(Note: Colonel Johnson appears via teleconference.)
COL. GARY KECK (director, Department of Defense Press Office): Well, good morning, everyone. Welcome to the DOD briefing room. I am Colonel Gary Keck, as most of you know, and substituting for Mr. Whitman, who had a last-minute commitment and couldn't be here to moderate this.
So let me just check and see if Colonel Johnson (can hear me ?) over in Afghanistan. Can you hear me okay, Colonel Johnson?
COL. JOHNSON: I sure can.
COL. KECK: Great.
Well, we have with us today Colonel Pete Johnson, who's the commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. He and the men and women of his Task Force Currahee are responsible for security and stability operations in the central eastern area of Afghanistan, along the Pakistan border.
Colonel Johnson has been commanding his unit in Afghanistan since April of this year, and this is his first time briefing the Pentagon press corps, so be kind to him. He's speaking to us from Forward Operating Base Salerno in the Khost province.
So with that, I'm going to turn it over to Pete and -- for his opening comments. Go ahead.
COL. JOHNSON: Thanks. To the press corps, good morning. Thanks for attending today. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss our current status here in Afghanistan and to provide some insight from the perspective of a brigade-level task force that has actually been in the fight for the past eight months.
First, let me say that we recognize and appreciate the role all of you play in keeping the American public informed on the tremendous service of their sons and daughters in uniform.
With that in mind, I'd like to take a few minutes to give you an appreciation for the environment we serve in, highlight our overall counterinsurgency strategy and describe a few of our main efforts, including capacity building of the Afghan national security forces, border operations and the winter campaign.
I will also outline our major development effort in our area.
Combined Task Force Currahee is comprised of approximately 5,000 NATO soldiers, built around the 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. It also includes three U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams or PRTs, one Czech Republic PRT and coordination with a Turkish PRT.
We also have unique enablers, such as a human terrain team, law enforcement professionals and interagency advisors at the brigade level from the Department of State, USAID and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Next February and March, we will also be joined by two Agribusiness Development Teams from the great states of Indiana and Tennessee.
The precise composition of the task force has changed over time and, up until last month, also included a Polish battle group that now serves as a separate brigade-level task force in Ghazni Province.
We partnered to accomplish our mission with two brigades in the headquarters of the Afghan National Army 203rd Corps, the 2nd Zone of the Afghan Border Police, which is roughly a brigade-sized element, and our regional, provincial, district-level Afghan National Police, composed of almost 5,700 policemen.
Our operational area is part of the U.S.-led Regional Command East, led by CJTF 101, and currently includes the five provinces of Paktika, Paktia, Khost, Lowgar and Wardak, three of which border Pakistan. The under our -- the area under our responsibility is vast, covering almost 43,000 square kilometers.
The terrain is extreme, with an average elevation at around 6,000 to 7,000 feet, and mountains at 10,000) to 11,000 feet. I'm speaking to you from the province of Khost, which includes our lowest elevations, from 3,500 to 5,000 feet.
Our low temperatures right now are in the mid-to-high 20s. And in the heart of the winter, we can expect them to average the mid teens. Water is sparse and is mainly drawn from the aquifers and runoff produced by the winter snows.
We have three main centers of commerce in Khost, Gardez and Sharana. And our population, which is the focus of everything we do over here, is around 2.7 million, including ethnicities such as Pashtun, Hazara and Tajik. The Pashtun population dominates most of our area, and is tribal in nature.
As I said, the focus of everything we do is the Afghan people, and our intent is to separate the people from the enemy physically, but more important, psychologically. The enemy we face is very complex, but can be broadly defined as any actor the draws the population away from the vision of legitimate government of Afghanistan. This could range from criminals to ideological Taliban led by Mullah Omar to power-based groups such as those led by Jallaludin Haqqani and Hekmatyar Gulbuddin, alliance groups such as the Taliban of Pakistan, led by Baitullah Mehsud, as well as to a variety of foreign fighter elements -- some organized, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or the Islamic Jihad Union -- to ultimately al Qaeda.
As we separate the Afghan people from this complex enemy, we also strive to connect them with the legitimate government of Afghanistan and also connect them with their Afghan national security forces. We do all of this from behind, ensuring that our number-one priority is the capacity-building of the institutions, so vital to convincing the people to reject any alternate vision.
We recognize that we do all of this in an overarching information engagement environment, where sometimes the enemy has the upper hand, because he doesn't have to tell the truth, such as the fact that these terrorists cause a huge majority of civilian casualties and have instructions from their leadership to create situations likely to cause collateral, innocent loss of life.
Broadly speaking, our purpose here is to transform the environment in a way that increases the legitimacy of the Afghan government, at the provincial and the district level, an influences the people of Afghanistan to reject the ultimate vision offered by the anti-Afghan forces.
To secure the people and to accomplish our purpose, the preponderance of our effort has focused on conducting combined planning and operations, with our ANSF brothers of the ANA 203rd Thunder Corps as well as the regional police.
We built upon the success of the previous task force, Task Force Fury, and continue to build our capability, to the point where now the corps is capable of planning and conducting simultaneous brigade-level operations.
We are still required to provide some enabling capability such as helicopter support, close-air support and medical evacuation. But they are well on their way.
Since our arrival, we have conducted seven major multi-brigade operations to disrupt and defeat enemy efforts. All of our counterinsurgency operations are now partnered operations with either the Afghan army or Afghan police.
Another of our focus areas is the 342-mile border with Pakistan. Paktia, Khost and Paktika provinces all share a border with Pakistan. And we are constantly working, with our Afghan and Pak mil brothers, to reduce the enemy's ability to use the area as a transit zone and to prevent attacks on border posts.
We have been steadily improving our communication and coordination with Pak mil forces, astride our border area, and in some cases are now able to synchronize efforts to defeat miscreants, as they call them, who are either infiltrating or attacking Afghan, U.S. or Pakistani forces.
We are also working diligently to improve the capacity of the Afghan border police, who have seriously lagged behind. The Focus Border Development Program, sponsored by CJTF101 and our Combined Security Transition Command/Afghanistan -- or CSTCA -- teammates, will recruit, equip and train these forces between now and August of next year, so that they are more capable of performing their mission.
We just started the program, and I'm very optimistic that it will drastically improve our security posture along the border. All of our efforts to secure the population, including capacity building and decisive operations to defeat the enemy, will continue throughout this winter.
General Schloesser, my commanding general, has well articulated the intent of our winter campaign and has very publicly put the enemies of Afghanistan, who might stay here this winter, on notice. We do believe some, especially the home-grown terrorists, will stay, and that traditionally this would have been a period for the enemy to recharge, gather to plan the next year's campaign, and to systematically work to regenerate stocks of equipment. Alongside our Afghan brothers, we will conduct operations to attack their support areas and safe havens in order to prevent their ability to generate the same level of violence we experienced last spring.
Quickly shifting to development, we all know that we cannot ultimately succeed here with military power alone, and it is critical to comprehensively approach all of our operations. Where we achieve separation from the enemy, we have to quickly follow with non-lethal effects, such as the infrastructure development necessary to improving the quality of life for Afghans.
In our area, our flagship development project is the $100 million, USAID-funded Khost to Gardez Road, which we call the K-G Pass Road. It will connect the Khost Province, where I'm at, with the rest of the interior of Afghanistan. It also cuts at the heart of the operational intent of our main enemy in this area, the Haqqani Network, which aims to isolate Khost and has a clearly stated objective to prevent the road's construction.
Currently, there is only a narrow, winding dirt road that works its way agonizingly through mountain passes at 10,000 feet. It is the only real throughway for commercial traffic. The K-G Pass Road will be transformative for this region, especially for the people that live astride it, who traditionally have not readily supported the central government, and for the centers of commerce, as well.
Strategically, it has the potential to reduce the travel distance between Kabul and the ports of Karachi by over 400 kilometers and offer alternative means of commercial entry into this country.
I appreciate your patience. And at this time I'd be happy to answer any questions you might have.
COL. KECK: Okay. Thank you for that overview.
Courtney, go ahead.
Q Hi, Colonel. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. Can you talk a little bit more about the situation along the border? Specifically, you mentioned that you believe the enemy may actually stay in Afghanistan. We heard from one of your colleagues earlier this week, Colonel Spiszer, who said the same thing; that as the insurgents feel more pressure on the Pakistani side, they may stay in the Afghan side rather than going back for safe haven through the winter.
Can you talk a little bit more about any trends you expect to see, and then if you've seen any trends in your time there along the border as far as infiltrators, numbers going up or down, cross-border attacks, anything like that you can tell us about?
COL. JOHNSON: The border fight over here this year has certainly been interesting. And over the last seven, eight months, we believe we've seen an increase in infiltration as compared to previous years, especially with respect to foreign fighters. Now, we certainly over the past several months have seen an effect, we believe, that has been created by Pak mil operations over in the FATA.
With respect to whether or not there's going to be an increased number of fighters that are going to remain, especially alongside the border, throughout this winter, we certainly assess it to be so, partly because of our own campaign that we've had, we have out there in the public. We've told the enemy that our intent is to take it to their safe havens and their operational areas. And through reporting, we have seen indications that some of the groups intend on staying in place to provide the same degree of enemy activity that we have experienced throughout at least the first seven months of this year.
Q Is there any way -- can you quantify this increase that you've seen, especially amongst foreign fighters, in infiltration in your time there?
COL. JOHNSON: Quantifying is always difficult.
It's very difficult, I think, to get to raw numbers. One of the things that we have certainly experienced this year is more of a qualitative increase as much as it might be quantitative. We've seen a higher degree of sophistication in attacks across the border, especially with indirect fires. Traditionally, our forces and the forces before us had experienced some degree of facilitation, we believe, you know, headed by some foreign fighter elements, specifically along the border. But this year we have seen evidence of some of that effort even more towards the interior.
And you know, historically, much of the foreign fighter presence was in a facilitation role. And this year we've seen clear evidence that they've also beefed up the fighting ranks and they're in the squads, the fighting squads that are conducting specific attacks within the interior.
COL. KECK: Okay.
Q Colonel, it's Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press. Just as a quick follow-up to Courtney's question, maybe we can go at it this way: Can you give us a sense of the number of attacks you are seeing either weekly now versus what you may have been seeing when you arrived, or what comparison you may have to what it was at this time a year ago? And then I have a second question, but do you want to take that one?
COL. JOHNSON: But certainly, when we look at the number of attacks, especially this year, and we compare them to 2007, it's clear that the enemy came after not only our forces as we were introduced onto the battlefield in the March and April time frame; there was a significant increase, and as compared to 2007, roughly around 20 to 30 percent increase.
But as we look at the last three months, we've actually seen a decline in enemy activity, as compared to 2007 -- specifically, attacks across the border. And to some degree that might have been affected by what is going on in the FATA with the Pak mil.
But when we look at raw numbers, one in particular, the IED, which is one that we can measure very well and for the most part attacks coalition forces and Afghan national security forces, there's been a marked decrease over the last three months as compared to the first, you know, four months that we were here in Afghanistan.
Q Just one other thing on -- there's been a lot of talk about reconciliation and efforts by the military and by the Afghans to reconcile with people that they consider might be reconcilable versus those who might not. Can you talk about what efforts you all may be making in that area?
COL. JOHNSON: At the end of the day, any program for reconciliation is a national decision to be -- to be, you know, performed by Afghans.
And at this level, our job in support of the Afghan government and Afghan national security forces is to continue to influence the population and the people that is so essential to winning the fight over here. And if there are fighters, as we conduct those influence operations, that decide to switch sides, so much the better.
But in terms of a formal program for reconciliation, that is really a policy decision for the national-level government.
Q Colonel, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. There have been several incidents over the last couple of weeks where your forces or Pakistani forces have worked together to coordinate artillery attacks on -- because of incoming rounds or incoming fire. Can you talk to us about the level of coordination that is, how much of an improvement there has been, or why is there this change or why is this now being publicized?
COL. JOHNSON: Absolutely. The level of collaboration, coordination and communication between us and our Pak mil brothers alongside the border has steadily increased the entire time we've been here. And since August of this year -- over the past three months, we've actually had 13 separate incidents where we've actually collaborated with Pak mil to defeat these miscreants that have been operating alongside us in the border. And this includes not only coordinating indirect fires, but in some cases the positioning of patrols by Pak mil forces to stop their egress and to defeat them in place. So we're very much encouraged by this -- by this positive movement.
The whole time we've been here, we've engaged with the Pak mil systematically. I meet routinely with the brigade commanders that are astride our border area, and that's seven separate brigades from two separate corps of the Pak mil. And we have what we call border flag meetings, where we sit down, for the most part to build a relationship. But in the upcoming months we fully anticipate that these border flag meetings are also going to assist us in coordinating specific operations designed to improve the security situation alongside the border.
Q If I could follow up: Do you also have the same level of cooperation with the Frontier Corps? Or do you see -- do you expect an improvement on that end as well?
COL. JOHNSON: I do absolutely think that we're going to see some improvement. I've had several border flag meetings with the, you know, the Frontier Corps, the Kurram Rifles, and we've had several coordination, you know, efforts in particular to solve some tribal issues alongside that border.
But quite frankly, where the North-West Frontier Corps is, in my area of operation, we have really not had a significant border issue with infiltrators. We have most of our issues down along east Paktika, and along southern Khost area. With -- and so in those areas, we actually coordinate directly with active-duty Pak mil forces that are arrayed there.
Q Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse. What else is it that the Pakistani military has been doing on their side of the border? What other kinds of operations have they been conducting? And also, to what do you attribute the change in attitude, you know, that you trace back to August?
COL. JOHNSON: Well, it's reported by the Pak mil brigade commanders when we meet at these border flag meetings. They've certainly stepped up the amount of patrolling, both day and night, alongside the border. I think they've also stepped up the degree of engagement that they've had with the population on their side. They certainly are conducting more comprehensive counterinsurgency operations.
And outside of my area, though, you know, reported in open press, you've seen the significant amount of investment that the Pak mil has had to the north, in the Bajaur area. We're really setting the conditions alongside our side of the border right now to be able to take advantage of that sort of investment that the Pak mil might choose to make in the upcoming months.
Q To what do you attribute the change?
COL. JOHNSON: I'm sure, you know, it's a national-level decision that Pakistan has made to increase their commitment alongside the border. I think that you can see some correlation in timing to some of the cross-border events that you've seen reported in open press.
And I can't make a specific correlation to that, because I don't have that knowledge, but certainly there is a correlation in terms of the timing of those cross-border events to the improved coordination and significant communication between Pak mil and our forces. But, you know, broadly, this communication has been improving the entire time that we have been here.
Q Colonel, it's Jim Garamone, from American Forces Press Service. You mentioned in your introduction something about two teams -- two Agribusiness Development Teams -- I guess one from Tennessee and the other one I didn't quite catch. What are these teams? Are they military teams? Are they -- and what are they going to do for you when they arrive?
COL. JOHNSON: We're really excited about gaining these two Agribusiness Development Teams in our area of operations. They are multi-disciplinary teams that are provided by the National Guards from different states.
There have already been some states -- as a matter of fact, I used to have the province of Ghazni under my area of responsibility. And they currently have an Agribusiness Development Team from the great state of Texas. We are going to gain two additional ones, one from Indiana and one from Tennessee.
And they bring forward a significant amount of expertise in agriculture in a wide variety of ways, not only hydrology, farming, dairy to chicken farming. But as you know -- and I may not have described well in my opening statement, but Afghanistan is largely an agrarian society. But right now, it is largely subsistence farming. And there is a tremendous amount of capacity and potential that is lost every year and food security remains a prime concern over here.
These Agribusiness Development Teams are going to assist the Afghans through Afghan government as well as the development of business models to move from subsistence farming to really sustainable farming, where they have an entire system that allows them to increase production and take advantage of all of the great potential that is here.
They lose a lot of potential every year. And as an example, here in the province of Khost, much of the wheat that is produced here is -- you know, really provides excess capacity for the province, and most of it has to go to Pakistan for processing into flour and then is returned back to Afghanistan and sold at premium, especially when flour prices are high.
So these agribusiness development teams are going to assist the Afghan government and Afghan farmers to build entire agricultural systems that will increase production and allow them to take full advantage of all of the agricultural potential that is currently resident here.
Q Colonel, how large are these teams?
COL. JOHNSON: They're roughly 50 to 80 soldiers strong. Much of it, however -- there is a security force element to it. But I would tell you at the heart of it is about 20 or so soldiers that have a significant amount of agricultural, you know, experience. And much of them -- and the entire agribusiness development team also has great backing with academia. They're tied to university systems and a large and growing collaborative network back in the United States that's going to help them, you know, solve problems while they're deployed over here.
Q Colonel, this is Raghubir Goyal from India Globe and Asia Today. Until -- you have idea that now we have a new administration coming up -- President-elect Barack Obama -- and things may change as far as things that are going on in the border in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And one, he has been talking about Osama bin Laden, that he might -- or has to bring Osama bin Laden, which we -- Americans are still waiting for the last eight years.
And second, al Qaeda had a message for him. Now what message do you have, sir, for the -- President-elect Obama and his administration when they come in power?
And second, what do you think the changes that you may see? And I may have a follow-up. Thank you.
COL. JOHNSON: Well, if I ever have the pleasure of meeting President-elect Obama, I'll tell him myself. (Laughter.)
Q And if I may follow, sir.
COL. KECK: Quickly.
Q In the past, there was a problem of security as far as dealing with Pakistan, that there was not much trust, or if you could trust them in the past because some misinformation was given to the U.S. security forces or on the border or to the intelligence, the problem. What do you think now? Can you trust the Pakistanis now under the new administration or in the future?
COL. JOHNSON: I'm sorry, I couldn't understand your question. Could you repeat that?
Q Can you trust the Pakistanis now as far as providing the intelligence to the U.S. intelligence officials, as far as in the past it was not understood or they were not trusted or there was a problem as far as intelligence sharing with Pakistanis are concerned.
COL. JOHNSON: I'm sorry, I still don't understand your question.
COL. KECK: Pete, let me try to help you with this. He was asking if you feel that there's a better sense of trust between you and the Pakistan forces, especially when it comes to sharing of intelligence matters. Sometimes the Pakistan intelligence force has been rumored to not be helpful to us or possibly not give you good information. How would you characterize your trust in the Pakistan intel information?
COL. JOHNSON: Oh, understand. I could only characterize my own contact with the Pak mil, and that's been at these border flag meetings with the Pak mil brigade commanders, deputy commanders, and in some cases also battalion commanders and company commanders. And my sense as a soldier, you know, working with another soldier, is that the confidence is certainly there and it's growing. And personal conversations I've had with the Pak mil brigade commanders, not just in a public setting of a meeting but privately off to the side, has encouraged me. And I certainly am -- personally am gaining increased confidence and optimism in the way ahead.
COL. KECK: Jim, last one.
Q This is Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse again. I was interested in your remarks about these agricultural or agribusiness teams. There have been reports of a serious drought in Afghanistan, raising the prospect of famine, at least in some parts of the country. Are you seeing any sign of that in your area? And if you are, is that a security concern for you?
COL. JOHNSON: My understanding, it's certainly a countrywide potential and an issue, but luckily, in my area the drought has not been a significant issue. We've had only moderate concerns for water. But one of the things that the agribusiness development teams are going to assist us is with better using water, better understanding how the water, you know, situation is in our area of operations.
You know, as a soldier, I'm learning a lot over here, and one of the things I've learned is about water. And one of the things we've got to improve is water balance and the use of surface water processes in order to protect the water -- the aquifers that are below ground. And right now the agribusiness development teams are going to be able to assist Afghan farmers, as well as, as I said, through these Afghan directorates at the provincial and district level to design better surface water programs in order to protect and preserve the aquifers, so that they can be drawn upon during periods of drought.
COL. KECK: Well, we have come to the end of our time, and we would like to give Colonel Johnson an opportunity to provide us with any final thoughts or comments. So we'll turn it back over to you, Pete.
COL. JOHNSON: Once again, thanks for the opportunity to share a perspective on Afghanistan. I'm optimistic about our future here. And for that message, there's no more important audience than the Currahee family back home, who sacrifice so much on a day-to-day basis in support of what all of us soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have volunteered to do. We thank them for their love and their prayers.
I also want to thank our veterans' organizations of the 506th Infantry and the 101st Airborne associations, who follow this fight in earnest, knowing fully what we are going through and who work diligently all over America to take care of our wounded warriors. We're doing our best to carry on with the incredible lineage and legacy provided by your blood and sacrifice at places like Normandy, Bastogne and Hamburger Hill.
Our hearts continue to go out to the families of our fallen heroes and to the wounded warriors and their families, who have already given so much devotion and will suffer well beyond these days. I can assure you that we fight hard to honor your sacrifice and get the mission done right.
Finally, all Americans should be extremely proud of all the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of Combined Task Force Currahee, especially the young men and women who joined after 9/11 and carried the brunt of our service on their backs. Their dedication to the mission and to taking care of each other is inspiring.
Ladies and gentlemen of the press, I want to again thank you for attending today's press conference, and I look forward to meeting with you again just prior to our redeployment next spring.
Q Happy Thanksgiving. Good luck to you all.
COL. KECK: Thank you, Colonel Johnson, and we do hope to hear from you again down the road.
Thank you much for coming, folks.