MODERATOR: Well, good morning and welcome. Allow me to introduce to you, it's always my pleasure to welcome back to the briefing room, Major General David Rodriguez, somebody who is no stranger to most of you. He is the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force 82 in Afghanistan. He and his troops are responsible for security and stability operation in NATO's Regional Command East. He is the senior U.S. commander in the country.
General Rodriguez is also responsible for the ongoing counterterrorism operations there. I believe this is the third time he's joined us in this type of a format, since he assumed command back in February.
And General Rodriguez, again, welcome to the briefing room and thank you very much for doing this.
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Well, thank you very much and good morning from Bagram, Afghanistan. And as he said, I'm Major General Rodriguez, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force 82 and Regional Command East. And thank you for the opportunity to give you an update on what's going on here in Afghanistan.
This year has been an interesting year in Eastern Afghanistan. We've seen steady progress in Eastern Afghanistan throughout the year. The government, of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and the Afghan national security forces have made significant steps forward, as they have increased their capacity and capabilities since we arrived here in January 2007.
The Afghan national army is showing an increased capacity to lead, especially the 203rd Corps in Eastern Afghanistan. This capacity, combined with better equipment, is reducing casualties in the ANA soldiers on the battlefield. And just recently we saw the first ever Afghan national army aerial medical evacuation, and this may seem like a small step. For an army that has never had that capability in its history, it represents a giant step forward, and is one of the longer-term support operations that they are going to need to develop to be able to operate independently.
We also operate with two national Army Kandak Battalions, commando Kandak Battalions. They've recently been employed multiple times here in Regional Command East. And they've successfully conducted several missions, and continue to set the standard for the Afghan army. They're professional; they're well-led; they're well- disciplined. And they're really setting the standards for the rest of the Afghan national army.
The Afghan national police has continued to expand its capacity. And while it has a significantly longer way to go than the ANA, it continues to move. We've also implemented a focus district development plan, where we put all the effort into one district and get the ANP, the police, up to standards and then return them back to their district. And it's increased their ability to perform their missions.
The Afghan national civil order police are also very highly respected. They're like a national police, and we've put them in place of the district police as we've moved them, the district police, back to a central location, to train them. And then when they get trained, they replace the national police there. And we continue to work to get the ANP up to the same level as the ANA, and they've been doing that very well.
As far as the governance, that's continued to improve. The independent director of local governance has made some positive changes there, and that has had a positive effect on good governance throughout Regional Command East. As far as the development line of operation, the roads and the schools and the health clinics have continued to improve throughout the entirety of Regional Command East, and it is jump-starting the economy in many places. And that's -- I'll stop there and take your questions now.
MODERATOR: Very good. Well, thank you for that overview. And we'll go ahead and get started with Bob Burns.
Q General, Bob Burns of AP. We recently hear most about the counterinsurgency mission. And I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the counterterrorism mission in the eastern section; in terms of how many forces do you have devoted to that part of the mission, are you seeking additional forces for that part of the mission, and can you give us any examples of achievements that you've had in the counterterrorism lately?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: They're about -- a third of the forces of the Combined Joint Task Force-82 are focusing on that mission. And we continue to keep the pressure up on the terrorist networks in Afghanistan. And the terrorists out there are mixed in amongst the insurgents, so that continues to be a challenge. But we continue to keep the pressure up and make a difference in both the counterinsurgency and the counterterrorism fight.
Q Could you address the other questions that I --
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: (Off mike) -- for any more soldiers in that fight.
Q Did you hear what he said?
MODERATOR: (Off mike.)
Q Could you repeat the last part of your answer? And also could you explain a little more about who the terrorist enemy forces are that you referred to as being mixed among the insurgents? Who exactly are they? Are they al Qaeda or are they other groups?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Okay. There are several groups that fit the description of a terrorist. The leading one among those is al Qaeda, and we are seeing an increase in cooperation between the insurgents as well as the terrorists led by al Qaeda. They are increasing in their coordination as well some of the resourcing of operations. And they continue to evolve, so that sometimes it's difficult to tell who's doing what.
Q Can you be specific about any other groups? Are there any foreign groups that you would categorize as terrorists besides al Qaeda?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: The LET [Lashkar-e-Tayyiba], the TNSM [Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi] and the -- they're the major ones. There's also a new one called TTIP [Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan]. And again, they're cross-fertilizing their tactics, techniques and procedures, and also, again, getting resourcing mainly from al Qaeda, who is the central player in the terrorism equation.
Q Could you help us understand what TTIP and the other acronyms stand for.
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: It's a -- no, I'll get those to you later, but it's -- I can't even remember the exact name of it. It's the Tariq -- no, I don't know the exact name of them, Bob. But I'll get them to you.
Q (Off mike) -- are foreign groups?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: It's been about 40 percent less than it has been in the dead of the summer, and it was last -- this January was less than -- actually, it was last January, so that's been the first time where we've had less this year than they were at the same time last year.
Q Thank you.
MODERATOR: Let's go over to Joe.
Q General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. What can you tell us about the steady progress that you talked about in your opening statement regarding your cooperation with the local tribes in the East and especially the Pashtun one?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, the progress in the governance has been a result of many of the district and provincial governors who have coordinated and cooperated and communicated with the tribal leaders to help connect the people to their government. And the -- the good governors and the sub-district governors who are able to do that have been very, very effective. It's also a matter of what they deliver to the people, and as they're able to deliver the roads, the schools and the health clinics and those type of services, clean water, and things like that that are what the people need, the tribal leaders have then supported their government more and more.
So that's where we see the biggest increase in the ability to connect the government to the people and also how the governors and the sub-district governors have coordinated with the tribal leaders to be participants in their government.
Q General, it's Mike Mount with CNN. Last time you were here you told us you were expecting no spring offensive in RC East. Are you still confident -- maybe this is too premature to ask -- but are you still confident that's the case? And as spring does approach, what are the challenges in RC East that you're going to face?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Well, in RC East, the offensive is really going to be executed by the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government.
As we head toward every spring there, there's always a -- you know, an increase in operations all throughout the border region here, but the Afghan army has increased its capacity. The Afghan government has -- so a big part of that offensive is the schools. There'll be many, many more kids in school that there were last year. That continues to increase and be a huge success story. Ninety-eight percent of the boys in RC East now go to school, and 68 percent of the girls, and we hope to increase that next spring in conjunction with the Minister of Education.
Also, of course, when -- after the winter season ends, there is a tremendous amount of construction and building going on that also employs a lot of the workers throughout Regional Command East. So I think all those are components of the offensive that the Afghan government will have going on this spring.
Challenges in the spring, here in RC East, one of them each year is floods. Each year as the snows melt, there are several lowlands that are challenged by floods. Two years ago, we, the coalition forces, did most of that relief effort to take care of that. Last year, it was a mixture. And this year, we're really just going to support when we're needed. The Afghan government has taken that planning effort on, and we're really in a support mode at this point, but that's always a challenge in the spring with the floods.
Q General, good morning. This is James Meek from the New York Daily News. I've got a question I want to ask you about a specific location, a specific base in RC East right on the border across from Miran Shah. That's Lawara, home of Fire Base Tillman. Al Qaeda since -- and the Haqqani networks of 2005 -- has tried to overrun the base a couple of times. They've put out something -- I've almost lost count -- a dozen or more videos about al Qaeda's As-Sahab, focusing on attacks, rocket attacks, mortar attacks on Lawara. More than any other base in the entire country they've focused on Lawara. Why is Lawara so important, do you think, tactically to al Qaeda and for their propaganda?
I know you can't get inside their heads, but to the extent that you can speculate on why -- on the importance of Lawara, we'd appreciate it.
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. Lawara's on a historical infiltration and exfiltration route, and there is a good -- Zadran tribal area, which is where Haqqani gets his most support is in that area. And it's a historic route. That they do not want us there and are going to continue to dislodge us.
We have also increased the border security posts along that area, so in the past several months we've actually had significantly less attacks at Tillman and they've actually moved a little further south to another combat outpost.
Also in the vicinity of Tillman is where the second border coordination center will go. And those coordination centers, the first one will be in the Torkham Gate area, which is obviously a critical crossing place between Pakistan and Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass. And in that border coordination center there will be both Pakistan military, Afghanistan military and border personnel, as well as coalition forces so we're able to better communicate and coordinate on that border. And the second -- the first one will open here in March, the second one will probably open around June, and that will be in the vicinity of Lawara and Camp Tillman.
Q A follow-up, please? General, talking about border incidents, you say the number are down since last summer but that's pretty typical for winter. But can you estimate how many times in the past year U.S. forces have pursued the enemy into Pakistan, either boots, airstrikes, artillery missions? Can you quantify that for us?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: We don't pursue into Pakistan to go after people on the border.
We respect the sovereignty of that country. They're a key ally. And we coordinate all our efforts along the border with the Pakistani military. But -- and that's where I'll end. Thank you.
Q No airstrikes, nothing -- we never launch airstrikes or artillery missions inside Pakistan?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Again, we coordinate all our efforts with Pakistan operations on the border.
MODERATOR: Lisa, go ahead.
Q This is Lisa Burgess with Stars and Stripes. Since the turmoil in Pakistan, have you noticed any diminution of concentration on the part of the Pakistan forces in terms of their focus on the terrorism on the border? Are they less focused and more looking inside the country now? Are they as focused on the mission, as always?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: We've -- the -- we have meetings with the Pakistan military at every level, from ISAF, the RC East level, as well as down at the battalions and brigades.
They have reduced in the last month, mainly because of the focus on the election and the security and things that are going on over there. But we've seen no change in effort over there at all, and we're confident that those meetings will pick up again after the election occurred here last week. In fact, we've already had one of those meetings with the senior leadership, and we continue to develop a good military-to-military relationship. And that's the only thing that I've seen tail off. And again, that was just a temporary situation because of their focus on the election.
Q Sorry. To follow up, was it a drop-off in the number of meetings or a drop-off in the number of forces assigned to the border? And approximately how many forces?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, just a drop-off in the number of meetings, because, again, they were focused on the security for the elections.
But as far as the effort, they continue to execute at the same level that they did throughout the time we've been here.
Q General, Paul Krawzak, Copley News Service. Can you give us an update on the Marines coming in from Camp Lejeune and Twenty-Nine Palms to help with the spring offensive and training, including when they're going to arrive and what role they will play in RC East?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: They're going to come in to support the efforts in Regional Command South, so that's where the Marine Expeditionary Unit will go to help down there. And the other Marines who are coming in to help with the training mission of the police will also go into RC South.
Q If I could follow up, initially it was said that the Marines coming into help with the training could be assigned anywhere in Afghanistan. Has the decision been made that they will strictly be in RC South now?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, they'll be -- and let me correct myself. They'll be in RC South and a little bit in RC West, but yes, that decision's been made and that's where they're going to head -- RC South and a little bit in RC West.
Q General, it's Mike Mount again from CNN. If I could re- approach my initial question about the spring offensive. You had given an answer about what the Afghan military is gonna do. How about what you expect terrorists and insurgents to do this spring? Again, when (he ?) was talking to us, you said you expected another spring offensive. Has that changed at all, and do you expect anything this spring?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Only from year to year based on the weather. There's always an increase in activity, but again, I would not characterize that as an offensive. And we're expecting the same type of things that they did this year. They will try to attack the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government leadership, by both IEDs and suicide -- vehicle-borne IEDs as well as suicide bombers.
And we think they're going to continue to do that.
And again in most of the places that they have occurred in Regional Command East, the people have stood up to them. And it is not a popular tactic at all. It actually increases the people's support to their government, and the lack of support to the enemy.
Q Sir, you just said that the Marines are headed to RC West. Can you tell us how many Marines? Is it half the force? Are they going to RC West?
And also what is the reason for that? Is it because, as the NATO commander said, I guess, last year, that there's an influx of arms coming in to support the Taliban from Iran? Is it to meet that threat?
Why do you need more Marines in RC West?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: The Marine Expeditionary Unit, the one that's coming in to conduct the counterinsurgency operations, are coming into RC South. The Marine trainers, who are focusing on training the police, are going to RC South and a little bit in RC West. That was the commander of ISAF's request and desire, and I think it was mainly focused on what he thought was the biggest threat this coming spring.
Q Still seeing an influx of weapons from Iran, or any support to the Taliban?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: We have seen a little of that. It's really been militarily insignificant, but we're always on the lookout for that.
MODERATOR: Well, General, we have just about reached the end of our time here. And before we close, we'd like to throw it back to you, in case you have any final thoughts for us or things that we didn't cover, that you expected us to and you wouldn't want us to leave without the benefit of.
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Okay. I'd just like to say thank you all. Appreciate the questions today, and appreciate the opportunity to address you.
And I'd just like to say thank you to all the American people for supporting the service members and the civilians over here and our mission here. We're grateful for the support we get from the United States, our NATO partners, as well as the international community, in bringing stability and development to the Afghans here.
We think we continue to make progress in both the development of the Afghan national security forces as far -- as well as the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. And we think that we're making good progress. And we have a great relationship with the whole team, and we continue to work hard to bring peace and stability to the people. There's been tremendous progress since the fall of the Taliban, and we continue to move forward in that -- those efforts.
And again, our Afghan partners, coalition partners and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) partners are all working together on this, and we appreciate everything that they're doing to support this effort.
And for all the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and the civilians of the Combined Joint Task Force-82, they're doing a superb job, and I think every American should be proud of what they're doing here every day. They're making a huge difference, and they're some of the most selfless and heroic people that I've ever had the opportunity to work for.
Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Well, again, thank you for your time. We appreciate it. And we hope that we'll be able to meet with you again soon.
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Okay. Thank you.
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