in theater," Helland said.
The Marines' goal is to train the Afghan security forces to carry the fight to the Taliban. The training is going slowly, Helland said.
"They don't understand leadership, they don't understand noncommissioned officers," he said. "To use a Marine term, they're a herd. But once trained, they're warriors."
Helland is set to retire Friday after 41 years of military service, beginning as an Army enlisted man with the Special Forces in Vietnam.
For the last two years, he has been the commanding general of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Force Central Command, with authority over Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Marine Corps has 12,000 troops in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, where Taliban fighters are entrenched and opium poppy fields provide an illegal cash crop that helps fund the insurgency against the U.S.-backed central government in Kabul.
Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of all U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Afghanistan, has said that operations in Helmand are key to demonstrating that the U.S. will not quickly leave areas it enters or allow the Taliban to return.
Helland said his Marines were living beside Afghan soldiers and close to civilian populations, rather than behind guarded outposts. His forces are trying to strengthen ties with villagers in the rural province, he said.
"It's a slow process," he said. "You have to win the confidence [of the Afghans], to provide security. . . . Things appear to be improving -- slowly."
Fifty Marines have been killed this year in Afghanistan.
Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.