COL. DAVID LAPAN (deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations): Good morning here at the Pentagon, and good evening to Mr. O'Neill in Afghanistan.
I'd like to welcome for the first time to the Pentagon Briefing Room Michael O'Neill, Britain's senior representative in southern Afghanistan. He's also head of the civil-military mission and Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand province. Mr. O'Neill leads an eight-nation team of 200 specialists with expertise in development, diplomacy, policing, law, local government, education, agriculture, and many other fields.
The U.K.-led multinational PRT works with Regional Command Southwest to assist local Afghan government to deliver governance and security across the province. Mr. O'Neill assumed his position in October of last year.
As I mentioned at the top, this is the first time he's joined us. And he speaks to us today from Camp Leatherneck. He'll provide an update on current operations there in Helmand province. He'll begin with an opening statement and then take your questions.
And with that, Mr. O'Neill, I'll turn it over to you.
MR. O'NEILL: Okay. Thank you, Dave. And it's very good to join you.
As you said, I've been here in Helmand for four months now. What I would say about the situation I've observed in these four months, by visiting a lot of different parts of Helmand, 11 of the districts, is that in 2010, some good progress has been made here in Helmand, led by Governor Mangal, the governor of the province, with coalition forces, with the PRT.
And you see that, certainly, in Lashkar Gah, the capital, you see it in Gereshk, but also increasingly in places like Marjah and even in other parts of the province, like Khanishin, Now Zad.
And that progress is in areas like governance, where you're starting to see better structures and systems put in place, with more staff, more resilience.
You see it in justice, where we have more judges and prosecutors now that are training. The same goes for police. You see it also in areas like education: There are a lot more schools open now than there were 12 months ago, more kids in schools, including girls; in counternarcotics, where Governor Mangal has led a strong push to reduce poppy cultivation, and in the last two years in Helmand that's gone down by 37 percent, which is a great indicator of progress.
So you're seeing a lot of positives here. And my sense is, that has come through the political leadership of Governor Mangal, but on the back of improvements in security and freedom of movement, which have been led with Afghan army and police, Afghan forces, but obviously working in very close partnership with ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] coalition troops from the U.S., the U.K., Denmark and Estonia in particular.
But it's also true that that progress is still fragile. And you will have heard this before. There are still security challenges here, as you know. Afghan and coalition forces continue to come under attack.
This is also a very poor country. And I think one of the things we always have to keep in mind is Afghanistan, as you know, is one of the very poorest countries in the world. It's suffered from 30 years of conflict. So it's not surprising that the progress is hard to achieve, and it's going to take more time.
So for us in the PRT but working with Governor Mangal, with General Mills and his forces, also with the U.S. regional platform here, headed by Andrew Erickson, I think the challenge in 2011 is about consolidating and deepening that progress that has really started to come on over the last 12 to 18 months.
Now, as well as doing that, you know, the deepening part, the consolidating part, we're also, I think, able this year to start to respond to new opportunities. As security and freedom of movement gradually get better -- still with challenges -- we're able to move forward on some new areas. And a big focus for us this year on the civilian side, but working with the military, is about road construction, for example. And you're seeing more roads now being built in central Helmand, connecting the main population centers. Even in the last few weeks, Governor Mangal's been signing new contracts. People are starting to lay blacktop roads, which is great for security and freedom of movement, but also in economic terms and for people's confidence.
So that's one of the areas where we want to try and step up progress this year. And at the same time, we need to be ready to respond to new openings -- places like Marjah, for example, which I visited most recently in early December. And the improvements in Marjah are clear to see, and we need to continue that.
I think the last thing I would say is -- in an opening statement -- is that all of this work, as I've indicated, is done very much as a partnership. Governor Mangal is in the lead, as he should be. He has good district governors now in most of the districts. And we work hand-in-glove with them as well as with General Mills, the U.S. Marines, the other coalition forces from the U.K., Denmark, Estonia.
And, you know, that has to be the way forward. And I think over next year, the next two years, a big emphasis for all of us -- and General Petraeus has spoken a lot about this, for example -- is about increasingly giving the lead to the Afghans. And some of that is in the security sphere, which isn't my main area, so I wouldn't concentrate on the details of that so much, but in other areas of governance.
So, for example, in health and education, increasingly what we want to see is Afghan authorities delivering those services that Afghan people want. And our role is to support them and help them do that.
So, you know, that's really the logic of transition, which we're working in over the next couple of years.
So that's a quick summary of my impressions from my first four months. I'd be very happy to take any questions and talk a little bit more about any of that, as your correspondents would choose.
COL. LAPAN: All right. Thank you, Mr. O'Neill. Missy.
Q: Hi. Missy Ryan from Reuters. I'd like to ask how sustainable you feel like the progress that has been made in Helmand will be, in your opinion, if U.S. forces begin to thin out after July of 2011; is that a worry? And also, how close is the Afghan government in your area to be able to take on these essential duties on its own?
MR. O'NEILL: Yeah. Well, you know, it's a great question because making the progress sustainable is the big challenge.
And especially this year, 2011, and going forward into 2012, making things sustainable is really the key task.
The Afghan authorities, I think it would be right to say, are -- in Helmand province, which is obviously my area, the Afghan authorities are certainly better placed today than they were 12 months ago; much more than two or three years ago. For example, if you go back about three years, you didn't really have any Afghan government authority or presence in a lot of the districts in Helmand -- in fact, in the majority of them, if you go back three or four years. Today, you have that in 11 of the 14 districts, and that is gradually getting stronger.
The -- I think the progress is most clear in the central Helmand areas, the six central districts around Lashkar Gah and Gereshk that include Marjah, Nad Ali, Garmsir and Nawa. And in all of those places you now have district councils in place. Actually, Marjah will be the next in line, we hope in the next few weeks. You have more line ministry officials from Education, from Health, who are now on the ground working. So you have that situation.
The same goes for judges and prosecutors. I'll give you one specific example. Twelve months ago, before Operation Moshtarak, you only had two judicial officials outside Lashkar Gah, you know, in the other districts. By October, that was up to 16. Since then, we've seen more progress. So, you know, you're seeing that gradually strengthening and deepening. And I'm sure it is more sustainable now than it would have been 12 months ago.
Similarly, with the police and the army, the numbers are going up. The quality of training is also getting better. And again, that will be a big push this year: to emphasize quality as well as quantity.
But, you know, there is still more to do. And so I think NATO leaders from all the governments have made clear there's a continued commitment here. President Karzai has talked about the end of 2014 as the target for full transition.
My own opinion is that if you look at the progress that's been achieved over the last 12 months, even with the fragility of it and the challenges that remain, we've come a long way in 12 months. And I believe we can do an awful lot more in the next four years up to the end of 2014.
COL. LAPAN: Kevin.
Q: Hi. This is Kevin Baron from Stars and Stripes. Can you describe the kind of -- the chain of the civilian jobs that are -- as they transition? Does it go from, you know, a military -- a uniformed person building roads or schools, whatever the task is; and then to a USAID person, then a contractor and then an Afghan? Or -- how quickly does it go straight to the Afghans? When -- is there a movement -- are you guys trying to shorten that chain so that more of those jobs are going directly to the Afghans and less of them are done by uniformed personnel?
MR. O'NEILL: Yeah. We certainly want to get to a point where those things are done principally by Afghans. I think what I would say is that it is already -- you know, I talked about a partnership, and that's already very evident.
So, for example, in some parts of Helmand right now, even today, you have U.S. Marines engaged in road construction in some of the northern bits of the province, for example. Meanwhile, the land Lashkar Gah itself, Governor Mangal has been signing new contracts, and construction has begun this month on several key roads. And those are contracts that have been announced and let by Governor Mangal. And you have Afghan contractors doing the building.
So it's already the case that you've got Afghans directly involved. I think areas like health, education -- you know, we're seeing that too. In the last few weeks, example, there have been new schools opened in Lashkar Gah. Some of those schools are now starting to be financed by Afghan systems.
You know, they have money that comes down from Kabul through to the provincial center and then out into the districts. And that's quite a new development. It really began in November; money started flowing through those pipes, if you like, down into Nad Ali. It was the first district in Helmand.
So yeah, that's already emerging. And again, consolidating that, moving increasingly in that direction so that it’s Afghan delivery -- you know, Afghan systems delivering what Afghan people want. You know, we just got to keep building that up.
So I would say it's not a picture which is either black one day and white the next. It's about gradually shifting the balance, the emphasis, much more onto the Afghan side, which is already happening. And the same is true in the security sphere. So I think that is an encouraging way to progress. But again, it certainly needs to continue. There is more to do.
COL. LAPAN: Al.
Q: This is Al Pessin from Voice of America. You just made reference to delivering what the Afghan people want. And I guess pretty clearly they want roads and the security -- for example, to get their goods to market or to get to market to buy goods. But more broadly, based on your experience, do you feel like the ordinary Afghans are really interested in the kind of system that NATO and the Kabul government are trying to put into place, this sort of democratic or at least representative type of government, with the councils and the justice system and all the other things that you're working on? Are -- do the people really care about those things?
MR. O'NEILL: I think the emphasis in our work is, and in my view should be, about supporting Afghan systems and, you know, strengthening those systems, where that's possible, in areas like health and education, for example.
And in terms of what Afghans want, as you know, there is polling done about these things. We talk all the time to ordinary Afghans at all levels. And the evidence that I've seen is that first and foremost, as you would expect, what most people want is security. They want to be able to live free of fear. They want their kids to be able to grow up safely. So, you know, that's top of the list.
Now, in the last 12 to 18 months, I think you've started to see that move forward, still with challenges, but certainly improved security, improved freedom of movement, to get around by road, for example. And the evidence, again, seems to be that, right now, most Helmandis would say they want better health, they want better education -- you know, the same things that people want in most countries.
I think -- you know, I've talked a lot about Afghan leadership and our efforts to support Afghan systems. The most important measure, I think, is: Do the Afghan people see their own government starting to deliver those things they care about? Because in the end, what we all want to see is Afghan people putting their faith in Afghan authorities and not shifting towards or feeling a tacit sympathy for the insurgency. And that's why it needs to be Afghan authorities delivering those things.
But I think one example I'd cite in the four months I've been here, because I found it so surprising and so memorable, was in November here in Lashkar Gah, where Governor Mangal organized a rock concert which, you know, really, when I arrived here a few weeks before, that was not something I expected to see in Lashkar Gah. And, you know, you might have an idea that perhaps, you know, music and those forms of cultural entertainment aren't a thing you would find here. But I went to that concert. There were several thousand people there, Afghan people -- including women, a small number, but there were women there. People were thronging in front of the stage. They were dancing. They had Afghanistan's biggest pop star there. He's also performed in Europe and other places.
So, you know, that's just one indicator, but the things that most people want here I don't think are that different from in other parts of the world. You know, they want security, health care, education, jobs. So those are the things we're trying to help them with.
And, you know, justice needs to be part of that, too. I think justice is a good example of where we are working with Governor Mangal, with the chief prosecutor here, the chief justice, to strengthen those formal or statutory systems, but we also need to work with the grain of Afghan traditional mechanisms.
So I'll give you one example of that. In the last couple of weeks here in Lashkar Gah, we've helped to organize and fund training in what we call community-based dispute resolution. So those are, if you like, informal mechanisms alongside formal ones. And maybe that's -- you know, that might be a good point to end on, because we need to work with the grain of Afghan society and culture, helping them strengthen their systems, but not seeking to impose something which is alien and would not be accepted by people here. And trying to get that balance right is obviously -- you know, is a complex judgment, but one we're keeping in mind all the time.
Q: Mr. O'Neill, Otto Kreisher with National Journal Daily. I was surprised at your comment that you've reduced the opium production there in Helmand by 77 percent. We've seen conflicting evidence; you know, that because the price has gone up so high, that production is still strong throughout southern Afghanistan. If you cut that production, what are the people -- are you doing for the farmers to help them earn a living, you know, in place of growing poppies?
MR. O'NEILL: Dave, I apologize, I couldn't hear all of the question.
Would it -- could Dave repeat the last part of that question, please?
COL. LAPAN: Certainly. The general sense of the question was about poppy production and the decrease in Helmand, and whether you are working with local Afghan farmers to find substitute crops. Or what are you doing in place of poppy production?
MR. O'NEILL: Yeah. Okay, good. Yeah, the -- I mean, I think that -- I think the questioner said that those figures seem surprising. Again, I take that as a positive indicator of progress. The figures I cited come from the U.N. office of drugs control [sic; U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime] and are based on pretty careful analysis. In 2009, there was a 33-percent reduction; last year, there was a further 7-percent cut below that. So you put the two together, that was 37 percent.
Now, I think across Afghanistan as a whole, production remains stable, or may even have gone up in some places. So, you know, Helmand appears to be an area where there's been particularly good progress, and I -- I'm a -- I will speak mainly about Helmand because that's where I'm based and that's the province I'm familiar with. I think what that reflects, again, is the strong leadership of Governor Mangal. I mean, I've been at meetings with him in the last few weeks where he gets his district governors together from around the province, district chiefs of police, and he makes very clear to them that he wants all of them to be engaged in that effort to get poppy production down.
Finding alternative livelihoods is, as the questioner -- (inaudible) -- we've been working for the last couple of years to support Governor Mangal's food zone program, as he calls it, which is about distributing alternative seed. And so in the -- in October-November of last year, the latest round of that, a total of about 47,000 farmers in Helmand received seed under that program.
So I think that is part of what's contributing to the reduction. There's also a big law enforcement part.
And another key bit of our work, for example, from the PRT is providing mentoring and technical assistance to the counternarcotics police. And they're engaged in trying to get poppy production down, but also, for example, on heroin production and distribution. And between April and December of last year, there was a fivefold rise in the disruption of those activities, disruption by the Afghan authorities of production and distribution of heroin.
So, you know, it's a big area of focus for Governor Mangal. And I think that's reflected in those results you see. We'll get, in a few weeks, I think, the figures -- you know, the latest set of figures, and we'll see what's happened there. But certainly in the last two years that has been a good area of progress in this bit of Afghanistan.
Q: Hi. Terri Cronk from American Forces Press Service. Curious if you can give us an example of, in your day-to-day operations, how your team of civilians interfaces with RC West [sic; RC Southwest] military.
MR. O'NEILL: I -- I'm sorry, I'm going to have to apologize again, Terri. I -- the -- there's a bit of interference on the line. I heard a reference to RC West, but I'm afraid I missed the rest of the question.
COL. LAPAN: It really had to do, Michael, with the interface between the team that you lead, the civilian side, and the military folks. What does that -- you know, where do the job responsibilities break off between the civil and military side?
MR. O'NEILL: Right. Well, great question. I mean, clearly on -- in the security sphere, that's very much General Mills's lead. And as you know, he's got a force of 30,000 coalition troops, a very large number of U.S. Marines, as well as troops in the U.K. and Denmark, Estonia.
I think from the PRT, you know, governance and development would be the broad categories where we have a lead role. But I think I would say beyond that, in all of those areas, there's got to be a pretty close partnership.
I'll give you one example, which is police training. A lot of the work on that is done by troops in the U.S., the U.K., and other countries; also by police from the U.S. and U.K. and other countries. Some of the funding, quite a lot of the funding, we've been providing from the PRT. So, for example, in Lashkar Gah, you have the Helmand police training center, which we've been funding. You have British civil police working there as well as military police and troops.
So, you know, that's a good example of where the cooperation has really got to be hand-in-glove. And for my own part, I guess I have three key partners who I talk to or meet with almost every day of the week. And they are Governor Mangal, Major General Rich Mills; and Andrew Erickson, the head of the regional platform.
So between the civilian, the military and also the Afghan authorities, we're coordinating all the time. Rich and Andrew and I just spent the last two days together up in Kabul, where we were attending a conference, the first part of it chaired by General Rodriguez from the IJC [ISAF Joint Command], and then the last afternoon yesterday chaired by General Petraeus.
And at that conference, you had the senior coalition commanding general, the senior civilian representatives and also the Afghan representatives from each of, you know, the regions: the Center, North, South, East, West and Southwest.
So both within Helmand but also periodically at a national level, we're really coordinating as close as we can, because, you know, the effort absolutely requires that.
COL. LAPAN: Terri, did you want to follow up?
Q: Just one more follow-up.
How does your civilian team figure into the drawdown timeline? Can you talk about that a little bit, as far as the timing's concerned?
MR. O'NEILL: Dave, I'm sorry. I'll have to ask you for that one, too, please.
COL. LAPAN: Okay. The question was, how does your civilian team figure into the drawdown timeline for military forces?
MR. O'NEILL: Okay. Well, the -- you know, the overall game plan and strategy we're working to is the one that President Karzai's spoken about and which NATO leaders have affirmed and endorsed at their most recent summit meeting in Lisbon, which is that by the end of 2014, we should have completed transition to full Afghan ownership and leadership. So the progress between now and then, I guess, on the -- on the military side but also on the civilian side -- the exact calibration of it is going to depend on conditions and the rate at which we make progress. So, you know, I couldn't give you ahead of time exactly how that will look. But, you know, we're looking at that. The end of 2014 is the key date.
But I think the other thing it's important to state is that most -- I think most, if not all, of the NATO leaders have spoken about a continuing partnership. And, in fact, NATO collectively has talked about a long-term enduring partnership with Afghanistan. So that could include in the security sphere, as you know, training assistance, for example. And certainly in the civilian sphere, my expectation is that there will be a long-term development cooperation and partnership from the U.K., from USAID and from other donors who are here, like Denmark and other Europeans, Arab countries, you know, across Afghanistan.
So end of 2014 to transition, a rate of drawdown between now and then which will depend on conditions; but even after the end of 2014, a long-term partnership which I think will be needed for the people of Afghanistan, but under their leadership.
Q: Sir, it's Luis Martinez, with ABC News. If I could ask you about Sangin district and the arrangement that's been worked out with the Uruzgai [sic; Alikozai] tribe there, how is that impacting operations? Does that mean you can now begin operations in Sangin? And what do you envision in the future there in conjunction with that tribe?
MR. O'NEILL: Yeah, well, it's a great question, and it's a key area of focus for us right now. I've -- I mean, in the four months I've been here, I've been able to get to Sangin three times; two of those this month. And most recently, about five days ago, I was up there with General Mills and Andrew Erickson.
My sense is that it's still early days. I can't speak in detail about the security operations and that side of it. You know, these -- those will be questions for General Mills. But I went up there with him and Andrew, and I think what all of us want to see is the agreement that Governor Mangal has reached -- and remember, you know, it's his agreement -- and the work that he's done for that, and the district governor up there, Governor Sharif. All of us want to see that move forward.
So, you know, this is certainly an area where they have led and they should continue to lead. But on the civilian side and from the PRT, we've been doing a lot of work over the past three weeks with our team on the ground -- we have a small civilian team up there in Sangin -- but also with folks here at RC Southwest, military planning staff and with Governor Mangal, about what we can do to come in behind and support that and build momentum for further progress.
So again, on the civilian side, that would include: What can we do in terms of justice, in terms of issues like canal clearance, irrigation, things that will start to create new economic opportunities up there? How can we support the governor's political outreach?
So we're really very heavily focused on that right now and again, very much in that spirit of partnership that I've described.
How it will move forward, you know, I hope it's going to continue to be positive, but it's still quite early to judge that. I think we'll see the population there, I hope, move increasingly towards supporting the district governor, accepting a government presence in those areas, where it hasn't been in the past.
I know that Governor Mangal is very keen to -- and I talked about this with him about three nights ago -- Governor Mangal is very keen to see similar agreements reached with other tribes, such as the Ishaqzai and others in that area, so that this -- you know, the beginnings of this peace which they're hoping to put in place -- you know, that can become stronger and can also spread. And we would certainly want to try and support that.
COL. LAPAN: Back to Al.
Q: Yeah, hi. It's Al Pessin again. I have a sort of a Washington-centric question. There was, at least in the past, a lot of debate in Washington about whether we should or would be engaged in nation building in Afghanistan or whether, as I think the conclusion was, that the United States and its allies would do only what was necessary to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for al Qaeda and its affiliates.
But it sounds an awful lot like what you're doing is nation building. So are we doing -- we, the broader we -- doing nation building in Afghanistan or are we just focusing on whatever needs to be done for our own security?
MR. O'NEILL: Well, I could speak -- on this respect, I could speak for the British government, who I work for. I won't try and speak for other governments, although we work as a coalition. But I think in -- if you were to listen to the British prime minister and other ministers talk about that, they would say we are here for our national security, and that is the fundamental purpose. And it is about helping Afghanistan get to a point where, as you said, it is no longer a haven for al Qaeda and organizations of that kind.
So in my opinion, we've seen increased progress over the past 12 to 18 months, as I said, because in that period, and going back over the last couple of years, with the U.S. surge and other increases in investment that the coalition partners have made, including the U.K., we now have a better level of resource coming in here. I think the strategy feels coherent, as it’s been developed over the last couple of years.
But I think also people are realistic about what we should be trying to achieve here. And so, you know, the question you asked which is a very good question. That involves careful judgments, but our emphasis is on doing what is necessary to help the Afghan people and Afghan government be able to stand and going right back to the very first question, to have the progress be sustainable. We shouldn’t be over ambitious or utopian in what we are trying to do.
You know, our emphasis is obviously on security though coalition troops, through building up the Afghan police. I think governance and justice need to go with that, so we‘re working in those areas.
I think beyond that what I would say, in other spheres like health, education, you know, that’s about helping Afghan systems, Afghan authorities deliver those things, not doing it for them. So we should be focusing on what is essential for the Afghanistan government to be sustainable here in Helmand province and other bits of Afghanistan. That’s what we’re trying to do.
COL. LAPAN: Thom.
Q: Thom Shanker from the New York Times, and please forgive me for taking one more run at the transition question, but it’s of great interest here as you can imagine. I know it will be conditions based; I know you can’t predict the future, but as you look to July and then 2014, are you operating with a specific campaign plan like the military is drawing up to turn over certain regions and all of that. In other words, do you have specific programs, parts of governance and a timetable for the Afghans to take over? Or are you just rolling this big rock down the road as fast as you can?
MR. O'NEILL: Well, good question. The -- you know, the end of 2014 is the target. Between now and then, we want to help the Afghan authorities make as much progress as possible. I think what I would say is that between now and then, over the next four years, you know, judgments are going to have to be made: Okay, are we now at a point where transfer is possible in one province or in part of the province? And I think, you know, there were mechanisms, as you know, for the Afghan authorities, meeting with NATO authorities, to assess those things -- through the JANIB [Joint Afghan-NATO Inteqal Board] process, for example.
So there will -- there will have to be a series of judgments and decisions made over the next four years. I couldn't -- as you say, I couldn't predict right now the rate at which that will happen. But it will be a process of constant evaluation. So I think you'll see some of that start to emerge in February and March, when NATO ministers are meeting, when they're discussing those things with Afghan officials. I can't predict the pace, but I think that will be the direction things go in.
The other thing I would say, on the civilian side, you know, the numbers of people we have here obviously are much smaller than on the military side. So in Helmand, for example, there are probably around 200 people working in or affiliated with the PRT in Lashkar Gah and out in the districts.
Now, I would guess that you would expect to see drawdown of that number over the next four years. I can't predict the exact timing and pace. They're going to sense it's an easier, more manageable process than, you know, the large numbers of troops and all the equipment that goes with that.
So that's not a full answer to your question. That's probably the best I can give you right now. I hope that gives some flavor of it.
And I get -- you know, the other point I would make is that in areas like development systems, you know, as I said a few minutes ago, I would certainly expect to see a continued partnership. So whether we have the same numbers of people here in Helmand delivering that or smaller numbers, but continued assistance going in at the national level through national programs in Kabul, a lull for the United Nations in delivering some of that, you know, the form and the structures could change, but there will continue to be long-term development assistance, I think, from most of our governments.
COL. LAPAN: (Inaudible) -- I think we're done here. So Mr. O'Neill, I'll send it back to you for any closing remarks you'd like to make.
MR. O'NEILL: Well, Dave, first of all, I just thank you for the opportunity to take part in this. It's useful and important for us in our work to try and take opportunities to set out what we're doing, try and explain where there is progress but also set out some of the challenges we see. So I'm grateful to you and everybody who's taken part for giving me the chance to do it.
I'll be coming over to the States next week to join the mission rehearsal exercise for II MEF, the next Marine Expeditionary Force, coming here in March. And it's always great to have the chance to talk to an American audience. So thank you.
COL. LAPAN: I thank you again. And we hope to see you in the future.