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Turning the corner in Helmand Province

Wednesday - 5/16/2012, 6:30am  ET

J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - In Afghanistan, it's often hard to tell which side Afghans are on. Maj. Gen. Charles "Mark" Gurganus knows firsthand what that's like.

Gurganus, commander of the I Marine Expeditionary Force Forward in Helmand province, was part of a VIP welcoming party on the tarmac at Camp Bastion in mid-March for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta when a hijacked vehicle raced towards them at high speed.

Gurganus and his team dove aside to avoid being hit by the burning vehicle, driven by a disgruntled Afghan interpreter who had lit himself. The man was burned badly and later died.

The military calls these incidents 'green on blue,' and says they continue to dog U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan.

"There are several things that we do to combat that," says Gurganus. "Most of it is to try to be pre-emptive before it ever happens."

He says they work closely with their Afghan counterparts and is resolute in his belief that they are isolated incidents.

"The thing we've done is work very closely with our Afghan partners, and they understand and they take a bigger offense at this than you would expect. And they continue to work hard to root out anyone in their forces who might want to do the coalition forces any harm at all."

Insurgent attacks are driven by the Taliban, which have refused to give up the fight for control of Afghanistan. Having controlled it in the past, the organization is well versed in running an insurgency.

The first major military activity of the Taliban was in October and November in 1994 when they captured Kandahar and the surrounding provinces, losing only a few dozen men. In the next three months, they took control of 12 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces - with Mujahideen warlords often surrendering to them without a fight. By September 1996, they had captured Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.

Breaking the back of an insurgency can't be done in one fell swoop, says Gurganus.

"You break it over the course of time. And quite frankly, the people who break an insurgency will be the Afghans themselves."

"It's when they decide they want to stand on their own without being subjected to the rule of this insurgency and the Taliban, when they become committed to standing up for their own security and having a voice in the future. That's what breaks the back of an insurgency, more so than the intervention of the coalition and the ISAF forces."

Despite his own close call, Gurganus says, "While Helmand still remains dangerous in some respects, and in some areas more than others, there's a tremendous amount of progress being made in many areas, including Afghans abilities to take the lead for their own security."

But Gurganus says, "They still need some help in doing it."

The Afghan National Army forces are more capable at this point than Afghan National Police forces, because "they've been around the longest, they've had more chances to train, they've had more chances to operate," he says.

This will be the last summer fighting season in Afghanistan before withdrawal of most U.S. troops. The fight could be tough, but "severely degraded," the Pentagon says in its most recent report to Congress.

Gurganus says Afghan forces provided their own security for three district elections over the last 60 days, and he counts these as successes.

"The Afghans provided all of the security with no help from coalition forces and they pulled it off by themselves and they went to the polls and voted."

But as a reminder of the treachery that remains, two British soldiers were ambushed in Helmand by their Afghan counterparts the day before Gurganus spoke to WTOP. At least 414 British troops have been killed and at least 1,843 Americans since the war began in 2001.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)