JAMES TURNER (deputy director, Pentagon Press Office): Okay, Colonel Luong, this is Jim Turner in the Pentagon Briefing Room. Can you hear me?
COL. LUONG: I can hear you loud and clear, Jim.
MR. TURNER: Good morning here, and good morning in Afghanistan, I’d like to welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room Colonel Viet Luong. He is commander of Task Force Rakkasan and commander of -- and the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. As part of Regional Command East, Colonel Luong’s 3,800-soldier brigade deployed to Afghanistan in January of this year. In February, the brigade assumed operational responsibility of Khost, Paktika and Paktya provinces. In August, Task Force Rakkasan relinquished control of Paktika province to Task Force Currahee composed of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. One of Colonel Luong’s battle task forces subsequently joined Task Force White Eagle, the Polish battle group, and is currently conducting operations in Andar and Deh Yak districts in Ghazni province.
From September until December, another of Colonel Luong’s battalion task forces served in Regional Command South in the Horn of Panjwai. That unit is -- has now returned to Khost province. This is Colonel Luong’s first briefing with us in this format, and he joins us today from his headquarters at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province. He will provide a brief update of current operations and then will take your questions.
And with that, Colonel, I will turn it over to you.
COL. LUONG: Good morning. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to address you today. It’s truly a pleasure to be here today to talk about Task Force Rakkasan, the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division “Air Assault.”
Sixty-six years ago, during that time frame, our forefathers gallantly defended the town of Bastogne against an overwhelming enemy onslaught during the Battle of the Bulge. So I think it’s fitting for me to take a few minutes up front and provide a brief overview of what Task Force Rakkasan has accomplished in the last 11 months in the gallant tradition of the storied 101st Airborne Division.
Our brigade combat team Task Force Rakkasan is formed around the 187 Infantry Regiment, one of the most storied units in the U.S. Army. This formation is also the most deployed unit in the Army today, having completed three full rotations in Iraq, and we’re about to finish our second deployment here in Afghanistan.
The brigade also has a distinction of being the only airborne or air assault brigade to have participated in every major conflict since our inception in World War II, and the first U.S. unit to set foot on mainland Japan in 1945.
Our primary mission here in Afghanistan is to protect the population and increase the capacity, capability and credibility of the Afghan national security forces, as well as Afghan government. My task force was initially responsible for the provinces of Khost, Paktya and Paktika, for the first seven months of our rotation, an area that’s approximately 30,000 square kilometer[s], that shares a border approximately 261 kilometer[s] with Waziristan and the Kuram Agency in Pakistan. In September, we handed over the responsibility of Paktika province to Task Force Currahee, and since then have retained responsibility for the provinces of Khost and Paktya.
Our overarching task is, of course, counterinsurgency operations. The key tasks nested under our campaign plan include, but not limited to, neutralizing the insurgency, combined action with Afghan security forces to build competency, capability and credibility with the Afghan populace, enable effective governance through focused mentorship and partnership at the provincial and district level, and finally, facilitate development in agriculture.
In the last 11 months, we have seen gradual but measurable progress. First and foremost, the combined coalition ANSF team has taken approximately 2,000 fighters out of the fight for the insurgency. The ANSF is capable of conducting independent operations in many of the different places here in Paktya and Khost. The security space that we have created has allowed government officials to reach their own people, many of them isolated for years.
My teammates from the Department of State work side-by-side with the provincial and district leaders to improve local governance and rule of law. In addition, in this largely agricultural region, our teammates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Guard agribusiness development teams from Indiana and Oklahoma have been directly assisting the Afghan provincial director of agriculture, irrigation and livestock with training, government outreach programs, and increasing Afghan agricultural prospects.
Under the mentorship of our provisional [sic] -- Provincial Reconstruction Team and USAID colleagues, local government leaders are actively taking part in the project development and management of the budget.
In regions previously controlled by Taliban, we are starting to see elders coming to regional shuras by the thousands, something I didn’t see 11 months ago.
Kids are now going to school, playing cricket, flying kites -- activities strictly forbidden under Taliban rule. To me, it’s a subtle sign of hope.
Finally, for the first time since I’ve been here, local atmospherics are indicating that the people of Khost are beginning to feel that security is much, much better. And more importantly, for the first time, they’re feeling that the provincial government is now working for the people. In short, while fragile, we’re seeing progress across the board in Paktya and Khost.
And with that, I welcome your questions.
MR. TURNER: Anne.
Q: Colonel, this is Anne Flaherty with Associated Press. We hear often during these briefings that there are these subtle signs of progress. What more do you need to see in the next few months from the Afghan -- particularly -- from the Afghans, particularly developing a civilian capacity, so that they can take over control and the U.S. can start drawing down their number of forces?
COL. LUONG: Well, as far as taking over control, you know, that has to be based on conditions on the ground. You know, in Khost there are some promise -- as far as the new government of Khost, I’m very, very optimistic about having a great leader in Governor Naeemi. You know, it’s been a hard-earned really win for us.
During my first several months, we had a guy that was corrupt. We were able to, through GIRoA have him removed from his position. We were -- followed by a guy that was halfway illiterate, and then about six months ago we were able to gain a very, very competent leader. As stated in my opening statement, you know, people are starting to feel that there’s progress. In addition to that, you know, over the last year or so, in the two provinces that I’m responsible for, we have gained an additional 6,000 Afghan National Security Forces. We have several courses that we run to build their capacity, running their NCO school. We’re also assisting in their basic training. But perhaps the most important aspect of doing what we do now is combined action, meaning we eat, sleep and fight alongside our Afghan counterparts, and in the ANA in particular they’re getting better and better each day. And I think over the next couple years, based on conditions on the ground, we were able to transition, you know, village by village, district by district, and hopefully the province overall.
MR. TURNER: Luis.
Q: Colonel, Luis Martinez with ABC News. Being in Khost, I think, on the side of the border, in Waziristan, you’re facing the Haqqani Network. How much of an effect are you seeing of the flow of Haqqani fighters into Khost province?
And I think last week you closed COP Spera. How are you going to continue to stop or block the flow of fighters into Khost if you closed down that base? And what are some of the alternatives that you could use to prevent the flow of fighters?
COL. LUONG: Yeah, let me speak about two -- the two main topics. First of all, the Haqqani Network, you know, I think locally, I can tell you that at least in Paktya, Paktika and Khost, the Haqqani Network is sort of on its heels. We have captured and killed many, many of their fighters and mid-level leaders. The senior leadership routinely hides in the tribal areas in Pakistan now for the fear of being captured and killed.
In addition to that, the effectiveness of their attacks, meaning attacks that can cause death or injuries or accuracy of indirect fire against coalition and ANSF, has dropped by 50 percent. On top of that, we have increased fourfold the time of -- the number of operations and patrols, up to 12,000 in the last year, 600 named operations.
Fifty percent of the SIGACTs are friendly forces or ANSF-initiated, meaning we were out looking for them to make contact and be able to close with and destroy them. So holistically it has had a significant impact on the Haqqani network.
As far as their infiltration, it’s seasonal. At this time, they -- you know, they’ve lost a lot of fighters last summer, and there were talks of several of their leaders losing credibility, losing -- possibly losing their jobs. But, you know, we were able to, based on good pattern analysis, good coordination and good -- you know, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, we were able to catch a lot of them, infilling through these gaps, and were able to destroy large numbers of these fighters.
It’s taken a toll on their operations; certainly their effectiveness has taken a toll. And henceforth they have really changed their TTPs now to not infilling or exfilling large number(s) of fighters anymore. That makes it more difficult for them to synchronize and leaves them more vulnerable to our -- to our operations, and at the same time it allows us to close down places like COP Spera. COP Spera, as you may be aware of, is terrain sentry. You know, we were there because at one time it was pretty important to control a couple of infill routes coming from Pakistan. But as we were able to effectively target the Haqqani network, you know, we feel that this combat power could be used in a population center to better secure the population.
Q: You didn’t have a follow-up, did you, Luis?
Q: I’ll go back later.
Q: Hi, Colonel. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. I just have a couple of quick follow-ups on what -- your answer to Luis’ question. For starters, you said that there’s been an increase fourfold in the number of patrols and operations. Can you -- can you expand on that a little bit? Is that specifically in Khost province? Is that in your entire AOR? Just talk a little bit more about that. And if you have the total number of patrols and operations, a ballpark, that would be helpful.
And then also, can you talk just a little bit more -- explain a little bit more about your sense of confidence about the situation on the border in Khost? It sounds as if you feel as if -- well, explain to me. Do you -- do you feel as if you’re confident enough that the border is no longer porous and that’s one of the reasons that you can close combat outposts like Spera? Or is it that you’ve just essentially given up on even trying to stop the -- them from coming across the border, and instead you’re just focusing on the population centers where they’re going to go to?
COL. LUONG: Well, I can answer that. You know, we have close to the exact number of operations. First and foremost, to answer your question, you know, operations have increased in Paktiya, Paktika and Khost as long as we have owned that area of operations, fourfold. That I can speak specifically about. But in addition to that, increased operations across the area, to include RC South, I had to send a battalion down there to fight a pretty vicious fight, down in the Panjwai.
So I mean -- I mean, our strategy has been to increase the op tempo, to capitalize on success while we think we have some momentum. And right now what I’m executing is the winter campaign plan, which did not occur years before, because it’s not the primary fighting season. So we will not, you know, allow the Haqqani Network to be able to rest and refit.
As far as the border itself, you know, I think it’s naive to say that we can stop, you know, forces coming through the border. Two hundred sixty-one kilometers is what I have. You know, I’ve chosen very early on in this fight to merely disrupt, to focus on the areas based on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, to do targeted operations against catching these guys coming across. But they do have many places that it can come across on.
So therefore, I was -- I’ve been focused in my operations on these safe areas, and fight them closer to the interior where they have to train, they have to bed down, they have to store their caches. And predominantly, our success has been there.
In order to secure the border, as well -- as you know, it takes a lot. It takes effort on the other side, by the Pakistani. It takes the tribes to reach, you know, an agreement with GIRoA. And we need their support as well to keep these guys outside.
But more and more, as our footprint is expanded along the security line of effort, it’s harder and harder for these guys to come and bed down in these villages.
I can tell you a couple of specific instances where the tribes have told these guys, hey, you guys need to move out, and you guys are not welcome here. It makes it harder for them; but again, you’re aware of the safe havens that are on the other side of the border.
MR. TURNER: Barbara.
Q: Colonel, Barbara Starr from CNN. Apologies, but I need to keep following up on this point to make sure we understand what you’re telling us, which is, in the area of -- are you saying that in the area of the border that you’re responsible for, you are basically, in fact, saying you’re giving up on the border cross points because you can’t really control the border and you’ll fight them as they come into Afghanistan?
And I’m puzzled by this. Do you need -- would you need more troops, more surveillance drones, more surveillance capability? Is this part of the overall military strategy now, just, you know, that you can’t control the border, so wait for them come in?
COL. LUONG: No, I did not say that we have chosen to give up on the border. Matter of fact, you know, we have more than a dozen crossing points that we have ANSF, that we have U.S. forces to back them up within several kilometers of the border. But to secure the border in the traditional sense, if you’re talking about, you know, like what we would do along our own border with Mexico down in the southwestern United States, that’s not what we’re doing. And it takes, you know, an inordinate amount of resources and force to be able to do that.
Therefore, you know, you can look at this as a defense in depth, whereby you have your front line defenders, which are -- which really starts on the Pakistani side of the house, by the way. They have hundreds of border checkpoints across backed up by dozens of checkpoints on our side that’s manned by Afghan border police, and then we back those guys up with U.S. and ANA forces, really to hand over the border piece to the Afghan border police.
And you can get more effects by defending in depth than you are in line. So we pick and choose where -- the best places that we can defend the border, and then, you know, be able to target those guys where they feel safe in. And I think that’s been the key to our success.
Q: But, sir it was -- I think quoting you -- that it was naive to say we can stop them from coming across through the border. So in the time that you’ve been there, how many border COPs have you shut down? And how would you describe the capability of U.S. forces right along that border in your area?
COL. LUONG: Yeah, I’ve shut down really a single COP, that’s been COP Spera and that just a couple weeks ago. And, you know, we were able to retain enough success down there, able to have some depth, to be able to stop these guys closer to the population. And what I want to do is focus this -- it’s a single platoon out of dozens of platoons I have. So you’re not talking about a large amount of force.
But, you know, that mission was strictly terrain focused, and we’re making enough momentum now in some of these districts that I feel we can bring, you know, this platoon off the border to be able to conduct more population-centric counterinsurgency. But, you know, we still have forces that, I’ll state it again, out there that are, you know, conducting operations in a combined action with all three entities -- Afghan border patrol, Afghan uniformed police and Afghan National Army.
Q: Thank you, Colonel. This is Raghubir Goyal from India Globe and Asia Today. First of all, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to you all over there. And thank you for your service.
My question is that what message do you have as we enter the new year 2011? What message do you have for the Afghanis? And also, how do you feel that your troops are now feeling in the new year?
And finally, what message you think you will have after my -- the questions from my colleagues as far as Pakistan is concerned, or cross-border terrorism? Do you have any message for the Pakistanis and for the Afghanis in the new year?
Thank you, sir.
COL. LUONG: Yes, for the -- for the Afghani, I wish them a happy new year and to remain strong. And there is hope, and we will be here with you as long as it takes, as long as our nation and NATO is committed to this operation. And we’ll be by your side.
To the Pakistanis, I’m looking forward to continued partnership. I’ve had the opportunity to have General Asif, the 11th Corps commander, here several months ago. I had a great interaction with him, as well as the 6th Brigade commander, General Usman, for a border flag meeting. And within the next few days I’m going to be able to have another border flag meeting with some senior leadership from the 11th Corps.
And also, my condolences for the sacrifices that the Pakistani military has taken over this very, very long and torturous conflict. And again, the same message goes out to my Pakistani comrades there that we are with you shoulder to shoulder. And I think together we can -- we can beat this enemy.
And to my soldiers, always near and dear to my heart, thank you for your service and sacrifice. I have many, many heroes here: 210 Purple Hearts, a couple hundred ARCOM with valor, 24 Bronze Star with valor, two Silver Stars just pinned on.
So really, this war has been fought and carried on the shoulders of our young service men and women. And my hat’s off to them.
MR. TURNER: Dan.
Q: Thanks. Dan De Luce with AFP. Could you tell us if you expect to close any more COPs in your area in the -- in the short term or in the medium term? And then also, could you describe a little bit about the trends in violence, and how the insurgents are fighting and what kinds of attacks and whether those attacks are on the decline? I -- it seemed to be you were suggesting that their attacks were declining. Go ahead.
COL. LUONG: Yes. Well, first off, we’re -- you know, those COPs are very difficult to tell. It’s conditions-based. You know, eventually, as we phase out over the years, you know, some of those COPs need to be closed out or transferred over to Afghan security forces. But in the near term, in Task Force Rakkasan AO, we’re not planning on closing any FOB and COPs.
The question of the level of SIGACTS -- you know, I try to put some fidelity and do some qualitative analysis as far as the trends itself. If you’re talking about pure numbers of SIGACTS, actually, those numbers are going -- or have been going down in the last eight months. If you take the last eight months average in Khost, those numbers have been lower.
But as stated before, 50 percent of those SIGACTs were initiated by us, meaning, you know, we were going out there, doing movement to contact, doing raids, ambushes, looking to make contact with enemies. So even though we have taken a lot of operations to drive up the number of significant activities, the numbers have remained constant.
I spoke about the 50 percent drop on the effectiveness of the enemy’s attacks, meaning there have been less trained fighters coming through. You know, a lot of them are getting killed or captured. So they’re losing a lot of experience.
In addition to that, lately the trend has been assassinations, because that’s all they can resort to doing to target a very, very vulnerable Afghan officials.
In addition to that, they’ve caused a tremendous amount of CIVCAS, or civilian casualties, across the board, you know, with their IEDs. They use a lot of "pressure plate" kind of IEDs here that are -- that are really, really -- (inaudible) -- and able to identify, you know, the targets in which they sought. And they end up killing a lot of people.
They’ve also killed -- just as recently as yesterday, up in Dand Patan, while we had a shura with the village elders, you know, very, very tumultuous region up in northern Paktya. The people were beginning to feel a sense of security, and we had a shura yesterday -- it’s called a former mujaheddin shura -- to try to get some of these people connected to the government.
And we were attacked by indirect fires, and it caused ABP [Afghan Border Patrol] wounded. In addition to that, it wounded one local child.
So that’s about all they can do at this stage. We’re getting less and less complex attacks. The suicide threat is pretty high here. You know, you have one or two motivated guy that really doesn’t care about the civilian casualties. It’s actually pretty easy for them to be able to get mixed in among the populace and, you know, blow up a mosque, blow up a school or kill a bunch of innocent civilians.
MR. TURNER: Jim.
Q: Colonel, this is Jim Garamone with American Forces Press Service. It sounds like you have pretty good and close relations with the Pakistani military. Are you able to coordinate your operations with them? In other words, if you plan an operation, do you tell the Pakistanis you may be driving an enemy across the border and they can position forces to stop them, or has it not gone that far yet?
COL. LUONG: I will tell you, not gone that far yet. I was really, really looking forward to this last fall campaign in which we can do complementary operations. That was part of my campaign goal is to sort of get to that. I think the floods over the summer had -- has derailed the effort, as our Pakistan brothers were really focused on humanitarian assistance operations, but there are some -- there are some stuff in the works right now, and that’s going to be one of the topics that we’re going to discuss here next week at this conference, is to be able to do complementary operations. But I know up north up in Nangahar, Logar, those areas there, last year with the 4th Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, they were able to reach complementary operations. And that’s what we’ve been trying to replicate down here.
So we can do better with that, but we’re looking forward to more cooperation with the Pakistani forces.
Q: Successor unit will probably be doing that sort of thing?
COL. LUONG: Okay, I did not get the last question there. Can you repeat?
Q: I’m sorry. So the unit that follows on after the Rakkasans will probably be doing complementary ops?
COL. LUONG: Yes, that’s -- you know, my plan is to work with both our Afghan security forces and the Pakistanis to plan really the first 90 to 60 days of operations for the follow-on task force, which would include complementary operations. But, you know, I’m a positive, optimistic person, and I’m really looking forward to being able to do that, where we can really gain a lot of good effects across the board.
MR. TURNER: Time for one more question.
Q: Colonel, Nathan Hodge with the Wall Street Journal. To follow on the line of questions about the Haqqani Network, how effective has the coalition been in disrupting the financing of the Haqqani Network, often described very much as a mafia-like organization that depends on things like smuggling? Is there any way that you could quantify that? You’ve described the fight in very kinetic terms and in terms of how much you’ve been able to degrade or take insurgents off the battlefield, but how effective has the coalition been in removing sources of financing?
COL. LUONG: Well, you know, that’s a very good question. We have been trying to get after that financing threat stream. Very, very difficult to do, I will tell you. You know, here in Afghanistan, they use an informal system called the hawalas. And we’ve targeted some and had some effects, but it’s very, very hard to track the money because it’s all done, you know, over paperwork and a series of very complex transactions between individuals.
But one of the ways that we’ve been able to mitigate threat financing is a more judicious application of how we contract projects, how we manage that from inception to the end. You know, unfortunately, that -- several years ago, that was one of their venues for them to be able to attack these projects. And I think we’re doing a pretty effective job at providing oversight and supervision over these projects that are being built across P2K [Paktika and Khost].
Q: Just a quick follow-up. Could you quantify how much you have in CERP funds at your disposal right now?
COL. LUONG: Can you repeat the question? I heard some kind of fund.
Q: I’m trying to get a sense of the size of CERP funds that have been at your disposal.
COL. LUONG: Yeah. Really, I can tell you what -- you know, I can tell you what we have -- we have committed here in the different provinces. I’ve got it broken down here in front of me.
In Paktya, we have about $42 million of ongoing funds that are current. In addition to that, we’ve completed about $25 million of -- worth of projects in Paktya.
In Khost, we have $20 million of ongoing projects and then $49 million of completed projects. A lot of it is spent on education, health care, roads, rule of law. But the funding is out there.
And, you know, one of the things that I had to do when I -- when I first arrived in theater is really look at the judicious application of this fund and be responsible and be good stewards of our funds, because, you know, the money’s out there.
In addition to that, you know, we’ve been trying very, very hard to have transparency, and we’ve been trying very hard to get the Afghan buy-in, you know, at the provincial level. We have the provincial development plan. We have that down at the district level now. We’re beginning to have elders from villages participate in the projects’ nomination process. So it’s for the people, through the people.
And, you know, in Iraq, we were tracking it by the number of -- or amount of dollars spent. I never really liked that. I think it’s the effects on the ground. And you are able to provide -- or not -- more importantly, the provinces and districts can use this money in projects to provide for their own people.
MR. TURNER: Okay. With that then, Colonel, we’ll turn it back to you for any closing remarks that you would care to make.
COL. LUONG: Okay. Again, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to talk about Task Force Rakkasan and what our Afghan partners have accomplished here in Paktya and Khost provinces. I tell you, I cannot be more proud of my soldiers for the work that they’ve done over the last 11 months. As we’re ending our tour, we are anticipating the arrival of Task Force Duke, the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division. I’ve known Colonel Toner for many, many years, and he is an outstanding soldier and leader. His team has been readying for this mission throughout the last year. The gains here are fragile and reversible, so my focus will be to make sure that we have campaign continuity for Task Force Duke. They have the leadership and professionalism to capitalize on the work we have started here. I’m confident that they will not only continue in our footsteps but also forge new paths from which the people of (inaudible) Paktya can take charge of their own destiny.
Finally, I also wish to thank my soldiers and their families. The task force could not have accomplished all without the support of our nation, our friends and our families. While we miss being home for the holidays, I would tell you to a man and woman, my soldiers are proud to be serving in our nation, particularly in the most tumultuous regions of Afghanistan during the most critical period in our nation’s history. I’m both proud and humbled to be serving with these fine men and women. Thank you again for this opportunity. Best wishes to you in the new year. Rakkasan Air Assault. Army Strong.
MR. TURNER: Thank you, Colonel.