(Note: Cdr. Adams and Governor Jamal appear via video teleconference from Afghanistan.)
COL. KECK: Well, it is 9:00, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Pentagon Briefing Room. I'm Colonel Gary Keck, the director of the Press Office, and we are pleased to have with us today from Afghanistan our briefers, Navy Commander David Adams, and the governor of Khowst province, Arsala Jamal.
Commander Adams and his personnel operate the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Khowst province and work closely with Governor Jamal to provide reconstruction, development and security for the people of this province, located along the eastern border of Afghanistan. Both Commander Adams and Governor Jamal have opening statements, and they will answer your questions.
Please, I will remind you again that they can't see you, so when we go into Q and A, let them know who you are and what news organization you're from. And with that, we'll turn it over to Commander Adams.
CMDR. ADAMS: Good morning in Washington. It's truly terrific to be here with you today with an Afghan patriot, Governor Arsala Jamal, to discuss something that's truly near and dear to our hearts, and that's the great progress we're making in terms of reconstruction and security in the Khowst province.
As a Navy submariner, I never thought I'd find myself in Afghanistan leading a truly joint, international interagency team, which is assisting the Afghan government as they lift their nation up after 30 years of war.
As many you know, Khowst is a strategic province. It's a strategic province because of its long history as a political and military hub, because of its long border with Pakistan and because of its former links to al Qaeda. Khowst is where the first -- (inaudible) – fell on al Qaeda training camps back in 1998, and less than 10 miles from our headquarters and Governor Jamal's office is the training camp where Mohamed Atta and several of the other hijackers trained. So for us, Khowst is one of the places where 9/11 started.
And so we expected it to be a really -- when I came, I expected it to be a really tough place to operate and work. But that's not what surprised me. What surprised me was the people, and the people of America need to know the people of Khowst are truly warm and welcoming. They're deeply religious, but they're not extreme. And most important, the welcome mat is still out for the international community. It's out for a partnership between the coalition and the Afghan government, and most important, it's out for a partnership between the Afghan people and the Afghan government to make a strong nation.
And so with that, today we're seeing great success in Khowst, and we're seeing it because of the formula that's working today. And that's because of good security cooperation, led by Lieutenant Colonel Scott Custer, in Task Force Professional, the maneuver element. They’re along with us -- they are living with and working with the people, and allowing the Afghan leaders to lead in the security effort. And it's giving very little room for the Taliban to intimidate the people.
The most important ingredient, though, is good governance. It's honest and earnest leaders, like Governor Jamal and all the directors and the security leaders in Khowst, which are truly not working for themselves, but they're out there working for the people every day. And that's the number-one ingredient.
And the final ingredient is adequate funding for projects so the government can truly lay that foundation for a better life and a strong nation for their people. And that's the ingredients that we're seeing.
And these things are mutually reinforcing each other, reinforcing and creating an atmosphere of hope, where the people are saying no to the Taliban and yes to the government, the tribes are saying no to the terrorists and yes to hope for their children, and the mullahs are saying no to radical ideology and yes to the Islamic republic, which is working for the people, with the people and by the people.
So it's really a terrific thing to see, an amazing thing to see in Khowst, the great progress we're making. We can't say what will happen tomorrow, but we know today we're having truly terrific success down in Khowst. We have many challenges ahead. We expect to face challenges. But the vision that's happening and hope -- that vision of good security cooperation, of good governance and of adequate funding is creating a vision of hope.
And it's an easy choice for the people when that competes with the Taliban, who allow intimidation, death and destruction.
And so the people are just saying no to the Taliban and yes to the government. And we're really passionate about it, because it's amazing. But I think Governor Jamal can speak to it even better than I can.
So governor, I'll turn it over to you.
GOV. JAMAL: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is my pleasure to be here. I'm Arsala Jamal, the governor of Khowst. And as Commander Adams referred to, Khowst got a very historical and strategic importance. It is located just across from North Waziristan – 84 kilometers sharing border with Pakistan. The province has a million population and one of the highest education level in the region, in the greater southeast region of Paktia.
Khowst got a great potential for becoming a trade and commercial center in the region, and can become a success story for the whole of Afghanistan. We are sharing borders with three -- with the two important region of Pakistan, which is North Waziristan and Kurram agency. And we are linked by roads which will be paved, with assistance of coalition forces and PRT, by end of this year.
Also importantly should say that Khowst is having another 10 to 11 crossing points, where -- (inaudible) or enemies can come into Khowst. And having knowing that the people of Khowst and the security and the coalition forces are working together, and they had great successes in the last one year, or during year 2007.
The enemy has also focused on Khowst because of its importance. And there's a saying in our region that if anyone nabs Khowst, they can nab Kabul. So the front of Khowst will be the front of Kabul. And that's why the enemy, during the history and now, pay great attention to have insecurity in Khowst.
We, in the last seven, eight months have been able to change the perception about Khowst. Khowst is no more an insecure region or insecure province, and this is being done by teamwork among all the players -- arrangement of security where the Afghan security forces and the coalition forces are living together, staying together, eating together and sharing same accommodations in the outlying districts. And this had a great success, and we believe that will be copied in other provinces.
Also with the recent increase in funding, we have been able to give people hope using employment and give them hope for better future. It's important that the people should see the change in their life, and that's why they will come and support the government. In Khowst, we have a great support of the people, and they are supporting the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. This is obvious from the fact that nowadays or today, we have no single district, no single village or single street being ruled by Taliban. No Taliban influence or center being created in any district of Khowst. Yes, we have suiciders and IEDs, which are taken very seriously by security forces present in Khowst.
Another success can be driven from the number of IEDs being deported by the people. Almost 60 percent of the IEDs reported by the people, and this shows that the people of Khowst are with the government, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and they're supporting the parent government.
In the last three, four months, we had a great success in project implementations. The funding we had in the last four months has been more than the funding we had in the last four years. In the last four years, I believe the funding or the attention was not given to Khowst, but if this current attention continues and the level of funding continues, I will be able to assure everybody, all international partners, our people, our government that Khowst will become a symbol of peace and become a symbol of success, and it will drive other provinces along with itself.
By saying such, I would like to thank the coalition forces, the international community, the people of Khowst, that they are doing all their best bringing peace and security into Khowst, into Afghanistan.
COL. KECK: Well, thank you, gentlemen, for those opening remarks and the information, and with that, we'll go ahead to start Q&A.
Q This is Kristin Roberts with Reuters. Both of you mentioned reconstruction projects and adequate funding for those projects; hoping you can tell us how much in reconstruction projects you have under way, what the dollar value of those projects is, and how much more funding you'll need to complete what you've already started.
CMDR. ADAMS: Due to the supplemental in Congress and good fortunes, over the last three or four months we've received $17 million in reconstruction projects in Khowst alone, and that has allowed us to pave 80 kilometers of road which we're working on, to do 300 wells, 29 schools, six district centers and 30 irrigation dams all throughout the province. And I also get the government officials out leading these efforts and showing the people how much they care about the people, and that's made a big difference. So that kind of funding really is where we talk about adequate funding to go forward.
Having said that, when we came in, the governor and his team -- what allowed us to secure the funding was they had a good plan. They had a $5 million plan, a $10 million plan, and we're into both of those. They also have a $25 million plan, a $50 million plan, and then a three-year $150 million plan, which will provide all the needs for the people, with that kind of funding, including drinking water for every child of Khowst, a room for every child to go to school.
An education is very important in Khowst, and the kids right now, there are 88,000 of them who sit out in fields and go to school. So that's where we stand right now on the actual project funding and the way ahead.
Q Three hundred what? I'm sorry. What?
CMDR. ADAMS: Three hundred drinking water wells to provide fresh drinking water for the families of Khowst.
COL. KECK: Courtney.
Q Hi. This is Courtney Kube with NBC News. Governor, you mentioned that the enemy has focused on Khowst in the past. Do you think that the enemy, specifically the Taliban, will continue to focus on your province? And if one of the conditions that you think that would have to be set for the people there to sort of accept the Taliban back, you know, for these training camps to rebuild -- I mean, what things sort of concern you about the future in your province?
GOV. JAMAL: Well, I said that the focus of the enemies in Khowst, because Khowst, compared to the neighboring provinces, has greater potential, and it can become a model for the rest of the region. And also, it's obvious that some of the big guys from the enemies are coming from Khowst, like Alla Ahkami (ph) -- he's from Khowst; he has been in Khowst for quite some time.
I believe that the enemy will continue to focus on Khowst as long as Khowst makes successes because in some of the provinces, the Taliban, in the rural areas, like we have -- there are more -- they have more freedom, where in Khowst, there is no village, like I stated, in those districts that have been ruled by the Taliban, so they can freely walk or move into those districts.
I believe that the reconciliation program announced by the government, where the government guarantees everybody to live in Afghanistan as long as they abide by the constitution of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. We have announced to everybody, we welcome everyone to come to Afghanistan, live peacefully, take part in the political process of the country, take part in the (inaudible) process of the country, and their freedom and their peace granted under the constitution.
COL. KECK: Courtney, go ahead.
Q Commander, how long do you think U.S. forces, coalition forces will have to stay in Khowst to help maintain the security that the governor has been talking about?
CMDR. ADAMS: Well, I can't really specifically say how long we'll have to stay. But what I can say is that right now the Afghans are taking the lead, and we're moving down the road to where it's total Afghan leadership, and that's step one. But there's a lot of reconstruction work to be done. On security, we have strong security in Khowst right now. So I think we'll be here for some time, but I think it's important that we stay the course and that we rebuild the country, and that's exactly what's happening in Khowst.
But the Afghans are leading. It's not coalition or international community leading; it's Afghans leading this effort. And I think that's the most important piece for the future of Afghanistan.
COL. KECK: Mike?
Q This is Mike Mount with CNN. You were saying that the Taliban don't really control any of the regions around Khowst at all, but you do have some suicide bombers and some IEDs. Can you kind of quantify what the intimidation level is among the population of the Taliban and how willing the population is to work, I suppose, with the Taliban, if they are doing that at all?
CMDR. ADAMS: Well, as Governor Jamal said a couple of times, there's not a single village or a single district in Khowst where the Taliban is welcome.
I do think that the intimidation tactics, the terror tactics, they have an effect on the people, but in general that's been a negative effect. Time and time again, whenever there is a suicide bomber, the people stand up, they rally against it in Khowst. They work very hard to help with security, reporting 60 percent of the IEDs.
And we've also seen a downturn for now in suicide bombers as well. There are a lot of civilian casualties from Taliban attacks, and that is having a tremendous negative impact for the enemy.
So with the great reconstruction progress, with the people standing up against the Taliban, for now we've seen those suicide attacks go from one a week back in the fall of last year down to less than one a month over the past five or six weeks. Now, we can't speak for tomorrow, but today we're seeing good success in this. And as the governor said, we're not seeing a single village where the Taliban are welcome at this point.
Q Can I follow up? Do you have any reason why these suicide bombings have gone down?
CMDR. ADAMS: Governor, can you take that one?
GOV. JAMAL: Well, the security arrangements they are putting in place -- we have two specific plans. One is supporting the city, the Khowst City, which will have controlled entry points. That reduces the number of bad guys getting into Khowst City.
And also there's an effort -- before the coalition forces were living in one area, where they were going out for patrols and other activities -- where now they are living in outlying districts, together with Afghan forces, and they're becoming more known to the area, to the region, with more exposure are taking place between the local population and the coalition forces and the Afghan forces living with them together. This has a great impact on bringing better security within Khowst province.
And also, if you look at the trend of the suiciders, in 2005 in entire Afghanistan it was not that high, but in 2006 it got very high. So now the government also has some means and procedures putting forward to reduce and to prevent this happening.
At the same time, I would like to say that the enemy in Khowst is very much disappointed, and it is difficult for them get a foothold there and have their activities.
There may be other reasons behind that, but this is what we can see and clearly mention here.
CMDR. ADAMS: And I'd like to say, we're not sure that that trend will last, but the most important thing is is that as long as the people are rejecting the Taliban and they're accepting this vision of hope that the government is giving them -- it doesn't matter how many suicide bombers they send, they don't have much chance of competing. When the people have a choice between a future for their children, of education, of jobs, of a government which supports them over terror that the Taliban is bringing, I think that's an easy choice. So it doesn't matter if they bring suicide bombers; the focus is on the people, and the people are clearly saying no to the Taliban irrespective of their efforts in the province.
Q Thank you.
COL. KECK: Luis?
Q Gentlemen, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News calling -- (chuckles) -- asking you a question here, sorry. With regards to the United Nations opium report, that report cited significant increases in the poppy crop in the southern provinces, where there is a large Taliban presence. Can you tell us about what is going on in your province with regards to this opium crop?
GOV. JAMAL: Yes. We have been able to make the poppy cultivation in Khowst zero. And this year, for 2007, we got into the 13 provinces of Afghanistan where the poppy cultivation is zero. Khowst does have an environment and the weather conducive for cultivating poppy, but the efforts of the government and the people made this one possible, that Khowst become zero poppy cultivated province, and we hope that will continue in the future.
The people of Khowst have said yes to President Karzai's call when he called on the greater Paktia to -- not to cultivate poppy in the province, and I think we are very much proud of that. And this will also reduce the activities against the government, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, because we believe that the poppy cultivation and terrorists are linked with each other.
COL. KECK: Kristin?
Q To follow on that, governor, can you tell us what poppy was replaced with, and whether or not that product -- is it being sold to international markets?
GOV. JAMAL: Unfortunately, we are not yet to that stage where our product will go to international markets. Yes, Afghanistan as a whole has a number of items that goes to neighboring countries, like the fresh fruit and dry fruits. But in Khowst, back in 2004, in 2005, there was some poppy cultivation, and also in 2006 it was reduced; in 2007 it became zero. But no, no other crops were replaced.
This is the normal crops the farmers are doing here in Khowst, like the -- mostly they're doing cereals. This is the major crops in Khowst.
But what you see in Khowst is a province where there's a lot of potential for agriculture, development. The Germans worked in Khowst in the field of irrigation and agriculture back in 1970s. And we had great successes, and the people of Khowst still remember the German projects. We believe that international intervention, international community intervention, in this sector will bring great and positive changes into the life of farmers in Khowst. And they will not cultivate poppy in the future if that takes place.
Q Well, governor, you sort of just explained a little bit about what my question was going to be. This Mike Mount again from CNN.
But how have you convinced the population not to grow poppies in the area? Around the rest of the country, this is a very difficult process, to convince farmers that, you know, the poppy crop is not the way to go. How are you doing that? And are you using your model around the rest of the country to work with other governors to try to get their populations not to grow poppy?
GOV. JAMAL: Well, first of all, I do not link poverty with poppy cultivation. It's not that we're small farmers, or extreme poverty will lead to poppy cultivation. It's the big smugglers, the rich guys, that are much involved and benefit from poppy cultivation, the smuggling, transportation and trafficking of that one. It's much related to security in an area where, if the government is present, if the rule of law is applied, the poppy cultivation is less there.
And in Khowst again it was not that a great number of farmers were doing that one. And what we have eliminated, what we have destroyed, that was less amount than what we have in southern part of Afghanistan, like Helmand and Kandahar. In Kandahar, in Helmand, also they have destroyed some fields of poppy, but we couldn't do it, all of it, because of security issues, where the government or the police could not go to all those districts or areas. We didn't have much personnel to go to those areas.
Where in Khowst we didn’t have this problem as a big problem. It's not that convincing, but yes the government and the international community will recognize that Afghanistan and the farmers in Afghanistan need assistance to rehabilitate the irrigation structure, to providing with better seed and fertilizers and to increase their farm production so that they can sustain their family and the farm that they got.
But it's not an issue of absolute poverty link with the poppy cultivation, it's more of security with the poppy cultivation.
COL. KECK: One more? Okay. We're almost at the end of our time, so gentlemen, let me turn it back over to you for some closing statements.
CMDR. ADAMS: I'd just like to say in closing that, as I mentioned in my beginning statement, this is the most challenging and rewarding experience of my military career, and it is for all the soldiers and sailors and the civilians working at the provincial reconstruction team. We see it in the Afghan faces every day. Every time we pave another kilometer of road, every time we open a school so children won't have to sit down in the fields and have an actual building, every time we provide a well so people will have fresh drinking water, we see the hope in their faces, and we see that because they're living in an environment which is more secure every day. There are still challenges, but it's more secure every day.
They have government officials which they can rely upon, and then they're seeing the actual foundation of their country, the development of their country right before their very eyes. And those things are all mutually reinforcing each other just to create an environment of hope, and it's tough for the enemy to compete with that. And that's where we think our success is in Khowst, and it's really a tribute to the Afghan leaders in the province and Governor Jamal.
So I'll turn it over to you, governor, for the closing.
GOV. JAMAL: Yeah, thank you very much. I would like to say that we have successes in Afghanistan, and this success has been shared by the Afghan people and also by the international partners.
The war against terrorism started in Afghanistan, and it needs to be won in this country. I think the international community and the Afghan people cannot afford to ignore this war and to ignore the Afghan people because this mistake has been taken place in the past. And we saw the very bad consequences of that.
So my request, suggestion and recommendation to everybody would be that Afghans, especially after the Iraq war, Afghanistan was again not the focus as this was supposed to be. It was again kind of ignored, and its conditions and the facts on the ground. During Taliban times, we had 25 kilometer of roads being paved. Well, in the last five years only 32 kilometers more roads were paved, and this year we are doing 84 kilometers.
When you see -- like Commander Adams says -- the new roads being paved, you see the smile on people's face.
And the people needs to be -- needs to see the changes in their life. If they see the changes in their life, Afghanistan will become a success story of war against terrorism.
And I believe the support given to Afghanistan in the last six years were less than any country, any postwar country, like East Timor, Bosnia and Iraq, of course.
So what we Afghans are suggesting to the international community is that we are all together in this war against terrorism. We are in the same boat. And let's look at the reality. Let’s look at the difficulties the Afghan people are facing. And let's everybody share this difficulty and give help to each other to win this war, to win this war in Afghanistan, so we can win the war in the entire world.
COL. KECK: Thank you, gentlemen, for those remarks and for all your successes, and we hope to hear from you again soon. Thank you.
CMDR. ADAMS: Thank you, sir.
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