DOD News Briefing with Col. Burleson via Teleconference from Afghanistan
CAPT. DARRYN JAMES (Director, Defense Press Operations): Good morning here, and good evening in Afghanistan. I'd like to welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room Colonel Bill Burleson, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division. As part of Regional Command North, Colonel Burleson's 3,500-soldier brigade deployed to Afghanistan in March of this year. The brigade has operational responsibility of Balkh, Kunduz, and Faryab provinces. Colonel Burleson also has battalion task forces serving in Kandahar and Kabul provinces with other units in Regional Command South and Regional Command Capital.
This is Colonel Burleson's first briefing with us in this format, and he joins us today from his headquarters at Camp Mike Spann in Mazar-e Sharif. He will provide you a brief update on current operations and then will take your questions.
And with that, Bill, I'll turn it over to you.
COL. BURLESON: Okay, thank you. Good evening, and happy Thanksgiving from northern Afghanistan.
It's a pleasure to be here today with you and talk a little bit about 1st Brigade Combat Team, and giving insight on our mission and the progress that's been achieved here in Afghanistan. Our brigade, as was mentioned, currently has about 3,500 soldiers throughout most of Afghanistan. And I say most, as in all of the regional commands. However, the bulk of the brigade is in Regional Command North. Additionally, we have one battalion task force that's participating as part of the NATO training mission, headquartered in Kabul; and our cavalry squadron is in the Dand district of Kandahar.
Our primary mission here is to partner with the Afghan national security forces here in Regional Command North; specifically, with the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Border Police. And we operate most exclusively in Faryab, Balkh, Kunduz and Baghlan provinces, but we also assist the Afghan Border Police in partnered operations at the Hayratan and Shir Khan border crossing points.
Again, as we conduct comprehensive operations -- that's security, governance and development -- with the Afghan security forces, we seek to neutralize the insurgency in these key-terrain and area-of-interest districts. We have been able to see some success in various operations, training programs and economic development throughout Regional Command North. Recent Afghan-led operations with ISAF, both in Kunduz and Baghlan, have allowed the security forces and the government of Afghanistan to expand into areas where insurgents previously had operated freely. These operations have enabled the expansion of government services to, now, safe havens, and improved the population's sentiment towards its government.
Additionally, throughout Regional Command North we have seen progress with the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program [APRP], which is a broad and comprehensive program sponsored by the government of Afghanistan which extends an open hand to combatant groups, offering them full rights as Afghan citizens and a dignified way to renounce violence and peacefully reintegrate themselves into the communities. This program is available to all Afghans and communities willing to renounce insurgent activities, so that they may live in peace and accept the Afghan constitution.
To date, we've seen approximately 100 former insurgents reintegrate up here, with an additional couple hundred at varying steps within the process. These initial reintegration numbers I think are an indicator of the willingness of some of our former fighters to become decent members of the society that support the government of Afghanistan.
One additional training initiative that we are doing with the police forces is called the Directed Police Development Program. We're doing that in Baghlan district, and this complements the Afghan National Security Force and ISAF security operations which have been going in there. And really, what it is, is it provides the basic six [weeks] of police training to those police that when they initially came into the police force may have gone without training. Inevitably, what this does in the long term is it increases the capability of the Afghan security forces to conduct this mission themselves.
I think also we're seeing some -- during the time, seven, eight months, that we've been here, the contributions we've been able to make in terms of development have allowed the government to become closer to its people and to connect with the people in a way that in some areas it has not been able to do before. Utilizing the Commanders Emergency Response Program, we've been able to provide government vehicles to allow district governors and deputy governors improved access to their population, so they can forgo a donkey cart or a bus ride and now actually have a government-sponsored vehicle to connect with their population.
We've also had projects in Faryab where, under the leadership of the governor and deputy governor, they've provided street lights, which not only provides more security in and around the communities, but it also provides increased opportunities for commerce. Street vendors are able to stay open later; people are able to go to shop later, in well-lit areas. And it shows an outward and visible improvement in the population's life as a result of their governance doing things for them. So a lot of this is connecting the government to the people through their security forces and with the help of the International Security Assistance Force.
You know, our forces throughout these main -- these four main provinces continue to identify needs in areas that will help the Afghan security forces and the government of Afghanistan.
In a number of areas -- as we know, education is paramount in any society -- is to improve the educational facilities and specifically educational facilities for young women, who under the Taliban certainly were denied that opportunity. It's not uncommon to see large groups of young girls going to and from school on the streets of Mazar-e Sharif, Maimana or Kunduz in this area, and I think it's a sign of progress here, at least in northern Afghanistan.
I would like to highlight one infantry battalion that was -- that has been participating in a NATO training mission here, throughout Afghanistan. Their focus has been on really the Afghan army and the basic training for the Afghan army. They're centered in the Kabul military training center but really operate throughout Afghanistan.
Here, within the next month, they will be completing their year tour, very successfully. They are leaving behind a legacy where now we have Afghan National Army soldiers and sergeants training their new soldiers and sergeants as they come into the army, and certainly it says a lot for the self-sufficiency and the ability for the Afghan army to stand on its own.
So with that being said, I welcome any questions that you might have.
CAPT. JAMES: Thank you, Bill.
We'll go ahead and start with David.
Q Colonel, this is Dave Wood of Politics Daily. Nice to see you. I wanted to -- if you could update us on the security situation in RC North, especially what's the presence at -- of the Taliban and what it -- sort of what are they up to.
And also, when you talked about the reintegration program, what's the motivation of the people who have come in so far? Are they tired, sick, hungry, or they feel like they're losing, or what?
COL. BURLESON: Hey, David, it's good to hear from you. We enjoyed having you over here with us, and I'm glad you're participating in this. Really, I think when you look at the Taliban concentrations in Regional Command North, although there's a number of little pockets, it's really most pronounced in the western part, where you were, in the vicinity of Ghormach, although recent security operations out there have resulted in the capture and death of some of the key leaders.
We also -- also, in the Baghlan area, that was probably the most significant change during the time that I've been here. That's the intersection of two main lines of communications, two main supply routes for the people of Afghanistan, as well as ISAF, and that -- that's Highway 1 and Highway 3, intersecting Pul-e Khumri. There used to be a pronounced Taliban presence in that area. But what we've seen is a series of RC North operations, Operations Tawheed 1, 2 and 3, which have significantly affected the Taliban in that area.
Matter of fact, it kind of ties in very nicely with the second part of your question. In that intersection between Highway 1 and Highway 3 -- it's called the ShahabuddinTriangle. And in that ShahabuddinTriangle, which before was pretty much no-go terrain, terrain which was denied to the coalition or the government forces without a fight -- I mean, we could go in there and fight -- now that's the area where we've got about a hundred of these former fighters who are now reintegratees.
I was in there this afternoon, and you know, the day in the life of the reintegratee, they have -- you know, we have ISAF forces in there as well as some of our Special Operations Forces, not only assisting them with security but also undergoing training. So the day in the life of the reintegratee, you know, other than being able to return to a life where you're no longer worried about fighting or giving up your life, may be coming and going to and from your home village, conducting farming activities. And then there are reintegration activities taught by nongovernmental organizations that allow them to appreciate the constitution. There's also -- their constitution of Afghanistan. There's some things on human rights. Additionally, there are some vocational opportunities where they're able to improve upon their subsistence farming opportunities to learn a little bit more or learn a vocation, you know, whether it's, you know -- you know, electrical or something like that.
And so that's probably the most significant change, I think, since you've been here in that Baghlan area.
We still do have pockets in and around the Kunduz area, but they're again pushed farther and farther away from the Kunduz proper.
Operations over the last, really, three weeks -- a German and Afghan and U.S. combined operation with the Afghan police and army resulted in clearing southern Chahar Dara, which was really a very restive area for a long time. It was really only Taliban. And now current operations in the northern Chahar Dara and Gortepa area are also improving the security in areas where it'd not been secure before.
So, David, that's a long answer, but I think it's a pretty accurate portrayal of both the current threat and some of the successes that we've been able to see here as of late.
Q Can I ask again about these 100 or so people who reintegrated? Are they not committed ideologues, or are they -- were they just with the Taliban because they were getting paid or just because it was something to do, or do you have any sense of, you know, why they were with the Taliban and what caused them to switch sides?
COL. BURLESON: Well, I think -- I mean, you know, they could probably answer it better than me, Dave, but I think really the reason why is they probably got weary of the fighting, and they realized, you know, in kind of getting moved around back and forth in that triangle area between Highway 1 and Highway 3, that there was a better opportunity for them by reintegrating.
And really, you know, the credit of this, what we're seeing, this reintegration program is really Afghan-led and Afghan-run. The provincial governors in Baghlan, Kunduz and Faryab have taken a very active role in this. And in a country where it is a lot about relationships, I think it's just one of those things where, you know, you grow weary of fighting and desire to go back to your village and live a normal life.
But really, in all of the reintegration cases that we've seen so far, it is most often initiated by a government of Afghanistan official, whether it's a security guy, maybe, you know, the police chief or a governor.
Additionally, these governors have set up these reintegration councils here and throughout the north. So really, the Afghans are very actively working this. And there's a recognition, I believe, through not just the government officials and the security forces but the population that this whole reintegration process and program has really got to have an Afghan lead on it.
So there is -- we are involved with portions of it, but really that initial step of bringing them in is really done by Afghans. So I suspect a lot of it's about relationships. A lot of it is about no longer wanting to fight and the return to normalcy. And, you know, if they can set the idea -- the ideology aside, then that allows them to do that successfully.
Q Colonel, Viola Gienger from Bloomberg News. What is your read on the prospect of this area being -- the possibility that this area could be, for example, turned over totally to Afghan control next year? Do you have enough Afghan forces on the ground trained and at a level where they could handle that or that you think they might be able to at some point next year? And what's the situation like with civilian capability and capacity in that area?
COL. BURLESON: Well, the -- on the topic of transition, I mean, the transitions in the areas that need to be transitioned first in -- I think it's a lot like the APRPs. There's got to be -- the government of Afghanistan will ultimately, with the advice of ISAF, make those decisions.
The most important part about the -- I think the northern portion of Afghanistan or certainly one of the most north -- important parts is its connection to the neighboring countries, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan. I mean, we have these lines of communication, Highway 1, Highway 3, which run north to south down to Kabul, and the Ring Road, which runs east to west. Those roads and highways are essential to the continued development of Afghanistan.
You take a place like downtown Mazar-e Sharif in Balkh province. Governor Atta has security, he's got development and he's got a form of effective governance. And so we see a place like that and it kind of sets the example for what different parts of Afghanistan can become.
As we look at the transitions, I mean, those are decisions really that get made at levels well above me. There are still areas which need improvement and security here: the specific areas that I talked about in Kunduz; we need to have continued success in Baghlan and also in the far west, the Ghormach area that connects with Baghdid province -- Badghis province so that we can finish the Ring Road. So there's still room for improvement.
We -- the Afghan security forces continue to get better every day. Both the police and the border police is who I operate with mostly. In some portions the police didn't get a lot of training prior to taking their job out on the corner. So, you know, we have to help them get the additional training.
Also, some of the additional training is called police-reform training, which is where you take a policeman on -- off the street and then put him through training.
Those things have to occur. In some areas we have about 85 percent of the police have been through formalized training, which is very good. In other areas there's about 20 percent of the police have been through formalized training. With the border police, it's about 85 percent have been through formalized training.
And so I think, you know, to guarantee the continued success, we've got to get them through formalized training programs so that they can, you know, understand the rule of law, the importance of justice and the importance of doing things for the people.
The Afghan army I don't really -- we work with, but I'm not intimately involved in their status, although I will tell you they've been very effective on these last several operations when combined with ISAF and the other security forces here.
Q Raghubir Goyal from India Globe and Asia Today. My question is that so much is going on about Afghanistan, from Lisbon to Washington to Kabul, so much news is coming; and also some people feel that maybe President Karzai is under pressure from Taliban or even from the Afghan people. And how do you think that what Afghans are feeling now -- what will be their future from all these positive and negative reports or Talibans are still speaking out of Afghanistan?
COL. BURLESON: The question came in a little bit fuzzy. Could you repeat the question, please?
CAPT. JAMES: Bill, this is Darryn. I'll try to repeat it.
He basically asked, with all the news that's been going on lately, including the NATO Lisbon summit and a lot of the other things that have been in the news, what's your thought process on how the normal Afghan feels about all of these things? And specifically, do you feel that President Karzai feels under pressure from the normal Afghans to move things along a little bit more?
COL. BURLESON: Okay, thank you. I understand that now.
Well, you know, I don't want to speak for the president of Afghanistan, but just from being on the -- talking to the people on the street, I think everybody is ready for Afghanistan to be able to handle its own security, government and development issues.
Clearly we see there with the police, you know, the new 303rd police commander, which he's the -- he's the commander of all the police forces in Regional Command North -- has been very aggressive. He recognizes that Afghanistan cannot wait forever to get the security situation under control. And he -- he's been very active in talking to the provincial chiefs of police and the provincial governors. He recognizes, you know, that the president of Afghanistan has made some commitments to the international community, and that it is not an open-ended commitment here, and the clock is ticking.
But I think everybody is, you know. I mean, this is my third time here. A lot of the soldiers in the brigade have either been here or Iraq previously. And I think everybody's committed to improving the security. I mean, day in and day out, you know, I'm amazed at the commitment of not just our soldiers but the soldiers from, you know, the rest of -- in the rest of Regional Command North. You know, the preponderance with -- is, you know, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Hungarian and Finnish, and also some Latvians in there. Everybody's committed. I mean, we've got to get -- we've got to get this thing done; we've got to get the security right, so the country can move forward.
Q Just to follow, how do the neighboring countries feel about the future of Afghanistan after, let's say, you make adjustments next year in July or 2014?
Do you feel that the neighboring countries will be ready for this change?
COL. BURLESON: Well, the -- you know, when I talk -- when you look at neighboring countries, I think probably the -- most of my interaction -- I mean, I don't have direct interaction with the neighboring countries, but what I do see is the incredible amount of commerce that comes across the Hayratan border crossing, coming from Uzbekistan. And that's why we're investing with the Afghan security forces in the border management task force to improve processes at the Hayratan border crossing. A lot of supply comes south from Uzbekistan.
We're also working on the Shir Khan border crossing with the Afghan border police and Afghan police, to improve the efficiency in operations there. So if you look at those two opportunities -- the Hayratan border crossing from Uzbekistan, and the Shir Khan border crossing from Tajikistan -- it's in the benefit of Afghanistan as well as its neighboring countries to have the security and stability to improve commerce.
I mean, you know, every day you see hundreds of trucks come across the border at Hayratan, bringing all kinds of goods. Additionally, the 75-kilometer railroad that runs from Uzbekistan through Hayratan down to Mazar-e Sharif is complete although -- near complete. I think here in another couple of months, they'll actually be moving commerce in.
That sends the signal, I think really to the rest of the world, that, you know, Afghanistan has moved into a place now where it's -- in many places, its security has improved enough to enable international trade and commerce.
And so just purely from that perspective I think the neighboring countries see the potential for the future by having good security, at least in the northern part of Afghanistan.
Q Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving. And what is the mood of the soldiers there or your units there in Afghanistan?
COL. BURLESON: I -- what was the question again, please?
Q Thanksgiving. How do the soldiers feel or what is the mood of the soldiers during this Thanksgiving?
COL. BURLESON: Oh, okay. Well, thank you. That's a great question.
You know, everybody's going to be getting turkey here in the next couple of days in one way, shape or form. We've got a lot of soldiers out on about -- there are about 16 remote combat outposts where they live and operate with Afghan police, border police or army. Assisted by the U.S. Army aviation up here, the 4th Aviation Brigade, there's going to be some turkey moved around with routine supplies so that everybody has the opportunity to enjoy this holiday.
I think, quite honestly, everybody's optimistic. Obviously we miss our families back home, but we do appreciate the support from everybody back in the States. And I think what we'll see is, we've got some people that are actually here, within the next couple of months, be getting ready to go home. So, you know, the light at the end of the tunnel to be reunited with our families is there.
So we'll enjoy our camaraderie here and have some turkey here. In some cases we will share the holiday with our Afghan police, border police and army partners.
Q Yes, hi, Colonel. Cheryl Pellerin, American -- with American Forces Press Service. Can you characterize the progress of the Afghan security forces, how they're doing and whether they're beginning to take part in missions or leading missions yet?
COL. BURLESON: If I understand it correctly, characterize the progress of the Afghan National Security Forces. I will tell you that up in Takhar -- this is a good example -- about a month and a half, two months ago, a solely Afghan-planned, led and conducted operation was conducted up in Takhar province, which is up in and around that border with Tajikistan. There has been kind of an insurgent threat up there that has been largely untouched due to the remoteness of the location. Well, the police zone commander here at the 303rd police coordinated it with the border zone commander and then with a little bit of the army, and they conducted this operation really by themselves.
Some ISAF enablers helped. You know there was some close air support and a little bit of rotary-wing aviation, but this operation was planned and conducted by themselves. I mean, that says a lot right there, where the internal security forces are able to solve the problems themselves.
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the reintegration is about from relationships, relationships with the security force commanders, the provincial chiefs of police and the provincial governors. I mean, these security force leaders -- really, in my case, the police leaders -- are calling people that they know through relationships and say, okay, look, it's time to come in, time for the fighting to end, and come on in. And that's really how some of this reintegration is started.
CAPT. JAMES: Anna.
Q Colonel, Anna Mulrine with the Christian Science Monitor. We've got our annual -- well, quarterly report [sic; semi-annual] on Afghanistan out today here at the Pentagon that they've just given to us.
And I'm curious to get your thoughts on what you feel, what you're still grappling with there. What are your biggest concerns in your area right now?
COL. BURLESON: Okay, thank you for the question. Really for me, it's connecting the government of Afghanistan and its security forces to the population, in a way that the population understands that it is their government and their security forces which are going to make the difference to their livelihood.
If you figure -- if you're an agrarian farmer -- which up here, because of the waterways, there's a lot of farming up here in the kind of the lush areas of Kunduz, Baghlan -- you want to know that your government is going to provide those services, whether it's rule of law, whether it's security in a marketplace, whether it's conflict resolution, so that it is more beneficial to you to go with your government as opposed to an insurgent group like the Taliban.
And it's connecting -- it is connecting those three things: the people, the government and its security forces. That -- that's kind of what I wrestle with every day, and how do we do that in a way that allows the Afghan security forces to continue to build capacity so that they can get better every day. It's not about -- it's not just about quantity of security forces; it's quality. And that's why I mentioned the importance of these formalized or informalized training programs.
I mean, a lot of what our soldiers do on a day-to-day basis is kind of on-the-job training with the police or border police or army. They set the example, as you would expect from -- of a Western or American soldier, doing the right thing, taking care of themselves and their buddies, and connecting themselves to the government and to the population.
And so that's really -- to me, it's the people, the government, and its security forces. It's a triangle.
And I didn't invent it. It was a guy named Clausewitz a couple hundred years ago. But I think it rings pretty true today.
Q Missy Ryan from Reuters. I have a somewhat related question, and forgive me if this has already been addressed, because I got here late. But I know that General Petraeus issued revised counterinsurgency guidance when he arrived in Afghanistan, and I'm wondering if you can tell me anything about whether there have been practical changes in the outcomes that we're seeing in counterinsurgency and whether you on the ground are seeing any sort of visible progress in the producing of the goals that we're looking for in our counterinsurgency strategy.
COL. BURLESON: You know, the updated guidance really added to the previous guidance or refined some areas that maybe were a little bit generalized. But fundamentally, the -- what we do, you know, day- to-day basis and those fundamentals of counterinsurgency, I think, have really not changed. They ring true -- they rang true earlier in the year. They ring true now. And I think, you know, it kind of goes with what I just talked about, is how do you connect the people to their government and their security forces?
Part of it is protecting the population. The other part of it is, is understanding the culture here in this country, which, you know, I think is probably of tremendous importance for anybody preparing to come, is understanding the importance of relationships in this country. I mean, a lot of people cite, you know, the book "Three Cups of Tea" as an example of Afghan culture and society, and truthfully, after having read it several times, I believe it.
It is -- it is about establishment of relationships and having not just -- I don't think you should have cultural awareness: you need to have cultural understanding. It needs to be a level deeper than awareness, because it's so incredibly important in this country.
And so when you do that -- and that's kind of part of -- part of his guidance, is to understand and -- understand the culture and how your actions affect both positively and negatively the perception with the population. Because it's not just about eliminating the security threat, it is, again, about connecting the people to their government and to their security forces.
CAPT. JAMES: We'll give the final question to Luis.
Q Colonel, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. Having been there the better part of the year, how would you characterize much of your AOR [area of responsibility] in terms of the phrases we constantly hear: clear, hold and build? Where do you think the general trends are for RC North?
COL. BURLESON: Well, I mean, just for a point of clarification, you know, we've got Norwegian, Swedish, Hungarian and German Provincial Reconstruction Teams which really operate throughout the width and breadth of Regional Command North. My troops operate within those areas, and we coordinate with the -- those Provincial Reconstruction Teams from those countries. So it's really not my area.
I mean, I kind of look at it is, really it's Afghan; it's the country of Afghanistan, and it belongs to its people and their security forces. And then we've got a -- these other countries' Provincial Reconstruction Teams which kind of have terrain responsibilities.
So, you know, as I look at it, there are nine provinces in Regional Command North.
My troops are within four of those, and those are the four areas which required a little bit of additional security forces. I think that's why we came in here in March, April. I mean, we were really the first sizable American force to operate in this area. And it's really, again, to assist in those areas where there have been security issues. And there still are, but I think they're getting better. It's to bolster the Afghan security forces to be able to do it themselves; to provide additional development and opportunities for governance that may have not been there before.
You know, this troop uplift, you don't want to put it everywhere, or you get nothing. But if you concentrate it in a couple key areas where most of the population is, where most of the governance is, or where there's a critical security need, it can make a difference. And I think we're seeing that right now in all these areas.
There's still work to be done in, really, all three of those things -- security, governance and development -- but we're seeing progress. And I mean, I am confident that, you know, in time, the Afghans will be able to take it, and certainly that this increased presence will not be required.
CAPT. JAMES: Bill, that ends our question period. And I'll turn it back over to you for any final comments that you want to make.
COL. BURLESON: Well, first of all, again, happy Thanksgiving. I appreciate all of you taking the time today to listen to me from here in northern Afghanistan.
It's incredibly important that you tell the story of what America's sons and daughters are doing over here. You know, I'm amazed every day by their commitment and sacrifices that they do, mostly for their buddies, but also for their families and for their country. And it makes me incredibly proud to see everything that they do. And all of you at home and those that are your listeners, your readers, your audience, ought to be tremendously proud.
And I -- and I'd like to thank everybody back in the States for their support. You know, there's community leaders, there's friends, there's clergy, there's teachers, there's coaches, and they're our military rear attachments back there. I mean, every day, all that all of them do back there makes it easier for us to focus on our job here. I think the commitment is deep. I mean, we know what happened to our country on 9/11, and it resonates very strongly with these young men over here who are giving it everything they've got every day.
So thank you to all the supporters back in the States. And thanks to all of you for taking time out of your day today to talk with me.
CAPT. JAMES: Well, thanks for participating, and happy Thanksgiving to you and your troops.
COL. BURLESON: Okay. Take care.