(note: Maj. Gen. Freakley appears via digital video imagery distribution system from Afghanistan.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (Pentagon spokesman): Well, good morning again. I think we have good comms. Let me just check with General Freakley if he can hear me okay.
GEN. FREAKLEY: Is that Bryan? Good morning to you, Bryan.
MR. WHITMAN: I can hear you fine too, General, and welcome. And good afternoon to you. Good morning to our press corps. This is Major General Benjamin Freakley. He's the commander of the Combined Joint Force Task Force-76 [sic] in Afghanistan. He and his troops are responsible for the ongoing counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, and with the recent inactivation of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan, he's also the senior U.S. military commander in the country.
He's no stranger to our briefing room. This is the second time that he's done this for us. I think the last time was in March, so it's been a few months. And he has -- he will -- soon his troops from the 10th Mountain will soon transfer authority to the 82nd Airborne Division, and so with the perspective of all the time that he's had in Afghanistan, it's particularly valuable for us to be able to have some time and get your insights to what you've been doing over these many months.
With that, I'd like to turn it over to you, general, to give us an overview and then take some questions.
GEN. FREAKLEY: Well, thank you, and good morning to all of you in the Pentagon and welcome from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. I'm sure that many of you are interested in yesterday's confirmation by the Department of Defense that the 3rd Brigade 10 Mountain Division about 3,200 soldiers have been extended in theater for four months, and I'm willing to talk about that at length, but I'd like to talk a little bit more about the past year before we do that.
Progress quietly proceeds here in Afghanistan, and we see in this both counterinsurgency and in development. Reporting acts of violence continues to make news in the United States, but significant good news are often overlooked. The Taliban have not achieved any of their objectives in the last year, and by contrast the Afghan government, the international community has worked on infrastructure, getting more Afghans to work, more children into schools and expanding the government.
In the past few months, we have experienced a number of significant changes in Afghanistan. On October the 6th, Afghanistan completed its transition from the United States-led coalition to a NATO-led coalition headed by the International Security Assistance Force. Over the last two years, ISAF has assumed responsibility for security operations in five different provinces or regional commands: Center, North, West, South and now Regional Command East, which we command, which has 14 different provinces. We now have 26 NATO countries and 11 other nations that have staked their national reputation to the outcome in Afghanistan.
As mentioned, just five days ago, Combined Forces Command - Afghanistan deactivated, which is a second major change, and all of us came under ISAF for the counterinsurgency.
Finally, early next month, the International Security Assistance Force will conduct the transition of authority from the United Kingdom led under General Richards to the United States Command under General McNeill.
Today Combined Joint Task Force-76, as mentioned, is the senior headquarters in Afghanistan, and we, too, are approaching a transition for next week -- the 10th Mountain will change command of the CJTF-76 to the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, North Carolina. And without a doubt, this is one of America's best divisions and a great choice to continue this significant mission.
Over the past year, the United States forces and coalition partners have made great progress in the creation of a stable, secure and viable nation-state in Afghanistan, despite the Taliban's attempt to impede that progress.
2006 was without a doubt a year the Taliban hoped to achieve decisive victory by fracturing the 37 nations that are here by isolating the Afghan government and by seizing Kandahar as their stronghold to mount a campaign to topple the freely elected democratic government of President Karzai. They achieved none of their objectives.
In the 10th Mountain Division as JTF-76, we completed four major offensives, which defeated the Taliban and the terrorists that opposed this nation at every turn, and oppose those -- and defeated those who oppose a freely elected government and a government for the people. Instead of isolating Kandahar and isolating the Karzai government, the government has extended in its reach and influence to the growth and influence of provincial governors, who have taken over expanded responsibility to the stability and economic development of their provinces, right down to the district and peoples level. We have a grassroots connection to the Afghan government through the provinces, all the way back to the central government. Construction, education and economic development are indeed linked to security, and where there is infrastructure like roads and electricity, there are economic opportunities. Economic development brings jobs, and many governors and indeed Afghan people tell us that their greatest challenge is the unemployment, which has some men turning to the terrorists for employment, versus serving their nation.
This unpopular insurgency can only survive where people are kept in darkness. And given the choice and means to achieve new goals, Afghans embrace a new opportunity to better their lives and reject extremism. Indeed, the announcement of the addition of our brigade to the 82nd's commitment here, that 3,200 soldiers, and the recent announcement of a $10 billion aid package to grow the army and to help with reconstruction, has buoyed the Afghan confidence in both the American commitment to this nation and the international commitment to Afghanistan, and their ability to withstand any type of terrorist activities to try to take them back from the progress they've made the last five years. Mullah Omar has said -- (audio break) – Taliban has time, but they're quickly running out of time, from our assessment, as this government grows.
Recently, the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visited Afghanistan and asked General Eikenberry, General Durbin and myself what we needed to ensure security and stability, and continue to build on the gains that have been achieved by the American endeavor in the last several years.
We recommended an additional maneuver battalion in Regional Command East in the U.S. area of operations; a robust force focused on the border to intercept those and disrupt those who could come across the border, and help with training the Afghan Border Police; and a theater tactical reserve for the commander of the International Security Forces, giving him the flexibility to respond to any threat, and capable of offensive operations to strike quickly and decisively against any Taliban terrorist activity. As you know, the NATO organization is about 80 percent filled, so this tactical reserve, which has been on their -- (audio break) -- would be filled by this third battalion.
The extension of the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division immediately satisfies that requirement and demonstrates our commitment to seek long-term support to the Afghan people. And we also know that OSD is looking at a long-term solution to this increase in force. However, this force provides a current robust capability right now and gives ISAF the ability to continue to conduct offensive operations now and into the summer. The extension of 3rd Brigade Combat Team deployment to Afghanistan for four months is important to both our national interests and to the international effort here in Afghanistan. And while I respect and understand that the deployment extensions can be disappointing to our families at home, I know this is the right action to take at the right time, after having served here for a year. We've made significant gains in the past year, and this force increase will accelerate those gains in 2007. (Audio break) -- no longer on Mullah Omar's side. Confidence is growing in the government, in the Afghan National Army, in the Afghan National Police, and the international efforts here in Afghanistan. Overwhelmingly, the majority of Afghans denounce the Taliban and terrorism, and reject the idea of them returning to power.
The 37-nation coalition is accepted by the Afghan people, especially the United States. I've long since lost count of the number of times Afghan citizens have said to me, "We want America to stay. How long will you be here? Can you stay in our village?"
President Bush has committed, as has President Karzai and the Afghan people, to making progress in Afghanistan and defeating this terrorist threat.
In fiscal year 2006, we spent $83 million in the JTF on construction and development under the Commanders Emergency Relief Program. To date, in 2007, we've already committed $43 million, and the 82nd Airborne -- (audio break) – million dollars for their campaign. Over the course of this year, 525 schools have been built; and nationwide, United States Agency for Internal [sic] Development estimates that 5.3 million children are attending school, with about 2 million of them being girls. Five hundred and thirty-nine clinics have been constructed, providing 7.4 million Afghans improved access to health care.
As the enemy has become more desperate as we make these reconstruction and security gains, we've seen them move towards a desperate use of improvised explosive devices. In 2005, there were 865; in 2006 there were 1,745. But what you might not know is we've seized over 600 munitions caches, we've killed or captured over 250 IED operators, 50 of them improvised explosive device cell leaders. The enemy's IED success rate was so low that we saw the emergence of suicide bombers in late 2005 and increasing in 2006. And although there have been 142 suicide bombing attacks that have killed 15 coalition soldiers, they have killed 206 innocent Afghan civilians and wounded 460. This staggering rate of civilian casualties is proof to us of the callous and indiscriminate nature of the Taliban terrorists.
But we see increasing capacity across the board, especially with the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. Just this past Monday, a suicide bomber, whose likely target was U.S. forces at an entrance to an American base on Khost province, was stopped by an alert Afghan police officer outside the pedestrian entrance. The bomber triggered his device, killing two Afghan police officers, five civilians, and wounding an additional five. It's these acts of bravery and sacrifice by the Afghan police that demonstrate to me that Afghanistan is taking charge of their future.
With the Afghan National Army, just a year ago a selected few units were capable of conducting independent platoon and company operations, with even fewer capable of some small-scale battalion operations.
In the past six months, the 201st and the 203rd Corps have successfully conducted brigade-level operations, planned, resourced and executed on their own with only embedded trainers and partners providing support to them, like long-range communications, artillery, and air support coordination. The army has truly come a long way towards an independently effective field army. And our partnering, especially with the addition of a second brigade, will only accelerate that growth.
So, as I said before, we're winning, but the war's not yet been won. I can think of no better force from the U.S. Army than the 82nd to continue this mission. And like the 10th Mountain, the 82nd has been here before. The 82nd served as CJTF Headquarters from December 2002 to August 2003, and more recently they deployed a brigade task force to -- (audio break) -- 2005 to February 2006. Most of their soldiers are combat veterans of one or more deployments, many of them Afghan veterans.
Now, the successes that the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that comprise the current JTF have done a magnificent job, but it's not without a cost. We've had 71 that have been killed during this operation, 41 from the 10th Mountain Division. And their families also have sacrificed much for the mission, being away from each other for over a year. But our soldiers understand the task ahead; they understand what they have done in Afghanistan. Those who have been extended for 120 days, who I visited with today, understand the reason why, the importance to the mission, and are dedicated to seeing success here in Afghanistan.
I would now be happy to take any and all of your questions. Thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: Thank you for that very comprehensive overview, General. And we do have a few questions here, so let's get started.
Q Sir, it's Pauline Jelinek of the Associated Press. You've mentioned the increase in forces and the increase in funding. And it almost seems a little counterintuitive in some ways that we have to keep increasing assets that we're putting into Afghanistan. Could you sort of, in a big-picture way, talk about -- you know, explain to the American people why we keep needing more and more there. Different missions? We didn't put enough in earlier? Whatever.
GEN. FREAKLEY: Well first, I would say that this is a country that for 35 years was war-torn. The irrigation -- this is an agricultural country, and the irrigation systems that existed and made this a basket for both -- the Central Asia region was destroyed both by the Soviets and then by the Taliban. So there's a lot of reconstruction ongoing to get the irrigation systems back into place.
This was a country that -- (audio break) -- indeed, in the past year, our soldiers have gone from a CH-47 with supplies, to some humvees, to some gators, to some mules, to hand carry their equipment into the remote villages where we're providing security, because that's the only thing that ever existed was a small donkey trail. While there's been some $14 billion of U.S. aid in the past five years that have built a major ring road around all of Afghanistan, connecting Afghanistan, there is much work to be done to bring this country forward into the modern era. So the reconstruction efforts are critical.
As far as the army, part of that $10 billion that's been announced will go towards modernizing the army and the police, both growing the army larger than it is today, and the police force. In our clear, build and hold strategy, what's critical in holding are policemen, the man on the street that resonates with the local -- (audio break) -- militias that were controlled by a few tribal heads, to a respected police force that provides for law and order.
With regards to more troops, we have built a lot of capability and helped a lot in the last five years. But the addition of troops will dissuade those who would come to the sanctuary areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan and defeat them, and clearly demonstrate to them that we have resolve to see this through.
MR. WHITMAN: Pamela.
Q General, this is Pam Hess with UPI. Your audio has cut out on a couple of key parts, so I'd like you to clarify what you said.
You told us that you recommended the addition of a maneuver battalion in the East, that you recommended a robust border force, and a theater tactical reserve for ISAF. The 10th Mountain Division extension is for the theater tactical reserve for ISAF. What is the status of the maneuver battalion and the robust border force? Have you gotten the troops that you need for that?
And on the expansion of Afghani [sic] police and army, how much larger will it get?
GEN. FREAKLEY: To answer your question, the extension of the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain satisfies all requirements for the robust border battalion, for the theater tactical reserve, and for the infantry battalion to add additional capability to partner with the 203rd Corps in the central part of RC-East.
Is that part clear?
Q Yes, thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: Yes, we got that.
GEN. FREAKLEY: The army. With regards to the growth of the army, the army is going to move from -- (audio break) -- 32,000 today, moving toward an army of around 70,000. And we're at a police force today of around 45,000, moving toward an 80,000 police force. Now this is for all of Afghanistan, not just Regional Command East.
And I think many of you know this, but Afghanistan -- just Regional Command East itself is the size of the state of Georgia. So it's a hugely expansive piece of ground with no infrastructure, which makes it very difficult to get to these remote valleys and mountainous areas. For instance, today I have soldiers at 13,500 feet under four feet of snow providing security and defeating the enemy, working with the people on reconstruction, and keeping the Taliban out of this remote area in the northeast.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead.
Q And one more clarification. NATO, you said is 80 percent filled. How many troops is NATO short of their commitment? And what efforts do you have to get NATO to come through? Or is now the United States going to provide -- or cover that gap?
GEN. FREAKLEY: No, I know that the United States is working with the NATO countries in upcoming meetings to get the 80 percent fill in.
It's across the country. I don't have the specific numbers of how many troops are needed. One of those was the -- about thousand-man theater tactical reserve, which we have filled. But there are still other nations that need to contribute in other parts of the country, RC North, West and South, to meet wall of the requirements, principally additional forces in the south.
MR. WHITMAN: Jeff, go ahead.
Q Hi, general. Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes. You mentioned that IED attacks doubled from 2005 to 2006, from 865 to 1,745. Are those country-wide against coalition, U.S. troops and civilians, or is that just in RC East?
GEN. FREAKLEY: Those are the IEDs that we've tracked primarily in RC East, Capital and South. While there have been some IEDs in the north and west, they pale in comparison with the numbers that have been used against the ISAF forces in the east and south.
Q You describe this as -- this increase as an act of desperation. Can you please elaborate on that? Because it seems a sign, rather, of a growing insurgency.
GEN. FREAKLEY: Well -- (audio break) – attacked us in the last year in numbers as large as 200 on the 10th of January, where we killed 130 of them and probably wounded close to 50, from our analysis, to as you might now, when ISAF conducted Operation Medusa to the east of Kandahar in the Panjwayi area last September, where hundreds were killed. Every time the enemy has massed in this past year, they have suffered devastating defeats in large numbers and yet produced no or little to no casualties in the ISAF forces.
So we see them reverting to IEDs, indiscriminate IEDs, which I mentioned have killed more Afghans than they have our forces. And we take this to be a matter to try to keep up support behind the insurgency, to raise funds for the insurgency, and to raise fighters for the insurgency.
But we are -- (audio break from source) -- to defeat the IEDs as well, and see decreasing signs of them massing in formation because of the capabilities of ISAF and the Afghan National Army, which overwhelmed them in every battle.
Q Quickly follow up on that, how is this a positive development if they're going from battles where they're being wiped out to standoff tactics where they're killing us?
GEN. FREAKLEY: Well, I think firstly that in a counterinsurgency what we're fighting for is the middle ground, the people who want to determine where they want to put their trust and confidence. Do they want to have trust and confidence in the Karzai government, what they elected? Or do they want to have trust and confidence in the Taliban that would oppress them, keep those 2 million girls out of school, and keep them from being a progressive society?
Part of that is our respect for -- (audio break from source) -- lack of respect for Islam as they murder innocent children and civilians with the indiscriminate use of improvised explosive devices. I don't think the use of IEDs is a positive trend. What I said was that we have seen them, which we believe in desperation, move away from pitched battles, direct-fire battles, to the indiscriminate use of violence as an alternative means to try to continue the counterinsurgency, which we believe in the long term will turn the popular support -- will maintain the popular support behind the president.
This is not a popular insurgency. This is a forced insurgency, an insurgency of intimidation by the Taliban.
MR. WHITMAN: Mike.
Q General, Mike Emanuel with Fox News. We've been told that there was a airstrike on a command post in Helmand province that may have taken out a senior Taliban leader and some of his deputies. Do you have any other details about this airstrike, how significant of a person this was that you may have taken out?
GEN. FREAKLEY: (audio break) -- area of operation. That area is commanded by Dutch Major General Van Loon in RC-South, and I do -- I'm aware that the operation took place. I've been traveling today, and I'm unaware of the effect and who indeed was killed.
MR. WHITMAN: Andrew.
Q General, it's Andrew Gray from Reuters here. You mentioned that as part of the extension of your brigade that you will now take up that theater reserve duty. How will that make a difference to how your soldiers operate? And do you expect to be deployed anywhere in the country? Do you expect to move from where you are at the moment?
GEN. FREAKLEY: The theater reserve, the tactical theater force, this reserve is the reserve of the International Security Assistance Force commander. Once it's constituted -- we're having to move some forces around because of the arrival of 4th Brigade of the 82nd and the current force disposition of our 3rd Brigade, but once it is constituted, it is in direct support of the commanding general of the International Security Assistance Force, and it will be used and employed where he best wants to make a difference in Afghanistan.
His force, his choice for where he employs it.
MR. WHITMAN: We got time for one more, I think.
Q General, Kathleen Koch with CNN. You said that this is not a popular insurgency but a forced insurgency. How concerned are you, though, about the current trend with Taliban attacks up 200 percent in December? You mention the roadside bomb attacks doubling last year, suicide attacks quintupled last year, direct attacks tripled -- are you concerned that this is a trend? And what about this spring? We're hearing that the U.S. military is worried there may be a new and significant push by the Taliban come this spring.
GEN. FREAKLEY: Well, I'm not too worried. I have high confidence in the young men and women of America's armed forces and their equipping, training and leader capabilities that will overwhelm and dominate the Taliban at any turn. So I'm not too concerned about that.
Some of the reporting constantly has it seem of a Taliban resurgence and Taliban being on the offensive. Now, if I could get across one message today, I would say that in the last year, it is the U.S. force and the International Security Assistance Forces that have been on the offensive. We have been into more valleys and remote locations in the last year than probably in any area since this began in 2001. The great gains that were made in the first four years in the rural -- in the capital areas of Kandahar and Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul and out in Khost, and Jalalabad and Gardez -- we have expanded greatly out from all of those areas.
We -- this command extends from the northeast portions of Nuristan all the way down into the southern areas of Ghazni and Paktika, an area the size of Georgia. And we are constantly on the offensive, going into remote areas, finding the enemy, separating enemy leaders from the population and giving reconstruction opportunities, job opportunities and extending the government of Afghanistan, with the help of the Afghan National Army and police, into those remote areas. So we're building on our gains.
I do believe that the Taliban will try this spring and summer to do some of the things that Mullah Omar said they would last year. You may remember he announced that he would have a "summer of blood" and that he would take back Kandahar to spite the president, who is from Kandahar. He failed in that. So I think they'll continue to try, but innocent men, or not innocent -- misguided men will fail. And for the power of the few, many will probably be killed. We work hard at trying to get the Taliban foot soldier to reconcile with the government of Afghanistan and use his time to bring about a better way of life in Afghanistan.
This is proactive, not reactive. These forces that are now postured here are ready and able to carry forward the ISAF offensive operations that are being planned. The $163 million in CERP that the 82nd is bringing is proactive. The announcement by our government of $10 billion in aid over the next two years to help the army, the police, and reconstruction in Afghanistan is proactive. And I remain very optimistic about where this country is going and will go with international community assistance.
MR. WHITMAN: Well thanks, General. We have reached the end of our time. And before we close, I just wanted to give you an opportunity, if you had any closing remarks you'd like to make.
GEN. FREAKLEY: Well, I would just like to say how grateful I am for the support of the United States and the people of the United States for our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. We get unwavering support from the people. And we appreciate each of you telling the story of what the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are about here in Afghanistan. It's a mission that they're dedicated to. But we all are so very grateful for the American support.
Additionally, it has been a privilege to lead the 10th Mountain Division in this most worthwhile endeavor this year, and to see the Afghan National Army, and the Afghan National Police in particular, grow so much. We're very encouraged by their capabilities, their courage, and their acts of heroism every day as partners on this battlefield.
I'd also like to say that this year's going to be a great year, as last year was, for detention operations in the United States. You know, we often get talked to about detainee ops in a bad light. But this year we released 299 detainees. This year we are preparing to transfer many detainees under Afghan control. The United States has been building up Pol-e-Charki prison. We've been working with the Afghan National Army so that they're prepared to receive and have the detainees transferred to them. On the average, a detainee gains 15 pounds, makes about $250 in our jobs program, gets the first health and dental care they've ever had in their life. Most of them get a pair of glasses, which they're happy to be able to see better. Much to their chagrin, they're not able to read. Many think that as soon as they get glasses, they'll instantaneously be able to read once they get their glasses. We haven't quite cracked that yet. But we continue to work on reconciling these detainees to be good citizens of the nation of Afghanistan.
So thank you for your time today, and thank you for your support.
MR. WHITMAN: Thank you, General. And we wish you the best as you redeploy your division headquarters back to Ft. Drum.
GEN. FREAKLEY: Thank you.
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