BRYAN WHITMAN (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): All right. Well, we'd had a momentary technical difficulty but I think we're back on the air. General Rodriguez, it's Bryan Whitman.
Can you hear me okay?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: I sure can. How about -- can you hear me?
MR. WHITMAN: We hear you just fine. And thank you again for joining us.
General Rodriguez is someone who hardly needs an introduction, but this is David Rodriguez, who is the commander of Combined Joint Force -- Combined Joint Task Force-82 in Afghanistan. General Rodriguez and his forces are responsible for security and stability operations in NATO's Regional Command East. As the senior U.S. commander in-country, General Rodriguez is also responsible for the ongoing counterterrorism operations there.
Doesn't seem like it's the fourth time, but this is already the fourth time that General Rodriguez has given us an update since he assumed command back in February of 2007. And fortunately, this is probably the last opportunity that we'll have to talk to him in this format, as he'll be turning over RC East to the 101st Airborne Division later this week. So with the perspective of all that time on the ground, we really welcome the opportunity to hear from you today, General, and appreciate all the time that you've given us during your tour there.
With that, let me turn it over to you.
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Good morning from Bagram, Afghanistan. And as he said, I'm Major General Dave Rodriguez from the commander of Combined Joint Task Force-82 and Regional Command East. And thank you for one last opportunity to update you on the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Afghan national security forces, as well as the coalition forces operating here in Regional Command East.
The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has consistently improved their capacity throughout our time here. In recognition of a need to improve local governance, the independent director of local governance was established. Their focus is on improving governance at the subnational level, and since they were established just a few short months ago, they've improved the leadership quality and effectiveness of both the provincial and district governments.
In our time here, the subnational level governance improvements have resulted in 14 provinces having provincial development plans assessing the needs of the Afghans in their districts. Forty-eight district centers have been constructed. They connect the people to the government. And for the first time in Afghanistan's history, governors are giving state-of-the-province addresses that present government accomplishments in an open, transparent forum to their constituents.
Afghanistan is especially pleased with its progress in education. Of course, during the Taliban era there were about 1,000 schools. today there are about 9,000 and that number is growing daily. Remember there were no girls allowed to attend school in the Taliban era, but about 70 percent of the girls here in Regional Command East have access to state-run education, at about 97 percent, a dramatic increase in the last six years. Along with that, the number of teachers has grown some 800 percent since the Taliban era, from 20,000 to about 160,000. Access to basic health care has grown from the 8 percent to 78 percent of the population, and the Afghan government is steadily building the capacity of the Afghans to provide their own health care. And a product of that growth is a 25 percent reduction in the infant mortality rate, saving some 89,000 young lives.
Agriculture is central to restoring a strong Afghan economy, and their government is working hard to help reestablish a foundation in that area. We now have an army national guard agriculture- agribusiness development team composed of soldiers with agriculture expertise to help that along. One team is already deployed here in Nangarhar province, where there is an opportunity to increase in agricultural industry, and another team will arrive here this spring.
Hand in hand with the increased capacity of governance by the government of Afghanistan, the Afghan national security forces have increased their capacity significantly. Over 15 months, we've seen the forces grow in the Afghan army from 25,000 to 37,000 soldiers, and the 201st Corps and the 203rd Corps, who we work with daily, have begun to lead operations with our support. During our time here, they also established three commando kandaks, elite Afghan National Army battalion-sized units with increased capability to continue to combat the enemies of Afghanistan.
The momentum of the Afghan National Army is setting the pace and encouraging the Afghan National Police to follow behind, which is beginning -- the national police beginning to accelerate their capacity building. The Afghan National Police are beginning, in limited areas, to earn the trust of the people, and we see that momentum growing over the next year.
Everything we're doing to support our Afghan, ISAF and coalition partners is to support building a stable, economically sustainable Afghanistan, with a representative government that leads its people and secures its territory.
We're moving forward, and it's the 101st Airborne Division, Air Assault, takes command on the 10th of this month. You will continue to see steady progress towards a stable nation.
Thank you and I will take your questions now.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thanks for that overview, and we'll get started.
Q General, it's Kristin Roberts with Reuters.
Looking ahead to the spring, what's your assessment of the strength of the Taliban and its ability to wage offensive operations in your area? And secondly the strength of al Qaeda forces in your area, please.
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: The strength of the Taliban in our area and the strength of al Qaeda is a hard one to give a solid answer on, because much of it is split between here and Pakistan. Which of course, as you know, there's -- that strength is in both areas and crosses the border back and forth.
But I can tell you, the strength of the Afghan national security forces is growing faster than both the Taliban and al Qaeda can increase their capacity.
Q Well, so what's your expectation for the extent of their operations in the spring and summer months?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: For the spring and summer months, they're going to continue to focus on trying to disrupt the progress that's been made by the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Afghan national security forces.
We're expecting to see many spectacular attacks, a combination of both suicide bombers as well as IEDs, and attacks on government and security forces of the Afghanistan national security forces, as well as coalition forces.
Q General, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America.
We've heard a lot in the last several days about the number of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Is it your impression that more troops are needed in order to bring this to a decisive conclusion?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Again in -- as the commander of ISAF, as I've stated several times, he needs some more troops. And those are continuing to be supported by both NATO as well as other coalition partners.
And as you know, there's over 3,000 Marines heading in here right now, which will complete their deployment in the next month, as well as some pledges from Bucharest to increase those forces a little bit here in the future.
Q Well, General, is it about the number of troops, or is it about the doctrine or how the campaign is pursued? I mean, it's widely reported that you're having a lot more success in the east than folks are having in the south. Is that because of the enemy, is it because of the number of troops, quality of the troops, campaign plan? What's the key, based on your experience?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: It's a combination of all those things. And the most important factor of all is that the Afghan leadership, the Afghan government and the Afghan leaders of the security forces are leading their efforts, and we're working in a very close partnership with them to share everything, whether it be intelligence, information, tactics, techniques and procedures and expertise. And when we work as trusted partners with those key leaders that want to do the right thing for their people in Afghanistan, I think that's what's most important for moving forward here.
MR. WHITMAN: Mike?
Q General, it's Mike Mount with CNN. If I could just go back to some of these spectacular attacks you were talking about earlier, you had said in a previous briefing with us that there was -- you were expecting no spring offensive in RC East. The list of expected attacks that you just rattled off kind of does sound like a bit of an offensive. Can you maybe clarify if you're still expecting a spring offensive or not, and what you kind of mean by these attacks?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Seasonally, they always increase after the winter, but again, it's -- I wouldn't characterize it as an offensive. Again, the people who are going to have the offensive out here are the Afghans. Just yesterday, the Afghans led an operation that, again, was going into a pocket of enemy where they have a pretty significant support base, which they disrupted in a very, very effective way with some support from coalition forces. And the other parts of the Afghan government and security force offensive is, there are more forces from the Afghans out there, there's more kids going to school, there's more construction projects moving forward, and there's more government being connected to the people. So we look at this as an offensive from the Afghan government as they begin their new year and move forward to a better future.
Q General, this is Lisa Burgess with Stars and Stripes. The 82nd has been routinely deployed since 9/11. Can you explain the effects of this 15-month deployment on your people, as opposed to a 12-month or shorter deployment?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Well, the longer the deployment, the stress goes up. But I don't think we'll be able to really understand the impact until we get back and continue to monitor that. But that is a leadership issue that all of us are actively involved in, trying to mitigate the stress and the -- on the soldiers and their families.
And we got some pretty good programs to do that, but I don't think we'll totally understand it until we see the results in the next several months, as we head back, get settled back in and then get prepared to move forward the next time the nation calls.
Q One more, please?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Sure.
Q What kind of result are you expecting to see?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: I'm sorry, could you say that again, please?
Q Types of results would you expect to see -- an increase in divorces, DUI cases, that sort of thing?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, the characteristics and the experiences that the other units -- are the same that we'll see. Yeah, there's some challenges with the families. There's challenges with safety issues and such. So we're going to -- again, the leadership will do everything they can to mitigate those stresses and continue to take care of the soldiers and their families.
MR. WHITMAN: All the way in the back, Courtney. Back there, yeah.
Q Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. Back on the additional troops heading into Afghanistan, what specific assets, if any, have you requested -- numbers of troops? Do you need trainers? Are there any additional air assets or anything that you're needing?
And then, since you're getting ready to transition now, what are some of the specific things that you'll recommend to your successor, as far as security concerns?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, the biggest thing that we have asked for have been the trainers for the police, which is again the biggest security force challenge as far as development. Right now they're a little bit behind the Afghan army in development.
As far as security recommendations for my successor and his team, the big thing is, like I mentioned, the potential for spectacular attacks which will continue to be present here in Afghanistan this coming year, and also the importance of the partnership with the Afghan national security forces and the trust and confidence that we have in each other, to support their efforts to bring stability to their country.
Q How many trainers do you need? And do you expect any of the announcements out of Bucharest to provide any specific trainers to RC East?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: All across Afghanistan, it's about 3,000. The Marines are sending about a thousand to take care of part of that. They will be assigned to the south, based on the biggest need, in accordance with COMISAF (GEN McNeill) and CSTC-A's estimate. And as the announcements and the pledges come through from Bucharest, we'll just see how they come. And we'll be able to use the trainers most, if that's what they bring forward.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, Kristin.
Q Sir, it's Kristin Roberts again. Can you just bring us up to date on the trend line in the number of foreign fighters that are crossing into Afghanistan right now, what you're seeing particularly in your area?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Those, again, just like the seasonal violence that goes up and down, they're increasing slightly during the time of year, but there's not been any more trends this year from last year to say that they're more this year than last year at this particular point in time yet.
MR. WHITMAN: Al?
Q General, following up on that. When you look at the Pakistan border area on the Pakistani side, what more needs to be done to get control of the situation over there in order to stop this flow of foreign fighters and trainers and material and whatever else is coming across? Does your successor need more authority than you had, or is it the Pakistanis who have to do more? And if so, is there a U.S. role in that?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: It's a combination of everybody doing more. The Afghan border police need to continue to grow in capacity and effectiveness. The Pakistani security forces are in the same boat, and there's some significant efforts being made to help support their growth. And a part of it, of course, is economic development and the extension of the writ of government for everybody into some of these challenging and isolated areas along the border.
Q Just to the first part of my question, does your successor need more authority to engage in direct action in that area as part of this plan?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: No. We respect the sovereignty of Pakistan, and everybody is working together to help solve those challenges along the border.
MR. WHITMAN: Lisa.
Q This is Lisa Burgess again, sir. Looking back at your 15 months, what would you say was your single biggest challenge?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: The single biggest challenge we've had since we've been here is just working very, very hard with our Afghan partners to get the best leaders and the best jobs and responsibilities so that they could lead the Afghan people as far and as fast forward as we can.
Q Why was that difficult?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: It's just a difficulty with the Afghans, one, finding them, getting them in the right place and holding them accountable for their actions. And again, that's why we've developed the close relationships so that we could help develop their capacities in the leadership area.
And that's really been the biggest challenge as we -- as Afghanistan builds its future here.
MR. WHITMAN: Mike.
Q General, it's Mike Mount again with CNN.
I guess this is more hypothetical than anything else. But there's been some talk that with Musharraf leaving office, that his successor won't be as hard on the tribal regions as he has, or at least as focused.
Is that a concern of you all? And are you relaying that on to your successor at all or providing any maybe knowledge or intel on what's to come?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Well, obviously these two countries are linked and they share a common interest in trying to defeat the scourge of terrorism in the region. And how that turns out, at this point, remains to be seen.
But again how things go in both countries has an impact in both countries. And we'll just have to see how that continues to develop in the future here.
Q General, if I could ask you to look slightly more broadly, I mean, over the past two years in Afghanistan, we've seen an increase in attacks from the Taliban. We've seen an increase in opium production. We've heard that al Qaeda has regrouped in the country.
From your perspective, is Afghanistan in a better place now or a worse place than it was two years ago?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, but the contacts that occur can't be looked at in isolation. Again right now there's over 15,000 more army out there than there were last year; many, many more police. And the Afghans are in many more places than they had been last year.
So that's part of the issue with the contacts. And again I think that the Afghanistan leadership is building the capacity faster than the enemies of Afghanistan can build their capabilities.
Q But for the common person living in the RC East area, not in a major city, is the security situation better for that person?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah.
There's now the security assessments and polling that we do says over four out of five Afghans feel secure doing their day-to-day living. There's significantly enhanced or improved, or many more, transportation, people on the roads, whether it be commerce or people in school. So there's more people living what we would, Afghans would, call a normal life out here in Regional Command East.
MR. WHITMAN: Courtney?
Q Hi. This is Courtney Kube from NBC again. Late last year, General Pace mentioned that -- before he left as chairman, mentioned that there was evidence that Iran had provided some weapons, munitions in Afghanistan. Have you seen any evidence of that in the past few months? Can you update us on any developments there?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: No, there's not been any military significant aid that we've seen in the last couple months. Earlier, there had been a couple of things that had come across, and again, whether that could be linked to any coordinated effort by any governments was not able to be determined. But that has not happened in the last couple of months, and it's been militarily insignificant overall.
MR. WHITMAN: Well -- go ahead, Al.
Q General, Al Pessin one more time. I think you may have touched on this earlier, but can you sort of summarize for us the key elements of advice that you've given to your successor about how to pursue this effort over the coming year?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Again, it's a coordinated effort throughout all the international partners, led, of course, by the Afghan partners, in all areas -- obviously security, governance, development, and then the information domain that is interlaced throughout all three of those areas. And you have to have a fully developed, comprehensive approach to move forward here, because they're all independent and interrelated, and all of them have to be working together in concert to continue to build stability in Afghanistan.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, with that, General, I think we've just about run out of questions here. But before we bring it to a close, we'd like to turn it back to you for any final thoughts you might have after having spent so much time that you have there.
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Okay, sure. Thanks a lot, Bryan. I appreciate it.
First of all, I'd just like to say that thank you for your continued support, and I appreciate the questions today and the opportunity to address you. The -- we're grateful for the support from the United States, our NATO partners and the international community in helping the Afghan people bring stability and development to their country. The Afghan national security forces and the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan deserve recognition from the international community for the progress they're making. They're taking the lead in the fight, and they will ultimately prevail in their quest to bring peace and stability to their people.
There's been tremendous progress since the fall of the Taliban, and additional major improvements in all areas in the past year. And with the Afghan coalition, ISAF and international partners, I think we'll continue to make steady progress.
The soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and the civilians of Combined Joint Task Force-82 have done a super job here. And you can expect the same from Combined Joint Task Force-101. And every American should be proud of their sacrifice and the difference they're making every day in Afghanistan.
I believe the progress the government and the Afghan national security forces have made over the last year will have a lasting benefit for the people of Afghanistan, while there's still a lot of work to do. And with the continued efforts of the international community, we can help the Afghan people build a stable Afghanistan.
Thank you for your time today and your continued support.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, thank you again, not only for today but for the other times that you have spent with us. And we wish you and your unit a safe and speedy redeployment. And we hope to see you perhaps in this room in person sometime soon.
Thank you again.
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