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DoD News Briefing with Brig. Gen. Middendorp at the Pentagon Briefing Room, via Teleconference from Afghanistan

Presenters: Outgoing Commander, Task Force Uruzgan in Southern Afghanistan, Dutch Army Brig. Gen. Tom Middendorp
August 04, 2009
            BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary for Public Affairs): General, we have a good picture of you. Let's just make sure you can hear us okay. It's Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. 
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Okay. Thank you. I hear you fine. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Thank you, General, for joining us this afternoon -- it's noon here, this evening your time -- and for being so flexible with your schedule. I know that we moved this around a little bit.   
 
            To the press corps here, this is Brigadier General Tom Middendorp -- I hope I said that right -- from the Netherlands. He is the commander of the task force in Southern Afghanistan. He and his troops are responsible for the security and stability operations in Regional Command South. He took command in February of this year and is now finishing up his time in Afghanistan. He's currently speaking to us from Kandahar Air Field, where he's offered to give us an update in terms of what his unit's been doing and to take a few questions. 
 
            So General, again, thank you for joining us. And let me just turn it over to you. 
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Okay, thank you. It's good to be here. 
 
            As you said, I just had a change of command yesterday of the Task Force Uruzgan. Uruzgan is a province also in the south of Afghanistan. It neighbors the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. And I would say it's the poorest province of one of the poorest countries in the world. And if you walk through that province, it's like walking through the Old Testament. But it's also the homeland of Mullah Omar, which is the chief of the Taliban.  It's the homeland of President Karzai. So it's not an unimportant province.   
 
            And I've been here two years ago, I've been here now again, and I see a big difference. I see a big difference in the security situation and I see a change of efforts towards development, and I see a big difference in the attitude of the population. When I was here two years ago, we had a lot of fighting to do in Uruzgan, but now the resistance of the Taliban in that province seems to be broken and they have shifted more towards roadside bombs, towards rocket attacks and intimidation.   
 
            But we can provide the population with much more security now, and what's even better is that the Afghan security forces can now take over. Two years ago there was no ANA, no Afghan army in that province, and now there is almost a full brigade that is respected by the population, and it's taking more and more a security role in the province. And we're now shifting efforts to also training the police and improving their performance.   
 
            Overall, we now cover about 75, 80 percent of the population that have a more secure environment. And within those secure areas, we shift efforts to development. And there is an increasing number of NGO/IOs coming into the province. We have now added up to about 50 organizations that have stated working there, that find it safe enough and secure enough to do their work there, which is a very good sign of progress. And even the U.N. has just opened their office there.   
 
            So I'm very positive and I can look back at a very good period. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: All right. General, thank you for that overview, and we'll take some questions here. We'll start with Andrew from Reuters. 
 
            Q     General, it's Andrew Gray from Reuters. Can you just give us an overview of the security situation in Oruzgan? How many incidents are there on a daily or weekly or monthly basis? And how has that changed over your time in command, and compared to two years ago? 
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Well, when I was here two years ago, we had many incidents daily. Up to now, we have had about a thousand troops in contact over the last three years.   
 
            But if I look at it during my time, within the secure areas where we operate, we hardly have any troops in contact. We only had incidents. We had the roadside bombs. These were quite frequent, one or two a week. We found many of those bombs, but also some strikes we had to suffer.   
 
            But the -- what's the big change compared to two years ago is that they hardly attack us anymore.  So two years ago, when we went out of the base, we were guaranteed to be in a troops in contact situation, and now when we go out, they don't attack us. We only have to be careful for roadside bombs. 
 
            Q     Can I just follow up that? What needs to happen next in Oruzgan to get to the next phase? What -- you know, what steps need to be taken to build some kind of lasting security and stability there and to allow your troops to go home finally? 
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Well, what's very important is, one, a population-centric approach, which we have done from the start. So we've focused on the populated areas. We didn't want to cover the whole province, but we focused at the capital, at the main villages in Oruzgan. We made sure that these people felt secure, that they felt more confident in their governance and in the security forces.   
 
            And once that was established, once the NGOs could take over within and the ANA and the ANP could take over, we started expanding. So in the last eight months, we were able to double the size of the secure areas, which is a very good improvement.   
 
            What needs to be happening is that the Afghan ownership takes over, that the Afghans take charge in the security. And I'm very pleased with the progress we can make.  
 
            With the brigade commander that we have, I go out there almost three times a week. We visit the bases. We visit the villages. That gives good bonding, but that also gives him more visibility. And his unit is becoming more capable to take over within those secure areas so that ISAF can focus on expanding these areas to the more outer district. 
 
            Q     Sir, Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg News. 
 
            What are some of your greatest equipment needs in the region in terms of helicopters, greater lift, better IED detection equipment, MRAPS, mini-MRAPS to blunt those bombs? What are some of your major needs? 
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Well, the enemy number one now is the roadside bomb. And so there's a constant battle going on to defeat that threat. 
 
            We have developed several capabilities -- search capabilities, investigation capabilities. We do more targeting of the networks behind the IEDs. 
 
            And I must say that the U.S. brought some great capabilities into the southern region. They brought the road-clearing packages, which are of great help. And within the province of Oruzgan they brought an aviation battalion, which gives us much more mobility to be -- to have an element of surprise in our operations. And that's what -- exactly what we needed. 
 
            Q    Follow-up question. Do you need more transport helicopters from NATO nations rather than simply U.S. assets? And are you pressing any NATO nations to bring in more lift? 
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Yeah, there are never enough helicopters. We have some Dutch helicopters. We got a Dutch Apache detachment. We got Dutch transport helicopters. But there are never enough, so I'm very pleased with the aviation battalion that moved in, which brought us additional transport capacity, but also additional Apache helicopters and additional Kiowas. So in all fields we are now sufficiently served. 
 
            Q     Do you have the capability to go after the networks because of their ability to fire Hellfire missiles and track targets on the ground? 
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Yeah, to fight the networks, of course, the intel is -- is of essence. If you got good intel, then you can target them. But you really need to build the target packages. And once you have those target packages, then you need the SF units to move in and to take them out. 
 
            We got three types of special forces units in the province, and they really play a crucial role because now we have succeeded and separated the Taliban from the population. The Taliban has been moved out to more the outer areas of the province. It's for the special forces to interdict them, to take out their leadership, to take out their logistics, but also to target the ID networks. And they're doing great job in that. In my period, they had about 15 leaders of the Taliban taken out.  
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Jim? 
 
            Q     Sir, this is Jimmy Garamone, with American Forces Press Service. Oruzgan  is right in the center of the country, you've got Helmand and Kandahar bordering you. With the operations in those provinces are squeezing the Taliban -- is that making your problem that much more difficult? 
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: No, I'm very pleased about the -- with all the progress being made in Helmand and Kandahar. The whole increase of U.S. forces means that also in Helmand and Kandahar we can cover larger parts of those provinces. It means we can more effectively interdict the lines of communications of the Taliban towards Pakistan. And that makes it much harder for the Taliban to change leadership in Uruzgan, to provide logistics to Uruzgan. And they have to concentrate their forces in their main effort, and their main effort is Helmand and Kandahar. So all the work that's being done there sets the conditions for success in Uruzgan. 
 
            So I'm very grateful to be part of this region, and for all the work that's being done there. They -- they take away the attention of the Taliban and they allow me to make much more progress on the side of development. 
 
            Q     Sir, just a follow-up. What are the nationalities in Task Force for Uruzgan? 
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Well, the main players in Task Force Uruzgan is, of course, the Dutch, which is the lead nation; but next to that, the Australians. They got a great force there, the MRTF, and they focus at the mentoring of the ANA. And they got some combat teams going with that, with all the enablers, to further build on the ANA. Then we got a French unit, also a mentoring team for the ANA. 
 
            And we got Australian special forces, got American special forces. So we've got a different kind of capabilities in the area. And we had great cooperation. And I really have seen that multinationality can work. 
 
            Q     Hello, General. This is Shin Shoji (ph) from NHK Japan. Given how President Obama has struggled to get support for NATO with regards to the Afghanistan war, what kind of positive experience you could bring back to your country in -- with regards to, you know, your continued support or the future direction of your involvement? 
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Can you repeat the question? I couldn't hear it. 
 
            Q     Given your comments about how much positive progress you've made in your tour of duty in Afghanistan, but -- and given that many European countries are not supportive towards the continued involvement in Afghanistan war, what kind of reflections or what kind of insights could you take back to your country as to whether they should be involved in the war in the future or not? 
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Well, that's a real political question that I can't answer. I think we are making a good contribution now. We were about to leave last year. The Netherlands were to end their contribution in the south, but they decided to extend their stay there. And I think it's very good, because now we can take all the fruits of the hard work from the last few years. And next year there is another decision moment for the Dutch government to decide what to do next and if they want to end the mission. 
 
            Q     Thank you. Can you -- Dan De Luce from Agence France-Presse -- can you tell us what the outlook is there as the election approaches? What is the -- what are some security challenges you're facing related to the election and election campaigning?   
 
            And then, since you've been -- since you have some perspective over time, what is your impression of the attitude of Afghans or the Afghans that you speak to or the local leaders about turnout and about sort of their perspective, their perception of the elections? Is there -- in some parts of the country, you hear that there's a certain amount of pessimism or resignation or lack of enthusiasm about the election. 
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Yeah. Well, it differs very much per village and per district. You see that the voter registration which we had earlier this year was quite successful. A lot of additional voters registered, compared to the elections four years ago. If I look at all the preparations, not everybody is aware that the elections are upcoming. But you see it now growing. There is a growing attention for the elections.   
 
            And what we did, in Oruzgan, we sat together with the key leaders, with the governor, with the chief of the army, chief of the police, the chief of the NDS, the intelligence service, and the chief of the IEC. And the IEC is the Independent Election Committee. And we sat together and we looked at the map on how can we cover most of the population in the province? How can we enable them to cast their votes? And we made a good cooperation there.   
 
            So the cooperation between the positioning of all the polling centers and the security that can be provided by the Afghan security forces in ISAF -- and I think we now have a disposition of polling centers that covers at least 85 percent of the population. And all the polling centers can be secured by ANSF and by ISAF presence, which I think is a very good result.  
 
            With those leaders we sat together in several sessions, and the police developed a plan to do the close protection of all these polling centers. The ANA developed a plan to provide tier 2 protection, which is the wider area protection. And ISAF has a tier 3, tier 4 role, which means air cover and a quick reaction force.   
 
            But we really want this to be Afghan elections. We don't want to create the impression that ISAF is influencing that in any way. So it's Afghan-organized, it's Afghan-secured, as much as possible. 
 
            Q     All right. And then what about the second part of my question, about the attitudes of Afghans that you speak to, their attitude towards the election and the atmosphere? 
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Yeah. Well, though -- it's what I said -- they are not all aware of the elections yet. But you see the fever is rising now towards the election. You see that several people are campaigning in the province, not the members themselves, not President Karzai or the other members, but they have people who do that for them. So there is increasing awareness that the elections are coming. 
 
            Q     General, it's Jim Garamone again. The development efforts that you spoke about and, I guess, the U.N. office that opened up -- is that effective? We haven't really heard an awful lot from Ambassador Kai Eide lately. 
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Well, Ambassador Kai Eide was here to open it, and it was only a few months ago. They're -- so they're getting it up and running. But what I see is that they are taking over the coordination with the increasing number of NGOs and IOs in the area, and the good cooperation with the PRTs. Until now the PRT did that, the Dutch Provincial Reconstruction Team, and now, where possible, they take over. They live in Tarin Kowt itself, in the capital of Oruzgan. So they live with -- between the population. And I'm very pleased with not only the presence but also with the people leading that agency, because they are very cooperative and they are well -- very willing and eager to take charge on the development side. And it's really needed.  
 
            I think the security environment in Oruzgan has changed in such a way that from 20 to 30 to now almost 50 organizations find it secure enough to come. So the U.N. should increase their role and should take charge in that.   
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Luis.   
 
            Q     General, this is Luis Martinez of ABC News.   
 
            You talked about the fever for the election rising. What are some of the issues? What are some of the local issues that politicians are campaigning for?   
 
            And you spoke about representatives for the national races? Are these personalities that are being projected? Or are they campaigning? What are the distinguishing issues that separate the candidates, as far as you can tell?   
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Yeah. Well, the main candidate in Uruzgan is, of course, President Karzai because he's born there and he has all the contacts there. So for him, it's the easiest or one of the easiest provinces to do his campaigning. And to what extent they are aware of other candidates, it's very hard to assess.   
 
            So that's harder to answer. What I do see is that the attitude of the population is changing, not only towards the elections but also towards the government and towards ISAF. They were two years ago very reluctant to be in contact with us, with the government.   
 
            There is enormous illiteracy in the province. More than 90 percent cannot write or read. So it's very basic, what you do there. And they have had 30 years of conflict. They know if they make a choice, if it's the wrong choice, they will be punished for it.  
 
            So they're very careful in making their choices, and very careful in choosing sides. And the positive news is that after two or three years now, especially in the secure areas, they really start making that choice, and they start opening up. And they also start getting the Taliban out of their areas and being less receptive towards them.   
 
            So I see change in the population coming up.   
 
            Q     You spoke early about how the Taliban has been pushed to the fringes of the province. Do you think you've now successfully separated the population from the Taliban, so that then you can proceed to the next level, I guess, of clear, hold and build -- into the hold phase? And how long do you think that process is going to take?   
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Well, that takes a long time. What I've learned there is that there are no quick fixes. If you clear an area, the area is not clear. If you hold an area, you -- it takes time to really hold it.   
 
            So after a clear operation -- the clear operations are always successful, but then comes the hard part. And that's to maintain a presence in the area and to gain the trust of the population. And that took us two years in the secure areas that we were in.   
 
            Now you see the population making a choice. And now you can move through the hold phase. And in that hold phase, the ANSF, the Afghan security forces take over, and the development organizations move in, and ISAF moves out. ISAF moves towards expanding these areas.   
 
            But it's a process of years, and it's a process of gaining trust of the population, of having many, many interactions with the population. And it's also a process of being there day and night.  
 
            So in my period, we move towards a sustainable presence all over the area. We've got 17 patrol bases in the area covering the whole area where the population lives, and from these patrol bases, we patrol every day.   
 
            We don't do many big operations, but we do many small operations. And we do multiple-day patrolling. We're also there during the nights. We go into the greens with foot patrols and get out of our vehicles, and that way the populations really see your presence. They really feel the security that you bring. And then, if you do that over a longer period, they start trusting you. But it takes time. There are no golden bullets that give a quick solution. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, we do want to thank you for taking the time, particularly at the end of your tour here, to give us some insight into the southern region. It's a perspective that can only come with the amount of time that you've had on the ground there.   
 
            Before I bring it to a close, though, let me just ask and see if you have any final comments that you'd like to make to the U.S. Defense press corps here.   
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: (Laughs.) Well, I think General McChrystal -- I met him -- I think he made a great choice. And the great choice is that he chose for a population-centric approach. And counterinsurgency is all about population. And we have taken that approach during the last few years, and we have seen that it works if you have patience.   
 
            If you look at the number of Taliban, less than 1 percent of the population is related to Taliban, meaning that 99 percent-plus is not related to Taliban, so we should not treat them as potential enemies, but we should treat them as potential friends and start gaining their trust. And that's the way -- that's the road General McChrystal has chosen, and that's the road I fully concur to. I think that's the right road to do. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Again, thank you, General, and we wish you and your troops a safe and speedy redeployment.   
 
            GEN. MIDDENDORP: Okay. Thank you very much.
 
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