DOD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Fritz and Col. Mulholland via Teleconference from Afghanistan
MR. JAMES TURNER (deputy director, Defense Press Operations): Good morning here, and good morning in Afghanistan. I'd like to welcome back to the Pentagon Briefing Room major -- German Major General Hans-Werner Fritz, commanding general for Regional Command North. General Fritz assumed his duties in Pakistan last year on June 20th. Most recently, he joined us in September in this format. And he joins us today from his headquarters in Mazar-e Sharif to provide an update on current operations. General Fritz will brief today, along with his deputy, U.S. Army Colonel Sean Mulholland. They will make some opening remarks, and then will take your questions.
And with that, sir, I'll turn it over to you.
GEN. FRITZ: Yeah, hello, and good morning to Washington. First of all, I would like to say it's a great pleasure to talk to you again like we did in September. I think for all the ones who were not present last time, just one -- brief remarks on the Regional Command North. First of all, to give you at least an idea, Regional Command North has about the size of Nevada or Wyoming. About one-third of the Afghan population is living in Regional Command North. We are talking about 8 to 10 million. And what concerns our troops, I have under command around about 11,000.
When we talked last time, I gave you some ideas about the restructuring phase we were in at this time. Now we have finished that phase. It starts with our HQ [headquarters] in Mazar-e Sharif. We are now at the personnel level of about 360. We are from 60 [sic - 16] nations. I think this is the highest density of nations we have in all of the theater.
We have restructured our troops. We have now here a -- the complete combat air brigade from the United States, 4th CAB [combat aviation brigade]. We have here one brigade, 110th from the 10th Mountain. We have here two German battle troops, mounted infantry and paratroopers. And I must really say the soldiers, all grades, they are operating and they are cooperating diligently. They are fighting brave, and they are doing very, very well. And what I would like to say to you in Washington: especially the cooperation with the U.S. soldiers at all levels, it's really excellent.
And if I may, just to give you an example for that, it was in October and we had a day of fierce fighting. It started when a suicider attacked a German position. These were paratroopers from my division in Germany. And this suicider, he killed one German soldier and wounded a lot more. And we asked for medevac, and the medevac came. This was -- these were two American Black Hawks from Fort Campbell, and they -- although it was really -- as we say in German, there was a lot of iron in the air. They came down, they recovered the wounded, and then they started again. And obviously, being in the air again, they became aware that there was -- there's a dead soldier on the ground. And they came back under fire, they recovered the soldier and they said: We are taking home a fallen hero. And I can promise you, the German paratrooper, the German "fallschirmjäger," will never forget that. This is the quality of the cooperation we are talking about.
But also, due to the Afghans, we are doing very well. The partnering is close, the mentoring is good. And this also concerns all levels. As you might know that here in Regional Command North we have the complete Afghan corps, so that the cooperation starts at corps level. We are doing all the planning together. We see each other on a regular basis, I would say nearly every week. It goes down to the Afghan brigades, to the kandaks, which are the battalions, and to the companies as well. And really, our soldiers -- might they be the Germans, the Americans, the people -- soldiers from the -- from Scandinavia -- they are fighting shoulder-and- shoulder. And this is very important.
We are planning together, as I have already mentioned, all our operations. We had an interesting backbrief two days ago. It was for a plan. It's called Omid 1390 [Operation Hope], which stands for the year 2011-12 in the Islamic world. And this backbrief was for the IJC [International Security Assistance Force Joint Command], for our superiors, if you like, for the Afghan MOD [Ministry of Defense] and the MOI [Ministry of the Interior].
And I think we could present ourselves as a really good Combined Team North. And our Afghan friends, they did very, very well on that.
But it's not only the cooperation with the military. It's also with the civilian side. We invited in Regional Command North some days ago in mid-December all the governors of the regional commands. They came together. We talked about the security situation, about development, about government. And this really formed some sort of a team spirit, of a very good team spirit. Today, I, for instance, I was in the Samangan and the Takhar province talking to the two governors, listening what they have to say. And this is really what brings us forward.
So I can say our partnership has really produced tangible results.
We have improved the security in our region. We are doing well in the Baghlan-Kunduz corridor. You remember, we talked about this in September. I think we have, especially in this critical area, made good progress. We have a good combination of operations between the conventional forces as well as the special forces, which is an excellent mix, doing well very.
And I could imagine my perspective is we are approaching some sort of a culmination point. Like we had mentioned, we will have still some hard weeks and months to go, but my guess is the -- my estimate is that the situation will become more better.
And with that, I would like to turn it over to my deputy, to Colonel Mulholland. Colonel, please.
COL. MULHOLLAND: Thank you, sir. Good day, ladies and gentlemen.
I would like to complement what Major General Fritz has stated. Truly, I'm -- I am optimistic about the last few months, since we last talked in September all the way till now. Progress has been made in RC North. There are factual operations that have taken place that have done very, very well moving the insurgency out of the areas such as Kunduz, Baghlan and Faryab.
We've been using SOF [special operations forces] as -- in the form of shaping operations before conventional troops have gone into the area, and we've had great success winning the hearts and minds of the civilians once the conventional forces have gone in there. And also, we've been able to hold large expanses of terrain and also build COPs, combat outposts, and FOBs [forward operating base] to secure and anchor those areas that have been gained through the wintertime.
Also, as an adjunct to that, the Afghan peace and reconciliation program has taken off in RC North due to people that are -- don't want to fight anymore and people that have decided to side with the Afghan government.
Another program that has been very efficient up here is the Afghan Local Police program. Currently there are two sites that are functioning, with a tashkil [roster] of 225 and 325 [personnel]. That's in -- (inaudible) --, which is west of Kunduz and Baghlan. And the next site they'll go up in is in Faryab.
The Afghan Local Police is a GIRoA-backed [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan], GIRoA-led program that gives former insurgents jobs and people that have reconciled jobs. So it also helps us fill in the white space, and it builds another security force for us up here in RC North.
Once you've secured those areas, you have the ability to put in CERP [Commander’s Emergency Response Program] projects and do some good construction and development programs with USAID and other international NGOs up here in RC North, which have really -- has really made a difference up here in terms of the civilian populace and how it feels towards ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] and the Afghan government.
So to sum up what we've done in the last four months, persistence -- as General Fritz covered -- persistence and partnerships have improved; coordination, planning, and execution of missions have improved. Communications between leaders have improved to include the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] leaders as well as the governors that General Fritz just talked about.
And development projects are maturing. As you know, CERP is used for quick-hitting projects. The mid- and long-term CERP and NGO projects take a little longer to take place and get contracted and be implemented. So all that -- all those development projects are starting to maturate, and the people are really starting to see an improvement and the backing of the Afghan government up here in RC North.
Over to you.
MR. TURNER: Okay. Who's first?
Q: Could you describe over -- the state and the strength of the insurgency in the north over the past six months or a year? You mentioned a culmination point approaching. Are you suggesting that the insurgency is weaker in your region than it was since September or previous to that?
And can you describe the levels of violence that you're seeing and whether there are certain -- you talked about terrain that's now secure. Can you be more specific? Are there main roads now that are now usable that were not before, that are now secure?
GEN. FRITZ: Thanks. First of all, what concerns the, let's say, the fighting, the resistance of the Taliban, of the insurgents, my impression is -- and this is why I'm using the term "culmination point" -- the way they fight becomes more and more desperate and more and more brutal.
And I will give you an example for that. You might have heard that in October, one of the province governors was killed in -- this was the province governor of Kunduz. He was killed, it must be mentioned, in a mosque on the -- during the Friday prayer. This is comparable, I think, if you would kill a politician of the United States or in Germany on a Sunday mass, mass in a church, and then you would tell the people you would like the Christians.
And it is also the way they treat their own populace. I mean, they're using people as living shields and so on and so on. And I think from that perspective, they really get aware that it's -- it is getting now very, very serious for them, and they are -- have a feeling that we are -- we are making this progress.
And what concerns the area, the terrain, talking about Kunduz-Baghlan corridor, you know, it is very important because two roads -- two LOCs [lines of communication] -- they come from the north from the Hairatan border crossing, from Uzbekistan and from Shir Khan Bandar, from Tajikistan.
And it is very important to keep these open for all our resupply, not only for the civilian one but also for the military ones. And I think we are successful in to keep this -- these routes open.
Q: So just to follow up, then, is -- are -- is the Taliban expanding its areas in the north? Is it -- and are levels of violence increasing or is the opposite the case?
GEN. FRITZ: Could you repeat your question, please? I couldn't get it precisely. Please, could you repeat it?
Q: Is the Taliban expanding its activity in the north? And are -- is -- are levels of violence increasing, or is the opposite the case?
GEN. FRITZ: I think the influence of the Taliban is diminishing, definitely. And as we said, they are leaving the area. If they don't leave, they were killed. They were handing themselves over to us -- this is what Colonel Mulholland mentioned -- by the reintegration program. So they are simply giving up.
And the security bubble we have here in the area, Kunduz, Baghlan, as west -- as well as we have in west -- (inaudible) -- it is permanently expanding. So it is getting better.
Q: What evidence do you have that any serious type Taliban commanders and others are actually prepared to give up? Are you just talking about very low-level people who are coming and handing over their arms?
GEN. FRITZ: I mean, I can only talk about the Taliban leaders here in our -- in our region. And so I'm talking about the low and the medium level, I think. And these people are really -- a lot of them are giving up; they're coming with their -- with their soldiers, if you like, or with their -- with the members of their troops. It might be 10. It might -- been 15 or more, sometimes. And they are obviously they're giving up.
My impression is that also these people, they are war tired on the one hand, and on the other hand, they are -- they really get a feeling that they're on loser street.
Q: But when they come, what do you give to them to convince them that they should swap sides, as it were?
GEN. FRITZ: I mean, there are two programs we can offer. The one is the APRP, the Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Program, and the other one is the ALP program, the Afghan Local Police Program. Both programs have as a precondition that all these people are registered, that they are telling clearly that they agree on the Afghan constitution, on the Afghan law, that they accept GIRoA as authorities. Then they have to hand over their weapons they were registered, the people were registered. We are checking as good as we can whether there are really criminals among them.
And then they can go into the programs. What concerns the reintegration program, they can learn a civilian job, I would say, they could get a -- maybe a teacher, whatever they like, on the one hand. On the other hand, they can join the Afghan Local Police Program, so they can join the local police, which is a special program. And I think, Sean, if you like, you can comment on that in a little bit more detail.
COL. MULHOLLAND: The simple answer to an APRP and ALP is APRP allows them, after they've been forgiven and, obviously, enrolled in the program, it gives them the opportunity for vocational training. While they're going to training, they receive a stipend of $88 a month to keep food on the table. The ALP is actually a job, which is a program they can stay enrolled in for two to five years.
So that's the difference between the APRP program and the ALP program. Both are good alternatives to what they're doing now.
And a lot of people are seeing the light and wanting to become part of the Afghan government or part of the solution.
Q: This is Al Pessin with VOA. Can you give us some numbers as well as what the percentages are of these Taliban who have surrendered?
GEN. FRITZ: I mean you can only give, from my point of view, a percentage if you know exactly what 100 percent is. What we can say is in terms of real figures, there are groupings coming to us -- they might be 20, they might be more than 20. Very, very -- actually, currently we have a group which would like to come to us in the Takhar province -- we are talking about 36 men. In the other provinces it might be more. And this is what we expect to come. And this equals exactly the size of the group they are fighting in. You know, these are not battalions which are coming. They fight in groups, as I have already said, between 10, 15, 20 maybe more, maybe thirty or forty.
But that is what we see on the radar on our bases.
COL. MULHOLLAND: The current totals in RC North are -- that we have to date is we have had 540 formally reintegrated in RC North. Last week we reintegrated 64 up in Emam Saheb. And they have been doing very well. And they’re under the -- it’s an Afghan program -- so they’re under the supervision of the provincial governor, the district chief -- the provincial chief of police and the district governor. And we help them administer the program.
GEN. FRITZ: I mean, if I may add on that, this is truly a decisive point to make clear: that ISAF is in a supporting role as concerns both programs, the APRP and the ALP program as well.
But there is another important point. It is very, very important that the people really accept these homecoming ones. So the forgiving is important and the people, the village – they must really accept these people to say: yes, we would like to have them here because they are from the area, they are from the village and they are not from somewhere else.
Q: General, I know it’s difficult, but -- general or colonel, can you guess at an approximate percentage that the 540 represents? Is it 1 percent, 5, 10, any number you can put on it?
GEN. FRITZ: No, I mean, this is -- if you ask me for the percentage, what the 500 stands for, 550, it would really mean we can exactly count what is in the area which is difficult because groups are moving from one part to the other. But I think it is a percentage which really makes a difference and the tendency which I see for the future is more to come in. So this is really a success we can talk about.
Q: Colonel, yes, David Cloud with the LA Times. I just wanted to follow up on something you said about the ALP. How many ALP units do you have in your region now? And roughly, I don’t expect exact numbers, but how many personnel are involved in the program in your region now? And how many are planned sort of over the next six months? I mean, I think the plan is to ramp this program up fairly dramatically. So how many -- so what does it look like now and what is it going to look like in the next month?
GEN. FRITZ: It’s about the ALP.
COL. MULHOLLAND: ALP.
The -- right now we have two sites that are active and the third site is going to happen this month in Faryab.
Right now there are nine sites that have been approved by the MOI, and we will get them in as soon as we have the mentors in place.
With ALP, you have to have people that are administrating the equipment and, obviously, conducting the training and mentoring the new -- the newly aligned Afghan Local Police. So they can just throw weapons out there and throw trucks out there and uniforms and assume it's going to go well. So they -- we're doing it under control. It's under control of CFSOCC [Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command] out of ISAF. And as we work with the CFSOCC folks, we are implementing ALP as fast and as controlled as possible. Over.
Q: I haven't heard the program described as a reintegration program before. Maybe that's just my ignorance, but do you see it -- do you use it primarily as a reintegration program, ie. to bring former fighters back into loyalty to the government, or is anyone eligible -- any tribe, any region, eligible to offer up individuals to serve as ALP personnel?
GEN. FRITZ: Well, I think, first of all what concerns the reintegration program, it is really a program to bring people back into society, so to speak. You remember at the beginning I said my impression is that the people are war tired. It is the population -- and I think there is a lot of the Taliban fighters. And, I mean, the best what can happen is really they give up, they go back to the village they are from, and they joining the reintegration program. And the job training they get, the vocational training is very good. And also the community, the village they go to, they get some money to support them into these programs. So they are -- both sides -- it's a win-win situation.
In the medium- and long-term, I think this is exactly what we need. I mean, if the foot soldiers, so to speak, are leaving the Taliban, the Taliban leaders to where -- who should the Taliban leaders fight with?
And this is really a very important point. And it is -- the reintegration program, from my point of view, is not only to gain people for the ALP program, but also the ALP program, as we have already said, is at the moment, is without alternative, because it also helps us to fill gaps we have still with the Afghan uniformed police.
Q: Could I make one more try here? Okay. Just one more follow- up. But, I, the ALP program has been presented as a program to defend against the Taliban. I mean, I understand that what you're talking about is reintegration, bringing fighters back in. But I don't -- I never heard it called a reintegration program per se before. And I am curious, I mean, how do you make sure that these units that you have -- that you're signing up -- small numbers, albeit -- are, in fact, loyal to the government in the ALP?
COL. MULHOLLAND: The -- when the APRPs are signed up, they are vetted by the Afghans, and they're also forgiven by the people that come from their village. And a lot of the APRP -- and the ALP, for that matter -- are placed back in their local villages. They're not moved around from city to city. So there's a lot of people that know these people and have a historical knowledge of these people and their history.
So the local police and the provincial chief of police are the people that do the vetting on these people to make sure that they are -- they are from the area and they are obviously willing to participate in the reintegration program, and they can vouch for their history and what things they've done, allegedly, in -- throughout their lives.
So that's the process that we use, and that's -- it's part of the Afghan peace and reconciliation process. So that's part of the vetting that we do with the Afghans. Over.
MR. TURNER: Luis.
Q: Gentlemen, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News.
It sounds like you're making progress with Taliban who are from -- who are local Taliban, they are from the region.
How much of a problem is it from fighters who come from other parts of Afghanistan, say, from Kandahar? Are they a significant problem for you up there, in the north?
GEN. FRITZ: Well, we have very often got these questions concerning fighters coming from other provinces into the north. I mean, you never can exclude this, but what we can see at the moment -- and this is the situation picture we have -- there are not so many coming from other parts of Afghanistan into the north. There might be, from time to time, some sort of an exchange of knowledge which they have, for instance, in terms of IED [improvised explosive device]. But we're not talking about big numbers coming from outside.
Yes, we have some foreign fighters on the Taliban. You can recognize these people. They have special gear; they have a little bit different weapons. But I also think that the numbers are not so tremendous.
Q: Again, General Petraeus has spoken, if I got his phraseology right, about stopping the Taliban momentum in most of the country and reversing it in much of the country.
Can you describe your area in those terms as to what percentage of your AOR [area of responsibility] the Taliban has the momentum, where it's been stopped and where it's been reversed? And how will that situation influence the recommendations that you have made and will make to ISAF headquarters about potential troop reductions later this year?
GEN. FRITZ: Well, first of all, what concerns the momentum of our operations, I can tell you we will keep it. And I have always said and I think I've already said this in September. If we can, we will fight the winter through, to make sure that all the foxholes are closed when the one or the other of the Taliban might come back in spring.
Yeah, this is one thing.
The other thing is what concerns the question of reduction of troops. I think -- and please remember I was speaking about the culmination point, and we haven't reached that point. So there are still -- there's still a way to go for the forthcoming weeks and months. And I'm saying this might be really fierce fighting we have before we have reached the top.
And what I think is that the year 2011 -- so it's this year -- will be a decisive year, and we should see how the situation develops. And in the end, we have to make a clear statement what we -- what -- how we see the progress in security. This is one thing.
The other aspect is, reduction of troops, from my point of view, is not only dependent from the security situation; it is also dependent from the development situation and the good governance situation. So with other words, the reduction of troops is a purely -- is a very high-level political questions -- question which has to be decided, first of all, and discussed among the ISAF nations, and then we have to talk about this with the Afghan side.
Q: General, generally speaking, the north has been seen as, you know, not the hottest area of fighting in Afghanistan, and it's an area where I think -- some observers believe some of the initial troop reductions could come. Would you agree with that?
GEN. FRITZ: I'm not sure whether I got the first part of the -- of your question. It was about -- again, about reduction of troop levels, right? What was the first part of the question? Could you repeat this, please?
Q: Sure. That the north is not the area of the most intense fighting in the country and that therefore there's some expectation that some of the initial troop reductions could come from your area, and I was asking whether you agree that your area would be ready for some of those initial reductions by July.
GEN. FRITZ: Yeah, got this. I mean, you are absolutely right in saying that we are not in the point of -- in the operational point of main effort here in Afghanistan, which is definitely in the south and southwest, as you know.
But I wouldn't say this is all what automatically means that we have to -- that we have to start the troop reductions here. I mean, what -- I've described the area we are in. And, again, it is like Wyoming and Nevada. It's 11,000 troops under command. We have on the Afghan side about 9,000 and some more from the police side. But this is really what I need at the moment, and if the forthcoming weeks and months are such as I expect to be, because -- which means we have to -- still to fight. This is what we need, and there are -- there's, I think, from that perspective no room for reduction at the moment.
MR. TURNER: Okay. We have time for one more question.
Q: Well, I just need him to clarify, at the moment, or during this entire year? Because the question was in 2011 through July and then --
GEN. FRITZ: Sorry, what -- I mean, what we are doing now is a little bit, you know, crystalballing. I was more happy than happy if I could say how the situation would look like at the end of this year. Possibly, this was the $5 million question. But what I'm saying is, as a soldier, let's see how the situation develops this year. And we are permanently in the progress -- in the process of making assessment of the situation.
And I think in the second half of the year, let's see what the situation is like. If the situation is so stable that you can talk about troop reductions, can do it, if we find out that in some areas, we can afford to put our troops, maybe, maybe we have to re-invest it on the other side.
But again, you have all to -- you have -- you have to see this all within the political frame; within the frame, also, of development and good governance.
MR. TURNER: Okay. Last question.
Q: Hi. This is Kevin Baron from Stars and Stripes. Colonel, could you just get more specific on the ALP? You said there were two sites. How many people have joined the ALP in those two sites? And how many of them are known to be ex-Taliban?
COL. MULHOLLAND: The two sites -- one is a tashkil of 225, and we expect that to be filled. Currently there's about 120 enrolled. And as the -- as the insurgents come -- or they don't have to be insurgents. They have -- they can be reconciles, they can be locals that actually want a security job. They come to them. And the other -- the other place is down in Baghlan. Currently there is 150. There'll be 200 by tomorrow. And they are enrolling and assessing, from MOI, the ALP candidates. As a percentage of how many are Taliban, I couldn't beg to guess. I'm sure there are some, and some of our vetting processes have -- showed that some of the -- some of the people that are trying to get in there are Taliban, but they're not allowed to be -- to come into the Afghan Local Police program. So I would -- I would say the percentage is very, very low due to the stringent vetting process and also our vetting processes.
MR. TURNER: Okay. Gentlemen, with that, General, Colonel, I'll turn it back to you for any closing remarks you would like to make.
GEN. FRITZ: Well, I -- from my point of view, I would like to say the year 2010, last year, was a good and successful year for us, although we have lost soldiers from so many nations and I deeply regret this, and all my condolences always are with the families and with the friends of them. But it was -- on the bottom line, it was a successful year, as we have tried to describe in this interview.
And my second point is, I really hope and pray that all the soldiers come home safe and sound after the operations. And I would like to say thank you for the support we're getting from you. I will never forget -- it was on Christmastime, we get lots of letters from Germany, and even for us Germans there were letters from a class in New Jersey, written by the children there, and they thanked us for the good job we are doing here. And my special thanks -- I'm not sure whether he can -- she can hear me -- goes to Lorene. She wrote me a letter, she said doing well and thank you very much for what we are doing.
So thank you for all your support. And please be reassured we try our best, and in the end we will succeed.
Thank you very much indeed.
MR. TURNER: All right. Thank you very much, gentlemen.