GEN. BARBERO: Good morning. I'm Major General Mike Barbero, the deputy director for regional operations on the Joint Staff. And today I'd like to start providing you a brief update on the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan from the Joint Staff perspective, and then I'll be happy to take your questions.
In Iraq, our top priority continues to be reducing violence and providing security in Baghdad to give Iraqi leaders the breathing room they need to make political progress. We continue to support the Baghdad security plan. And as of today, of the five brigade combat teams announced as part of the plus-up, two brigade combat teams, the 2nd Brigade 82nd Airborne Division, the 4th Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, are operating in the vicinity of Baghdad as part of the Baghdad security plan. The third brigade -- as part of the plus- up -- 3rd Brigade 3rd Infantry Division -- is beginning its movement north from Kuwait as we speak. The fourth and fifth BCTs are also preparing for deployment.
In Al Anbar province, two additional Marine Corps battalions have arrived and are operational. And just last week, in response to a request from the MNF-I and CENTCOM commanders, supported by General Pace, the secretary of Defense made a decision to accelerate the movement of the 3rd Infantry Division's Combat Aviation Brigade to support the plus-up of ground forces in Baghdad. And I can discuss this deployment and the thought process behind it later, if you want to.
While it is still early and implementing this strategy will require sustained action over a period of months, we have already seen some positive indicators. The Iraqi government has completed the deployment of three additional Iraqi army brigades to the capital. These additional forces join the nine national police and seven other Iraqi army brigades already in the greater Baghdad area. The Iraqi government has affirmed that there will be no interference in security operations; all are subject to the law. And Iraqi leaders have lifted restrictions that prevented Iraqi and coalition forces from operating in certain areas. Now Iraqi and U.S. troops are operating in all neighborhoods, even those where operations were once restricted.
About half of the planned joint security stations have been established in neighborhoods across Baghdad; 19 of the 33 joint security stations have been established. And about half of the combat outposts planned for Baghdad have been established; four of 10 are in place.
So in terms of arrival of forces and rules of operations, progress has been made, and these forces are starting to have an initial effect.
Since the announcement of Operation Fard al-Qanun, overall violence has declined in Baghdad or remains slightly below pre- operation levels. Violence directed at Iraqi civilians has dropped by about a third of the averages before mid-February. Murders and executions against civilians, referred to as extrajudicial killings, have decreased significantly, somewhere in the area of about a 50 percent decrease.
However, high-profile attacks -- car bombs, suicide attacks, most typically conducted by Sunni extremist groups against Shi'a targets -- continue. However, the effectiveness of these high-profile attacks has dropped.
Finally, there are initial reports of a certain number of families returning to Baghdad.
In summary, while there are positive indicators, sustained success will require continued commitment in the coming months to create the security necessary to allow political and economic progress.
In Afghanistan, we continue to work alongside our coalition and Afghan partners, conducting operations to create a secure and stable environment for the Afghan people. I would like to take a few minutes to update you on Afghanistan and the military situation there.
Last year about this time, the enemy announced a spring offensive with the following goals: to isolate Kandahar; erode the Afghan people's confidence in their government, the United States' commitment and NATO's commitment; weaken NATO resolve; undermine Afghan national and political unity; and to set the conditions for the fragmentation of the south. Although we experienced some tough fighting through the spring and summer, the enemy failed to achieve any of their stated objectives, most notably failing to isolate Kandahar or remove the NATO forces or weaken their resolve. U.S. and NATO forces have continued operations through the fall and winter, and steady progress has been made.
In January, we announced the plus-up of an additional United States brigade combat team to Operation Enduring Freedom. This increased combat power will allow the commander of ISAF to increase border security, provide an operational reserve and to maintain both the operational tempo and the initiative.
The development of the Afghan National Army is also positive. Recruiting has been up 306 percent over the last year. Retention in January was up 56 percent. The AWOL rate in operational units is down 32 percent over the last 12 months. I was recently in Afghanistan and talked to one of the regional commanders, who said they want more Afghan National Army; they're in the fight, and they're combat multipliers.
Most recently, our forces have been participating in ISAF's Operation Achilles, which is the latest in NATO's continuing effort to stabilize Afghanistan. It is a full spectrum effort that includes reconstruction and stabilization, focused in the southern region.
In the Horn of Africa, we continue efforts to counter terrorist activities. We're enhancing regional stability by promoting military- to-military training, civil military operations and active engagement with regional partners.
Finally, I'd like to close by recognizing the continued commitment and resolve of United States soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines. It is their continued determination and sacrifice that makes this progress possible. While I've concentrated my remarks on Iraq and Afghanistan, I'll now be glad to take your questions.
And Bob, start with you.
Q General, a question on Iraq -- you mentioned the accelerated deployment of the aviation brigade.
GEN. BARBERO: Right.
Q There have been a number of other support forces identified. Are there additional -- beyond that, are there additional support-type forces that are being reviewed for by the Joint Staff?
GEN. BARBERO: Sure. If I could take a minute and discuss the way we do this and kind of give you the scale of requests with which we deal, at any one time, we have what we call 50 requests for forces in the process. That's when our combatant commander -- let's say, for example, General Petraeus -- says, I have a need for additional aviation, and I need, in my estimate, additional combat aviation brigade. That is passed through Central Command; it comes to the Joint Staff; we look at it.
And then we go to one of our joint force providers. In this case, for most of our conventional forces, that's Joint Forces Command. They assess it, come back to us with a recommended course of action which we analyze, and then take it to the secretary. Every week, we're in there with five to six to seven actions, specific deployments for everything from a dog team to a maneuver brigade.
As I said, it's a continuous process, and there are additional requests for forces worldwide which we're processing. I probably shouldn't, nor would want to, discuss pending RFFs, but there are additional requests for forces from Iraq. A lot of them are replacement forces. That's how we replace our forces, the same process.
And for the combat aviation brigade, that's based on an operational need. We don't generally tie that to the plus-up. For example, in 2005, MNF-I flew approximately 230,000 flight hours. In 2006, it was 320,000 flight hours. And this year, for 2007, we're on track for about 400,000 flight hours, so a clear operational need. When we were there in January, General Odierno mentioned I make -- I'm looking at requesting additional aviation. General Petraeus got on the ground, validated that request, and it came forward.
So long answer, but we do have a process. There are a number of requests for forces always in the pipeline, and we take them all to the secretary every week for approval.
Q I think your response was, rather broadly, that, yes, you have additional requests for forces and different --
GEN. BARBERO: Right.
Q But ordinarily, are there some that would be identified as supporting for the plus-up forces? I mean, the department has said there would be about 7,000 or so, total. Is that all played out? Or are there additional --
GEN. BARBERO: Right now, we think we've identified what's required for the plus-up. Now conditions on the ground are going to change. And we have only two of the brigades operational. The third one, as I said, is -- its leaders have just started moving forward. So as they arrive and the enemy changes and we change our tactics, techniques and procedures, there may be additional assets that may be requested.
Q General, can you tell us what the latest statistics are on the combat strength of the Iraqi brigades that are showing up? In February they were looking good at 75 to 85 percent, but John Murtha's been out saying they're at 50 percent.
GEN. BARBERO: I can tell you specifically on the first brigade that showed up, arrived at about a 61 percent operational strength. The second brigade that arrived was about 65 percent. And then the next one was 88 percent. And the additional ones that are coming, I saw a report today they're in the high 90s to over 100 percent strength. And so our assessment is the Iraqis -- this is the first deployment of large number of forces -- did some self-correction and the system and process is working better. But those are the strengths that I have.
Q And can you tell us which are those three? Are they part of the seven that were already there?
GEN. BARBERO: No, these are the three additional that are moving.
Q (Off mike.)
GEN. BARBERO: Over the last few weeks. I don't have the specific dates coming in.
Q I really wanted to ask you about Afghanistan, but let me ask you one quick Iraqi question first, if I may.
GEN. BARBERO: Sure.
Q You mentioned Iraqi families; you have some evidence they're moving back. How many people, how many --
GEN. BARBERO: Hundreds. In the neighborhood -- the numbers I've seen in reports are the hundreds. Initial reports.
Q Hundreds of people or hundreds of families?
GEN. BARBERO: Hundreds of families.
Q Can I ask about Afghanistan?
GEN. BARBERO: Sure.
Q Tomorrow is Afghan new year. That's a traditional time when the Taliban make their move. What is the information you're getting? What do you expect to unfold? Do you expect starting tomorrow a higher level of activity? And given the Taliban's statements about they're going to start an offensive, what does that mean about Mullah Omar? Is there any more urgency in finding him? What do you think his current role is? What role is he playing in coordinating and organizing the Taliban? Is he any more relevant these days?
GEN. BARBERO: A pretty simple question. (Laughter.) For the new year -- let me start with that -- we expect increased activity. I think that's the pattern that they've established and that's what we should expect, they'll try to disrupt the festivals and celebrations attendant to the Afghan new year.
As far as urgency to kill or capture the leaders, absolutely. As far as the effectiveness of individual leaders, I do not have information on that. I'm not sure if there's been any dramatic change. But we are going after them.
And then the last part of your question about their spring offensive, I think the Operation Achilles, which I highlighted, is designed to maintain the initiative and to blunt any of the enemy's offensive. And as I said, it's focused in the south and along the border areas. And improved security -- its goals are improved security, improved economic prosperity, major infrastructure repair and a demonstrated commitment to the people by the government of Afghanistan for the long run.
So do we expect increased enemy activity this spring? Yes. Are we out in front of them to take the initiative, maintain the momentum? Absolutely.
Q Do you have any new operations plans?
GEN. BARBERO: All the time there are new operations being planned, but I'm not going discuss them.
Q General, you mentioned two additional Marine battalions for Anbar. Do you expect any more Marines there? I know the 15th MEU is slated to come out on the 30th. I believe there's an RFF in for that as -- give us an update on that.
GEN. BARBERO: I really don't want to discuss pending RFFs or RFFs that are in the system, because we have not done our analysis that I talked about and have not presented those to the -- through the chairman to the secretary for a decision.
But we're responsive to the commanders on the ground. General Petraeus has been there six weeks --
Q Right. But we know the 15th MEU is leaving the 30th. They will be replaced by additional Marines?
GEN. BARBERO: I'm not sure what the flow will be of that yet.
Q The other thing you -- if you could clarify, on the Iraqi brigades in Baghdad, the total number there now -- and I believe it's 18 total Iraqi brigades for Baghdad -- could you just give us the figures and when you expect them all to show up in the capital?
GEN. BARBERO: I can give you some numbers of forces. I think we had seven brigades operating in the Baghdad area already, and we've -- and the government of Iraq has committed three more, which have arrived.
There is a plan to rotate those units -- those Iraqi army units out after a certain period, in order to get more units in, trained and deploying and in operations within Baghdad.
Q So I think the president said 18 Iraqi brigades -- I believe those are army and police -- in Baghdad. Do we know when the total 18 will show up?
GEN. BARBERO: I think most of them now are there. I don't have a breakout of numbers of brigades by type of security force, but we can get that to you.
Q You said nine, that there are nine national police brigades. (Off mike.)
GEN. BARBERO: I'm not sure on the math. I'll have to get back to you on them, what the math is on the number of Iraqi brigades.
Q General, you had said you expect increased activity in Afghanistan with the Afghan new year. Can you elaborate? What -- to what extent do you expect increasing activity?
GEN. BARBERO: Well, I think if you look at recent patterns in Afghanistan, small-arms fire is still the main weapon of choice by the enemy. But we have seen an increase in suicide bombings over the last six or so months.
However, the effectiveness of these suicide bombers have -- they've been relatively ineffective. About 85 percent of them fail to achieve their desired effect either with the target or casualties. So I think we can expect some direct-fire attacks and possibly some additional suicide attacks, but that's just based on trends and historical analysis and how they're operating.
Q What's your guys' figure in Iraq? I mean, what's the figure in Iraq for --
GEN. BARBERO: I don't have a specific percentage of how effective or ineffective they are, just a general assessment that they have been more ineffective lately since we've started this operation. But they always garner, you know, coverage, and the information effect of them are pretty dramatic. You know, this past weekend, we had the chlorine incidents. Again, we assess those as relatively ineffective; however, that is an emerging tactic that we're seeing.
Q General, a follow-up on the chlorine.
GEN. BARBERO: Sure.
Q You called it "relatively ineffective." It did sicken hundreds of people over the weekend. Do you consider this to be a tool that's going to be of increasing use in Iraq and do you think that it's something that might be exported to Afghanistan?
GEN. BARBERO: We think it will be continued to be exercised in Iraq. The chlorine is readily accessible. And we've had a number of these -- just checking my notes -- you know, over the weekend, we had three suicide bombers detonate trucks loaded with chlorine in Al Anbar province, and since late January, there have been three others, so six within the last few months.
Most of the attacks have been in Al Anbar province. The ones this weekend -- if not all then two of the three were stopped at a security checkpoint, either at a(n) access control point or a coalition checkpoint. And that's why I was saying "ineffective"; they were stopped there and detonated in the vicinity of those.
We expect them to continue. They're going to exploit every opportunity they can to, you know, slaughter innocent Iraqis, and so we expect it to continue. The question is, why Al Anbar? Why are we seeing this? And I think a reason is the relative success and some progress we've made in Al Anbar province; the tribal leaders, as they push back and fight back against al Qaeda in Iraq; and al Qaeda in Iraq's murder and intimidation campaign has backfired. So maybe they're trying a different tactic in order to achieve their end.
Q The families -- you mentioned families, hundreds of families beginning to move back. Are these predominantly Shi'a families, Sunni families? Is it mixed?
GEN. BARBERO: I think -- I don't know. It's just -- one report I saw from in theater -- you know, an indicator -- hundreds of families were moving back, and I'm not sure what their exact composition is.
Q (Off mike) – which neighborhoods, is this in Baghdad?
GEN. BARBERO: In Baghdad. And I don't have exact breakout of neighborhoods.
Q You mentioned the combat outposts. You said four of 10?
GEN. BARBERO: Yes.
Q And my understanding was that there were in Ramadi the combat outposts they have, I think, some 40 there. I mean, are there plans eventually to make many more for Baghdad, it being such a sprawling city?
GEN. BARBERO: I think -- I'm not sure. I couldn't answer that. I know that we have established these, and these are manned by both coalition and Iraqi army units.
Q (Off mike.)
GEN. BARBERO: I'm sorry. The combat outposts.
Q Is that different than joint security stations?
GEN. BARBERO: Yes. Joint security stations are Iraqi-led command-control nodes, which coordinate activities between coalition forces, Iraqi army, Iraqi national police and Iraqi police units in each of the -- in the 10 districts. Combat outposts, we go and occupy a piece of terrain and establish a presence and maintain that presence to get a foot-hold and live and work in these neighborhoods. And you know, people will say, well, that'll increase the amount of contacts you have, and yes, it will and -- because we're out there operating. But it's also increased the amount of tips.
When I was in Iraq, two of the metrics I use for how we're doing are: Are we getting recruits for the Iraqi security forces, and the second one is how we are doing on tips from the local population. I think that's key because that tells you they've invested, they've made a decision. And in February, since the start of this operation, we've had the highest number of tips from the Iraqi population in Baghdad than we've ever had; a lot of these coming in to these outposts and these other positions. So I think that's important.
Q (Off mike) -- to take the brigades that are based at Camp Liberty and elsewhere and move them on to these combat outposts. To what extent -- you know, what percentage of the force do you hope to base at these combat outposts after you're done?
GEN. BARBERO: Yeah, I'm not sure of the exact size, whether it's a company, it's not going to be an entire brigade -- will move into these and nor will the entire brigade populate combat outposts because they have areas in which they're patrolling. We're joined with these Iraqi units. As these additional brigades come into Baghdad, they will either be employed in Baghdad or the belts around the Baghdad to help secure the population. So it's not the entire brigade. I'm not sure what the plan is for the future.
Q General, have you seen -- since the U.S. made this priority to go after the EFP networks, have you seen any change in the rate that you're finding those EFPs in Iraq? You know, it started last fall.
GEN. BARBERO: Right.
Q Have you been tracking that and have you seen anything?
GEN. BARBERO: I have not seen a change in the rates of which we're finding EFPs. I know in MND-North -- I think General Mixon may have briefed you a couple weeks ago -- they found a large EFP cache, something of 100, 120 EFPs. They're still there, still prevalent. We think there's still a link between machining of the key components of those EFPs and Iran. And you know, EFPs are designed for one thing -- to penetrate armored vehicles and kill their occupants.
So it's very serious, and we're going after them hard, as you can imagine.
Q Just to clarify, you say you haven't seen -- do you mean that the rate has been constant or it's --
GEN. BARBERO: No, I just don't know. I have not tracked that. Let me rephrase that.
Q Yes, General, can you tell us about how many tips you have had? You said there was an increase. And also, can you tell us a little bit about the effectiveness? Is it getting any better? Is the info better?
GEN. BARBERO: I do not have the exact number. I just saw the report there where it's been the highest they've seen. And the intelligence is getting better. We're conducting, you know, hundreds of raids. But I don't have a measure of effectiveness for you on those.
Q General, the combat aviation unit and the combat support units, will the plus-up be completed by the end of May, as was announced, or will it likely extend into the summer?
GEN. BARBERO: The third brigade is moving north now. The fourth and fifth brigades, of the five brigades promised, are on schedule to deploy in April, May, and then move up on about the same timeline, about 30 days after they arrive in Kuwait, get their equipment, do some training, they'll move up and become available to the commander of MNF-I for his use. So it is on schedule, and I've not heard any -- just checked this morning.
Q But at what point is it fully deployed?
GEN. BARBERO: We will have all five brigades in the vicinity of Baghdad operational sometime in June.
Q General, you mentioned progress on the surge and violence being down, et cetera. But it doesn't seem like the casualty rate for American troops has come down. To what degree do you believe that that does not constitute progress in the surge? If the price for securing Baghdad means more American casualties, do you think that's still progress?
GEN. BARBERO: One casualty is tough to take, and we take each one seriously. And I'm, you know, obviously not trying to make light of casualties as an insignificant statistic because it's absolutely significant. But we have in al Qaeda in Iraq and their associated forces, they're determined to continue to take the fight in a variety of ways: attacking coalition forces, they are still doing that and we're still seeing the attacks on coalition forces and we have not seen a let-up in that. But they will change their tactics.
And I'd just like to share with you a recent tactic which they employed this weekend. As our checkpoints and control points have been more effective, as they try to execute these high-profile attacks with these vehicle-borne IEDs in Baghdad, we're stopping a lot of them at these checkpoints and they're not getting to the intended target.
A technique we saw this weekend is we saw a vehicle with two children in the back seat come up to one of our checkpoints, get stopped by our folks. Children in the back seat lower suspicion. We let it move through. They parked the vehicle. The adults run out and detonate it with the children in the back.
So the brutality and ruthless nature of this enemy hasn't changed. I mean, they are just interested in slaughtering Iraqi civilians to meet their ends. So will they continue --
Q (Off mike) -- that incident? One incident?
GEN. BARBERO: One incident of this, in Baghdad.
GEN. BARBERO: Do not -- I'm not sure.
Q Can you get that for us?
GEN. BARBERO: Sure. Okay.
Q When you say that that's a new tactic, is that the first time that you've seen it?
GEN. BARBERO: The first time I've seen a report of it. But, you know, I've long answer your question; they will continue to attack coalition forces. These folks are going to resort to this, they're going to continue to attack us.
Q You mentioned that U.S. forces had conducted hundreds of raids in recent, based on tips. Is that a metric you track, the number of raids, of offensive actions like that, and if so, could we have access to that?
GEN. BARBERO: Not here. I try not to track specific tactical actions -- number of raids, checkpoints and things like that. Mostly we assess trends, how we're doing on supporting the force, supporting the commanders on the ground, but we do not track that here, that number.
Q As you know, Muqtada al-Sadr, there were reports that he was in Iran. Does that still seem to be the case? And what do you think is the significance of his departure from the country? And are you concerned about the splintering of his forces?
GEN. BARBERO: Concerned about what?
Q The splintering of his forces.
GEN. BARBERO: We agree with the assessment from our leaders in Iraq that he still is in Iran, still in communication with his leaders. And we're still concerned with the ability of his followers. However, there's been a pretty dramatic change in Sadr City over the last few weeks. We're able to operate freely in there. We have joint security stations established, a medical clinic, and we're operating freely in there, where before we were not.
We welcome participation by him and his followers in the political process. Anybody who wants to engage in furthering the security of Iraq is welcome. Anybody who attacks coalition forces or contributes to the instability of Iraq, we'll conduct deliberate operations against them.
Q When you say you're still concerned with the ability of his followers, can you elaborate on that?
GEN. BARBERO: I think where we are with the leaders of his movement is at a pretty delicate point, and I probably don't want to talk any more about his followers, where we are in our relationship with them.
That's probably best left unsaid.
Q What trends have you observed over time about al Qaeda in Iraq in terms of their ethnic or their nationality composition and where they're getting their funds, over time?
GEN. BARBERO: I'm not sure I can answer that.
Q You don't know or --
GEN. BARBERO: I'm not familiar with it, and I'm not sure in this forum would be the right place to answer it.
Q General -- (off mike) --
GEN. BARBERO: Let me just go here for a second.
Q Can you point to any concrete gains that have been made in Operation Achilles?
GEN. BARBERO: Operation Achilles. Violence is down.
Q Any numbers --
GEN. BARBERO: I don't have numbers. We have increased cooperation with the tribal elders. Attacks are down in the area in which we're operating. But other than that, I don't have any metrics for you.
Q And when we were in Baghdad last week, commanders were saying that they don't have enough intelligence help to deal with all these tips that are flooding in. Is that still a problem? Do you have enough people to deal with the tips, or is that a shortage --
GEN. BARBERO: I'm not sure. If they said that, then I'll have to go with what the commanders on the ground said. I don't have a feel for that.
STAFF: Let's make Barbara's clarification the last one.
Q I think you said that the U.S. welcomes -- I think that was your word -- political involvement by al-Sadr and his followers. Yet --
GEN. BARBERO: No, I think -- let me clarify that. We welcome participation by anybody in the political process who contributes to the stability of Iraq and the security of the Iraqi people. And I don't want to mention him specifically. If I did, then I shouldn't have.
Q Okay. Well, what is -- from the standpoint of the U.S. military, what is his status at the moment? Do you consider him still responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and someone you want to have brought to some sort of justice? Or do you consider him not liable for any particular criminal act?
GEN. BARBERO: I'm not sure what his -- how we consider or would want to characterize his status.
In closing, just let me leave a couple points. The effort to improve security in Iraq will take time and determination. And the way ahead in Iraq, you know, make no mistake, will be challenging, and we need to take a long-term view. But we absolutely believe the mission is achievable, and we're committed -- remain committed to this mission.
Thank you very much.
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