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DOD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Fritz and Col. Mulholland via Teleconference from Afghanistan

Presenters: Commanding General, Regional Command-North, German Maj. Gen. Hans-Werner Fritz and Deputy Commander, Regional Command-North, Col. Sean Mulholland (USA)
September 21, 2010

                 COL. DAVID LAPAN (deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations):  Good morning here at the Pentagon, and good evening in Afghanistan. 

                 I'd like to welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room German Major General Hans-Werner Fritz, the commanding general for Regional Command-North.  General Fritz assumed his duties in Afghanistan on June 20th.  This is his -- the second time he has joined us in this format; an attempt last month was cut short because of some of the same technical difficulties.  He joins us today from his headquarters at Mazar-e Sharif to provide an update on current operations. 

                 Joining General Fritz is his deputy commander, U.S. Army Colonel Sean Mulholland. 

                 They will make some opening comments and then take your questions. 

                 And with that, sir, I'll turn it over to you. 

                 GEN. FRITZ:  Thank you very much indeed.  Good morning to Washington, and thank you very much indeed for the opportunity to talk to you. 

                 As I was introduced, I'm Major General Hans-Werner Fritz.  And my responsibility in Germany -- (audio break from source) -- of specialized operations.  The divisional HQ is seated in Hesse. 

                 Just to give you an idea about Regional Command, about the size of Regional Command, Regional Command-North has about the size of the federal states of Wyoming or Nevada.  And in the Regional Command-North there live about one-third of the Afghan population, so we are talking about 6 to 7 million people.  The biggest city is here Mazar-e Sharif with 330,000, followed by Kunduz with about 80,000. 

                 I have under command now nearly 11,000 troops from 16 countries, so we are a truly multinational task force.  In my HQ here in Mazar-e Sharif I have about 400 people.  Again, we are a multinational HQ. And at the moment, we are still in a restructuring phase because I'm the first two-star general, as you have already mentioned. 

                 And the idea behind all this, the restructuring, the aim is to get a broader basis, not only to fulfill our military tasks but also for better -- to better fulfill our civilian tasks. 

                 Of course, during the last days we were very much focused on the elections to support the Afghan security forces.  Otherwise, during the last month we dealt very much with clear operations in our hot spots, and I think we made -- we made good progress on that.  And we support and help also the civilian population. 

                 I have to say in summary, in these hot spots it's a tough fighting. The Taliban, they are serious enemies.  On the other hand, I must say our troops -- and I'm more than proud of this -- our troops are doing very, very well.  They are highly motivated.  They are doing well. They are a good partner.  They are working close together.  And I must say we are one team, and I'm the proud commander of that. 

                 Thank you. 

                 COL. MULHOLLAND:  I'm Colonel Sean Mulholland.  As introduced, I am the deputy commander of RC-North.  I got here in late April of this year with the U.S. force flow that came in here, specifically talking big elements, 1-10th Mountain Brigade Combat Team [1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division] and also the 4th Cav [Cavalry] Aviation -- Combat Aviation Brigade. 

                 That has been a game changer up here in RC-North.  As General Fritz pointed out, this is the -- in my opinion, the most NATO RC. PRTs are commanded by several different countries -- Germany, Norway, Hungary and Sweden -- for the PRTs that are out there. 

                 The U.S. infantry, 1-10th Mountain, they are -- they are partners -- their main task -- they're not battlespace owners at all.  In RC-North, the PRT commanders are battlespace owners.  They are partnered with ANP [Afghan National Police].  The reason -- their major task is to raise the level or capability of the Afghan National Police, and they've done a great job so far. 

                 The 4th Cav -- before the arrival of the 4th Cav, RC-North didn't have a lot of aviation up here to get around a large expanse of land. It is quite difficult to get around RC-North.  With the 4th Cav, they've brought a lot of combat power, a lot of agility, a lot of movement and mobility, and obviously more freedom of action, to include casualty evacuation for coalition forces, ANA [Afghan National Army], and also Afghan civilians. 

                 There are a lot more capabilities up here.  In the beginning, in June/July/August, and now they are all FOC [full operational capability].  And RC-North has been going through a transformation, as the general stated, in staff as well as how we -- how we go after the enemy, and obviously drive a wedge between the enemy and innocent Afghan civilians. 

                 The other lines of operation that we work, in accordance with General Petraeus' guidance, is development, governance, and security. We do well on all fronts in RC-North, and I think we're making a difference. 

                 Over to you. 

                 COL. LAPAN:  Okay.  Thank you, gentlemen. 

                 Daphne. 

                 Q     General, Colonel, this is Daphne Benoit with Agence France-Presse. 

                 I would be interested in getting your assessment of the insurgency in your area of responsibility.  It seems like the level of violence is -- keeps on growing in the north of Afghanistan.  How do you explain that?  And maybe you have statistics to -- you know, to compare with last year, for example. 

                 And can you talk a little bit about, you know, the Taliban tactics?  Do they enjoy more and more support in the population?  Do they have more and more weaponry? 

                 GEN. FRITZ:  Yeah, thanks for the question. 

                 Just to start with, indeed, the level of violence has increased over the last month, and especially in June and July we had a lot of incidents.  You asked me what could be the reasons for that.  I think there are some. 

                 First and foremost, we have, as DCOM [Deputy Commander Col. Sean Mulholland] has already mentioned, now more troops in the field.  These are the Americans, also the ones from Germany and all the other nations.  And I'm always telling people, if you have more boots on the ground, the -- you see what is ongoing, what I always call the white spots on the map. 

                 The white spot doesn't mean there is nothing.  A white spot means there is something, and you have to find that out.  And this is exactly what we're doing.  So it is provoking some reactions.  Another thing is that we are now -- we have finished the season, the harvest -- the harvest season, and there might be some more -- there might be some more broader recruiting basis for the Taliban as well. 

                 But my feeling is we are doing very well.  Possibly we are reaching something, what I would like to call the "culmination point." And I'm sure if we have reached that long, it -- we're getting better in the end. 

                 Concerning the tactics of the Taliban, again, mostly IEDs or small-arms fire or both linked together.  But my point is that our troops in the field, they are prepared for that.  They are well-prepared.  They are undergoing good training.  They are highly motivated.  And I think we are successful in fighting these guys now. 

                 But again, we have an increase in the incidents, and we have a careful eye on that. There are some hot spots in my area of responsibility.  One is, for instance, Kunduz-Bagram area.  Another area is the one west of Mazar-e Sharif.  And if you go further to the west than our AOO [area of operations], we have -- (name inaudible). 

                 Q     Thank you. 

                 Q     If I may follow up, sir, do you see possible progress by the end of the year, given the fact that there are more troops now on the ground, as you said?  Or should we expect the level of violence to go on like this in the coming months? 

                 GEN. FRITZ:  Of course, we are -- we are operating in order to get the level of violence down.  And you asked me in the first part of your question what about the population, how do they react.  And I can tell you, talking to the people in the villages, my impression is -- and this is also true, I think, for all the others in the field -- these people are war-tired.  What they want to have is a little bit of peace.  They want to have security.  And they want to see their childrens growing up, which is absolutely normal.  And they have cooperated. 

                 What we must be aware, when we conduct operations, we are most successful in talking to these people -- what is our plan, what is our intention, and what do they need.  And if we -- if we are doing this, I think we are successful with the clear operations. 

                 Then it is important to have enough forces for the holding phase. That means they have to stay in the area, not to allow the Taliban's coming back.  But this is exactly what the people need. 

                 Back to you. 

                 COL. LAPAN:  Mike. 

                 Q     Mike Evans from The London Times. 

                 General, do you anticipate at any stage in the near future conducting what is -- the sort of operation that's going on in Kandahar; in other words, a fairly major campaign?  Is there a requirement for that in any part of your area of responsibility? 

                 And also, could I ask you, how -- 

                 (Technical difficulties.) 

                 GEN. FRITZ:  I'll start with answering the first part of your question. 

                 It always depends what one understands by "major operation."  I mean, if you see the whole of the theater, it's quite clear that the operational point of main effort is definitely in the south. You have mentioned Kandahar, and there are other places. 

                 But if you take the north and what's ongoing here, of course we have -- we have also major operations, but not in such a broad extent of troops as it is done in Kandahar.  My plan is -- the plan of Combined Team North is to start operations in October, again in our hot spots, to get the better standing, so to speak, in that area and to get the INS [insurgents] out. 

                 COL. LAPAN:  Mike, you want to take this second one again? 

                 Q     The second question, General, sorry.  How long do you anticipate German troops operating in northern Afghanistan? 

                 GEN. FRITZ:  As long as we are needed.  And I think we will stay here as long as our allies are here.  There's no doubt about that. I'm more than sure that Germany wouldn't make a sole decision to pull out.  There is no reason to think that. 

                 Q     General and Colonel, this is David Wood from PoliticsDaily.com. 

                 I was interested, General, in your reference to what I think you said was a culminating point.  Can you tell us a little bit more about the Taliban and other insurgents in your area?  Are they well-supplied?  Are they well-fed?  Are they expanding?  Or are they starting to give up? 

                 GEN. FRITZ:  First of all, of course, there is supply incoming to -- for the Talibans.  My impression is that they have obviously enough money to buy weapons and to buy ammunition.  Whether this is endless or not it is difficult to predict.  But they get, obviously, support in that respect.  And I think, if we continue with our operations, of course the power of the Talibans will get less. 

                 Q     (Off mike.) 

                 COL. LAPAN:  Colonel Mulholland, the question was whether you wanted to add to that. 

                 COL. MULHOLLAND:  What I see with the Taliban is their resources are finite.  It depends on what area you're talking about.  Our forces, with our partners -- and all our operations are partnered with -- either we ANP or ANA -- are going after a lot of the supply lines, the rat lines that come in through RC-North. 

                 To talk about the culmination points, in many areas, they are close to being -- we are close to a culmination point where -- or a tipping point in terms of -- in terms of the Taliban thinking about giving up. 

                 I work a lot of issues with reintegration.  I'm the lead for RC-North.  And I see -- I deal with a lot of issues where we talk to the Taliban that don't want to fight anymore.  And you get a -- I get a better sense from former fighters that they're tired of fighting. 

                 There are the irreconcilables, Taliban that will never change their path.  And those are, obviously, hard targets that will never change their opinion about fighting ISAF and trying to disrupt the Afghan government. 

                 However, the mid-level fighters, there are many opportunities to persuade them.  And as we go -- get it better with governance and development and security up here in RC-North, there are many opportunities to persuade them to take another path i.e., reconciliation or reintegration.  We're starting to see a lot of progress in those two areas. 

                 Over to you. 

                 Q     Sir, this is Michael Carden from American Forces Press Service. 

                 You said -- Colonel Mulholland, you said in your opening remarks that the main effort there, the NATO forces, is partnering with the Afghan police.  And then, just to get a little clarity on your last comment, do you think U.S. troops will be able to meet Obama's timeline of July 2011 to transition?  And if not, when do you think that would be possible? 

                 COL. MULHOLLAND:  What General Petraeus stated -- and I agree with him -- is that July 2011 is not the start of withdrawal; it's the start of talking about transition.  I don't see U.S. troops drawing down anywhere in Afghanistan until General Petraeus gives us the order. 

                 And I don't see any kind of drastic drawdowns forthcoming in the next few years.  It's going to have to be a timed, phased withdrawal, obviously taking security into account. 

                 That's my opinion on that.  Over to you. 

                 Q     This is Tejinder Singh from AHN Media. 

                 Despite repeated admissions by American leaders that al Qaeda core is in Pakistan, why are we still in Afghanistan?  And then, even for Taliban, it's mostly foot soldiers, not top leadership in Afghanistan. 

                 And the other question is, how are you selling the idea of this continued presence to German population? 

                 And the third question is, there is a new NATO strategy developing in Brussels.  Will you like to comment on that? 

                 GEN. FRITZ:  First of all, why are -- why are we in Afghanistan? As a soldier, there's a simple answer:  that I've got a mission to be there and to make sure that the security situation in Afghanistan is improving.  And at the same time, this will improve the security situation of our home countries.  This is why I am there. 

                 And I think to convince the soldiers, they are seeing every day what is ongoing here.  And I think this is true not only for the German soldiers, but as well for the Americans and all the others. They see the progress with what we are -- which are we making.  These are -- they are steady steps, but they are irreversible. 

                 And I think the public in Germany, they are seeing also what is ongoing here.  We are reporting on what we are doing, and I think we are supported by our public, and this is most important for the soldiers. 

                 Back to you. 

                 Q     About the NATO -- I have another last question that was -- there's a new NATO strategy developing in Brussels.  Would you like to comment on that, like a curtain-raiser? 

                 GEN. FRITZ:  I don't feel in a position to comment on the new NATO strategy, and I'm not sure what you are meaning.  Sorry. 

                 Q     Raghubir Goyal from India Globe and Asia Today. 

                 My question, again, is that you had just elections in Afghanistan; if this election has changed the mood of the people towards your staying in Afghanistan; and also if Taliban has changed their mood or if people have changed their mood against the Taliban? And finally, the international community meeting this week in New York at the United Nations, if you have any message for those leaders who are meeting there from around the globe. 

                 GEN. FRITZ:  First of all, we have to bear in mind today we are on day two after the elections.  It is a little bit early to make a final assessment or final statement. 

                 But what I can say definitely, this was -- the 18th of September was an important day for the Afghan people, and they did it very, very well.  We think this is the first step; that about 40 percent of the people went on voting, and among them a lot of women.  I've seen some of the polling centers, and it was amazing how many people went to these places to vote with the famous ink finger. 

                 And I can tell you, if you take into consideration that these people did this although they were threatened by the Taliban on life and limbs, I find this amazing.  This was a big success. 

                 And I think it was also a success for the Afghan security forces. They did very, very, very well. 

                 Of course, we did support them, but this is why we're here for. 

                 If I think back the last weeks and months before the elections, we had so many meetings with the Afghans.  And my impression was that they took the election matter very, very serious.  They were deep into the details. 

                 I was talking -- you have to know, in Regional Command-North, there are nine provinces.  And I was talking to eight out of nine provincial governors.  And I was more than -- more than delighted and happy to hear how they are aware -- how they were aware of their security situation, how they dealt with it, how close the cooperation with their police, their ANA, and their NDS [National Directorate of Security] was.  So from that point of view, I can only say big success, and congratulations Afghanistan. We have shown then together, the Afghans and us, that the Taliban will not succeed. 

                 Q     On the United Nations -- meeting at the United Nations, including President Obama will be there to speak to the global leaders, is there anything you want to add as far as security and security in Afghanistan is concerned? 

                 GEN. FRITZ:  I can say, we will everything -- we will do everything to fulfill our job.  That's my message. 

                 Q     Lalit Jha with Pajhwok Afghan News. 

                 You said in your remarks that a lot of Taliban fighters are now thinking about giving up, and you also talked about the Taliban don't have enough money to buy equipments and weapons.  What's the basis of arriving at such a conclusion?  Can you explain to it? 

                 COL. MULHOLLAND:  Through intelligence assessments and actually talking to the locals out there, the ANP, the ANA -- Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, and through their intelligence sources -- you know, we share a lot of information, and there is a lot of indicators that the Taliban in certain areas are absolutely out of equipment.  And it was a long, hard fighting season this summer, as you know.  But there's not -- their resources are absolutely finite. And you see it in information reports a lot -- that they're out of bullets, they're out of food, they're out of money in certain areas, especially up here in RC-North. 

                 Over. 

                 Q     And also, sir, what -- can you give us a sense of the progress being made by ANA and ANP in your part of the country? 

                 GEN. FRITZ:  First of all, my impression is, being now there for three months in command, that the ANA and the ANP, they are improving every day.  If I -- if I take alone all the briefings we are doing together, I mean, we are partnered with them.  The quality of the work they are doing there, this is really impressive. 

                 And if you go down to the ground -- and I'm talking to my battalion commanders, my task force commanders -- they are fighting with the Afghans shoulder to shoulder.  And there is a -- now we have reached a high degree of mutual trust and confidence.  And if you take into consideration we are talking about people -- young people from completely different cultures, it's really amazing how well it works. 

                 Though the -- my bottom line is the Afghans, they are doing very well.  They are learning a lot.  They are very supportive. And I think they do what they can, really to improve the situation here.  And they are well aware of what is this all about.  It's about Afghanistan. 

                 COL. MULHOLLAND:  I also would like to add to that.  It's a function of improving training and improving partnering throughout the -- throughout ISAF and Afghanistan with our ANA and ANP partners. 

                 I've had four tours here in Afghanistan.  The first tour, ANA and ANP were not up to standard.  This fourth tour, I come back and I am absolutely surprised at the quality of their training that they're now receiving coming out of Kabul in their school systems, as we help them develop their military academies, NCO academies, officer academies, et cetera.  They are really starting to peak in terms of officer and NCO professional development and leader training. 

                 The other factor is the partnering.  General Petraeus is absolutely on top of and emphasizing partnering with our Afghan partners, whether it be police, ABP -- Afghan Border Police -- or ANA -- Afghan National Army.  And everyone understands that in ISAF and understands the standards of partnering.  So I think we, as ISAF, are getting better at partnering and helping our Afghan brothers improve in terms of combat ops and security ops. 

                 Over to you. 

                 Q     Yes.  This is Daphne Benoit again with Agence France-Presse. 

                 Earlier this month, NATO launched a strike in your area of responsibility and NATO claimed that it killed some militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.  Yet at the time, President Karzai said that it had killed civilians and wounded one candidate to the elections.  Is there any more clarity on what really happened? 

                 COL. MULHOLLAND:  That incident is still under investigation, and we can't comment on that right now. 

                 Q     Can I just ask you to clarify, as far as the troop levels that you see in RC-North?  I think earlier you made a comment about July 2011, but I think you were talking about the country at large. Do you foresee any significant change to troop levels in your AOR within the next 12 months? 

                 GEN. FRITZ:  No, I wouldn't, because you have already got the figures we have now, especially in view to the American troops which come in.  The German troops, we have now risen our level up to 5,000, and I think this is the level we will keep for the time being.  I see no significant change in that. 

                 Q     General, this is Raghubir Goyal again. 

                 I just need a clarification that -- don't you think when you are saying about changing the mission or withdrawing in July 2011, don't you think it's sending a wrong signal to the Talibans and al Qaedas? Because then they'll be waiting for that period to attack. 

                 COL. MULHOLLAND:  No one -- no one said that we are withdrawing in July 2011.  I stated that there won't be any withdrawal in July 2011; that General Petraeus has stated that that is the mark to start talking and planning about transition.  So there is no -- not going to be a withdrawal in July 2011. 

                 GEN. FRITZ:  And no change in the mission. 

                 COL. MULHOLLAND:  And no change in the mission for RC-North nor ISAF forces. 

                 GEN. FRITZ:  Yes. 

                 COL. MULHOLLAND:  Over to you. 

                 Q     Mike Evans from the London Times. 

                 If I could just clarify that a little bit, because Robert Gates himself has said categorically in public statements that there will definitely be withdrawal of some American troops from Afghanistan from July 2011. 

                 COL. MULHOLLAND:  What Secretary Gates said I can't comment on. All I know is what our commander said, COMISAF [Commander, ISAF], and I think in General Petraeus' mind it's -- July 2011 is a mark to start planning about withdrawal, and it doesn't mean that troops will start moving in July 2011.  That's how I read it. 

                 Over. 

                 Q     Yes, Colonel.  My name is Meredith Buel.  I'm a correspondent with the Voice of America.  Thanks for being with us this evening. 

                 Colonel, you mentioned earlier that, in talking to the locals, intelligence officials and Afghan security forces, that you have information that the Taliban is running out of equipment, that their resources are finite.  I'm just curious as to what your intelligence tells you with regards to where the Taliban in the north is being resourced from.  Where are they getting their ammunition and their guns and the resources to build the IEDs?  And is there any evidence that any of that is coming from Iran? 

                 COL. MULHOLLAND:  I can't -- I haven't seen any evidence that there are materials coming from Iran.  The grand majority of the materials are coming from Pakistan. 

                 Over. 

                 COL. LAPAN:  All right.  Gentlemen, with the late start, we've taken an extra 45 minutes of your time, so I will send it back to you for any closing remarks you'd like to make. 

                 GEN. FRITZ:  Well, first of all, again, thank you very much that we had the opportunity to talk to you.  As the commander in Regional Command-North, I would like to thank you, your nations, especially to the U.S., for the support we are getting here.  I can tell you the cooperation between all of us is so close it couldn't be closer.  And I can only say I am very, very optimistic that we are on the right track and things are getting better. 

                 Thank you very much. 

                 COL. LAPAN:  All right.  Thank you.

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