DoD News Briefing with Col. Spiszer at the Pentagon Briefing Room via Teleconference from Afghanistan
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Okay. Well, it looks like we got good picture there, and it is 10:31, so let me just make sure that Colonel Spiszer can hear me.
This is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon.
COL. SPISZER: Yeah, I hear you pretty good.
MR. WHITMAN: Good. Well, welcome this morning, and good morning, and good afternoon to our briefer. Our briefer today is Colonel John Spiszer, who is the commander of 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. His forces comprise Task Force Duke and are responsible for security and stability operations in the northeastern area of Afghanistan along the Pakistan border.
Colonel Spiszer has been commanding his unit in Afghanistan since July of 2008. This will be his final briefing with us in this format and -- as he and the rest of Task Force Duke are returning home soon to the United States.
He's speaking to us today from Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad, and he's got a few opening comments to set the stage and then is going to take our questions.
So Colonel, again, thank you for joining us.
COL. SPISZER: Okay. Thank you.
Good morning, everyone. As stated, I'm Colonel John Spiszer of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, or Task Force Duke. And we're in the process of redeploying back as we complete our year of operations in Afghanistan. We're headed back to Fort Hood. In addition, over the next 90 days at Fort Hood, we're going to start standing down the brigade so we can relocate it to Fort Knox, in accordance with the Base Realignment and Closure directives.
I've been -- I'm very proud of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and civilians who make up Task Force Duke, and I want to pay special homage to all of our troops, but specifically the 32 great soldiers and one airman who paid the ultimate sacrifice in support of this mission.
Without all their hard work, we would not have had many of the successes that have transpired in what we call the N2KL provinces: Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar and Laghman of Afghanistan, where there's over 3.5 million, or more than 10 percent, of the Afghan citizenry.
We're now conducting relief-in-place tasks to pass operations over to the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, or Task Force Mountain Warrior, out of Fort Carson. And our transfer-of- authority ceremony is going to be held this Friday.
Highlights during our time here have focused on execution of our COIN strategy along our lines of operations for security, Afghan security force development, governance and economic development. And over the past six months in our area of operations we've increased our troop strength by about 1,100. And we now total over 5,300 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
We also have had our second battalion -- 2nd Infantry battalion has been down in Mewand district of Kandahar for the past year, working for the Canadian-led Task Force Kandahar, securing the vital Highway 1 route in between Kandahar and Helmand.
In November, the Afghan National Army added a battalion in this region, and in February we added one of our own with the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment from the 10th Mountain Division, who's ably been interdicting the enemy's ability to freely move from safe havens in Pakistan and back over in Afghanistan, specifically the Kunar province.
In May, we welcomed an agribusiness development team from Kansas into the Laghman province to assist with farming and livestock development. And earlier this month, we added the 759th Military Police Battalion, also from Fort Carson, like the 44 ID, and they're here to partner with the Afghan uniformed police, in all of our four provinces and 50 districts. All these new assets are here, and they're giving people faith in their government and hope for their future.
We've continued our efforts in Operation Lionheart, which I spoke to you about last year, which is the operations along the border with Pakistan where we conduct complementary operations, making it difficult for the enemy to function and eliminating their safe havens. I believe we are showing great signs of success with this within the central Kunar region especially. The combination of the Pakistan military operations, 1st of the 32nd Infantry interdiction, and 1st of the 26th Infantry combat operations have taken a serious toll on the enemy and have kept the dangerous Korengal Valley calm for most of the past two months.
We've continued efforts on what we call Operation Open Highway, where we've dedicated ourselves to protect the main avenue for supply, Highway 1-Alpha, also known as Highway 7, with a grand -- a grand trunk road, which runs through Nangarhar and Laghman. But it really is the main road through the Khyber Pass from Pakistan to Kabul. It is essential that supplies and citizens are able to traverse the road freely, both for the country here and for the NATO forces. We've successfully encouraged and incorporated Afghan security forces to do the vast bulk of this mission.
We've also provided humanitarian assistance to earthquake victims here in Afghanistan. In April, an earthquake in Nangarhar destroyed more than 200 homes and damaged hundreds more, leaving 650 families, almost 7,000 people, homeless. Our U.S. Air Force Nangarhar Provincial Reconstruction Team delivered immediate relief supplies, such as water, beans, rice, flour and blankets, to the disaster area in Sherzad district, which was hit the hardest. But in truth, the Nangarhar provincial government, in conjunction with relief agencies, ably handled this crisis.
Our 64th Calvary Regiment, also with the local government up in the northern Kunar and eastern Nuristan region, participated in the distribution of wheat and grain from the Afghan Ministry for Rural Regional Development and the World Food Program to prevent hardship in these remote areas during the past winter.
In addition, the task force has obligated $102 million in CERP funds to date this year on development, with the primary focus being transportation and education. This is on top of a total of 162 million (dollars) from last year. We've developed over 540 miles of improved roads, and 97 schools are either completed in construction or in the process. Roads are providing security, micro-commerce and access to services, and also access to the government and for the government.
The education focus leads the people to a better future and helps us moderate extremist influences.
In our final month, we continue to conduct numerous operations to clear and disrupt the enemy throughout the battle space as we lead into the summer. We conducted operations to complement the Pakistan military again as they do their offensive in the FATA, by interdicting known militant infiltration routes and enhancing communications with their military. Our soldiers also conducted numerous patrols and ambush operations to engage enemy fighters moving along infiltration routes in Kunar, again resulting in enemy activity in the Korengal being at a record low.
We also executed voter registration in October and January. We had more than 780,000 register in N2KL, posturing us very well for the August 20th elections that are coming up. This second-ever election in Afghanistan is now getting under way with campaigning having kicked off on June 16th.
These successes, I believe, have brought hope for a better future to the vast bulk of the people in this N2KL region. And we're working on the faith in their government by partnering in other operations to continue to provide it. With 80 percent of the population here in N2KL in secure areas, the people are seeing tangible results, as we partner and build. Over the past two years, we've been able to push the bulk of the enemy up into the mountains and away from the populace. Progress and promise is happening. Nevertheless, we've still got more work ahead to capitalize on and build for the future.
Finally, I'd like to thank our great troops, their families and the folks back home for all their hard work and support. Just over two years ago, this brigade stood up at Fort Hood. Two years ago this month, we were issued rifles, and now we're redeploying after a successful tour. Success was -- this success was made possible by our great Army, great soldiers, great families. Thanks, and duty first.
Are there any questions?
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you for that overview. And we do have a few questions. Let's start with Reuters.
Q Colonel, it's Andrew Gray from Reuters. Can you just give us a snapshot of the security situation now compared to when you arrived a year ago? So, how many security incidents do you have per week, for example, now, and how does that compare to a year ago?
COL. SPISZER: Yeah, I'm having a -- kind of a hard time to understand the question there. It came in a little bit -- could you repeat that? I'm sorry.
Q Sure. I was just wondering if you could tell us the level of security incidents now, compared to a year ago when you arrived.
COL. SPISZER: Okay. Overall in the area of the actual what I would call security incidents -- or SIGACTs or enemy SIGACTs -- are up, but there's also 1,100 more soldiers, security forces, just U.S., in the area. There's more Afghan border police and Afghan National Army, as well. So you've got to take the numbers into context. We're in a lot more positions where we're going after the enemy, and we are forcing the enemy to fight.
On the other hand, the places that we've been in, such as the Korengal, we've not had an engagement with the enemy there in the last two weeks. When we arrived, there was about four or five a day. So it's kind of mixed, and you have to really break it down and get into each area. A lot more of the significant activity that we have is now up and along the border, where we put 1st and 32nd Infantry; (inaudible) interdicting the supply routes.
The one thing that has remained the same and remains the same and actually is improving for us is that most of the enemy activity, most of the significant activity is happening either up in the mountains along the border or in the mountains in the central Kunar or Nuristan area, where the vast bulk of the people are not.
MR. WHITMAN: Joe, and then Barbara.
Q Colonel, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. I would like to ask you about your experience, your service during the last month in Afghanistan. I know that you are leaving, you're going back to Fort Hood. What kind of lessons you are taking with you regarding the counterinsurgency? And I have a follow-up question, too.
COL. SPISZER: Boy, I'm sorry, I'm really having a hard time hearing you. My -- Major Stokes (sp) here is sitting here.
Lessons learned for counterinsurgency, I think, is what you're looking for. The biggest lesson learned, I would have to say, is that it is different and that the cookie-cutter solutions are not necessarily the same. I've been here before, I worked with the Afghan National Army in Kabul, I've been to Iraq, in Baghdad, and in just this area, the 25,000 square kilometers here, it's a little bit different everywhere you go.
And they say you need to be population-centric. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to base with the population.
It means you have to keep the enemy away from them. There's a variety of different ways of doing that.
You can interdict the border. You can position yourself in between the enemy and the populace. You can -- depending on what phase of the operation you're in, you can develop the Afghan security forces to take the bulk of it, like we have done mostly in Nangarhar here. The Afghan security forces do the vast bulk of the security operations. And we back them up and enable them.
So it is very different in each place. The biggest thing I've learned here is that the people here, after 30 years, they're not buying what I think the enemy is trying to sell them, as long as you give them a little hope. And for the vast bulk of the population here in our region, you have good water and rivers. You have good roads.
You have a reasonable amount of security and governance, where the bulk of the 3.5 million people are. And because of that, they're not willing to let the enemy operate in their areas. And that is key. You get over that step. And then the next step to work on is, how do you build their faith in their government and their security forces that it's going to stay that way? And that's hard here because for 30 years, they haven't had that faith.
So now they've got hope for the future. We've got to build on the faith that they have, in their government, to work on it. In some ways, this area might be a little unique. And that's the key thing is, you've got to recognize, every area is going to be a little bit unique.
Q You were talking about hope. Do you see any prospect of a stable Afghanistan in the next few years?
COL. SPISZER: Do I have hope for Afghanistan? I can only base it on what I see here? (Inaudible.)
I think that it really hinges now in this region, and I can't talk to the other regions, on our ability to work with the Afghans, to pick the ball up and provide the security and the services necessary.
So I guess what I'm saying is, in a big chunk here, we are building. We're holding in some areas. We've still got other areas to clear. They're mostly where a lot of the people aren't, in more of the outer reaches. So I've got a lot of hope for a stable Afghanistan here, because we're seeing it starting to work.
The step now is working on things like rule of law, knocking down corruption and some of the other problems that are fairly hard. But the -- this next election, August 20th, is going to be huge for that type of thing, to show that they can hold another good election, to show that the process works and to give people the faith in the government that it's going to be around.
Q Colonel, Barbara Starr from CNN. I wanted to ask you a question about your troops. As you begin to head back to Fort Hood, what's your sense of the well-being of your guys right now? So many troops are admittedly coming back with stress issues, post-traumatic stress. Fort Hood has a big program for that. What's your sense of your guys? Do you feel you have -- that your guys are facing post- traumatic stress that they need to deal with?
COL. SPISZER: Well, I'm sure we're going to have some of those problems, and I've been actually making it a point to go around to as many of them as I can. And you've been over here, and you know how spread out they are and how difficult it is to travel, but -- and to talk to them about some of those things and ask them to remember and be proud of what they've done, because they've accomplished a great deal.
And the reason they've accomplished a great deal is that they're exceptional young men and women, and they've stood up and accepted personal responsibility for their -- for themselves up to this point. And I'm asking them to do the same.
And I'm pretty confident, from talking to General Lynch at Fort Hood, that the programs are improving every day. The resiliency center, I think it's a flagship program in the Army going on at Fort Hood, and I think that we're going to do well on that. And I've had all my battalion commanders briefing me.
But we will have issues. I've got no doubt. They've been in some fairly heavy combat, especially some of the units in the 1st of the 26th Infantry, some of the other guys that have been in the center of Kunar.
So I got to keep my eye on it. I think we're posturing ourselves well. And I think the Army's going to be posturing well for us when we get home.
Q Can I ask you, when you said there will be issues, what are the issues you believe your troops are facing when they get back to Fort Hood?
COL. SPISZER: Well, I think that we've done a lot of work on it. And the real issue -- and I think that they've -- they're starting to call it "combat operational stress reactions," vice PTSD. PTSD is a prolonged combat operational stress reaction that lasts for over a month and the symptoms don't go away.
But what we can expect to see is some people might be depressed from the -- what's happened to them or to others or what they've seen.
And that can lead, as I think we're seeing and recognizing, to either wanting to hurt themselves or others, potentially, and so we have to watch out for that. Good programs are being developed for that.
We have to watch out for anger issues. People that are used to operating in a certain way, used to being fairly secretive, it's going to be difficult to re-engage with families.
There's a certain amount of excitement that comes with being in combat, and over here it seems kind of odd, you know, that people would want that. But there's a certain amount of going back and missing, you know, the dangers of being on patrol, the adrenaline rushes, and so some people will take chances that they may not or should not be doing.
So there's a variety of different things. And I've asked them all -- and I'm making a point to ask my soldiers and talk to my soldiers. And those who I haven't talked to, I'm going to talk to as soon as I get home -- again, is to remember who they are and where they've been, and that they can be proud of themselves, and that when they get home, they shouldn't forget that. They shouldn't forget that what we've asked them to do over here is to do the right thing at the right time at the right place for the right reason. And when they get home, I'm asking them to do the same thing, and so's the Army.
It's -- if they start feeling that they're not right, it's not the way they used to be, or they start seeing this in themselves or their buddies, is to come get help. And we have to make that available to them, and we have to make sure that there's no stigmas.
Q Colonel, Julian Barnes from the L.A. Times. I'm wondering if the -- over the course of the year if there have been groups of fighters that you've seen essentially switch sides, lay down their arms and be more supportive of the Afghan government, if that's been part of the strategy you've pursued in your area or if you've seen that in the areas you oversee.
COL. SPISZER: (inaudible) it hasn't been what I would call widespread. There have been some encouraging signs, and it's a -- it's an Afghan governmental program for reconciliation. We just had a fairly prominent mid-level leader from Laghman province reconcile with the government, come down, and he's being very cooperative. So it does happen.
I think that there's room for improvement in how we're going about doing that and how the Afghan government's doing it and how we would support it, because it does happen, it will happen, and when we put the right pressure on the enemy, I think it's going to happen more and more.
So yes, it's been there a little bit. I think it could be a much greater tool, if we improved some of the resources available and some of the advertisement.
It was a very big deal -- (inaudible) -- back about three years ago, when they were standing down the militias and bringing in the weapons and stuff. And I think my personal assessment is, it might have faded away a little bit. It's probably the right time to re- emphasize it; just what I'm seeing.
Q And if I could follow up, you talked a little bit about the border activity. I'm wondering if you have specifically seen impact of the Pakistan offensive on militant activities inside of Afghanistan.
COL. SPISZER: Yeah, I think, there's a definite impact. And I think it almost can't be overstated. But can I quantify it? That's much more challenging. But I do know that since they've started operations anew; well, they've been doing operations in Swat and Dir. And they've started operations anew in Mohmand and Bajaur, which actually border right on our area here. Swat and Dir are a little bit further to the east.
But the operations have been going on. And the activity in this area has declined and not just declined. But what I think is happening is, weapons are drying up. Money is drying up. And there's only so many resources to go around, up in the FATA, to travel over into Afghanistan. And if they're having to use them to fight, against the Pakistan military and the frontier corps, they certainly aren't of use here.
And we have pretty good evidence that the weapons prices, for instance, have almost doubled. Weapons and ammunition has almost doubled since last summer. So that's a great sign, because there's only so much that they can do, if they can't pay their fighters, if they can't buy weapons.
That's one of the big things that's happened in the Korengal Valley, is they've got no money. And it's hard for them to come across, and it's because of some pretty successful operations that the 1-26 Infantry Blue Spaders have done in the central Kunar.
MR. WHITMAN: Luis, go ahead.
Q Colonel, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. There is discussion about changing the emphasis or the use of air strikes in tactical situations in Afghanistan. Can you discuss how that might have impacted your operations? Because obviously, that's a situation with a tactical commander who has to make that judgment call when he feels he may have to be overrun -- which I think is what they're leaning towards right now, that the issue of air strikes would be limited to only when troops would be overrun. Could you discuss that, sir?
COL. SPISZER: Yeah, I think that in air strikes and other operations and the current emphasis from the new COM-ISAF is -- I think it's just entirely in line with what we have to do. We have to show restraint. We have to ensure that we do everything we can to defeat the enemy, protect the innocent and/or allow our soldiers to protect themselves. And there is definitely a balance in there.
And I don't think it's going to change much the way operations are done in this region because, generally speaking, where we have used air strikes and where we are generally fighting the enemy is not in the vicinity of most of the populated areas. It ends up being further into the mountains. We have -- we've created some space I think where most of the population is safe. And when we do use air strikes -- and it's pretty much we're toe-to-toe with the enemy and it's up in the mountains.
So I don't think it's going to change a lot with how this AO is run and fought and we work the counterinsurgency strategy. It's the right emphasis. It's something that we try and do and we inculcate in all our soldiers, from the lowest private on when he shoots his rifle, all the way up to the leader deciding to drop a bomb, is the element of restraint and the impact it has on the overall campaign.
It's just receiving a well-timed and good emphasis, I think, at this point.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, Colonel, we are approaching the end of our time. And I did want to take a minute or two to send it back to you and see if you have any final thoughts as your unit's getting ready to complete their mission and return home.
COL. SPISZER: Yeah. I've been pretty positive. There's a lot of work to be done. (The building ?) in this area is not as easy as I -- as, you know, it sounds. And gaining faith in this government and the security forces after 30 years of conflict is not an easy task either. So there's a lot to be done. And we still need a lot of support.
And I'd like to thank the Pentagon press corps at this time for helping us keep the American and international publics informed of what we've been doing over this past year. We've been working to keep America safe and help the people of Afghanistan.
And finally, one more time I'd like to thank our soldiers, especially the soldiers of Task Force Duke, their families, and then the public at large, for all the great and continued hard work and support we've received. Thanks. And duty first.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you, Colonel. And we wish you a speedy and safe redeployment. Thank you.
COL. SPISZER: Thanks.
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