(Note: The General appears via teleconference from Afghanistan)
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Well, clearly the week has taken its toll and our numbers are few here today, but it has been a long week with a lot of activity. But we want to welcome General Cone to the briefing room today.
General Cone, let me just make sure you can hear me okay. This is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon.
GEN. CONE: Bryan, I've got you loud and clear.
MR. WHITMAN: Very good.
Like I said, this is Major General Robert Cone, who is the commanding general of the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan. He's going to talk to us about ongoing security, mentoring and training operations in Afghanistan. This is his second update since he assumed command back in July of last year.
And once again, we appreciate you taking the time to tell us about this important mission and the progress that's being made in this area.
So with that, General Cone, let me turn it over to you for an update and then we'll get into some questions here.
GEN. CONE: Thank you, Bryan, and good morning. It's good to visit with you all again. The last time I appeared before you was six months ago, in Washington, when I was joined by General Abdul Rahim Wardak, the minister of Defense of Afghanistan. I'll bring you up to date on where we are with training, equipping and advising the Afghan national security forces and then open it up to your questions.
Six months ago, the Afghan National Army had about 47,000 military and civilian personnel on its roles. Today that number is 63,000, including forces in training. We expect the Afghan National Army to grow by another 13,000 by the end of 2008. The new authorized force structure for the ANA, that was approved this winter, is 80,000, and the Afghans expect to hit that target in 2009.
Currently the Afghans have fielded 12 of 14 brigades and 33 infantry battalions. Last month the Afghans validated one of their infantry battalions as trained and ready to conduct independent operations. This is a positive milestone for this relatively young army, and it says something about the leadership of this specific unit and the commitment of the Afghan National Army and its leaders.
Last year at this time, the Afghan National Army had no commando battalions. This is the Afghan army's equivalent to a U.S. Ranger- like organization. Today, that number is four, with a fifth commando battalion on track to come online this summer.
In terms of Afghan National Police, this is where we have put a considerable amount of emphasis. Last October, I introduced a new police strategy called focused district development. This strategy is aimed at reforming the way policing is done at the district and community levels. Today, we have seven police districts that have completed the eight week, formal police training and are back on the beat with their U.S. trainers and mentors back in their districts.
Next week, the Afghans will graduate the second round of focused district development with another five districts, and another nine will go into the training later this week. In total, that's 21 districts reformed out of some 360 overall. Working with the Ministry of Interior, the goal is to reform 52 districts by the end of 2008. We expect this program to take approximately five years to complete.
It is important to note that the police are the face of the government to the Afghan people, and for so long that face has been associated with corruption and unprofessionalism. Focused district development is the first real major step in breaking this cycle of corruption and provides Afghans a professional, well-led and well- trained police force.
With that, I will take your questions.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you, General, for that overview. We'll get started here.
Let's start with Kristin.
Q Sir, it's Kristin Roberts with Reuters. You're still suffering a fairly significant shortfall in the number of trainers that NATO allies have provided. Can you tell us how that has affected your ability to get ahead in this fight in a meaningful and also sustainable way?
GEN. CONE: Yes. The shortfall in trainers has specifically affected the police program. And due to the shortfall in trainers, we can only cover down on about 30 percent of the police districts in Afghanistan. And what that does, essentially, is prolong the development and reform of the police over time. To date, we have been able to meet the requirements for the development of the Afghan National Army. That was our first priority, and that has been covered by a combination of U.S. and NATO trainers. But the police program is clearly where the shortfall is felt most.
Q Can I follow up on that?
MR. WHITMAN: If Kristin doesn't have a follow-up.
Q Do you foresee a time when you'll -- or how soon would you be able to transition the trainers you've dedicated to getting the army up to speed into a role where they would be getting the police force up to speed? Or are these two things apples and oranges?
GEN. CONE: They're essentially apples and oranges. And the reason is that we continue to field new Afghan army units into the force. So as we start to have some units that are finishing off, yes, in fact, there is some savings in trainers, but we simply roll them along into the army program, and then we'll pick up newer units that are coming online as we build out to the 80,000. The other requirement, of course, will be to keep some coalition members with the Afghan units, because as of yet, they do not have their own air corps that would provide close air support and casualty evacuation.
So we'll keep these smaller effect teams with the Afghans for some time, until their own capabilities are fully on line. So that savings, essentially, is consumed by the stand-up of new units.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay, Jonathan?
Q General, Jonathan Karl of ABC News. You said that this national police program is a five-year program. Is the lack in trainers -- now you're only able to cover 30 percent of districts -- is that five-year based on the lack -- you know, the current shortfall in trainers you have? Or is that, you know, if you -- a five-year program if you're fully -- if you have the full amount of trainers that you need?
GEN. CONE: It's based on a number of things. One is that we are, in fact, planning on the current number of trainers that we have -- some relief, potentially, down the line, but we've got to plan for what we have. The other factors are, frankly, it will require not just training individuals, but a fundamental change in culture within the police, and effecting that means that we cannot cut any corners in the development.
And so the reality is that this is a very lengthy process. We are very pleased with the results of the process we've seen thus far, and therefore wouldn't want to rush it or mass produce it. As you know, there's a long history of problems in regard to the police in Afghanistan, and that's why we're so adamant about this very deliberate and thorough approach.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, Lolita.
Q General, it's Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press. When we saw you with the secretary last December, you talked about some concerns you had with the equipping of both the army and the police. Can you bring us up to date on whether or not you have the equipment you need for the Afghan army and, if not, how much are you lacking? What percentage of the units do you think are fully equipped?
GEN. CONE: Well, actually, we're in pretty good shape. Things have improved since I last spoke to you during the secretary's visit. I think equipment deliveries have come in on time and the Afghans are very pleased right now with the fielding of the M16 that is ongoing, the fielding of the M1151 up-armored Humvees that are ongoing and, in fact, the fielding of -- and international donations, I should say, of some shortages that they had of the former Soviet equipment that they are using.
So we are very optimistic as we look at this summer, that we will close all of their equipment shortages or at least have them in very good stead and certainly capable of participating in this summer's campaign to a significant extent.
Q And just to follow up, what about the police?
GEN. CONE: The police, well, actually it's more of a different problem there in terms of we have, I think, adequate equipment for the police. The real challenge is accountability of that equipment. And again we will not issue, until we are confident that we have reformed the police and that we know that that equipment won't end up in the wrong hands.
And again sort of we've metered the equipment flow to really the ability to reform specific districts within the focus district development, or at least minimally assure us that there are the national equipment accountability procedures in place. So actually we have probably more equipment right now than we can issue, largely because of the need for reform in the police.
Q Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News.
Can you give us an update on the situation, the security situation, on the borders in Afghanistan? Are the Afghan security forces capable of securing the borders? And how many border patrol officers - police do you have in the security forces?
GEN. CONE: That is a good question and it's certainly integral to any counterinsurgency strategy, the ability of the Afghans essentially to control their own borders. And again it's certainly complicated in this country by some very, very difficult terrain, with the shared border with Pakistan and certainly in other areas.
The lead of those efforts has taken place in RC East in the 101st Airborne's area of operations. And there is a very close collaboration with Afghan security forces and border police activities. And again that is sort of our flagship, and most of the reform has taken place.
And I think they're well on their way in terms of accelerating border police training and integrating those activities into the army's activities -- both the Afghan national army and Afghan national police and coalition forces. And it's integral to that strategy.
Elsewhere in the country, we're not moving as quickly. Right now we're at about 50 percent. I think we've just gone over 50 percent. We've changed -- the Afghans call it tashkeel -- but the force structure to put more forces on the border, recognizing that challenge. And so we have room to recruit, and that is currently ongoing across the country.
But as I say, I think, the forefront of our effort's in our RC East. Elsewhere in the country, it is a different challenge. And we are working closely with the State Department and NATO ISAF to work with us in terms of reforming those border police.
That is a very tough mission because of the nature of it, in terms of a combat environment. And then certainly the cross-border activities are very much related to counterterrorism, or to terrorism, and very much related to narcotics trafficking and other forms of trafficking.
So it's a critical mission.
Q So do you mean you're -- the Afghan border police are at 50 percent of their allocated end strength? And how many is that, roughly?
GEN. CONE: It -- we're building them to about 18,000. And again, that's a fairly new number that we've established, recognizing the requirement for a significant amount of border police. And we're building through about 9,000 -- I think 10,000 was the most recent number that I saw. But again, I would make the point that we have -- we've got to do this right. There would be a way to approach this where you'd put a lot of folks out on the border. And again, because of the temptations that are involved, because of the level of training, again, we must take a very deliberate approach and ensure these folks are properly trained.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, Jim.
Q This is Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse. Secretary Gates has talked about putting in more U.S. troops into Afghanistan next year. Explain why it is that the Afghan forces can't -- aren't sufficiently up to speed to make that -- you know, to be able to carry on those assignments. And how long will it be before they're sufficiently capable so that U.S. forces in Afghanistan can start to come out?
GEN. CONE: Yeah, the biggest problems that we have had in regard to the Afghan National Army have had -- of course had to do with leader development. And it takes -- to build a modern army and to understand the systems that are required to enable that army; it takes some level of professional military education to enable that force. I would tell you that the Afghan fighter is, in my view, a top-ranked individual. This is something -- this is a martial people. They are very good at fighting at the individual level. But what our real challenge has been in building these units is sort of to stitch together units and organization, providing things like logistics, command and control, the ability to use ‘fires’ (artillery/air strikes) and the ability to vertically integrate those systems such that this is an army that can operate independently.
We have seen in this last year a significant amount of growth with the Afghans operating with ISAF units. And as we look, really, in the last three months, we've seen a significant trend where what we'd call named operations, the major operations, the majority of those on a week-to-week basis are now led by Afghan forces. This is critically important, because the Afghans learn by doing. And when they're out in front, in reinforces sort of the classroom learning that they've had on staff planning and anticipating and synchronization. They get to experience that. It's reinforced in learning with their mentors, reinforced in learning with their partner units, and what we've seen is significant growth.
We have seen independent operations by the Afghan units. But again, of course, we say independent, meaning that an infantry battalion does what an infantry battalion is supposed to do. Of course, the Afghan Air Corps is -- it will be about 2013 before we see it with a full capability to provide CAS and overhead reconnaissance- type capability.
So it's a complex system. We want to do it right. Where the Afghans have been employed, they have been very successful in the combat operations that they've been involved in. We don't want to rush them, but the critical point is they are making progress and we are satisfied. They are ahead of schedule in producing their first battalion capable of independent operations at their echelon, and we are very optimistic that by the end of this summer and into this fall, we will see Afghans certainly in the lead and a good number of those battalions operating independently on the battlefield.
Q If I could follow up, how long -- how many years before this is primarily an Afghan operation?
GEN. CONE: Well, again, I don't want to, again, make those sorts of predictions. I can tell you that, you know, there are certainly plans that have specified times. But what we find with the Afghans is sometimes they go quicker than we'd anticipate, and sometimes they go slower. It is more conditions based in terms of their capabilities. But we are very optimistic.
And I think you will see a significant flavor of -- because of the number of Afghan security forces that are on the battlefield this year from last year, I think many people will definitely feel that the Afghans are certainly taking a significant amount of this load in this fighting season. That's what they want. Afghans are -- at every level are apologetic frequently when we have American soldiers or coalition soldiers die. Afghans are very proud that they have defended this country for thousands of years until the situations we've had in the last 30. And believe me, the Afghans are adamant about taking responsibility for the defense of this nation.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's take Gordon, and we'll come back to you, Jonathan.
Q Hi, General. Gordon Lubold from the Christian Science Monitor. I wondered -- you've mentioned commandoes. Can you talk a little bit about how you characterize the differences between the quality of the training the commandoes receive versus the quality of the training of the regular, conventional army? And it was my understanding that over time some of these commandoes could be kind of peppered throughout the conventional army, kind of helping to raise them up. How do you see that unfolding?
GEN. CONE: Well, it's very much analogous to what we would describe as the Ranger School experience in the U.S. Army. And that is that not only have they been through all of the basic training that all the other soldiers have been through, they have been through an intensive additional 10-week program that is focused on advanced light infantry skills. And it's very important for us to sort of gauge the success we've had in this program, because we've equipped these folks with U.S. weaponry, certainly the best equipment that is available. We've had them work with our Special Forces. And really, we see them -- how far that we can take them will really tell us in terms of how far we can take the rest of the Afghan army in the future.
And again, we're building six of these commando battalions. We train 650 at a time. And we're just about to finish our fourth and start our fifth. And then what we're looking at basically would be to use that school much as we use it in the United States, to raise standard of infantry skills across the rest of the force.
I happen to believe that certainly a well-trained army of 80,000 can make a huge difference in Afghanistan, particularly as you look at the constraints they're under in regard to their national budget and their national revenue. So really it's an experiment in how good these young Afghans can become as warfighters in the current Western mode.
Q A quick follow-up, on an unrelated -- but how many of the regular army soldiers have M-16s already fielded?
GEN. CONE: We're -- I think we're at about the 10,000 number that have been fielded. We focused initially in the unit that is in the heaviest contact, down south. We've shifted that strategy now to include the fielding of some number for our train-the-trainer-like process, where we get specific Afghans who are particularly good with marksmanship, issuing them the M-16s, and they can become the trainers for the rest of the forces.
It's complicated, of course, by the fact that not all of the NATO nations -- of course many of them do not have the M-16. So it's going to be more of a challenge to do train the trainer for Afghans, because frankly a lot of these nations -- the NATO nations don't have M-16s and their ETTs are not expert with them, as you would find with U.S. training teams or SOF that would assist that transition. And again, the numbers will be about 10,000 a month until we've fielded about 60,000, largely focused on the combat units in the field.
Clearly the M-16 is a more accurate weapon than the M-16 (sic), but only in the hands of a better marksman. And so we're really working very hard on training the Afghans.
The Afghans are very good with weapons. And again, it's -- there's some sort of transactional cost in getting them good with that weapon, and I think we'll see the benefits over time.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead.
Q If I can just see if you can help me understand how we got to this point, we're -- been more than seven years into this war, and we're just now getting to the point where we've got a battalion -- Afghan battalion that's able to operate on its own. Is that because the mission of training and equipping the Afghan security forces was simply neglected for too long, we've gotten into this late, or why is it? How is it that we seem to be at such an early process so long into this war?
And if I can also just press you on Jim's question of when we get to the point where the Afghans would be at a point where American forces can begin to draw down, I know you don't want to put a specific time on that, but is it fair to say we are several years away from that point?
GEN. CONE: I've only been here since last June.
But I can speak to the fact that really our commitment, in terms of the amount of resources that we've put against this problem, has been significant in the last -- really a year and a half to two years.
And I can say that certainly the pace of the Afghan army development during the time that I have seen has actually been, by any standard, quite remarkable in terms of their ability to field a force. Over the course of this winter, they put out over 4,000 soldiers a month, doubling their previously capacity of about 2,000. It's a combination of resources, trainers available and those kinds of things, but I can say that certainly in my experience we are very pleased with their progress and very pleased with the ability of this thing to come together as it has, really, in the last year and certainly before that, to some extent.
In regard to how quickly will they be able to replace ISAF forces, I think we're seeing that play out over the course of this summer. Again, we are very pleased with the development of these Afghan units, with their success on the battlefield, where they have asserted themselves and their ability to show combat presence on the battlefield and the effect that has on the Afghan people in regarding to provide security.
Clearly, they bring skills to the battlefield that we do not have in terms of trying to understand its very complex multiethnic, multi- tribal society that the Afghans seem to be able to move in and among and deal with local tribal elders and local governance in a way that is very difficult for a westerner. So we hope for value added to these Afghan forces as they are, in fact, employed.
MR. WHITMAN: All right, General, we have just about reached the end of our time, but I think you've taken care of our questions here this morning. And before we bring it to a close, though, let me turn it back to you and see if there are any final thoughts that you might have for us.
GEN. CONE: This is a fairly exciting time in Afghanistan. As you may be tracking, normally this is a period of time in which we would see an increase in enemy activity. I think as we look at the Afghan forces' readiness, both the army and the police, this will be a different fight this year because of the level of Afghan participation, whether it be in police districts that have been reformed, where the police are playing a significant role in providing security for the local people, or through the presence of Afghan army forces, whether conducting operations in conjunction with coalition forces or operating in conjunction with the police in helping to provide the people security.
We are optimistic about the development of the Afghan National Army. Nothing is easy. There will be steps forward; there will be steps sideways; there will be steps backwards. But the point is that we think with the weight of this effort with the Afghans, we are very optimistic about their contributions to the fight in this coming year.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you, General. And again, thank you for your time today and we hope that it won't be too long before we have an opportunity to talk to you again.
GEN. CONE: Thank you.
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