COLONEL DAVID LAPAN (deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations): Just before we get started, we are being very creative with technology here. Obviously we have a very nice video picture, but what is happening is that they are not -- the two principals are not able to hear us directly. There’s a third person off camera who has a phone line that will relay the questions to the two principals. But we will be able to hear directly their answers.
So with that, good morning here in Washington and good evening in Afghanistan. I’d like to welcome to the Pentagon briefing room Italian Brigadier General Claudio Berto, who is the commanding general for Regional Command West.
General Berto assumed his duties in Afghanistan approximately five months ago, in April 2010. This is his first time joining us in this format. He will provide an update on current operations from his headquarters in Herat. General Berto will brief today, along with his deputy chief of staff for stability operations, Italian Colonel Vito Cracas. They will make some opening comments, and then we will take your questions.
And with that, sir, I’ll turn it over to you.
GEN. BERTO: Okay. I am Brigadier General Claudio Berto, RC West commander. My area of operation in the west of Afghanistan is more or less the -- shaped with the dimension of 400-kilometers by 400- kilometers. The amount of inhabitants are more or less 3.5 million, and the majority of them concentrated in the Herat province.
The other provinces are Badghis in north, Ghowr in the east, the less populated, and Farah in the south.
In the framework of the operation in Afghanistan, we are in economy of forces. And nevertheless, my main effort in the Badghis province -- up there we have deployed two task forces. Task Force North is an Italian task forces, and Task Force Badghis. The others are deployed in Shindand, in Farah, and we have only a PRT in Chaghcharan. That is the main city in Ghowr province.
The amount of ISAF soldiers under my command are 7,000, plus I’m partnering more or less 11,800 of ANSF. That means ANA, the army; ABP, the border police; and the ANP, the police, uniformed police.
STAFF: Colonel Cracas, would you like to make some introductory remarks?
COL. CRACAS: Good morning to all. I am Colonel Vito Cracas of the Italian Air Force, and I’m for Regional Command West deputy chief of staff of stability operations here at RC West.
For -- according to the NATO operation here in Afghanistan, I follow all governance and development aspects for General Berto, the RC West commander.
As said by the general, we have here four provinces. In Herat and Farah, we have the -- in Herat the Italian-led PRT and in Farah the U.S.-led PRT.
The PRT, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, are the so-called battle space owners for all aspect of governance and development. They work closely with the province governor, reinforcing their authority by developing projects for the Afghan people in accordance with the Afghan provincial strategic plans.
In other words, the PRTs are the way that donor nations are actually helping the people of Afghanistan. Herat is the economic engine of the western region, in the Italian PRT of Herat, considering the importance of this province, one of the richest in the -- all Afghanistan.
During this year there has been an outstanding collaboration between the Italian and U.S. personnel. The military have worked side by side developing many projects then funded by U.S. Army CERP money. The U.S. Army CERP, Commander Emergency Response Program, has been designed to enable local commanders in Afghanistan to respond to urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction requirement within their area of responsibility by carrying out programs that will immediately assist the population. Therefore, U.S. -- (inaudible) -- commander and the Italian PRT commander have worked closely together to develop many projects that have been delivered while others are in progress, and many more have already been studied.
COL. LAPAN: Okay. Anne?
Q: Can the general give us an update on security conditions in the region and how soon it might be before he thinks -- how soon it might be before NATO can begin to reduce the number of troops there?
GEN. BERTO: The security condition change from province to province. For example, in Herat, Herat city is a quite normal city, I would say also for our standards.
Of course, in the north, in which we have our main effort, the situation is worse. But we are able to keep under control. And we have developed a big effort, I would say, in fighting the enemy. And we were able to enlarge a so-called security bubble along the Murghab Valley for 20 kilometers. The result of that is that more or less 6,000 inhabitants were able to come back to their home and to their jobs.
The situation in Farah is different, because we say that in Farah there is an ideological insurgence, resistance. But with our task forces, we are able to keep under control the situation. I would say that it is not so bad.
GEN. BERTO: It depends how long that it takes to have effective ANSF forces. I think that it is a matter of years. It can start with a transition also tomorrow, but to empower the ANSF it takes more time, probably two or three years. It depends on the effort and on the materials, on the training that we are able to produce and to give to them.
COL. LAPAN: The next question.
Q: It’s Mike Evans from The London Times. In the north of Afghanistan, it was regarded as relatively stable maybe 12 months ago, but there’s been a lot of insurgent activity in the north in the last 12 months.
Has there been any indication of that sort of change in the western provinces?
STAFF: I’m sorry, could the moderator please repeat the question?
COL. LAPAN: Excuse me, I’ll try from here.
In the last 12 months or so, there has been an increase in insurgent activity in the north of Afghanistan. And the question was whether you are seeing similar increases and similar changes, over the last several months to a year, in western provinces.
GEN. BERTO: Yes, I have seen. There has been a sort of increasing of enemy activity. But the reason why is because we have more soldiers on the ground, and they can fight -- I mean the enemy can attack more soldiers. And that’s the reason why we have more incident.
But I have to say that the enemy has changed the way to attack us. Because since the last year, the majority of the attacks were conducted with the small-arms fire and RPG rockets.
Now, the TTPs that they have adopted are more IEDs. That means explosive mines on the ground, on the road. I’ve got five soldiers killed for this event and this kind of threat.
Q: (Inaudible) Sorry. One more question. Have you got evidence of any malign influence from the Iranians in the west? Or do they tend to be perhaps more positive in that area?
STAFF: I’m sorry, can (inaudible)
COL. LAPAN: Okay, I’ll try again from here. Are you seeing any evidence of malign influence by Iran in the western part of the -- in your area?
GEN. BERTO: No, I am a tactical commander. What I see is the insurgents that are fighting against us. I’m not able to say for -- there is a western influence. Or better, I see the western influence in the market, in the bazaar, because all the booths are coming from the west. But as fighter, I can say I’m not sure.
Q: Start with -- (inaudible) -- how many districts does he estimate that the Taliban controls in his region?
COL. LAPAN: Okay, so the question is, can you estimate approximately how many districts you believe the Taliban controls in your area?
GEN. BERTO: I would say that they are not in control of any districts. But I have to say that in the provinces and in the districts which don’t have forces, they have influence, of course.
I say that the less populated province is Ghowr. Then, in the south of Ghowr that is on the border with the Helmand province, there is a big influence from the insurgency. We perform several operations down there and -- but any time, it was impossible to get in touch with them, because they were (inaudible) away. And another district problematic I would say is Jawand district in Badghis area. But also, they have no permanent bases. They go back and forth from other districts and provinces, and they are not permanently in those districts.
Q: General, can you tell us how many and what U.S. troops are in your area, and what their role is?
GEN. BERTO: Okay. More or less, I have 2,000 American soldiers under my command. And the majority of them belong to the Task Force Raider as a part of 101 Division.
And then I have an aviation battalion deployed in Shindand and (inaudible) augmentees in my HQ that are helping us to perform our work the best way possible.
Q: Are they more doing the training mission, or are they actually, you know, tracking down bad guys during the kinetic ops?
GEN. BERTO: Both. Some of them are employing their mentors and trainers. And -- but the majority -- I mean, Task Force Raider is fighting, is seeking for the enemy, and, where it’s possible, they are killing the enemy.
COL. LAPAN: Joe.
Q: General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. You have said in your first answer that you are facing somewhere in your area of operation -- what you said, it is an ideological insurgency. Could you give us more details about what you -- what you mean by that and what kind of insurgency other than the ideological you’re facing?
STAFF: Can the moderator repeat the question?
COL. LAPAN: The question had to do with the general’s initial comments about facing an ideological insurgency. So the question was, could you explain a little bit more about what the general meant by that? And if you could describe also what other type of insurgency, beyond an ideological one, there might be.
GEN. BERTO: Okay. I think that, yeah, in my region we are facing an insurgency that is made for the majority of criminals. There are people that are paid to do something.
And when I talk about ideological insurgency, I mean the real Taliban. And I think that they have not a great freedom of movement in the area. And the majority of them are in the south, because the vicinity with the most (inaudible) in Helmand, and of course -- in which there is the main effort of ISAF.
In the box, I would say of criminals, there is -- everything’s the same that we have in our city.
COL. LAPAN: (Inaudible) -- direct all questions to me to save time. Phil.
Q: Just a clarification on an earlier -- an earlier answer you gave. If you could tell us when the transition -- when do you believe the transition in your -- in some of the provinces in your region could begin? You said it could begin any moment. So does that mean that there are provinces in your region that are ready to start transitioning now?
COL. CRACAS: I think that, for example, the district of Herat, Herat City, the transition could begin also tomorrow, as I stated before. Of course, the situation is not the same on the other provinces and the other cities. It takes more time. But I would like to underline that Herat is ready to begin the transition. And in my point of view, it’s a good step.
COL. LAPAN: Yeah.
Q: For the general and the colonel, this week Secretaries Gates and Clinton called for more civilian help to the war effort. I wonder if you have any -- is there any worry in your area that you’re not getting the civilian help you need or is required to make the transition in those stability ops that the military is currently leading?
GEN. BERTO: Generally speaking, our efforts are in those districts in which we have a lot of population, the condition to set up a good development.
And that means that not all the provinces have the opportunity to have the same numbers of soldiers and, in this case, of money. Again example. In -- (inaudible) -- provinces, we have just the presence of few soldiers in Chaghcharan. The other districts of this province are empty. Then probably they need not only soldiers but also money.
(To COL. Cracas): So, it’s up to you.
COL. CRACAS: Well, can you please clarify? Civilian help from the Afghans or from the international community?
COL. LAPAN: From the international community.
COL. CRACAS: Well, in this case I can say that, as the general was saying, we have different realities here, but I will say overall the cooperation with the civilian counterparts has been really good. In Herat province, for example, we have the Italian PRT, as I stated before.
And within the Italian PRT there is a civilian Italian component, who is the Cooperazione Italiana, which is the way that the Italian foreign minister -- minister of foreign affairs actually can contribute to the operation here in Afghanistan. And those are civilians.
And as a matter of fact, in the PRT compound, also the U.S. senior civilian representative lives in the PRT compound, together also with the chief of USAID here in Herat.
So I can say that there is a lot of very good collaboration in between the civilians and their military counterparts lately. As a matter of fact, during the mandate of General Berto, the RC West has also organized a forum which is called the Development and Governance Working Group, which has seen civilian and military all together to discuss about governance priorities, for development and actual projects. And in that forum we have seen GIRoA officials that -- for the civilian counterparts from the Afghan parties, and us, but also USAID, AECID, the Spanish civilian cooperation for international development, which are based in Qala Nau, in Badghis province.
We have seen many other actors. We have seen the -- all the militaries that are in our area. As I said, also UNAMA has been taking part to that forum, and that has helped in de-conflicting all the development efforts.
I will say then (inaudbible) -- for the transition that is imminent – may be imminent in some parts of our AOR, then of course the civilian presence must increase, because we must start to hand over to the civilians the organization of the government and all development aspects.
COL. LAPAN: Luis?
Q: Do you want me to ask (inaudible).
COL. LAPAN: Yeah.
Q: Beyond Herat, in preparation for the Lisbon conference, is he -- would he recommend any other districts for transition? And when the colonel says imminent, what timeline is he talking about?
COL. LAPAN: Okay, the question in -- you know, with Lisbon coming up soon, beyond Herat, are there any other parts that you would recommend for transition? And when you say that transition could be imminent, could you put sort of a time frame on that?
COL. CRACAS: Well, I would say that within province of Herat there will be many districts that will be eligible to be set up for transition. Outside the province of Herat, there might be some districts, but with a slightly longer time scale. RC West, together with the commanding Kabul IJC, are looking at time scales on what could possibly be in the near future. And we’re discussing six to nine to 12 months or then 24 or more.
And I would say that here in the west we have all these realities. So roughly speaking I can say there are some district in Herat province that there -- would be able to start transitioning in the next six to nine months, maybe, and then of course for the rest we’ll need to wait until 12 to 24 months. But of course there are also other areas that we don’t foresee transitioning being possible within two years period.
Q: When you talk about these transitions, how many ISAF troops are you talking about removing from those areas? And would those include the removal of U.S. troops in time for President Obama’s deadline next July?
GEN. BERTO: It depends on the district. There are districts in which we have a few troops, and then, of course, we are taking away our troops. It means no more than a company. In other districts we have more soldiers. But if we have more soldiers, there is a reason why, because the situation is worse than in Herat city. And then, of course, it would take more time.
COL. CRACAS: I think it is possible, but not sure, because it’s not up to me.
COL. LAPAN: Okay. Next question.
Q: This is Tejinder Singh, from AHN and TV Today.
Pakistan has banned NATO supplies, colonels. What are your reaction to that? And what part of your supplies come from that route?
STAFF: Can you repeat the question?
COL. LAPAN: Question has to do with whether a temporary ban on some supply routes through Pakistan will affect you, and what kind of support and supplies you get coming through Pakistan.
GEN. BERTO: Under my point of view, is not a problem. We are really far away from Pakistan. And if you mean the good for the soldiers, (inaudible) who are coming through other borders -- for example, the Turkmenistan. And we have no problem with this issue.
COL. LAPAN: Okay. Next question.
Q: For the elections, there were about 150 candidates vying for about 17 seats. And U.S. officials were concerned that maybe some of the losers of the election might cause problems. Has he seen any of that?
COL. LAPAN: At the recent elections, there were many candidates for relatively few seats. Some officials expressed concern that those who did not do well in the elections might cause trouble. Have you seen any of that in your area, those who didn’t do well in the elections stirring up unrest?
COL. CRACAS: Well, it’s been an aspect of governance. I think it’s very good when you have many candidates that want to actually participate to the governing of their own country. So I wouldn’t take that as a bad sign.
As a matter of fact, actually, I think it was a very good sign that many candidates were willing to take action and start ruling their own country. Of course, the Wolesi Jirga has got so many seats, as you clearly underlined, therefore they won’t be able all to assess. But I will say that the more, the better, so that the people have more choice, they could actually take a better decision, a more democratic decision, all said.
COL. LAPAN: Okay. And --
Q: (Inaudible) -- follow up on that. The question was that the losing candidates were expected to stir up trouble. Have you seen any trouble?
COL. CRACAS: No, no. Since the end of the election, we are not facing any trouble. I would say that the situation is quiet.
COL. LAPAN: Okay. Last question, Al.
Q: Yeah, General, you said that most of the insurgents in your area are just criminals who do what they do for money. How does that affect your approach to defeating them? And is that easier to address than an ideological insurgency?
GEN. BERTO: This is a COIN counterinsurgency operations. Our first task is to protect the population.
And coming back to the example of Bala Murghab, we were able to protect them, setting up a lot of combat outposts and patrolling the valley. That means that the criminals have no freedom of movement, and they are facing us and the ANSF troops. And I would say that is the way to keep calm all these bad guys.
For the ideological insurgency, it is a different matter. But you know that there is progress in the way that President Karzai is facing the Talibans. And then probably from a diplomatic point of view, we are doing really -- we are heading to really good result.
Q: I’m sorry, what do you mean by good result from the diplomatic point of view? And wouldn’t it be easier to reconcile with criminal elements locally than it might be with ideological elements at the higher level?
GEN. BERTO: When I talked about diplomatic, I was referring to the ideological insurgency. You know that we have a program called reintegration. We are trying to get involved the insurgency, the real insurgents. And somewhere we had some sign, some good result. Some people have given up their weapons to us. For example, in Qala Nau, a band of 23 insurgents surrendered and joined the program. And now they are with their families, their villages, and they are working as normal citizens. And that’s a good result.
COL. LAPAN: And one last --
Q: You spoke about areas where they are not able to put troops because of numbers. Does he worry that the Taliban may move into those areas?
COL. LAPAN: General, the question was, areas where you may not have enough troops to have coverage, do you have concern about Taliban moving into those areas where you don’t have a significant number of forces?
GEN. BERTO: Yes, I have concern, but I have also to say that the Talibans are in the same place in which we are. The majority of the incidents happened in the areas that our troops are deployed.
That means in Bala Murghab, that means in Farah and in Shindand and -- (inaudible). For example, no major incident happened in Ghowr province since the beginning of my mandate. The Talibans are attacking us. And that’s the question.
COL. LAPAN: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you. I will send it back to you for any closing remarks you’d like to make.
COL. CRACAS: Well, I’d like to say that in order for Afghanistan to gain and sustain stability, the Afghan National Security Forces elements must be able to combat in the insurgency and maintain a secure environment; and also, of course, to have the local support of the population.
We are here to help them to achieve this. And we all know, in fact, that there is no development without security. But let me also say that it is true that there is no security without development. And therefore, our job is also to set the conditions so that the Afghan people benefit from improved social services, expanded infrastructure and advance economic opportunities; while deterring also illicit economies.
We are here to support GIRoA efforts to extend functional governance across Afghanistan, establish and uphold the rule of law, help the GIRoA to provide essential services to the population, increase the role of women in the Afghan society.
Here in the western area, the overall situation can be assessed as very positive overall, and as a consequence of all the good work performed by everybody, military or civilians, of every nation that is here representing the RC West.
STAFF: And General Berto, do you have any closing remarks?
GEN. BERTO: No; I want just to say that never in my life I thought to speak with the Pentagon. It’s an honor for me. (Laughs) Thank you so much.
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