(note: Maj. Gen. van Loon appears via digital video imagery distribution system from Afghanistan.)
COL. GARY KECK (director of the Press Office): Okay. Good afternoon. It's a pleasure to be with you again. Welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room. I'm Colonel Keck, director of the Press Office, and it's my privilege today to introduce our briefer, who is Royal Netherlands Major General Ton van Loon.
General van Loon is commander of NATO's Regional Command-South in Afghanistan. General van Loon has been in command of International Security Assistance Force operations in the south since November of 2006, so he brings a wealth of experience to our discussion today. General van Loon's command includes approximately 11,500 troops from various countries, including more than 2,000 Dutch troops. This is his first briefing back at the Pentagon, and he's here to provide an operational update on the stability and security in his areas of operations.
I would remind you when we go to Q&A that General van Loon cannot see you, so please let him know who he's talking to and what organization you're from.
And with that, General van Loon, I'd like to turn it over to you for any opening comments.
GEN. VAN LOON: Thank you very much. It's not yet been a full year since NATO took command of Regional Command-South. It is easy to forget this as we measure progress that we are making in this part of Afghanistan. We are reminded daily by the media of the many acts of violence committed by the Taliban extremists who continue to pursue their ideological goal of preventing the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan of becoming a stable nation in the region.
Since NATO took over command of the southern region, it is my firm belief that through operations like Medusa and Baaz Tsouka last summer and into the fall and winter, Taliban extremists were seriously diminished, particularly in the Panjwai and Zari district of Kandahar province.
With over 10,000 families returning to their homes and reintegrating into their communities, this clearly constitutes success.
We look for these types of statistical facts and figures to demonstrate success, but in my opinion, they alone do not provide an accurate measure to determine it. Placing too much importance on such factors simply provides a false sense of progress.
What I have experienced in this part of the world over the last six months has taught me that the true signs of progress are somewhat less obvious. Success in southern Afghanistan can be seen by religious scholars and elders, who feel safe enough to freely express their disdain for Taliban militants and feel sufficiently secure to publicly state that Taliban extremists can no longer be referred to as Muslims, due to their ruthless actions, and this happened last week.
We experience success every time ISAF troops stand back after securing an area and witness local elders extend their authorities in this part of the country by holding Shuras in keeping with Afghan traditions, without the fear of intimidation by Taliban extremists. Signs of progress are also the ever-growing interoperability between ISAF and Afghan National Security Forces, as well as the positive capability developments of the ANSF over the months. In April alone, more than a thousand army and police personnel were deployed by the government of Afghanistan to Helmand province.
Finally, there are reports where the Taliban are being pushed out of communities by the people of Afghanistan themselves, with only a little help from ISAF and the Afghan Security Forces. The people of Afghanistan making the decision to support their government is yet another sign of progress.
There are of course the various stabilization operations we conducted over the last six months. Bringing increased stability can sometimes only be achieved through kinetic operations, as Taliban extremists are too fanatic for compromises. We therefore have and must continue to seize the initiative from the Taliban. We need to maintain pressure and continue to conduct stabilization operations in the south on our terms.
Currently underway but close to reaching its intended goal, Operation Achilles was launched close to two months ago to set the security conditions for one of Afghanistan's largest reconstruction projects. As you may know, the Kajaki Dam project, once completed, will not only increase electricity power for residents, industries and commerce in southern Afghanistan, but it will also improve the water supply for local communities and rehabilitate the irrigation systems for farmlands in the entire Sangin Valley. I am very optimistic that this operation continues to deliver the results we intended, and that it will not be too long now where Regional Command South can bring its focus elsewhere in the south.
Finally, I must mention that the multinational troops under my command have had many encounters with the enemy, and I can only praise them for all their courage and determination. They have demonstrated professionalism and restraint during the planning and execution of difficult and complex counterinsurgency operations. I commend them all and want each and every soldier under my command to know that it was an honor for me to lead them.
I will now take some questions if you want to.
COL. KECK: Al.
Q General, this is Al Pessin from Voice of America.
I understand there has been a new operation launched in Southern Afghanistan today. What can you tell us about that?
GEN. VAN LOON: That is not entirely correct. Operation Achilles is still continued. The only thing we have done today is to start a new phase in an operation involving a wider area in northern Helmand. So it's not a new operation. It's just the continuation of Operation Achilles.
Q General, this is Andrew Gray from Reuters.
I wonder if you could tell us, do you think the troop levels that you have in RC South are sufficient? And do caveats hinder you in any way from carrying out your mission?
GEN. VAN LOON: Yeah, thank you for the question.
It's certainly so that the more troops you have, the more the capabilities that you have, the more operation you can do at the same time. I would however say that there are a large number of very committed troops in RC South already. These troops perform admirably, and we are achieving quite a lot of effects.
And it is also very necessary to remind ourselves that it's not just the fighting soldiers, but it's also the SIMIC teams, the PRTs, and of course all the enablers from the Air Force and the aviation corps that make our work in RC South possible.
And we have a very good mix of those, so we can do very effective operations, but we can also follow up in developing the Afghan institutions, the Afghan government, the army and the police.
And concerning caveats, all the troops in RC-South are fully committed to support each other, and I've seen both in the operations in Kandahar, but also in Helmand, all the nations playing their role and doing so with great enthusiasm and with great multinational spirit.
Q General, this is Carlo Munoz from Inside the Air Force. I just had a question about current UAV operations being conducted by NATO. A recent report in February basically stated that NATO has not identified the number of tactical UAVs needed in theater, and to that end, NATO has also had difficulties with UAV availability as far as consistency with those aircraft.
I wanted to ask you, sir, how is your organization -- what sort of actions are being taken to kind of close these gaps? And in your opinion, how are those operations going on in the area?
GEN. VAN LOON: I believe operations like we're doing in the southern region, as in most counterinsurgency operations, do rely heavily on all kinds of ISR assets and, of course, unmanned vehicles are part of that. We are having quite some contributions from the nations in the use of UAVs, and we use them extensively to make sure that the troops do not get surprised. Of course the development of more of these capabilities would always be welcome. ISR is clearly one of the areas that NATO can develop more of so we can actually have more ISR platforms in the air providing us with better situational awareness in all the areas.
Q General, Nathan Hodge with Jane's Defense Weekly. As commander of ISAF South, are you happy with the lift assets and other equipment that member nations have contributed to your force? Is there anything that your force is lacking in terms of that, or close air support, other things?
GEN. VAN LOON: One of the resources that we could never have enough of in this very large country, very -- with very low infrastructure levels -- only a few paved roads, the rest are very bad roads or none existing at all -- aviation, therefore, are very, very important, and we can never have enough. It is clearly also something that we have to rely on the American aviation assets heavily. We're very glad for the Americans' support the efforts in RC-South with a large helicopter force, and we need them badly to be able to do the operations.
Q Yeah, this is -- (name inaudible) -- with the Journal of Electronic Defense. You talked about the importance of ISR assets. Are you noticing, are the Taliban, are they showing any advances in their technology or their ability to work around your ISR assets or are things working out well?
GEN. VAN LOON: Luckily, things are still working out well, although, of course, the Taliban realizes that we are on to them. But the enormous array of ISR assets available to us do make us effective against the Taliban.
Q Hi, general. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. Can you talk about some of the tactics that you're seeing the Taliban employ as far as attacks? What are -- what sort of the most -- a couple of the most common things that they're using? Are they using IEDs, small arms?
GEN. VAN LOON: The Taliban in the past has been using relatively large-scale attacks and relatively large-scale conventional operations against us. In Medusa, they tried to for the longest time at very high cost to them, and more and more we see the Taliban resolve to more asymmetric methods. And the IEDs, which you already mentioned, is clearly one of the biggest threats we encounter, both the pressure plate IEDs, but also suicide attacks are certainly some of the most common tactics they use. And it's obviously very hard to defend ourselves against it.
In this the Afghan authorities, particularly their intelligence agency, is helping us a lot in taking out the IED cells, is making sure that we get the IED facilitators, the IED makers before they can actually become effective.
Q Have you seen any trends in attacks recently that you can talk about? Are the attacks up recently, down?
GEN. VAN LOON: The trend is certainly towards smaller-scale groupings. We see them operating only in very small groups. The operations we have been doing here over the winter and of course last summer have been extremely effective, so we can now say that they resort only to very small-scale operations. That is clearly one of the tactics they are using, trying to stay in small groups, trying to stay away from the airpower and trying to fade away into the population whenever they can.
Q General, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. Helmand is a major poppy production area. In the past, I know that officials have said that they don't want to destroy the poppy fields because that's a matter for law enforcement. But is there another factor in your operations as well in the nature that you don't want to antagonize the local population as part of Operation Achilles? And if that's the case, can you expand on other ways that you are focusing more on the military aspects to try to win over the population?
GEN. VAN LOON: The whole narco industry -- and it's not just the poppy growing but also the trafficking -- is clearly one of the big problems that needs to be dealt with somewhere, but it needs to be dealt with in a very comprehensive approach. It cannot be something that ISAF does; it needs to be the government of Afghanistan in the lead and supported with real alternatives for the farmers. And of course it also then will have to involve dealing with the narcotraffickers, the narcolords themselves.
For us, it's very, very important that the population realize that we are trying -- that we're there to help them to try and make sure that they will receive an alternative, that they are not just deprived of the only income source they have with no alternatives.
The Kajaki Dam project obviously in Helmand is clearly one of those alternatives, and we need to make sure the population understands that this gigantic project will provide work for them so they can actually make a earnest living. But it will ultimately also produce capabilities for them to do better farming, do better irrigation, and it will also provide for the opportunity for small-scale industry and commerce to establish themselves and to actually on the long term provide a real, solid alternative, a good, solid livelihood for the Afghans.
Q Sir, if I could follow up as well. The level of violence you see in Helmand, is that mostly Taliban or is it a mix of narcotrafficking and narcotrafficking elements and Taliban?
GEN. VAN LOON: I would say that particularly in the Sangin area in Helmand, you have a clear overlap between the organized crime in the narco-business and the Taliban. The Taliban was obviously also to a large extent financed through the narcotrade, and it was one of the reasons why it was so very important that we did a good operation to make sure that both the Taliban and the narcotraffickers have been pushed away from the area so that we can now begin building a decent livelihood for the population itself.
Q General, this is Marcus Weisgerber with Inside the Air Force. You touched earlier on close air support, and my question for you would be, are there any types of new training that NATO JTACs are receiving and any types of new equipment that they are possibly receiving from the United States at this time?
GEN. VAN LOON: I'm quite confident to say that all the JTACs that are in the southern region have received really good training, training to the same standards, to the same very high standards, so we have outstanding JTACs and we very much rely on their capabilities and the capabilities of the pilots and their planes to provide support for us each time we need it.
Q Can I follow? Are those standards -- are those NATO standards or are those U.S. standards that they're training to?
GEN. VAN LOON: We have JTACs from all the nations. Every nation has JTACs down here, and these JTACs work with the planes as they come. So whether these are American planes from one of the carriers, for instance, or they are Dutch F-16s from Kandahar or British Harriers from Kandahar, it doesn't make any difference, the JTACs will be able to work with them seamlessly.
Q Sir, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. Do you have any information about the latest report that weapons from Iran have been found in Afghanistan?
GEN. VAN LOON: It's very hard to say something about that. We, of course, received the information that this might be the case. We cannot deny or confirm it. We know that there are some high-end weapons like the AGS-17, which has shown up in Helmand. Whether this weapon has been brought into Iran is for us very hard to actually be very firm about.
Q Sir, it's Nick Simeone at Fox News. What do you say to convince an Afghan poppy grower to switch livelihoods? What could you possibly offer that person that's going to pay as much?
GEN. VAN LOON: I think it is a misconception that the farmers themselves get rich on the poppy. The farmers themselves are making a livelihood of trade growing poppy, but the narcocons, the big men, they are getting rich, and they're getting rich over the backs of the population. So what we need to convince the people is that they can grow something else. Of course, you will then have to be able to open the markets, which is obviously more difficult with conventional products, but there are quite a lot of products that can be grown in Afghanistan that for the farmers would actually provide a better income for their families.
Just to imagine a few, you can grow almonds very easily here. There is a big tradition in growing grapes for the raisin production. You might actually know that before the Russian occupation, Afghanistan was the largest raisin exporter in the world. And we actually can convince them to grow stuff like that again instead of poppy, which makes the narcocons, the organized criminals and to some extent the Taliban rich and not the farmers.
Q General, it's Al Pessin again. Can you provide us any details of this latest aspect of Operation Achilles in Helmand province, and specifically, what the goals of this operation are vis-a-vis the Taliban and the crop, what the nexus is there between the two?
GEN. VAN LOON: Operation Achilles was clearly intended to reduce the Taliban influence in the northern part of Helmand, specifically in Sangin and the Sangin River Valley. We have now got firm control of Sangin itself, and we're trying to expand the area in which we have control over the coming days and maybe even a bit longer.
We're not specifically looking at the poppy crops now. It doesn't make too much sense anymore. The poppy harvest is almost complete in Helmand. The weather is already getting -- it's getting worse for the poppy; it's getting too hot. So if you want to do something about the poppy harvesting, you will need to go to look for next year.
Q General, it's Andrew Gray from Reuters again.
As you know, there's been a lot of controversy in Canada recently about their troops handing over prisoners to Afghan security forces, and allegations of no -- mistreatment of those prisoners. What can you tell us about that case, and what can you tell us about any measures you are taking to make sure that that kind of problem does not arise?
GEN. VAN LOON: We have a very clear ISAF policy on how we treat our prisoners and how we hand them over to the Afghan authorities, and we are keeping a very close eye on what happens to these prisoners. And we should continue doing so, and we should also be very careful about monitoring the police, the NDS, particularly also in this area. And that's all I can say about this.
Q General, this is Carlo Munoz again from Inside the Air Force. I just need some clarification on your previous answer regarding UAV operations in theater. Again referencing this February JAFIC (ph) report, it cites that ground patrol systems in NATO air defense and NATO air operations are incapable of dealing with several important UAS issues and situations, one of those being ground systems are not able to determine friend or foe forces when they're providing surveillance for ground troops. Again, sir, how is NATO going to try to overcome these problems and reach solutions in these shortfalls?
GEN. VAN LOON: It is, of course, very hard with a conventional UAV to distinguish between friend or foe, and that's one of the reasons why we don't necessarily only rely on the information from the UAV in any circumstances. On the other hand, we are -- of course NATO is working very much on establishing very good C2 relationships and very good situational awareness before we go into any kind of operations so that we know where our own troops are, we know where the enemy forces are before we actually use UAVs or any other assets to then go into a lot of detail so we can actually go for targeting. I would not think it is -- we are not using UAVs on a regular base in the front line unless we are very sure that we know where our own troops are.
Q General, Nathan Hodge again from Jane's Defence Weekly.
You mentioned cooperation with the Afghan National Army and police. Have you worked at all with your counterparts on the Pakistan side, and if so, in what capacity?
GEN. VAN LOON: Actually, we do. We have regular meetings with the Pakistani authorities on the other side of the border. This is actually working out more and more to be effective. We have a meeting where we now include the Afghan security forces in the southern region, so the ANA commander, the Afghan police commanders, the Afghan border police, and from the other side on the Pakistanis we have their police and their army that are deployed on the border. And together with us, we then meet and try to discuss how we can better control the area along the border so that we can actually keep better surveillance on it from both sides so that we can actually become very effective in controlling the border as well.
So I think with Pakistan we have very good cooperation. For Operation Achilles, we actually did a simultaneous operation on the other side of the border near Baramshah, where the Pakistanis increased their number of checkpoints, where the Pakistanis checked up on hospitals to make sure that if wounded Taliban would show up, they would also get that intelligence. And together with the Pakistanis, we've been very successful in disrupting particularly illegal arms imports coming in through Baramshah and also been very effective in keeping any foreign fighters coming in to Helmand at the same time.
COL. KECK: General, we appreciate your comments. We have come to the end of our time period. We'd like to give you the opportunity for any closing comments at this time.
GEN. VAN LOON: Thank you very much for the opportunity. I really think the multinational team that has been working in RC-South has made a great effort. We have American and Dutch soldiers fighting side by side. We have Brits and Canadians deployed in Kandahar on the combined operations. And I think we've actually made a big difference as a multinational team.
Thank you very much.
COL. KECK: Thank you again, sir.
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