DOD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Terry and Mr. Ensher via Teleconference from Afghanistan
COL. DAVID LAPAN (deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations): I'd like to welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room Army Major General James Terry, the commander of Regional Command South. General Terry assumed his duties in November of last year. This is his first briefing with us in this format, and he joins us today from his headquarters at Kandahar Air Field. General Terry is joined today by Mr. Henry Ensher, the senior civilian representative for RC South. General Terry and Mr. Ensher will make some opening remarks, and then they will take your questions.
And with that, gentlemen, I will turn it over to you.
GEN. TERRY: Okay, thanks, Dave. Let me just start by saying thanks to everyone for your support back home. We were really nearly overwhelmed this holiday season with all the care packages from the folks back in the States. This is really important to all of us serving in Regional Command South, and again, thanks to everyone.
I think that most of you know that the 10th Mountain Division took command of Regional Command South on the 2nd of November, just about nine weeks ago.
This is the division's fourth tour in Afghanistan. Our area of operations includes Kandahar, which you're familiar with, it's the keystone to southern Afghanistan. It's the birthplace of the Taliban, it's President Karzai's home and it's the center of the Pashtun heartland.
Now, my predecessor who spoke to you last, Major General Nick Carter, established a solid foothold in the former insurgent safe havens located in Zhari, western Panjwai and Arghandab districts. And we now control this decisive terrain. The progress he and the 6th United Kingdom Division made was significant. And now it's our challenge to advance those accomplishments by continuing to fine-tune our systems and improve our understanding of the environment.
We will also maintain a tempo of operations that keeps insurgents off balance while supporting governance and development. Most importantly, we are building relationships with our international civilian and Afghan partners to unify our efforts. We have made definite progress, but we also acknowledge that it is fragile and perhaps can be reversed. Our focus is to continue to build momentum, especially during this historical lull in activity.
Some initial impressions: security has improved over the past six months. That doesn't mean things are completely secure, but it means we're moving in the right direction. The perception of security in the minds of the local population is a critical first step in creating a more productive and prosperous life for Afghans and their families. Much of this is about separating the population from the insurgents who seek to control them through violence and intimidation. Part of this is the added freedom of movement along roads that were once controlled by insurgents. And as the people feel more secure, they are venturing out into communities to create opportunities for economic growth.
We believe our tempo and focused, full-spectrum efforts to reduce insurgent networks, sanctuary and bases has disrupted enemy operations, leaving somewhat of a void in insurgent leadership within the area of operations.
The increase of forces, both coalition and Afghan, has allowed us to move into areas previously considered insurgent strongholds. We are now expanding our security footprint and advancing our government's reconstruction and developmental efforts before the spring arrives. In the near term, we are working with our Afghan partners to ensure that at the local village level, we have representative governance which can then connect to the district- and province-level of government. This only reinforces the gains made in our security efforts.
Our Afghan security partners are increasing in capability, capacity and in strength every day. A very promising sign is the progress of the Afghan National Army. As they're becoming more and more competent, we're able to thin our partnership with them and refocus our efforts on the Afghan National Police and the Afghan Border Police. And I'm very proud of the progress, even the progress I've seen here in the short time that I've been here.
The Afghans are and have been in many ways in the lead. Clearly, while our Afghan partners need our assistance in the near term, overall they want to see this endeavor succeed.
One of the challenges we face is that insurgents are rigging many of the structures and fields, particularly in Arghandab, Zhari and Panjwai, with IEDs [improvised explosive device] and homemade explosives. This creates a very dangerous environment not only for coalition Afghan forces but the civilian population as well. Since September, we have recorded the deaths of 97 Afghan civilians and 167 injured due to these deaths. And you can place the direct blame for this upon the insurgents.
When possible, we use our explosive ordnance teams to render safe the IEDs, but when they are more complex and dangerous, we use precision munitions to reduce them -- only after we've established pattern of life and secured the area. If we damage something, whether through making improvised explosive devices safe or during the course of other operations, it is our responsibility to compensate. We do this through the local district governors and tribal elders.
Citizens can make their claim through the local government to us. We will validate the claim, then pay the claimant.
Since the 2nd of November, we have received 859 claims for buildings, crops and livestock. Of those, 432 have been resolved, and most of the rest are still being processed.
So far we have paid out $1.4 million to claimants throughout the southern provinces. And I would note -- actually highlight that in a recent press release, the governor of Kandahar referred to recent reports indicating damage of $100 million in losses in Kandahar as being very far from reality.
Where there has been damage to public property; for instance, roads and canals, ISAF has taken the initiative to utilize our forces and construction equipment to make these public services functional again, often improving them beyond their original condition.
There are many positive indicators that make me optimistic about security and stability in Regional Command South. We're in a much better place than when I visited here a year ago. And with patience and perseverance, we can contribute to a brighter, safer and a more secure future for the people of this country.
And now with that, I would like to introduce my counterpart from the civilian side of things, Mr. Henry Ensher. He is the senior civilian representative of the Regional Platform South. He has a vast experience in the diplomatic side of what we're doing. And with that, I'll hand it over to Henry.
MR. ENSHER: Thanks very much, General. Myself and a hundred -- nearly a hundred other civilian U.S. government employees are here to support our military partners by assisting Afghans to connect to government at the lowest possible level; that is to say, villagers connecting to, in many cases for their first time, the district level of government. For us to succeed in Afghanistan, Afghans need to see that there is a clear alternative in their own government to the Taliban.
On development, we're taking exactly the same approach. It's clear that a great requirement, a way of showing that there is a clear alternative to the Taliban, something that the Taliban can't provide is employment-creating growth in the economy here.
I'm from Fresno, California, and I have to say that Kandahar strikes me as very similar to Fresno, and should therefore play a really significant role as the center of an agricultural -- an agriculturally rich and well-developed region. And it's on that -- on those sorts of projects that we're working with Afghans.
The precursor to both good government and development has got to be security. But the most important element has got to be the confidence of the people. As we interact with the Afghans, we see that they're increasingly working with each other on governance, and increasingly reaching out to their district center, even while they're establishing relations with us.
It's clear to us that within the security bubbles created by the sacrifice of Afghan and coalition forces, we've made a great deal of progress. But confidence has to be the key as we head towards transition in 2014. And it's for that reason that we continue to work so hard on the relationship with the Afghans at every level.
It will be critical during this time period, the winter, that we use -- we use this period of reduced violence to ensure that we're making gains in governance and connections to the first level of government, and maximizing participation in our development programs so that we're able to hold that progress if there is increased violence in -- later in the year, and then we'll come back and work even harder next winter as security continues to improve.
It's a great honor for my fellow civilians and I to be able to roll out of the wire every single day with our military partners. We share the same dangers that we do so that we, too, can work with our military partners in ensuring the continued security of the United States of America.
And that's what we're here for together.
COL. LAPAN: Anne. Good to see you. Go ahead.
Q: Gentlemen, it's Anne Flaherty with Associated Press. I was interested in what you said about -- it sounds like you're trying to get as much done developing the civilian government before spring, potentially when there might be a new offensive from the enemy. Can you talk a little bit more about that, and how long -- how far away we are from seeing a stable government in places like Kandahar?
MR. ENSHER: Well, first of all, you have to say that that picture is going to vary greatly from place to place, and I mean from city district to city district and within the key districts around the city as well. So there's not just one answer.
But it is clear that increasingly at the village level people are reaching out. They're forming for the first time in a long time representative shuras -- that is to say, groupings of the villagers -- that enable them to participate for the first time in decisions that affect their lives; and then they're able to represent their villages, their communities to the first level of government, which is at the district center in those key villages.
So it's that level of progress that we're striving for now, even while we work on building capacity of the higher levels of government, particularly at the provincial center. But we are very much focused on connecting villages through representative shuras to district centers. And we are making progress, and you can see that even just by the number of people who interact with the district governors on a daily basis. It's gone from zero to really significant numbers on every day.
GEN. TERRY: I'd just add to that. Our coaching to our subordinate commanders, actually all the way down to the company commander level, in conjunction with Mr. Ensher's team, the district support teams that actually go down in some cases to the battalion level, is that when we create a security environment, that we go into the villages and identify all the key personnel in the villages -- the mullahs [religious leaders], the maliks [tribal chieftains], the wakils [village security manager], magrebs [managers of the community water supply] -- and then make sure that we have a representative shura process at the village level that then connects back up to the district level.
Right now we have some pretty solid district governors in the key terrain provinces that are really starting to connect and take advantage of the security environment right now.
COL. LAPAN: Joe.
Q: General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. Given what you said that you expect, that violence is going to rise in the next upcoming month -- in the next six months, when do you think the troops can be ready to start leaving the area -- I mean, the Kandahar area in the -- in the future?
GEN. TERRY: Dave, I'm sorry, that was a little broken. Could you repeat the question?
COL. LAPAN: (Off mic) -- fact that you may see the Taliban coming back in an offensive in the coming months, when do you think it might be realistic to begin drawing down or thinning out forces in your AO [area of operation]?
GEN. TERRY: Well, I think any type of transition that you're describing is certainly conditions-based, and security is one. I would hesitate to put a time stamp on that. I do feel like in terms of any offensive that aligns with historical fighting cycles, that we have the decided advantage, especially this spring, because we now control the decisive terrain that the insurgents have owned up until this point, specifically in Zhari, Panjwai, the Arghandab and Dand.
So I think we have a distinct advantage there.
To put a time stamp on it, I think, would -- is not useful. I think there are also conditions in the Afghan National Security Forces that are I see continuing to improve every day in relationship to their ability to conduct counterinsurgency operations out there also.
COL. LAPAN: Yochi.
Q: Gentlemen, this is Yochi Dreazen from National Journal. I was struck that you mentioned transition in the context of 2014 without reference to 2011. Do you expect your operations to change in any way, come this summer? I mean, that obviously had been the initial deadline set by the president for beginning some form of transition and some form of withdrawal. Do you anticipate your troop levels coming down at all in the summer? And do you anticipate having any district of the south that you can transition back to Afghan control by the summer?
MR. ENSHER: Actually, Yochi, that was me, that was Henry, who referred to 2014. And that's -- what I was getting at there was to indicate that as we go along between now and the end of the 2014, we expect that our relationship is going to change. I'd -- our leadership has recently said we expect to maintain a strong relationship with the Afghans even after 2014, if they want that, and I -- that's what we're working for right now, is to set the conditions so that there's no diminution of commitment at all. There's a natural evolution in the shape and the structure of the relationship. So they've -- so that's what I was getting at.
GEN. TERRY: Yeah, from my standpoint, we will be standing tall here through 2011.
COL. LAPAN: Missy.
Q: Hi. Missy Ryan, from Reuters. It's a follow-up question to what Anne asked regarding progress on the governance front. Mr. Ensher, you said that there had been progress in Afghans sort of plugging into local government within the security bubbles. And I'd like to ask whether that's happening outside the areas where we've seen the more dramatic improvements in security. And do you think that -- if there is a thinning of forces, that that improvement will be sustainable?
MR. ENSHER: Well, let me -- let me take a shot at that, and if it's not responsive fully, just let me know.
I think that what we've seen in areas where security was a little bit better even before this most recent initiative in the fall -- then what we've seen is more effective outreach by the district governors into the villages. And we've seen even provincial governors -- in, particularly, Zabul, the province of Zabul, and the province of Oruzgan -- to project that level of government and government services down into those areas. What we've seen in Kandahar, in Kandahar City and its districts, is just that initial connection between villages; or in the case of the city, the city subdistricts and the district centers. So it's there where we've focused.
And I should say as well, you know, if it turns out that the level of security allows during the course of the summer, then we'll continue to work with the Afghans to make even more progress during the summer. And one can readily imagine that there would be opportunities for outreach by the provincial level into the districts.
Q: So one of the things you were saying is that because there has been increased number of U.S. troops in RC South, there has been improving security.
I guess the question is, if there isn't -- if there are fewer troops, does that mean that the governance progress that you're talking about won't be sustainable? Or is it now at the point where it's sustainable on its own?
MR. ENSHER: Dave, I -- can you help me out here? I -- I'm -- I don't want to miss it twice. Can you -- can you tell me what that was exactly? Can you repeat the question?
COL. LAPAN: Sure. It really goes to the idea that if there is any kind of thinning of U.S. forces in RC South, do you see the progress in governance being sustainable so that it'll be able to continue forward even if we see more Afghan National Security Forces and fewer U.S. and coalition troops?
MR. ENSHER: I think it's going to be important for some time to maintain a really strong level of commitment and partnership. Let's be clear: The -- a lot of Afghans, when we encounter them for the first time, when my colleagues see them out, when they're out on company-level patrols, what we hear from Afghans is that they're happy to see us back, that they're supportive of our presence, that they don't like the Taliban. But under no circumstances do they want to be abandoned. And that's their perception: that they were abandoned before. So it will take some time, you know, to rebuild that level of confidence, that level of trust, not just with us but, indeed, with their own government.
So if you're asking me, at this moment, would everything be completely sustainable? The answer is no. But what we need to do is continue to work that and the progress that we've seen, particularly in their interactions -- and the general can speak more to this -- with their own security forces has really created a cause for optimism here, recognizing that it is still reversible.
GEN. TERRY: I would -- I would comment that, from my past experience here, in 2006 and 2007, the Afghan national security forces, both the Afghan National Army and the Afghan police, have made great progress.
As I talk to the leadership of those organizations, they want to keep moving towards the future and secure themselves. So I think there is a point in time out there where they will be capable of securing themselves, and I think governance can continue under that.
COL. LAPAN: We're going -- we're going to hand this mic to make sure we have clear comms [communication].
Q: This is Dave Martin with CBS. You said a couple times that you now control the key terrain.
What does that mean, "control"? Does that mean the Taliban are nowhere to be seen? Does that mean American troops have complete freedom of movement? Do Afghan civilians have complete freedom of movement in this key terrain?
GEN. TERRY: The key terrain I'm talking about is actually the terrain that surrounds Kandahar City itself. And, you know, for a variety of reasons that's actually very important to the Taliban and very important to the Afghan people. I would tell you that it's not just U.S. forces but it's Afghan National Security Forces that are controlling it.
There is increased freedom of movement. However, I would tell you that there is -- there are still insurgents there, and there's a pretty active intimidation campaign that still takes place -- I think largely because of the disruption of the insurgents that were here in the July-August-September time frame, that they've had to revert back to some intimidation of the population. Because I think they're very concerned due to the efforts that have been ongoing since, frankly, May-June time frame, that they'll lose the population that they seek to control.
MR. ENSHER: I would add here that when we're talking about control, we tend to focus, at least on the civilian side, particularly on freedom to live their lives, for Afghans to enjoy freedom of movement and to do things like build new market stalls; to shop where they want to shop, when they want to shop; to send their children to school; to communicate to their government freely. And in all of those areas, we've seen really considerable improvement -- in many cases, as the general indicated, by removing Taliban control.
One thing that's unarguable is that there are significant parts of the -- of the key districts, particularly to the west of Kandahar, that were utterly under insurgent control, and now they're not. That by itself is a huge difference, I would contend.
COL. LAPAN: Lalit.
Q: This is Lalit Jha, from Pahjwok Afghan News. Can you give us a sense of the strength of the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in RC South, in terms of how many numbers they are? And have you been able to block their free to-and-fro movement across the border in Pakistan?
GEN. TERRY: Dave, could you repeat that for me?
COL. LAPAN: Yes, sir. The second part of the question had to do with what kind of freedom of movement you see for Taliban and forces back and forth across the border to Pakistan. And the first part of the question was if you could give an estimate of enemy strength in your area, in terms of both Taliban and al-Qaeda.
GEN. TERRY: Well, the first thing I would say is, I know of no known al-Qaeda in Regional Command South, and that I would tell you that the estimates of insurgents vary from day to day.
You know, frankly, the scale of insurgent ranges from a small insurgent to a mid-level up to a higher-level insurgent that's out there. I would estimate that there's no more than 2 or 300 insurgents out there right now. And I do not know of any al-Qaeda that's out there.
Now, there is some freedom of movement because of the very porous border that we have with Pakistan, so the reality is, is that they can move back and forth. And in fact, one of the things we have to do in our winter shaping operations, as we term them here, is how do we target the Taliban recruiting cycle? In other words, how do we get the young men to stay with the side of the government of Afghanistan as opposed to being recruited by the Taliban? Much of that has to do with creating some type of economy that they can get some livelihood out of. Otherwise, you can have some midlevel and higher-level leadership come back in and actually start to recruit again.
I think what -- no doubt as we have reduced the insurgents' safe havens inside of Afghanistan, there has been some cross-border movement. I think what's important now is that we close the gap with the Pakistan military. I've worked with the Pakistan military before and I'm very willing to work with them. In fact, next month I'll go over and visit my counterparts and exchange our campaign plan, where we see ourselves a year from now and 18 months from now.
We do have increased coordination at the border control centers, where personnel from ISAF, Afghanistan and Pakistan work side by side. So we've just got to continue to close that gap, although it is a very porous border.
Q: General, it's Mike Evans from the London Times here. Admiral Mullen yesterday said that the level of violence in Afghanistan in 2011 would be worse than 2010. I assume he's basing part of that on judgments from people like yourself. What evidence is there that the Taliban's violence will be worse this year than last year?
And could I ask a second question? When the Marja operation was on, there was a lot of focus on, you know, when it was going to be wrapped up, when it could be regarded as a success, et cetera. And it took longer than had been anticipated.
I don't get any sense, apart from obviously all your positive remarks you've made about Kandahar -- I don't get any sense of, you know, the offensive -- wrong word, the operation in Kandahar is now coming to an end after a successful, you know, six months, seven months, whatever. Can you give us some idea of why that is?
GEN. TERRY: I think we still have some work to do, specifically in the governance and development side, as Mr. Ensher and I have referenced, before we create those conditions where we can completely transfer over the key districts in and around Kandahar and Kandahar City itself. And again, I hesitate to put a time stamp on it.
In terms of 2011 being a hard year, I think that's -- I think the comments were probably directed toward the terrain that we now stand on being key terrain to the -- to the Taliban that's out there. We fully expect them to come back and contest the terrain that we've gained, and also the number of people that we've gained.
Q: Greg Jaffe, Washington Post. Could you talk a little bit about the governance support you're getting from Kabul, what percentage of sort of district line ministries are filled? And has that been an area where you've been able to make progress, or has that been an area where you've struggled?
MR. ENSHER: I'm delighted to report that there's been really significant progress there just recently. If you -- if you look at the tables of organizations -- "tashkeels" [personnel rosters] is the word that's used down here -- for each of the district centers, you'll find that there's an increased number in each of those places so that a district governor now has a chief of staff, so that line directors for education and health and agriculture are increasingly present and working in those districts. Again, it's a question of not only security but perception of security.
It's also a question of the Afghan government making the very wise decision to decentralize some authorities, and provide the capability for the district governors to hire local staff locally, that is to say, not depend on folks from other part of the country deciding that it's secure enough to come here and live in Kandahar, but simply relying on people who are already committed to the district and the province, who want to work for and support their government. And so that's what we're increasingly seeing -- real change in the last month or two, I would say.
Q: (Off mic) -- in terms of tashkeels filled?
MR. ENSHER: I missed the words before "tashkeels filled."
Q: (Off mic) -- for a percentage change.
MR. ENSHER: Oh.
In -- well, the short answer is, if you want exact numbers, I can probably do that for you a little bit later. But in many cases and in particular if we look at the three or four key districts to the west, in many cases, for some time the answer was zero filled, except for the district governor, and now, in all of those places, there are numbers between half a dozen and eight present for duty every day.
COL. LAPAN: (Off mic.)
Q: Yeah, I'm Carl Osgood with Executive Intelligence Review. Let me ask you, Mr. Ensher, the other side of that question, which is really, what is your sense of how much of the confidence that the population has in the government in Kabul and their ability to provide the services that the population needs?
MR. ENSHER: You know, look, honestly, I think that most folks down here don't really look that high up. What we find consistently is that people are most interested in working together with their neighbors to make the decisions that affect them. You know, that's the lowest level of governance, to use the general's expression. And then the next level that they're interested in is that district center there, and it's the district center where they want to gather and make decisions about where a school should go. You know, should there be ditches dug in one village as opposed to another? What's more important, a health clinic or electricity lines? It -- it's that level that we're working at right now.
They don't really, as far as I can tell, focus much above that level at all, bearing in mind that up until, you know, that I -- the success of the military operations, there was no option at all. The idea of non-Taliban -- of a non-Taliban regime was utterly foreign to their experience.
So we're in a learning phase here, and I would say we're in an expectation growth phase here.
Q: Gentlemen, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. If I could ask you about the intimidation campaign that you both referenced earlier; in the greenbelts, how is that affecting recruiting for civilian work projects? I know that back in Marja, the intimidation campaign there was kind of successful initially in preempting those civilian -- you know, local populace going in to fill those jobs. What's happening in the greenbelts in Arghandab with regards to that?
GEN. TERRY: Yeah, I was just down in Arghandab today. And probably about 600 folks out working, specifically working to clean out the canals so that -- what we try to do with all these programs is link them to the agricultural value chain, so for working water irrigation, canal systems; or we're working roads out there that deliver goods to market. We're helping that agricultural value chain.
So I saw about 600 out there today. Reports I get out of Zhari province on any given day, about 3,400 folks hired. So I think that's probably a pretty good sign.
MR. ENSHER: For whatever reason, here the focus of intimidation seems to be on people who are working for the government or in some way associated with the government. And so that's why I think we continue to see growth in the number of people who are working on these sorts of projects.
So I would expect that that will continue to grow over time, even while the intimidation is focused on specific individuals working for the government continues.
COL. LAPAN: All right.
Gentlemen, again, thank you for your time. We are out of questions here, so I'll send it back to you for any closing remarks you'd like to make.
GEN. TERRY: Henry, do you have any?
MR. ENSHER: I don't. Thank you very much for the opportunity, though.
GEN. TERRY: Hey, Dave, I just want to say thanks, and thanks for all the support we get from the great folks back at home. You've got some great soldiers out here, sailors, airmen and Marines, that are really doing some fantastic work. So thanks again.
Over to you, Dave.
COL. LAPAN: Okay, thank you, gentlemen.