COLONEL GARY KECK, U.S. ARMY (Department of Defense Press Office): Good morning, everyone, again for many of you. Appreciate you coming back for this briefing. Colonel Gary Keck, the director of the Press Office. And it's my privilege today to moderate this briefing we have, with Major General Mart de Kruif, who is the commander of Regional Command South in Afghanistan.
General de Kruif commands some 23,000 international troops, from 17 nations, who are responsible for security and stability operations in the southern region of Afghanistan.
General de Kruif assumed command in November of last year. And this is the first time he has joined us in this forum. So with that, let me make sure General de Kruif can hear me all right. We just lost him a minute ago, and he's back up.
Sir, can you hear me all right?
GEN. DE KRUIF: Yes, I can hear you loud and clear, over.
COL. KECK: Okay, sir. Then I'm going to turn it over to you, without further ado, for whatever opening comments you have. And then we'll go into Q&A.
GEN. DE KRUIF: Okay.
Well, let me make it very clear that the military main effort of ISAF is in southern Afghanistan.
That having said, me and my team, we took over command on the 1st of November last year. And actually, we have two basic pillars within the HQ. We have an operational pillar with folks on the security line of operation, but we also have a pillar which is focused on governance and reconstruction and development, which is led by a U.S. one-star general, Brigadier General Mick Nicholson. And within the HQ, we're focusing on delivering regional effects on all the lines of operations -- security, governance and reconstruction and development -- across the region.
In this period, my HQ is very focused on a couple things. The first issue, of course, is planning and supporting the influx of additional coalition forces, mainly U.S. forces, within RC South. A second issue we are focusing on is the planning of the elections, which are going to be conducted on the 20th of August. That means that the HQ itself is not only dealing with these issues but also needs to significantly change its structure and expand.
As you know, the dynamics in RC South are mainly based on the fact that we are in the middle of the Pashtun belt, with its specific history.
And that having said, I would leave the floor, as much as possible, open for question and answers. So actually I would leave the floor to you.
COL. KECK: Okay, sir, we appreciate that. So we'll go into Q&A. I would remind you again, please let him know who he's talking to when you ask your questions.
Q Good morning, General. David Morgan from Reuters. Can you tell us, please, what security goals you think are reasonable for the upcoming year, given the influx of U.S. forces into RC South? And specifically, do you think that you will be able to break the stalemate that General McKiernan has spoken about? And secondly, what sort of movements are you seeing among insurgents? Do they appear to be preparing for the influx of U.S. troops?
GEN. DE KRUIF: Thank you, David. To start with your first question, when we talk about stalemate, I think it's fair to say that from an ISAF point of view, we are not stopped by the insurgency, but we just run out of troops.
What do I mean with that? It's clear to say that two years ago, the insurgents changed their overall strategy from attacking our strength, being ISAF, towards focusing on terrorizing the local nationals, the Afghan people. And one of the elements of that is the use of IEDs. For ISAF, that means that we have to deliver a 24/7 security in the focus areas where we are placed. It's no use of getting into a village at 8:00 in the morning and then leave that village at 5:00 in the evening.
So once we start the shape, clear, hold and build concept in a region, we have to stay there. And with the available troops we have currently right now in theater, we were able to clear parts of central Helmand and in central Oruzgan. But to be able to extend these focus areas, we definitely need more troops. That's one.
What I think what's going to happen is that once we will see the influence of the U.S. forces that will give us that capability and the capacity not only to expand the areas where we do the shape, clear, hold, build, but also put significant more pressure on the insurgency, on the leadership and on the nexus between that leadership, the narcotics and the IEDs.
So that will lead in the first couple of months after the influx of U.S. forces to what I think is going to be a significant spike in incidents. After that and after the elections, however, I think that what we are doing now is actually planting the seeds and that we will view a significant increase in the security situation across southern Afghanistan next year.
About your next question or your second question about the movement of the insurgency, well, actually, that is very hard to say, because in RC South we have a very localized type of insurgency which is led by the Quetta shura but has all kind of local dynamics. So we don't see a clear game plan or clear movement of the insurgency focused on disturbing the elections now, no.
COL. KECK: Barbara?
Q General, Barbara Starr from CNN. Can I ask you, what are you looking for in President Obama's upcoming Afghanistan strategy?
What can he do in that strategy that would be most helpful, in your mind, to you and your troops?
And if I could also follow up, when you say that you see the Quetta shura as being responsible for the insurgent activity in your area, that suggests that you see direct command and control, perhaps, from across the border in Pakistan. Could you talk a little bit about the organization of the insurgency you see? How well-trained? How well-equipped? Where's the money coming from to fund these guys? What are you really dealing with out there?
GEN. DE KRUIF: Okay. Starting with your first question, I think there are two -- on my level, on the RC South level, I think there are two very important factors, which hopefully are included in the policy of President Obama. The first, of course, is the influx of additional forces, which will really be a game changer from my point of view.
But the second point, and perhaps the most important point I want to make, is that it needs to be nested within a comprehensive approach. So it's not just bringing in the military capability, it's also bringing in the capability to support governance and reconstruction and development.
And what we plan here in RC South is that the capabilities regarding governance and reconstruction and development that will come in, hopefully, with the inflow of the U.S. forces will be nested within the existing structure of the PRTs, especially in Helmand and Kandahar. So what I hope is that we do not only see a surge of military capabilities but also of civilian capabilities.
About your second question, it is absolutely obvious to us that the main part of the financial support of the insurgency is linked with the narcotics trade. And that is why we in RC South specifically target the nexus between IEDs, the command and control of the insurgency, and the narcotics.
What we see, however, is that we are able to have a constant pressure on that leadership of the insurgency, and we see the first signs of the insurgency not being able to put up a high-quality type of leadership across all the region which is able to synchronize operations on a regional level.
What does that mean? It means that we see a kind of concentration of capable leadership of the insurgency in central Helmand now, which gives us the opportunity to expand some of the focus areas we have in other parts of the country -- for instance, in Oruzgan. So we see some regional effects of the operations conducted by Special Forces and by the U.K. in central Helmand, and we're making good use of that.
COL. KECK: Joe.
Q Thank you. General, this is Joe Tabet from Al Hurra. Do you have any information that the Taliban militants are controlling some villages, some pockets in RC South, and especially in the Helmand province?
GEN. DE KRUIF: Well, that's a good question, Joe, because it refers to a question I often get. Sometimes people come up to me and say, "Hey, 80 percent of RC South is occupied by the insurgency." Well, I can tell you I'm out three, four days a week. I travel a lot, visit all the task forces, and I can tell you that 80 percent of the territory here is occupied by nobody, because it's desert or it's just mountainous terrain.
Where the people live is concentrated along the rivers and the green zones. And it's fair to say that about 60 percent of the areas where most of the population is concentrated are dominated and controlled by ISAF. So there are absolutely pockets where we don't have control about, and that is one of the reasons that we need these additional boots on the ground.
The second remark I want to make is, I am somewhat reluctant to speak about the Taliban. We speak about the insurgency because it's very hard to define who the Taliban is. And I think to put it simply, that you have three types of Taliban. You have the religious, hard- core Taliban, you have the Taliban who is very linked with the narcotics trade, and you've got the Taliban who gets $10 a day to pick up a gun and start shooting. So it's just, which Taliban are we talking about?
It is not so that we have large areas here that are controlled by the Taliban. We have definitely some pockets where we don't have the control yet.
Q We've read in the past a lot of reports saying that Iranian weapons have been found in the southern area. Do you have any -- could you update us on that? And do you think, based on your intelligence information, that there is a link between some Iranian Shi'ite groups and the Taliban?
GEN. DE KRUIF: Yes. We get a lot of questions about the issue also. And it's absolutely fair to say that until now we haven't see a very specific link between Iran on the one side and the insurgency on the other side. We all know that there are a lot of contacts between Iran and, for instance, in the province of Nimruz, but from a military point of view, we didn't see any specific Iranian issues emerge over the last couple of months since I took over.
Q George Wilson, National Journal. What is your understanding of the exit strategy, and what is your best educated guess on when it could be implemented?
GEN. DE KRUIF: Well, that's a very good question, because I have to tell you, to be quite honest, the last thing on my mind now is a exit strategy, especially because we are so focused on the influx of U.S. force and the additional capabilities that will bring to us.
But to put your question in a somewhat broader context, I think we all agree that the most important element of the exit strategy on my regional level is actually that we have two elements in place. I think the most important element is that we have a solid, not-seen-as-corrupt, capable type of governance at the district and provincial level. It is this level, especially the district level, that is decisive for the success of a(n) exit strategy. The Afghans should be able to control and govern their own country with a central government but also in a very decentralized way with a lot of power at the district and provincial level.
Second element which needs to be fixed is that we have a capable Afghan National Police force who is able to do the community police tasks and an Afghan national Army who's able to deliver a over-the- horizon kind of security on a regional and nationwide basis. I think these are the two most important elements for exit strategy.
Q You didn't answer when you could implement it.
COL. KECK: He probably didn't hear that. You've got to wait a little bit because we turn it on and off.
Q Okay. Your best guess for when the exit strategy could be implemented?
GEN. DE KRUIF: Okay. So you are asking me when the exit strategy can be implemented. Well, General McKiernan, who commands, said that from a military point of view, just talking about the security line of operations -- and I do agree with him -- we can have a significant progress within three to five years. But it's just how you define "exit strategy."
I think overall, Afghanistan deserves a(n) international strategy in which we support Afghanistan in its future development. But when I just focus on when can most of the military and mentoring capability that we have brought in, when can they leave, I think we can have a significant different situation in three to five years, which could lead to a situation in which we can change from using ISAF forces for bringing security towards a more mentoring role.
Q General, this is David Wood from the Baltimore Sun. You mentioned that you'd like to see as part of Obama's strategy a civilian surge. Could you tell us more specifically, in terms of capabilities and numbers, what you mean?
GEN. DE KRUIF: Yes. What we absolutely need is that we build the institutions that support the governance at the provincial, district and sub-district level, in governing and administrating their region. What we see time after time is that district governors and provincial governors are appointed. But especially in RC South, with a very high rate of illiteracy, it's very hard to find people who have the capabilities to translate policy and implement the policy into clear action.
So the whole system of administration, building the institutions which are able to support the governance at the provincial and district level into actions, I think that is absolutely critical, and that is number one on my list.
Q General, Bryan Bender with the Boston Globe.
I was hoping you could maybe talk a little more specifically about the IED threat. You mentioned it earlier. How has it changed from your point of view, at least in the time you've been there?
And if there's no evidence yet that the weapons or some of the weaponry is coming from Iran, can you talk at all about where you think the origins are? Are they of Russian origin? Chinese? Pakistani? You know -- I mean, there's obviously a lot of firepower coming into that country. Where is it coming from?
GEN. DE KRUIF: When I talk about IEDs, what we see is a(n) increase in the use of IEDs, based on the change of strategy by the insurgents two years ago. And it leads to a situation in which 70 percent of the victims of the IEDs are Afghan local nationals and about 70 percent of the casualties we have within ISAF are caused by IEDs. So IEDs is absolutely now the weapon of choice by the insurgency.
What we don't see yet is a significant increase in the technological state of the IEDs. So we see a lot of IEDs, but we don't see a significant development in techniques or procedures used by the insurgency.
So that having said, most of the IEDs we find are from a relatively simple nature. And you can't compare the IEDs used here with the type of IEDs used in Iraq over the last couple of years. So we don't see a significant increase in technology. We see more a increase in use. What we especially see is that there is an increase in the use of homemade explosives and that the charges used are growing larger. So there is a generic picture about the IEDs.
What we don't see -- and based on the fact that these IEDs are relatively easy to produce -- we don't see any real signs of influence by other countries like Iran with the fabrication and the use of these IEDs. So I would not say that IEDs are sophisticated yet. But they know very well which procedures we use in -- IED procedure. So, generally spoken, it's more an increase in capacity than an increase in capability when we're talking about the use IEDs by the insurgency.
Q Dan De Luce, with Agence France-Presse. Could you talk a little bit more and with a little more detail about how you're trying to go after this narcotics drug problem? And is there an alternative being provided, a practical alternative to Afghans to grow other crops that would be profitable?
GEN. DE KRUIF: Yes. Let me say two things about issue of narcotics.
First, what we do is trying to move the people away from poppy. So that means the most important element of counternarcotics is offering the people alternative livelihoods for poppy growth. And especially in Helmand, the provincial government is very active on programs with alternative livelihoods and offering people a viable alternative for poppy growth. So that's actually one.
What we also see in poppy is that there's a clear nexus, mainly a financial nexus, between narcotics and the insurgency. So what we do at the regional level is that we use the assets I have, special forces and the regional battle group, which is a battle group from the U.K., to specifically target the nexus between these narcotics and insurgency leaderships.
And once we've got that information, that intelligence firmly established, we will try to hit that nexus. And I can tell you, every time we target the nexus, we find it. So from that point of view, we have a significant disruptive effect on the insurgency.
The main point is that you have a comprehensive approach to counternarcotics. And our main effort should be offering alternative livelihoods. And we have lots of these programs in place, especially in Helmand which is, as you know, which is definitely the hub of the narcotics industry.
Q General, Barbara Starr again from CNN.
Can I come back to this issue of the IEDs? And what can be done, for further protection of your forces, especially when you get the U.S. increased forces?
So many of the hits have been against the armored humvees. What have you requested or do you want to see, in terms of the MRAP vehicles and more protection? Do you have enough MRAPs for your forces right now? Will you have enough when the U.S. troops get there?
GEN. DE KRUIF: Okay.
Well, getting more protection against IEDs is not just a matter of putting more armor on vehicles.
The first step is having an approach in which you win the hearts and minds of the people. So that means that every day, although we have an IED threat, our forces will go out and have a 24/7 presence amongst the Afghan people. Because by the end of the day, it is the Afghan people who will deny the use of IEDs by the insurgency.
And I just wanted to mention to you that more than 70 percent of the IEDs in Kandahar city are turned in to us or the ANSF by the Afghan people. So this just shows you how -- to put it mildly -- how fed up the Afghans are, the local nationals, with IEDs.
The second step is that you've got into the IED system, that you need to know where the facilities are, where they train the IED cells and where they produce the IEDs. That is mainly a work which is conducted by special forces now. And we are definitely increasing the capacity we have of special forces in RC South, mainly focusing on getting more information of the IED system.
The next step is that you get better capabilities regarding the detection of the IEDs. We are, over the next couple of months, significantly increasing the capabilities we have with new systems to detect IEDs on the ground.
And then last but not least, yes, if we are not able to find an IED, we should protect our people. So the availability of well- protected vehicles like the MRAPs are essential. And one of the highlights which we integrate in our planning from the start is that we would have enough MRAPs available for the U.S. forces coming in.
Let me make one other remark. It's not only ISAF who needs to improve its IED capabilities. But we are now in the process of significantly increase -- the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces in their counter-IED capabilities. So we are moving forward the right way. But we all know that beating the IED system will be a very long and difficult fight.
Q Can I follow up with something you said -- that in the weeks or -- ahead you're going to significantly increase new systems to defeat IEDs? That suggests that right now you haven't been given everything you need, if you need to have a significant increase in the weeks ahead. So in terms of both defeat systems and vehicles, the -- there seems to be a suggestion here that you don't have -- you have not been given what you need.
GEN. DE KRUIF: Well, I could think you can ask any military commander whether he gots all the assets he need, and a good commander will always tell you that he needs more. But that's not the question. The assets we have in place now in theater are top-of-the- world. But I think we also have to see that there is a constant development not only in IEDs but also in counter-IED capabilities.
So what we're actually doing now is fielding new systems as soon as possible to be able to have the maximum effect of them.
But having said that, there's another aspect to your question. It is not only driving around in MRAP vehicles. We have to go out and we have to communicate and interact with the people. So we will always be in a position in which we will be in a vulnerable position, because we have -- we have to interact with the people and we have to deliver them security 24/7. And that is why we have to focus on the complete system and not just on bringing hardware, bringing in stuff.
Q May I follow up quickly on a technical question -- very quickly? How are the IEDs -- you say they're primitive. How are they detonated typically? Are they -- by somebody watching and setting them off or the cell phone or what's the typical detonation device?
GEN. DE KRUIF: Well, most IEDs used in RC South are victim- operated IEDs, so that means they can go for a pressure plate that once you step on it the circuits get into contact and the charge sets off. That's what we see mainly. We also see some radio-controlled IEDs, but most IEDs we see are actually really plain and simple pressure plates, so victim-operated IEDs.
Q One more, quickly?
COL. KECK: Very quickly. (Off mike.)
Q General, Bryan Bender with the Boston Globe again. Are you optimistic at all that in addition to these additional U.S. troops that other members of ISAF will also contribute more boots on the ground, as you say you need?
GEN. DE KRUIF: Well, let me first state that there are more coalition forces coming in. If I take a broad overlook of RC South, we see additional capabilities coming in in the Task Force Zabul that is Romanian additional capability. The Canadians will increase their efforts here. We'll see more Dutch capabilities coming in in the next couple of months. And right now there is a discussion in London of whether or not to increase the amount of coalition forces which is delivered by the U.K.
So there is a lot of additional force flow coming in within RC South.
But that having said, I'm very happy with the additional U.S. forces coming in. And that, together with the influx of more and other coalition forces, will definitely lead to a complete different situation in next year.
So I think by the end of the day, it is -- it is -- as it is now, the influx is well planned -- and first see which effects we can achieve with the additional troops we get in now, before we ask for additional troops. I don't think it's only a matter of asking for troops but also a matter of the effects we can achieve with the troops we have now and which we will get in in next couple of months.
COL. KECK: Okay, sir. Well, we are at the end of our time, and we sure appreciate you being with us today. Obviously, there has been great interest, and will continue to be, in the operations in your area.
But as is our tradition, we would like to turn the time back over to you for any final remarks that you might -- to give to us or any insights that you think that we need to have, sir.
GEN. DE KRUIF: Well, let me just finish with two remarks. First, I'm absolutely sure that we will see a very important year in RC South, that we will see a spike of incidents once the U.S. force hits the ground, but that the situation will significantly change in a positive way within the next year.
I'd like to make it very clear that I'm not being optimistic, because every day I have to make decisions where concerned life and death, and you can only do so if you are a realist, not an optimist.
Second point I want to make is that sometimes people tell me that they think that RC South is a very fragmented regional command, with 16 nations moving around. And it's absolutely sure that a command -- and the control arrangements we have are extremely difficult to understand. We tend to think here that the most difficult job in theatre is that of the insurgent who has to keep track of our command-control arrangement in RC South.
That having said, being out there most of the days, I can tell you that we might not have a -- unity of command; we definitely have, in RC South, unity of effort.
And it doesn't matter where you go to.
In every province, be it in Helmand with the Brits, with the Canadians in Kandahar, the Dutch in Oruzgan or the special MAGTF, the U.S. -- inaudible -- we all are very well able and capable to have a comprehensive approach on the ground, in which we integrate all the lines of operation.
So at the end of the day, I think, I'm very satisfied with the amount of unity of effort we have on the ground. That's my final remark. Thank you.
COL. KECK: Thank you again, sir.
And thank you all for coming. Hopefully we'll hear from him again down the road.
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