(Note: The general appears via teleconference from Iraq.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Well, we'll go ahead and get started. Hopefully some more of your colleagues will filter in here.
Let me just make sure that we got good audio to start with, though. General, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me okay?
GEN. AYALA: Yes, I can hear you.
MR. WHITMAN: General, thank you for joining us this morning -- this afternoon, there. It is my privilege to be able to bring to you today Brigadier General Juan Ayala -- I hope I said that correctly -- the commanding general, 2nd Marine Logistics Group. General Ayala is -- assumed his duties in Iraq in January of 2009. This is our first opportunity to have him in this format. He joins us today from Camp Al Taqaddum in Iraq, and he is going to give you an overview of the responsibilities of his command and how they provide logistical support to the fighting force there, and then take a few of your questions.
So, General, again, thank you for taking some time this afternoon, and let me turn it over to you.
GEN. AYALA: Thank you very much for that introduction, and more importantly, thank you for hosting me today. I look forward to answering your questions and the opportunity to underline the improved state of security that I have personally witnessed firsthand in Al Anbar province over the course of the three previous tours here, and continue to see now as the commanding general for the 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward).
I would also like to touch on the great things in the -- that the 2nd Marine Logistics Group has already done and will continue to do throughout Al Anbar province. The headquarters element of the 2nd Marine Logistics Group arrived at Camp Al Taqaddum from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, mid-January 2009. For some of us, this is our third or fourth deployment to Iraq. Many Marines and sailors can undoubtedly tell you about the enormous improvements they have personally seen over the course of their deployment.
Provincial elections, as you all know, held here in the end of January of this year, are a great example of the significant strides that have been made here in Al Anbar province. I was here for the elections of 2005. I can personally tell you, things were different. Voter turnout was low then. There were well over 300 recorded attacks carried out during the day -- during that particular day.
Fast-forward to today, only four years later, and you have the people of Iraq peacefully taking part in elections. That day really was a testament to Iraq, to the U.S. and to the world that the sacrifices of the Iraqi security forces and coalition forces in the past six years have really made a difference.
This is my fourth deployment in Iraq, and I can tell you that the improvements that I have seen -- that I've personally seen have been astounding. The most prevalent was during my time as a senior adviser in the 1st Iraqi Army Division. I began my tour with the division in January of 2006, and I spent a year working and operating alongside officers and Iraqi soldiers of that division. Upon my arrival, I noticed some major issues their unit needed to work on in order to operate more effectively. They lacked soldiers, adequate training, sufficient equipment to accomplish the mission of fighting the insurgency and providing security to the people of Iraq and to the people in their battlespace.
Let's go to 2009 and today, and this is a different place. I've had a great opportunity to go back and see some of the old Iraqi acquaintances that I had and speak to some of the senior military officers of the 1st and 7th Iraqi Army Divisions, which are here in Al Anbar province. There is a newfound confidence within their ranks. There's unit cohesion and organization in their unit. In fact, the 1st Iraqi Army Division recently deployed a quick-reaction force through an operation, Charge of the Knights, to conduct operations in Basra. This was something unheard of a few years ago. Since arriving in country, our units have traveled through the once-insurgent strongholds of Ramadi, of Fallujah. When I left in January of 2007, these streets could be described as gauntlets of violence. Coalition forces couldn't drive through the streets without the threat of attack. Today, we traverse the same roads and it's an entirely different scene. There is a sense of normalcy amongst the people. Commerce has picked up. And, more importantly, there's a constant presence of Iraqi security forces, mainly police, in the cities and in the streets.
There's even a rise in tourism which has been noticed, which would have been unheard of a few years ago.
One of the local towns in our area of operations, Habbaniya Tourist Village, which was once known as a top vacation spot in the region, lost its appeal as it became an insurgent haven after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Hopes for regaining that status were once-distant thoughts. However, that village has recently seen weekends where thousands of tourists have come to vacation, yet another indication of the drastic changes that can attest to the improved security situation, and that's a great example.
Not all is perfect, though. The increased stability in the security situation is relatively new, and it still needs time to mature. However, with the decrease in occurrences of violence, the Iraqi security forces can now focus on improving their capabilities and not battling the insurgency. They can now focus on sustainment, increasing operational competency and maturing logistically.
For years, we have been advising, training and mentoring them. Today, coalition forces have stepped into the shadows of the Iraqi security forces as the Iraqi security forces are running their own security operations with little or no assistance.
As for us in the 2nd Marine Logistics Group, we still contain or provide logistic support as far forward as possible, to the edges of wherever our troops are at, in support of Multinational Forces-West here in Al Anbar province. We're on course in completing our scheduled 13-month deployment. And as long as there are still Marines and sailors operating throughout this province, we still have a very, very, very important role to fill.
And with that, I would like to open it up for your questions.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you, General. We'll get started with a couple here, then. Go ahead.
Q General, I'm Kevin Baron from Stars and Stripes. There's a lot of talk back home about how the drawdown in Iraq is going to happen. So, since you're in charge of logistics, can you go through some of the challenges that you expect to face? People have mentioned, you know, going through Turkey, going other routes. How hard is this going to be, and what are some of the tougher challenges that you're going to have to work through?
GEN. AYALA: Well, right now -- the force levels are established and set by our national leadership. Right now we are looking at all our forces. We are looking at all our equipment. And what we are doing is we're identifying things that we don't need to accomplish our mission. And again, that's a very important fact. We will maintain everything here. We still have a very important mission and we will maintain whatever equipment is needed to maintain the forces and sustain the forces that are here.
Decisions on the routes where these -- responsible withdrawal is to take place will be set by our national leadership. And of course, any operation, any military operation has its challenges. We are doing deliberate planning and very -- very deliberate planning, actually, with our higher headquarters, along with our staff at MNF- West, and also with our higher headquarters in Tampa, and also with our Marine Corps Logistics Command, who are the experts at responsible withdrawal.
And again, we're doing very deliberate planning. There will be challenges, just like any other operation, but I think we have a good plan, a good deliberate plan and where we will withdraw very -- very effectively, and we'll do it well.
MR. WHITMAN: Gerry?
Q Hi, General. I'm Gerry Gilmore with American Forces Press Service. As a logistician, you said that you support U.S. forces, coalition forces, and you're in the western part of Iraq, I understand, Al Anbar province. How about -- there was a lot of talk about supporting Iraqi security forces as well. Do you do that? Do you help them with their logistics, sir? And how?
GEN. AYALA: Yeah, we do. That's a great question. As you know, we've had advisory teams out here for three or four years now, and every advisory team has -- every embedded advisory team, whether they're advising the police or the army, has a logistics expert within that team. So ever since the infancy of our transition team, our advisory team program, we've always had a logistics officer or a logistics staff non-commissioned officer to advise the Iraqis on distribution, on supply, on maintenance, on all the things -- engineering, bomb disposal or explosive ordnance disposal as we would call it, medical and all of the things that we do as logisticians.
The Iraqi security forces are in great -- they're very competent now operationally. And like I said in my opening statement, where they really need support now and where they really need some mentoring and advice is in logistics, and we're doing that now. My logistics unit in the 2nd Marine Logistics Group partner with them. We send out teams and we partner with their -- let me give you an example -- with their maintenance personnel, their maintenance soldiers. And we teach them and we mentor them, although they're in the lead, on how to do basic maintenance, some more advanced maintenance techniques, supply procedures. We also help them with engineering equipment and some engineering procedures.
But one of the things that they really like, and I think one of the things that we'll continue to partner with them with, is medical. We have a basic combat life-saving course that we bring Iraqi soldiers in and we teach them the basics of life-saving, of combat life-saving, first aid. And we've also brought in Iraqi doctors to observe what we do, and we provide them the training necessary to become basic what we would call corpsmen or medics. This is popular. And besides the logistics training that we do, we also do a lot of that. We continue to do that. We seek opportunities, and so do the Iraqis, to be quite honest with you. We're the 1st and 7th divisions out here in Al Anbar province.
Q Question, sir. What are two of the prime challenges, logistics-wise, of the Iraqis? I mean, you've got movement; I imagine it would be transportation, and that's related to maintenance for the trucks and the vehicles.
And secondly, would it be -- how about the POL -- Gasoline, diesel fuel and so forth -- are those some things you're working on, you're keying on, sir?
GEN. AYALA: Yeah. In 2006, when I first came into the 1st Iraqi Army Division, they were standing up motor transport regiments. And that was specifically to help them with distribution, transportation of equipment, transportation of their soldiers.
Those organizations still have American advisers with them, but I will tell you that they're maturing. They're getting better. As a matter of fact, most of the transportation to Charge of the Knights down in Basra was done with our own organic equipment. Fuel and gas is something that we haven't provided for a while. The Ministry of Oil, through their government, has allotted fuel for the Iraqi army and the Iraqi security forces.
I'm sure there are still some glitches to work out, but the Iraqis are working them out -- working them out themselves, along with their ministries. And we try very hard to mentor, teach and advise them, but by and large the Iraqis are in the lead. They're confident. They're doing their own operations, planning their own operations. And we still do help and mentor them with what you mentioned, especially the logistics.
Logistics -- it's basically a pretty new army, and they've been concentrating on the fight. They've been concentrating on the insurgency. They've been concentrating on the counterinsurgency that's been taking place in the last two or three years. I think they've now -- are confident; they're taking a breath, and they're saying, okay, what do we have to do now to self-sustain? And they're doing it with our mentoring and our assistance and our advising.
MR. WHITMAN: Luis?
Q General, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. With the growing Marine presence in Afghanistan, are some of the units that were going to backfill your units in Iraq -- because enablers are in such high demand -- are they being off-ramped into Afghanistan? Or are some other -- some of your own units going to be diverted from Iraq to Afghanistan like we've seen with some Army units?
GEN. AYALA: Well, unit levels and unit strengths are determined by our national leadership. I'm sure some units are going to be diverted, but right now we still have a very vital mission, a very important mission here in Iraq. And the units that we have are the right units; they're the right number of units to complete the mission that we still have here.
Again, national levels of forces, national troop levels, are established by our national leadership. And -- I can tell you, though, that with the growing confidence of the Iraqi security forces, with the security situation in Iraq being at a historical all-time low -- I read somewhere that violence has decreased, and I read a number that said 90 percent. And also, the number of American casualties was in single digits, although one loss is one too many. But it was in single digits.
So if you couple that growing confidence of the Iraqi security forces, the decreasing levels of violence, I think we've got the right numbers here; our national leadership makes the determination. We still have a mission, and we're going to accomplish that mission, and I think we're on track.
Q General, Stars and Stripes again. What -- could you just share what percentage of your time goes towards maintaining the logistical needs versus what percentage is towards the drawdown?
And what -- and a second question for the drawdown: The buildup to war involved a lot of civilian shipping and other transportation agencies or companies, if you will. Will that be part of the drawdown as well? Can you characterize what you expect from civilian help as well?
GEN. AYALA: Yeah, that's -- I couldn't give you exact percentages. We haven't tracked it to that level of detail. But if your question is what percentage goes to supporting our own forces, I would say a very high percentage, maybe in the '90s, though I can't be exact. Again, that's not something that we've looked at in complete detail.
We do assist/mentor the Iraqi security forces. A small percentage of our units do it.
But my priority and the priority of all American logistics units is to support our forces here at the -- in Al Anbar to be able to accomplish their mission. That is not going to degrade, and it's always our priority to support our own men and women that are out here every day, day in and day out.
And what was your second question?
Q I was just wondering if you have any indication of how -- what percentage -- well, what percentage -- how much civilian transportation companies, like shippers, will be involved in drawdown of, you know, heavy equipment, machinery, ammunition, all the things that they were part of during the buildup back in 2003.
GEN. AYALA: Yeah, I can't give you an exact number, and I can't give you a percentage, but we do get tremendous support by civilian agencies. We get support not only by the companies that are out here, the contractors that are here, but the other thing too is -- and this is rarely mentioned -- that the Iraqis themselves provide a company that helps us ship, and they're also involved in helping us with some of the responsible withdrawal. As a matter of fact, it's a company called ITN, or it's a initiative called ITN, where the Iraqis themselves transport a lot of -- not a lot but a small percentage of our equipment. And this is good, because it infuses money in their economy, and you know, the roads and the networks are secure enough.
But as far as American civilian contractors, yes, the United States Army does a great job. They provide that higher-level support, theater logistics support that we call, that -- as we know. And yes, we have a high -- a pretty big number -- I can't tell you an exact number -- of civilian contractors that help us -- that have helped us all along since we arrived.
MR. WHITMAN: Luis?
Q General, Luis Martinez again, with ABC. The -- is it safe to assume that as you draw down, that there will be fewer combat troops, that the number of logisticians actually will have to ramp up in order to enable the withdrawal? Or do you foresee a stable amount of forces for your units?
GEN. AYALA: That's a good question. We'd like to think, as logisticians, that we're the most important folks on the battlefield all the time. But the number -- the logistics for withdrawal, the number of logisticians -- I don't know if they necessarily have to ramp up, but we have to provide focused forces to do different things -- distribution, transportation.
Of course, all the equipment that's going to leave, we have to make sure it's operable. We have to make sure that it's ready for shipment. You know, we have customs and things that we have to go through to get our equipment out of here.
I will tell you that whoever is left here are going to be -- be able to defend themselves. One thing that we've learned through the years here is that all the forces that are out here -- because it's an asymmetrical battlefield and you never know where the enemy is at any time, we're not only logisticians, but we're also riflemen. There's a saying in the Marine Corps that "Every Marine a rifleman." So, yes, we're logisticians, but we're able to also accomplish the mission.
We're also able to support our Marine forces that are here that are from the regimental combat teams, that are not logisticians. But we'll be able to do the job with the forces that we have.
MR. WHITMAN: All right, General. We are a little light in our crowd today. We've got a lot of things going on back here that have people's times occupied, and we had a late-night dignified transfer that was open to media coverage last night out at Dover.
So what I'd like to do before I bring it to a close, though, is to turn it back to you and see if there's any final comments that you'd like to make before we end it.
GEN. AYALA: Yeah, I appreciate it, and thanks again. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for joining me today. I understand the -- you know, that logistics isn't very exciting, but it's very important and it's -- to what we do.
But I'd like to close by saying that the impressive progress we've seen in this country is due to the hard work of determined Iraqi security forces and the sacrifices made by the young men and women in our coalition forces. The hard work and commitment to duty of the Marines and sailors that we have served here over the past six years will be a part, a rich part, of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Each and every one of them have played a vital part in the success today to help make a difference to the thousands of lives, of American lives and Iraqi lives, for future generations.
There are approximately 4,000 Marines and sailors in the Marine Logistics Group, and I can tell you that it's truly a privilege and honor to be their commanding general. Their talent, work ethic and sacrifice are truly second to none. This includes their families. I often tell my commanders that we don't deserve these young men and women. And I really mean it, because I'm in awe of them. I know they will continue to build on the hard work of all the Marines and sailors that have come before them.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you again.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, thank you for your time this evening and for your insights to obviously what is very important to being able to sustain the force out there. Thank you very much.
GEN. AYALA: Thank you. Good night.
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