(Note: The general appears via teleconference from Afghanistan.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): We've had some technical challenges, and we may get the video in progress. We have the capability to switch. But we do have an audio link, and so we'll go ahead, and we'll get started, because the general only has this time frame to be able to do this in.
So let me introduce who we have. Our briefer today is Brigadier General Greg Champion. He is the deputy commanding general for Operations and Intelligence of the Combined Joint Task Force 76. General Champion and his forces are responsible for the ongoing operations in the southeastern half of Afghanistan. That includes Bagram Airfield, Kandahar Airfield, Salerno, Jalalabad, as well as some other areas there that I think you folks are familiar with that have been there.
He's here today to give us an update, an operational update. He of course is not seeing you. You're not seeing him right now. So he's going to start with giving you an overview, and then we'll start to take some questions from here. And if you could just identify yourself for him, that would be great.
So, General Champion, can you hear me okay?
GEN. CHAMPION: Yes, I can. How about me?
MR. WHITMAN: Very good. We'll turn it over to you right now.
GEN. CHAMPION: Okay. Thank you.
Good morning to everyone out there from Afghanistan. It's fairly late in the afternoon here. You know the time difference.
What I'm going to do is read you a brief statement, and then, at the conclusion of that statement, I'll be prepared to take any questions that you may have.
While it appears from the combat activity in recent months that there is less reconstruction activity in Afghanistan, quite the opposite is true. I'd like to provide you with an overview of our current military and reconstruction operations and the current state of the enemy in CJTF-76's area of operations, which consists of Regional Command East and South.
I know that the upcoming elections are on everyone's minds right now. Last year the people of Afghanistan established a constitution and elected a president. On September 18th, they will take yet another step forward in electing a national assembly to give them a voice in their government.
Let me assure you that the U.S. and coalition forces are going to maintain the initiative and conduct combined offensive operations up to and through the elections. Al Qaeda and associated movements were handed a strategic defeat last year with Afghanistan's election of a president, but they will continue to challenge us. In addition to the threat the anti-coalition militias pose, we believe that there will also be instances of local violence, criminal activity and civic unrest where local power brokers, such as former warlords and drug lords, will attempt to maintain control.
It is important to note that in the wake of the incidents, almost 6,000 Afghans have filed to run as candidates in the September elections for 249 seats. Since the presidential election, 1.7 million -- plus or minus -- additional Afghans have registered to vote. In total, nearly 12 million Afghans are now registered. This is a fairly significant increase. On the average, during every day this past registration period, over 50,000 Afghans registered to vote, with many areas seeing double-digit increases from last October.
Afghanistan is undergoing a revolutionary change, and Afghan citizens will prove once again that they want a free Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on September the 18th.
We have made great strides in building the Afghan security forces. Today we have over a 24,000-man-strong army in operational units throughout the country and 5,000 more in training and on the way. Practically all of our missions we conduct now involve ANA as a partner.
We have increased our involvement with the ANP. We will partner with the Afghan police in much the same way we did with the Afghan army. And as you know, the United States government has agreed to contribute $900 million to assisting with the Afghan National Police. So it is a high priority for us. The police currently have over 41,000 on the ground and approximately 9,000 more in training.
Now I'd like to talk you and walk you through our combined joint operational area, starting from the northeastern part of the country, moving to the southwest, and I will address this by provincial areas.
First I'll talk on Kunar and Nangarhar provinces up in the northeastern portion. Currently, 5,000 Afghans are employed in a variety of reconstruction and development projects in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces. Over 1,500 men and women and children have received medical care that they need through our medical assistance visits during the 1st of July. Local governors and the Afghan national police have coordinated with coalition forces to rescue hundreds of Afghan flood victims throughout the area this past spring and June. We have instituted programs to enhance security and the capabilities of local police forces in Nangarhar province. Remote villages in areas that have never had water now have wells and fresh water. We continue to upgrade the road from Asadabad to Jalalabad, to improve the movement of security forces and commerce in that area. A commercial trade school is in the works in Nangarhar, and that will help increase jobs and development of human capital.
Unfortunately, the enemy knows the value of education and economic growth to Afghanistan's future, and thus continues to attempt to take these opportunities away from the Afghan people. The enemy is isolated in northeast areas; they are heavily involved in criminal activities such as timber, gem, and opium smuggling, in addition to the ongoing struggle against the government of Afghanistan.
Recently, Operation Red Wing was conducted in Kunar province in an area which has been known as an active IED-cell location. This operation was designed to deny sanctuary, disrupt enemy operations, and kill or capture the criminal leaders in an area that has been historically hostile. Sadly, this mission ended on a tragic note with the loss of our comrades. And as with other instances where we have loss of life, loss of equipment, we are continuing to look into all aspects of the operations to see what we can improve and take home -- take lessons learned.
We now have a continuing coalition presence in this area, where the enemies of Afghanistan formerly felt safe. Since this operation, direct enemy attacks and IED attacks are significantly down in Kunar province. As we continue to improve the A-bad - J-bad road, it will be even more difficult for the enemy to use IEDs in this area.
Finally, we are increasing -- seeing increasing signs of local support for Afghanistan's programs Takhim e-Solh, or the PTS program, which involved the reconciliation of former Taliban members. And we hope that more and more of the mid-level enemy leaders and combatants will embrace the program and choose to peacefully and honorably reconcile with the government.
I'll now move to Paktya, Khost, Paktika, and Ghazni provinces in the central eastern portion of the country.
Here, the enemy remains focused on conducting harassing attacks against Afghan and coalition forces along the border in Paktya, Khost and Paktika provinces.
We continuously conduct patrols and operations in this area on the Afghanistan side of the border. We disrupt enemy movement and operations. When and where possible, we coordinate our tactical movements with Pakistan army elements located across the border. We believe the enemy's desire is to extend their operations into Khost, Paktika, Paktya and Ghazni provinces, but logistical constraints and population demographics prevent a long-term presence.
Overall, the enemy's goal is to gain influence in this area, but they are finding in most cases that local leadership and the people are no longer supportive. They're finding village leaders saying no to Taliban staging areas.
Additionally, voluntary cache turn-ins by local nationals is increasing. Village shuras held in Ghazni this spring withdrew their support for the Taliban.
Afghans in this area desire peace and prosperity. Local provincial leadership joined with Afghan security and coalition forces to form provincial coordination centers as a means to more efficiently respond to and coordinate actions to security-related incidents.
Currently, more than 3,000 Afghans are employed in this region in a variety of developmental projects. Additionally, there are future plans to construct an Afghan National Army facility in Khost which will further employ 2,500 Afghans over a nine-month period. The ANA presence by itself will lead to further security and future economic growth.
We are making significant improvements to the Orgun-e to Sharana road and have plans to improve the Ghulum Khum Road, which is located between Khost, headed southeast of the border towards one of our BCPs, as it connects to Pakistan. Both these projects will inspire and promote security, commerce and trade and improve communications with remote villages.
We continue to assist the establishment of the Bermel government complex to help extend the reach of the provincial government in the previously isolated area of Bermel Valley.
I now move to the Daikundi and Oruzgan provinces, a little bit further south central, north of Kandahar. Provincial officials in Daikundi and Oruzgan provinces are taking the lead in disaster relief planning here after numerous floods in the spring.
Numerous wells are planned in Oruzgan, so the small villages again will have access to fresh water for the first time -- (audio break) --
OPERATOR: The other party has disconnected. To reconnect, press -- (audio break) --
MR. WHITMAN: We'll see if we can't get him back on here momentarily.
MR. WHITMAN: General Champion, can you hear me?
GEN. CHAMPION: I can.
MR. WHITMAN: All right, this is Bryan Whitman. I'm sorry. We lost you there, and I don't know if you knew when we dropped out, but you were talking to us about Oruzgan province when we lost you.
GEN. CHAMPION: Okay. Well, I'll tell you what, I will pick back up at Daikundi and Oruzgan and --
MR. WHITMAN: Yeah, that would be about right, I think.
GEN. CHAMPION: -- and just go from -- go from there.
Do you want me to go ahead and get started?
MR. WHITMAN: Yeah. Go ahead, General.
GEN. CHAMPION: Okay.
All right, again, I'll pick up here with -- as we move south into Daikundi and Oruzgan provinces. Here, provincial officials in Daikundi and Oruzgan provinces are taking the lead in disaster relief planning. Numerous wells have been planned so that villages in the remote areas will finally have access to fresh water. These are all being conducted by coalition forces. Coalition forces are also refurbishing schools in these provinces so that both children and adults can receive an education and better their future.
The Taliban know and understand that because of these actions they're losing their legitimacy. They are becoming more ruthless, and continue to try and halt reconstruction. They operate in smaller groups and conduct operations in areas where the coalition forces have not had a presence. They go where we are not, and then we go where they are. Our operations will remain very fluid in our pursuit of the enemy.
In Oruzgan, a true success story is the efforts of the ANA. Here, the ANA has taken on the main role of combating terrorist activity in this province. They are clearly demonstrating their ability to conduct large-scale and coordinated operations. Every time the enemy has come into contact with Afghan and coalition forces here, they have been decisively defeated.
Next I'll move into Zabul and northern Kandahar provinces. The enemy situation in northern Kandahar is similar to Oruzgan province. The enemy operates in small groups and are more cowardly in their tactics. We believe that they are frustrated by repeated and unsuccessful attacks against Afghan and coalition forces.
This lack of success is causing an increased reliance on intimidation and propaganda. The enemy is attacking village elders, NGO workers, school districts, centers, district centers and ANP stations.
We're helping to bring the Afghan government or helping the Afghan government to construct police compound and barracks in Deh Chopain to facilitate security and long-term police presence, as well as helping to conduct additional police substations in Kandahar city opening next month.
Despite enemy activity in these two provinces, there is still strong public support for the government of Afghanistan. Major reconstruction projects are under way, most notably the Tarin Kowt to Kandahar road. This road is 122 kilometers long, and less than 13 kilometers remain to be constructed. Once completed, we anticipate that this road will promote Afghan security, political, civic and economic growth. There are more than 2,000 Afghans working in Zabul and northern Kandahar provinces on a number and a variety of reconstruction and development projects. With the completion of the TK to Kandahar road, we anticipate even more job opportunities.
In this area and Regional Command South, over 400 enemy combatants have been killed. The Taliban are becoming more ruthless and continuing to target governmental leaders and even popular Muslim religious leaders. We're seeing an increased threat to use suicide bombs. Their recruiting has been affected because we are seeing more and more young fighters, and the fact that they are not very well trained.
I will now move into Nimroz and Helmand provinces to the far south of the country. The enemy situation in Nimroz and Helmand are more related to drugs and opportunities to take advantage of limited Afghan national police presence. The Taliban are resorting to criminal activities in Helmand and Nimroz provinces, but remain committed to trying to disrupt peace and prosperity. They have thus far been unsuccessful in their attempts to attack Afghan and coalition forces. However, they continue to intimidate and kill innocent people.
Afghan citizens adamantly support our efforts in Nimroz and Helmand. More than 1,000 people are employed on a variety of ongoing reconstruction and development projects, and provincial leaders are accepting more and more ownership of such basic civic functions as flood planning and disaster relief.
In summary, the enemy knows what is at stake in the upcoming parliamentary elections, and we anticipate that he will continue to challenge us. We know we will have a tough fight up to and through the elections, but we do not view it as a battle between militaries or religion. Rather, it is a battle of confidence and will. The enemy knows that he cannot defeat us by direct confrontation. Thus, he will resort to the tactics of intimidation, indiscriminate murder of Afghan people and their local leadership, and those in the international community who are trying so hard each day to bring a credible, free election to the Afghan people. The will of the Afghan populace will again be shown on September the 18th.
In summary, Afghanistan's past has been marked by war and hatred. U.S. and coalition forces are working and fighting hard each day in partnership with the Afghan government, Afghan security forces and the Afghan people to ensure that it will not be part of Afghanistan's future.
Now that concludes my overall operational brief, and I'll be glad to take and answer any questions you may have.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay, General. Let's get right into it here, and we'll start with Charlie.
Q General, Charlie Aldinger with Reuters. A couple of questions. First of all, housekeeping: How many troops does the United States now have in Afghanistan? And I know you're going to increase the troop numbers by about 800 airborne from the United States. Have they started arriving yet? And will the total number jump by more than 800 in any current rotation?
GEN. CHAMPION: Currently we have approximately 18,000 U.S. soldiers here in Afghanistan. The incoming forces are beginning to arrive. And no, we do not anticipate anything greater than the number you just mentioned.
Q Okay. And in what you've been saying about the Taliban, I noticed that you said that -- correct me if I'm wrong -- that while they are getting younger people who don't seem to be well-trained, you did say that their recruiting seems to be effective. Why?
GEN. CHAMPION: No, and I should have used the word "ineffective." We believe it's now ineffective, in the sense that they're having to go out into the population, going to families in their areas -- past areas where they have worked and had a large presence, and essentially recruiting the younger boys into their ranks, the 14-, 15-year-olds. I meant "ineffective," not "effective."
Q But they are recruiting these younger boys.
GEN. CHAMPION: Yes, sir, they are.
Q General, this is David Wood from Newhouse News Service. In all the provinces you surveyed, you gave -- you referred to whether attacks on civilians and IEDs were up or down, and sometimes you used the word "significantly." I wonder if you could put numbers on those assessments and tell us, in each of the provincial areas you surveyed, what are the actual numbers of attacks on coalition forces and attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure?
GEN. CHAMPION: The numbers -- I don't have the specific numbers. I will tell you that the number of attacks have not significantly increased from this time from last year. We are seeing -- the number of incidents normally correspond with the summer fighting season coming out of the winter. What we have seen, however, is more attacks and more incidents with non-coalition forces. And part of that is, the majority of the attacks that you see are being initiated by our aggressive patrolling, and going after them. When this task force got on the ground in March, it was our intent not to give the enemy the opportunity to come out of the winter, get a chance to regroup, and then start attacking us. We went -- we got very aggressive from the first day we were on the ground. So the attacks you are seeing are pretty much initiated by 7-6.
Q General, Vicky O'Hara with National Public Radio. NATO General Gerhard Back -- today in Kabul -- said that he anticipated that next year, NATO would be able to extend its area of responsibility to cover all of Afghanistan. Do you share that assessment, number one? And number two, would U.S. forces -- any U.S. forces -- stay in Afghanistan in that event to perhaps keep looking for Osama bin Laden?
GEN. CHAMPION: I know that there is a plan for NATO to come in and assume control of Regional Command South during the course of next year. To be honest with you, I'm not able to speak to NATO plans as far as taking over the entirety of the country. And in conjunction with that, I cannot speak to the future force structure at this time, as to how many U.S. forces may or may not be left in the country.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go to Brian.
Q General, Brian Hartman with ABC News. Do you have any better idea of where Osama bin Laden might be today than you did maybe 90 days ago? And if so, can you tell us whether you think he is in Afghanistan?
GEN. CHAMPION: I cannot. To be quite honest with you, we have been concentrating and working on the folks that follow bin Laden's philosophy; his networks that are located or trying to be established here in Afghanistan. And that -- that's our primary focus. We do not have any additional information from 90 days ago as to the actual location of Osama bin Laden.
MR. WHITMAN: Rick?
Q General, Rick Whittle, Dallas Morning News. You mention the coordination with the Pakistani forces on the other side of this border. I wonder if you could elaborate on that a little bit? Are there in fact any joint operations, or how good is the coordination? And secondly, could you comment on a recent report that elements of the Pakistani government, the intelligence service, I believe, may actually be aiding the Taliban with training and other assistance?
GEN. CHAMPION: As far as the efforts of the Pakistan military on their side of the border, they have been very active here in the last few months, have been -- have approximately 75,000 soldiers on the border, are conducting operations up and down the border in north and south Waziristan areas, and are doing a very good job.
As far as our coordination with them, our checkpoints and bases along the border are in contact with their regional checkpoints and bases along the border, our counterparts of each other. Those local commanders have the ability to talk to each other, compare notes. And in the case of an operation we had during the last two weeks, we actually conducted a coordinated operation, where we both advised each other of what we were doing and attempted to set up blocking-type positions, that type of thing, in support of each other. It has been a long time coming to get to that level of coordination, and it's getting better every day. So we're very happy with what's going on with the Pakistan military on their side of the border right now.
As far as the -- your comment on the ISI aiding Taliban and trainees, I cannot address that particular issue.
Q General, this is Scott Foster with NBC News. A videotape purporting to be from al Qaeda's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri was released today. I'm wondering if you have any indication of when it was made, where it was made. And what's your sense of the al Qaeda leadership? Are they able to instruct other cells on attacks, or what's your assessment of what they're up to now?
GEN. CHAMPION: I'll have to be honest with you. I have not seen the tape or are (sic) aware of what you are talking about.
Q Can you speak broadly to the leadership of al Qaeda?
GEN. CHAMPION: In Afghanistan?
GEN. CHAMPION: Well, I mean, we've still got -- you don't have the central -- we're not seeing the central core leader, the dynamic leader that you saw in Mullah Omar. You now have, you know, more -- a number of two or three commanders and sub-commanders in there that are working around the specific areas that they're historically from. But you don't see -- we don't -- we have not seen that one single uniting Taliban leader to date.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, Jim.
Q General, this is Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse. On the role of Mullah Omar, there were reports, I think within the past month, that audio tapes that were supposed to be from him have been circulating, encouraging his fighters and stuff like that. What role, if any, do you all believe that he's playing in this current resurgence of violence? And a separate, slightly different question is, are you seeing tactics being used that appear to be imported from Iraq? And I'm referring to the greater use of IEDs and targeting of local officials.
GEN. CHAMPION: Okay. As to Mullah Omar, we do not see him as a factor and as the single point leader. In fact, in one or two communities already, local shuras and local mullahs -- in particular, in Kandahar City -- renounced the extremist position of the Taliban and even renounced Mullah Omar as their leader. So I don't think you see the popular support or the popular opinion that Mullah Omar is the leader of the Taliban now, except maybe amongst the remnants of his hardcore Taliban fighters that are still left out there.
As to the resurgence of violence, I get back to what I said a few minutes ago, is -- most of this violence that you're seeing, as it comes across as attacks and the numbers that you're seeing in contact, and the numbers of enemy killed -- in pretty much all of those instances, those contacts were initiated by operations conducted by our soldiers in these areas on -- where we are specifically going out in areas that we have not been in in a while, or we've had intelligence that they may be in there -- and going in there and looking for them and hunting them. And once we make contact, we fix them and we take care of business with them.
So the large-scale volume of attacks and violence, I think, is clearly being dictated by us and not by them. But there is -- there are the attacks that I've mentioned on innocent civilians, moderate religious leaders that have stood up and renounced this Taliban movement still.
And we have seen some tactics. In southern -- in Kandahar City in particular -- the use of suicide bombers on three occasions, once at the -- to kill one of the mullahs that did renounce Omar and the Taliban, and then a suicide bomber came to his funeral the next day. And the fact that they came in, entered a mosque, entered a funeral and killed these people during a sacred event like this, killing these innocent victims, that is something we have not seen in Afghanistan before.
Q Can I follow up on that?
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead.
Q Is there any indication that the use of that kind of tactic -- and also the IEDs; I believe that there have been a greater incidence of IED use in Afghanistan -- is being brought in from, you know, people with experience in Iraq? And I'm thinking particularly al Qaeda, as opposed to the Taliban.
GEN. CHAMPION: We have not seen -- well, we've seen an increased use in the IEDs. We have not seen -- but at the same time, with the increased use -- the increased -- we have detected more, we have uncovered more, discovered more. And in our case, which you're not seeing in Iraq right now, is the Afghan population have been key players in our area of alerting us to IEDs and, in fact, coming to get us and turning in IEDs and leading us to IED makers. So I don't see -- other than there's IEDs here and IEDs in Iraq, we have not seen that relationship between the tactics and techniques of the two groups in the two different theaters.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay, we're just about out of time, so let's take -- let's make this the last one.
Go ahead, Vicky.
Q General, Vicky O'Hara with NPR.
The State Department announced today that it was -- that the U.S. is going to start transferring Afghan detainees back to the Afghan government. Do you have confidence that the Afghan judiciary is able to deal with these people, or does this concern you?
GEN. CHAMPION: It -- well, I don't have the ability to make a comment on that. That is out of my scope and what 7-6 does here. That's a Combined Forces Command Alpha or Afghanistan responsibility to work with the government of Afghanistan and Department of State. So I'm really not in a position to make any comments in that particular area of the development of Afghanistan.
MR. WHITMAN: General, this is Bryan Whitman again. I just want to thank you once again for taking some time and spending it with us and giving us your operational assessment of what's going on in your area there. We appreciate it very much, and we hope that we can have you back again sometime.
GEN. CHAMPION: Bryan, I appreciate you giving me the time, and I would just say just one last comment. The people are working very hard over here. We're headed and we're in good posture heading to September the 18th, and we're going to have very successful elections here.
And, again, thank you for the time, as well.
MR. WHITMAN: Thank you very much.
Before you leave, I’d refer you to the release that came out State. You may recall that when President Karzai was here and met with President Bush, they talked about President Karzai's desire to return Afghan detainees to Afghanistan. And as a result of that, the United States has been working with the Afghan government to come up with an arrangement that would allow us to continue our ongoing efforts to transfer detainees to their home countries, as appropriate and when we receive the assurances that the countries can take care of -- take care and will take the appropriate steps to ensure that these individuals do not pose a continuing threat.
Today, they announced in Afghanistan, along with the U.S. delegation that was there, which was represented by -- from this department, Matthew Waxman, who is the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs; along with Pierre Prosper -- Pierre Richard Prosper, who is the ambassador at large for war crime issues at the State Department -- and the understanding was reached that will now allow for a gradual transfer of Afghan nationals that are currently detained by U.S. forces to the custody of and control of the Afghan government. This will require some assistance on the part of the United States, and we intend to assist the government of Afghanistan in building a capacity to detain these individuals, including ensuring that the government of Afghanistan has the necessary facilities and appropriately trained personnel to handle -- and the transfers will not begin until, of course, this capacity is developed.
So I can't get into specifics of timelines and things like that. This is the basic framework and an understanding that has been reached. I would commend the release out of the United States embassy to you for some additional information.
Q How many prisoners are we talking about?
Q Could we -- could you give us at least a ballpark figure of how many of the 500-plus would be -- could be affected by this?
MR. WHITMAN: I guess I can give you the "could be affected." This includes not only from Guantanamo, but there are also Afghan detainees that are held at our facility in Bagram. There's approximately 110 Afghan detainees under U.S. control in Guantanamo and somewhere around 350, I believe, that are at the facility at Bagram.
Of course, this is not unique. As you know, we've transferred some 70 detainees for detention and investigation or prosecution to other countries -- I think somewhere around a dozen countries -- and we continue to negotiate those type of arrangements with other countries, too.
So with that --
Q Thank you.
Q But is the arrangement -- I mean, are they agreeing to continue to hold these people, or is it going to be up to them whether to hold them or release them?
MR. WHITMAN: Well, the disposition of the detainees will be a decision of the Afghan government. As part of the agreement, the government of Afghanistan will take all the necessary steps and -- that are appropriate under Afghan law and international obligations to prevent these individuals from engaging or facilitating in terrorist activities.
Q What is their status under international law? Do you know how that changes when you hand them back to the Afghans? Does that mean they're like local -- is that like the same as being a local criminal? You're no longer covered by international --
MR. WHITMAN: I'm afraid you've gone beyond my expertise at this point. And not being a lawyer, I wouldn't want to try to practice it from up here.
All right. Thank you.
Q Thank you.
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