COL. DAVID LAPAN (deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations): Good morning to those here. And I'm welcoming back to the Pentagon press briefing room for, I believe, his third time Marine Major General Richard Mills, the commanding general of Regional Command Southwest. General Mills assumed his duties in Afghanistan on June 14th of last year, and he assumed his duties as the first commander of the newly activated Regional Command Southwest several weeks later, on July 3rd.
As you know, the area of responsibility for RC Southwest includes the provinces of Helmand and Nimroz. He last joined us in December, so this will be, as I said at the top, his third briefing, but it will also be his last briefing in this format, as he and his command prepare to turn over authority with another Marine unit that'll follow in by the end of the month.
Again, the general will make some opening remarks, and then we'll take your questions. And with that, sir, I'll turn it over to you.
GEN. RICHARD MILLS: Well, thanks -- thank you very much. I appreciate that, and it's certainly an honor and a privilege to be with you, I guess, this morning back home in Washington, D.C.
Just one quick slight correction to my introduction, and I appreciate the kind words. We actually deployed here in April of last year and operated for several months as part of RC South. And then when RC Southwest was stood up as a -- as an independent command on the 14th of June, we assumed duties as the RC Southwest commander. So it just -- I can understand the confusion, but that's -- that was kind of just to set the record straight.
What I thought I would do very quickly this morning is to quickly go over some highlights of the past few months regarding security, regarding development and regarding governance, and then of course take your questions on the issues that I'm sure that you want to talk about.
In security, we continued over the fall and the winter months to make steady progress all across the board. We have attempted with our winter campaign to maintain pressure on the enemy, and I believe that we have been able to do that. We have seen a steady expansion of our security bubbles as we move out from the areas that we do control into those areas where the enemy still has a presence. And we believe we're making strong progress at that.
We are trying to deepen in the center of our area in the -- around the Lashkar Gah area, trying to deepen the hold and work closely there with the ANSF [Afghan National Security Force] forces to improve their capabilities as well. Starting up in the north, up in the Sangin area, where I know there's much interest, there's been a rapid expansion of the security bubble up there due to the Sangin security arrangements that we came to with the local tribe there back in January. That still holds, and it is still -- we're still moving forward with that, and, I believe, having some real success up there.
The -- as you know, we landed the elements of the 26th MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit] here last month. We're using them in the upper Gareshk valley, which is the center of our AO [area of operations], in an area in which we haven't been able to be active before due to just a -- where the forces have previously been used.
That MEU is having great success, is -- has interdicted an area known to be a supply depot for the enemy and has provided security for a road build that's very critical to our efforts next summer. That's the Route 611 road build, which eventually will tie the Kajaki Dam area, which is our most northwest -- northeasterly area -- will tie that down into the Ring Road, Route 1, and open up, we believe, a large section of the northern province to development and to further GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] influence.
In the center, the U.K. forces are doing a very, very good job of cleaning out the last of the pockets of enemy presence, not so much resistance as much as it is presence. And they are, again, making some real success down there in doing that, and perhaps have even been more successful in getting the Afghan army to operate semi-independently on many of their operations.
The Afghan army in that area has improved dramatically. They now operate with -- just simply with our assistance in certain areas, such things as air support and medevac. And they have even incorporated their own supporting arms now into their operations in that area and have been proven quite skillful at the use of a 122-millimeter long cannon, which they use on their own to provide their own supporting arms. And that's a big, big step for them.
As you move down through the areas of Marja, military activity there has really been at a low. Security there is excellent. And as evidenced by yesterday's district community council elections, in which we had about 1,100 of the 1,500 registered voters turn out, spent most of the day voting in a very rigorous debate and a very rigorous campaign -- and they all took great pleasure in casting their votes, elected 35 members of their new council that will help the governor govern and make budget decisions. And that was all very, very successful with absolutely no security incidents, despite a threat delivered by the insurgent that he wanted to break that election up. He was unable to do that. And all the security was provided by the local Afghan police and by the -- their local -- their national police, the ANCOP [Afghan National Civil Order Police], the so-called ANCOP. Coalition forces were not involved in the security matters around the district center that day.
We've seen in the governance area some real developments as well. We have seen a surge really in talented individuals being appointed to the district governor position, very critical positions here in the local governments. We have seen all of them pass their literacy test, which was a big hurdle for some of them. But they all did very, very well. And I'm not a big believer in polls necessarily, but a recent poll down in Nawa indicated that some 89 percent of the local population supported the government and felt that the government of Afghanistan was now providing them with the basic services that they needed.
And in fact an independent recent survey showed that 79 percent of the local population throughout the areas controlled by the -- controlled by GIRoA were in favor of the -- of their -- felt they had a better standard of living and a more secure way of life than they did just one year ago.
Regarding development, we've worked very closely, again, with the Afghan police and the Afghan soldiers to develop their capabilities. Numbers are climbing. Capabilities are climbing. Leadership abilities are climbing. And we've seen a real interest now in the local security initiatives, as sponsored by the government of GIRoA and by General Petraeus, things like ALP, which is the Afghan Local Police -- extraordinarily popular. We have many more people who want to join that than we have spots. We do have four approved places in which we will raise those auxiliary police. And they will be trained by the Marines or by the British forces. They will be equipped by the government of Afghanistan and paid by the government of Afghanistan. And they will perform local police duties in support of the already up and functioning police units in -- within their townships.
We have seen an upcharge in schools. School attendance is exceptional this year. We estimate upwards of 100,000 students. And we're very pleased to say that probably 20 percent of them are women -- are young girls. And that's a huge change and a huge sea state change, I think, from conditions that we've seen here in the past. And the school programs are vibrant and doing very, very well. And we've recently refurbished a teachers' college in Lashkar Gah that will produce our own qualified teachers to meet the really growing demand for trained and qualified educators at -- of all grades.
We've seen cell tower coverage pop up now, and we're putting some programs in place that will -- throughout the province will be a huge step forward. Cell phones are extraordinarily important both to the social life of the people who live here, to the business life of the people who live here and just to the feeling of normalcy that I think they really crave: to be able to use a cell phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- something the Taliban has told them they cannot do.
But they will, in fact, be allowed to do it using both government of Afghanistan phones, private phone companies and some that we will help them with.
Let me just close by saying probably the biggest change I've seen in the last few months is the freedom of movement, with new roads popping up all over the province. We've seen the people moving about the province in really unprecedented numbers. That's great for business. We're seeing that -- that has an impact in all of the bazaars, which are doing extraordinarily well.
But it also just, again, provides a feeling of normalcy to many of the people. The governor himself has announced that his staff and the people who work for his government, the local government, will not travel by helicopter locally around the area, but instead will use cars.
I was extraordinarily pleased yesterday to find out that the governor late -- night before the election in Marja -- late that evening, he decided he wanted to visit Marja and see the preparations for the election himself. He hopped in a car with his bodyguard. He drove from Lashkar Gah to Marja, met with the district governor there and then returned by car that same night along the roads. Six months ago, that would have been a suicide trip. Today it was done very normally, without incident, and he was able to see his conditions on the ground; visit his subordinates, if you will; and then carry on very normal government business.
Is that to say that we think the insurgency is no longer here? No. We are preparing for a counterattack in the springtime. Our job will be, of course, to gauge how that counterattack will form and what manner the enemy will choose to come after us.
We feel he has to do that in order to regain very, very valuable territory that he's lost over the past six to eight months. And that most critically was, he's lost his source of money, which of course is the narcotics industry that he ran here within Helmand province to fund his activities.
But we are anticipating that. We are planning for it. We are taking actions right now to cut his supply lines and make his logistics very, very difficult. We are also intercepting as many of the foreign fighters as we can who come into the area through the Pakistani border for the main part, and feel that will hurt him as he tries to organize himself for the upcoming spring and summer.
With that, I think I'll close and take any questions that you might have. I'm sure that I haven't answered all of the issues you bring with you, but I'll be happy to give it a try.
COL. LAPAN: Thank you, General.
Q: General, this is Bob Burns from the Associated Press. I just wanted to ask you a bit more about the last comments you made there about anticipating a spring offensive by the Taliban. You mentioned that you're doing a number of things to -- in anticipation of that to lessen the effectiveness of a Taliban offensive.
I imagine that's been done in past years at this time of year, but what are you doing differently that wasn't done in the past that would be more effective in stopping the Taliban offensive?
GEN. MILLS: I think first of all that we have given him no rest over the winter months. Traditionally in the past, he's been able to take his leadership and pull back into Pakistan for consultations and for planning. He's been able to take the money that he has from selling narcotics to resupply himself. And he's been able to give the foot soldiers on the ground up here a bit of a winter off. They can return to their homes; they can rest, relax, refit and prepare themselves for a vigorous attack come post-poppy harvest.
We have not allowed him that luxury this year. We have maintained the pressure throughout the area on him. We patrol extraordinarily aggressively every day and every night. We have used our special operations forces to attack his leadership as it does return from time to time from outside the area. And we've been very, very successful at that.
The other issue, of course, is that we now have a -- we have a secondary operation going on, which has great impact here within Helmand province. The success that the 10th Mountain has had and the coalition forces had in Kandahar has had a direct impact on the operations that we're seeing by the enemy here within Helmand. Past years, they've moved back and forth, they've reinforced each other, they've traded supplies off and they've been able to get -- gather strength from each other, the forces in Helmand and the enemy forces in Kandahar.
The Kandahar forces are now under extreme stress. The 10th Mountain Division has done a superb job over there under General Terry of maintaining pressure on them as well. So I think when you look across the board, you see he hasn't had the opportunity to organize himself for what he thinks he can do in the spring.
Secondly, he's short money -- there's no question about that -- both from his lack of drugs to sell and from his other fundraisers that have not -- have been unsuccessful -- taxing the people, for instance, demanding people -- demanding money from the people; kidnapping. Those things have not gone as he planned.
And lastly, again, because of our aggressive patrolling and aggressive movements, we've been able to interdict his supply lines and cut his ability to stockpile his ammunition, stockpile his explosives and stockpile the money he needs to fund himself in the coming months.
COL. LAPAN: Al.
Q: Hi, General. It's Al Pessin from Voice of America. Two things. One, can you give us statistics in terms of the attacks, year on year, the last couple of months to the same period last year? Give us a better sense of the security improvements that you've talked about.
And secondly, have you seen or do you anticipate a change in the Taliban's strategy that we've heard about from others, perhaps targeting Afghan officials or other community leaders, rather than trying to take on the U.S. forces in the spring?
GEN. MILLS: Sure. I think when you begin to compare this year to previous years, that's somewhat comparison of apples to oranges because of the size of the coalition forces on the ground here within Helmand province. The Marine Corps, as you know, more than doubled its forces on the ground here within the province. And we've been able then to be extraordinarily active in seeking out the enemy over these past few months, and therefore the number of attacks, number of incidents has climbed. But you would certainly expect that, based, again, on the force densities we have on the ground right now. And these are mostly attacks that we instigate. These are attacks that we get into by seeking him out in areas in which he would prefer to hide. And we are using these winter months, again, as I said, to clear out areas in which he has a presence, in which he has tried to resist, but again, he's fallen back literally at every place that we have moved on him.
Also, in years past, the terrain that we controlled was significantly less. It was -- there were many, many villages; many, many towns that we were not at, we'd had no -- we had no forces there. And so those -- again, those numbers, I think, would be somewhat misleading to you as to the intensity of the fight over here. There's no question about it that we are taking it to him over the past few months, and at a time of the year when he's not used to fighting. And we see that somewhat in his reaction.
Now regarding what his tactics will be, I think that he has no choice but to change his tactics. Certainly everything that he's tried to date has not worked. He tried to stand toe to toe with the coalition forces over the last summer, and he lost disastrously. The number of insurgents killed was really quite large. I could tell you that although we have taken our share of casualties here in the fighting, the number we have inflicted have been 10 times as -- 10 times worse.
And that -- you know, I think he's learned his lesson, that he knows he can't go toe to toe with any of the coalition forces, and he is learning rapidly that he can't go toe to toe with the ANSF, the Afghan security forces, as well. They're fighting him and fighting him hard.
I think his next choice was to go to murder and intimidation. I'm not sure that's worked very well out for him either. What that has resulted in is a tremendous interest at the neighborhood level in local security forces. The Afghan people do not take kindly to intimidation. They don't take kindly to their elders being beaten. They don't take kindly to their leadership being shot in the legs and disfigured. Their reaction is not intimidation. Their reaction is anger. Their reaction is to organize themselves and to present and to defend themselves. And that's what we're seeing at the lowest level.
We're organizing that, we're channelizing that, and we're incorporating that into approved programs by the government of GIRoA. And so again, I think that when he comes back to the battlefield, he's going to find it a much different place. So I think he's going to have to find a way to come at us in a slightly asymmetric way. I think certainly suicide bombers is an area in -- which we would be very concerned about. I think dramatic attacks, much like you saw in Kandahar a few weeks ago, is a concern. And I believe the protection of key members of the local government is also a -- an area in which we have to be very, very careful.
We are anticipating across the board all scenarios and looking at them. I think that our forces are arrayed correctly. I think our force levels are good, and I think that we have a strong Afghan security partner who is going to help us when he -- when the enemy shows its face.
COL. LAPAN: Tom.
Q: General, Tom Bowman with NPR. You talked about the post-poppy harvest, when fighting would start again. And I'm -- since you've expanded so much in Helmand, I assume you've taken over a lot of the cultivated areas. Give us a sense how much poppy has decreased in the past year or two.
GEN. MILLS: Well, I don't want to venture a guess on percentages. Let me just say that a number of programs that the government of Afghanistan and specifically Governor Mangal at the provincial level have instituted I believe has had a dramatic impact on the amount of poppy. The fact is that we control now -- thoroughly control at least one of the areas which is a major poppy-growing area, which is the area around Marja. That was a major production facility, and it was a major laboratory network in which he produced it. We -- we're in pretty solid control of that area right now. The Afghan police force and Afghan army are there in numbers, and the government has a very, very active eradication program that we don't participate in that is eradicating the poppy that was sown in that area.
The government also has a very effective crop-introduction program in lieu of poppy, which is a -- “Food Zone” program is the title of it. It substitutes wheat for poppy. That has proven to be very, very popular. About 44,000 farmers signed up and were given seed at reduced rates and given fertilizer at reduced rates. In return, they vowed and promised not to make -- not to grow poppy.
We, I believe, have interdicted his efforts somewhat up in Sangin as we expand that security level up there into areas in which poppy was traditionally grown. So I think he's going to see he's going to have a reduced amount in the ground this year. Secondly, the weather is not favoring him right now. We've had heavy rains over the past several weeks, not particularly good for the poppy crop. So we're anticipating by -- from a mixture of both -- of programs, of the fact that he doesn't have access to the very good growing areas that he had in the past and to some poor weather, that we'll be able to say in April, in May, when we see the results of the harvest, that it's been reduced significantly.
Q: A follow-up: It used to be that there would be the poppy harvest and then the fighting would begin. Do you anticipate earlier fighting this year because there's less poppy to harvest?
GEN. MILLS: You know, that -- that's an excellent point, Tom, and you're exactly right on. We do anticipate that. We don't believe that the requirement for labor into the poppy fields will be as large as it has been in years past. And that's great news. And there's always the unintended consequence unfortunately of: the bad news is that the young men will be available to go to the field earlier.
Again, we're hoping that some of the programs we have in place will give them some alternatives. We're hoping that some of the "cash for work," some of the CERP [Commander’s Emergency Response Program], some of the development projects that we have ongoing will bleed off some of that excess labor. We're hoping that the opportunities for them to join the Afghan army and to join the Afghan police force again will bleed off some of those young men, many of whom, as you know, go to these Taliban or go to the insurgency because of their desire to make some money. It's not a religious calling, nor a political calling in many of their cases; it's simply an opportunity for them to work, to save money.
And ultimately many of them simply want to marry, and they want to be able to get that dowry put together. And it's a tough way to do it, but sometimes when your opportunities are limited -- but your point is well taken. And I can tell you that we are looking at that. We think the fighting season will start earlier, but we are anticipating that.
COL. LAPAN: Viola.
Q: General, Viola Gienger from Bloomberg News. A couple of questions.
How much do you see a risk of backsliding from the progress that you've seen so far in terms of the overall scenario in Helmand province? And how much cooperation are you getting from the Pakistanis in terms of stopping the flow of the foreign fighters? Do you have any stats for that flow and how it compares to, say, a year ago, for example?
GEN. MILLS: I don't believe that -- although the -- certainly the possibility exists for the insurgent to make some local gains, I don't see the possibility of major backsliding. I think what we have here -- the gains we've made -- although fragile, certainly as any new democracy is -- I think we're seeing a growing momentum that tells me it is sustainable.
And let me just give you a few examples. I think the turnout yesterday in the Marja election was a direct testimony to their rejection of the insurgency and their acceptance of a new way to do business, a new way to do government and an acceptance of government that represents their interests. I think it was a very large step, and it's one of several throughout the province.
I think the fact that we are seeing the schools bulging at the sides -- and literally some of our schools now have three terms during the day in order to take in all of the students who are interested. Of course, education was not allowed under the Taliban and under the insurgency. They blew schools up. Where we built them, they blew them up. Teachers had to go into hiding.
We have seen a huge, huge -- just a ground swell of support by parents to get their children into school. We have students now in school from the age of four to the age of 22. That's how much they want to study, they want to become educated and they want to better themselves.
So I think these things that we're seeing tell me that the population has shifted in just about most of our population centers. Some of them are still riding the fence, some of them are still waiting to make a decision. But more and more of them are coming over.
I'm often asked about the security arrangement up in Sangin and why is it different this year than in years past when it -- when those things didn't stick. My answer to that is that unlike in years past, the leadership of the Alakozai tribe can look down the river and see substantial, tangible gains and improvements on the people's lives. They can look at towns like Lashkar Gah, Garmsir, Gereshk, Nawa, Marja, and they see schools -- again, as I said -- opened; they see -- they see health clinics open; they see bazaars that are doing very, very well; they see roads being built; they see change. They see the government of GIRoA there giving them the basic services that they've always lacked. And they see a security force that they can trust coming up and starting to emerge.
So rather than in years past when we had to tell people trust us, I think, that things are going to get better, now we can show them things are better.
One of the things that we used when we first initially started to negotiate with the Alakozai tribe was we brought them down to the capital, Lashkar Gah, where it was a little bit safer, we could talk to them a little bit more openly. And at the end of the conversation, we put them on a bus and drove them around town and let them just observe what a free, open city looked like. And they could see the bazaar, they could see the hard-surface roads, they could see the schools, all those kinds of things -- the security in place. And they didn't see coalition uniforms, because we have thinned out in Lashkar Gah. And you see very few coalition uniforms on the street down there, you see Afghan security running the programs on a day-to-day basis.
So I think all of those things, to me, say that that you're making progress that the people are not going to want to give up. And ultimately, they're the judges. Ultimately, they're the ones that will decide who finishes up here, whether it be the government of GIRoA or whether it be the insurgency.
And I think more and more they're voting with their children by sending them to school; they're voting with their young men just by sending them to the security forces; and just voting with them by their way of life -- free to play music -- you see book stores now in the bazaars, you see music stores in the bazaars. Things absolutely unheard of a year ago are now open, widely supported. And I think that tells me that's change and probably change that can last.
COL. LAPAN: Missy.
Q: General Mills, I'd like to ask you a question related to civilian casualties. I know that General Petraeus issued an apology yesterday to the Afghan government, related to civilian casualties. And I'm wondering, in your experience, in your area, how do you see those casualties -- regardless of where they happen, because, you know, news does travel -- affecting counterinsurgency operations? And I'm wondering, how does this affect what your commanders and the soldiers on the battlefield are told by Afghan villagers or how you can actually win them over?
GEN. MILLS: That's an excellent question. And civilian causalities, of course, is a major concern of ours at all levels, both from my level here at the RC, at the regional command level, down really to the squad leaders who take the patrols out every day that -- who end up engaging the enemy.
We do our very, very, very best to avoid civilian casualties. We -- I believe that the rules of engagement that we have, although flexible and they give a commander a great ability to conduct the fight and to protect his force, I think the rules of engagement demand that we take a hard look, whenever we employ our weapons, at possible civilian casualties.
And this can be difficult, because the enemy knows our -- knows that our -- that we are extraordinarily careful, and he chooses to fight from among the population, often going into homes, forcing his way in and fighting from homes in hopes that he'll get a response from us that will cause civilian casualties. So it's a very, very large concern.
We found over the past year that the best way to do it -- and some of them are unavoidable. It's very unfortunate. But when you are fighting and when you are defending yourself and you are conducting your mission, from time to time, unfortunately, there are civilians who are caught in crossfires; there are civilians who are, unfortunately, hurt just due to the nature of what's happening around them.
We have tried to deal with that in several ways. First of all, we have found that immediately locating elders in the area and talking to them and explaining to them what has happened calms down the local population. Most importantly, we render immediate first aid to the individuals who are hurt. We give them full access to our medical facilities here.
So if you're a civilian who is hurt in a firefight, you may -- you will end up in the hospital here next to wounded Marines and soldiers wounded in the same firefight. And you'll receive that same treatment. We find that that helps soothe the people and makes them understand that we did not do it on purpose, but we do take some responsibility for it.
When there are significant claims of casualties -- and there have been in the past; it's a tactic used by the insurgent to slow coalition forces down -- we have found that convening a -- having an investigative team comprised both of Afghans and coalition members who I dispatch immediately to the scene of the incident, thoroughly investigate the incident and report back both to myself and to the provincial governor. Also when we have reported incidents of civilian casualties, I immediately call my counterpart, the provincial governor, explain the facts as I know them at that point, he deals with the media here and we agree to let it be investigated and let it be -- and find the truth out, as opposed to letting rumors fly.
At the lower levels, the battalion levels and below, they deal with the district elders, they deal with the district governors, once again, to explain that whatever -- if it did happen, it was certainly a mistake and that certainly we will do all we can to right it. But the key is to ensure that the truth comes out, that people understand what caused it and they understand our compassion and our care for the victims of those civilian casualties. But it is absolutely a major concern.
Now let me -- let me also just follow on a little bit of a follow-on for you there, because I often get asked if our rules of engagement somehow tie our hands. And they do not. The rules of engagement here are flexible enough so that our forces can defend themselves, can conduct their missions, and we have full access to our full spectrum of weapons systems.
What our rules of engagement demand of us is that we use appropriate force in appropriate situations against appropriate targets. All of that makes great common sense. And it is -- I've never had a complaint. In my travels around the battlefield, I've not once had a soldier or a Marine approach me and tell me that he felt he was somehow handcuffed by the rules of engagement.
COL. LAPAN: Jim.
Q: General, this is Jim Garamone with American Forces Press Service. How are -- you've got those M-1 tanks there. How are those working out for you?
And the village police program, is that up and running in your area? And how exactly is that working?
GEN. MILLS: Sure. Okay, first of all, let me answer about the tanks. They are -- they're doing a fantastic job. We've got them in two very key locations within the battlefield and on terrain that is very, very suitable to tanks. And their optics and their weapons systems -- they have fired their main gun round now numerous times to great impact, and have had a great -- we've had a great ability both to see the -- see threats as they emerge at a long distance before they can harm us, and then to take action very precisely against those threats.
Second of all, we can tell by intercepts that the tanks have discouraged the enemy. He is -- he's frightened by them. He doesn't like them. He understands their power. He understands their impact. And he wants to avoid them. And they have had a significant impact well beyond their numbers against insurgents in certain areas here within the AO.
Lastly, they have proven extraordinarily valuable in the IED fight. They have -- we have had four strikes now on tanks with IEDs, powerful IEDs, IEDs that would have killed Marines inside other vehicles had those vehicles struck the IEDs. The tanks struck them, suffered some minor damage to their treads, were replaced, that were repaired immediately in the field and continued on in the attack. The Marines inside the tanks barely knew they'd been struck.
So they have already, in my mind, saved lives and done the job that I hoped they would do. So I'm very, very pleased with them, and they are having an impact on the battlefield.
The local police initiatives are just getting under way here. The ALP is the Afghan Local Police. It's the one that is -- President Karzai has approved. It's the one that is being equipped and paid for by the Afghan government through their police chain of command. They will be mentored very closely by Marines and soldiers here within the province. They will be -- they will operate with us. They will operate under strict rules of engagement in that they will stay in their neighborhoods and they will work closely with the Afghan Uniformed Police that are in existence already.
We have a number of volunteers, a high number of volunteers who want to join that. We're going to start -- we've already gotten some training under way right now. We think within the next month or so we'll have units that we can actually use to provide security. We want to make sure they're trained, we want to make sure they're controlled and we want to make sure that they fit in to the local district chief of police's plans before we get them out and expose them.
I do believe they'll be a target. I do believe the insurgent -- again, we have evidence that he's very, very much afraid of this program. He understands it is a very localized program, that it will make the -- make his job much, much tougher. And I think there will be -- insurgents will come after them. And we want to make sure those new policemen are ready to go, ready to respond, ready to defend themselves. And I think it's going to be very, very successful.
COL. LAPAN: Otto.
Q: General, Otto Kreisher with Sea Power Magazine. Another equipment question. You've been getting a lot of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] over there. How are you using them, and what difference are they making for your operations?
GEN MILLS: Well, I'll take all I can get. They are making a huge difference across the board. We use them, of course, very, very -- they're very, very tightly used with our special forces, both to identify targets, to engage targets. They're used throughout my reconnaissance efforts, again, to observe, to locate and to cover areas of the battlefield that I can't necessarily see with troops. And they are very, very useful to us, again, in our counter-insurgency fight against specific targets that we track as they come and go from the -- from our battle area.
So the UAV has been a tremendous -- the whole family of them that we use over here is a tremendous boom to our efforts. Very, very important to us is the ability for us to see targets that we want to engage with supporting arms and to do what we call PID [positive identification], which is identify those targets as a being hostile, and then keeping our eyes on those targets while we use supporting arms or aviation to engage those targets.
The UAV gives us that capability, gives us a great record of events that take place on the ground for later study and for investigation, possibly, and all and all is a tremendous system of systems, if you will, that I can tell you are highly -- it's very competitive. You have to really put your bids in and put your bids in early to get -- make sure you get what you want, but very, very valuable to us.
The other thing that we're using now, of course, is observation balloons, with excellent cameras on them, making great use of those, and not only as observation devices but as enemy tracking devices and as sentries in the sky, if you will, to be able to watch the IED [improvised explosive device] makers and implanters as they go about their filthy business.
So there is quite a system over here of unmanned reconnaissance capabilities. And we've pulled it together. They operate together very closely and they've been very, very valuable to us.
COL. LAPAN: Luis, because you haven't one.
Q: General, Luis Martinez with ABC News. A couple of weeks ago in an interview with USA Today, you said that the Taliban were beaten in the heartland area there. You said that -- “this is the heart of the insurgency and I believe they have been beaten.”
With those comments, how far along do you think they have been towards the path for victory then, if you think that they have been beaten in Helmand.
GEN. MILLS: Of course, I only -- I can only talk to you about Helmand province. That's my little world, and that's the world that I operate in. I believe that our goal here is to reduce the capability of the insurgent to a level on which he can be handled by the Afghan security forces. I think that they will -- the insurgent, there are places he can stay and probably live in for years, up in the remote mountain areas, out in the desert. But he'll have little impact on the population out there.
I think the key is to reduce his capability to impact the people who live here in the Helmand River Valley and to be able to influence their daily life, and his ability to perhaps come back and ever retake the government. I think that capability is being reduced on a daily basis, both from losses on the battlefield that he has, by reintegration -- we're beginning to see the young foot soldiers begin to come across and begin to lay down their arms and deal with the local Afghan village authorities and promise they will fight no more, and return to their normal lives and to their families to be reabsorbed back into the population.
I believe that we're seeing a reduction in his ability to support himself, because he's running out of money due to his inability to have access any more to the narcotics industry. I believe that his ability to bring explosives into the area has been reduced. I believe his ability to bring weapons into the area has been reduced. And I believe he's beginning to lose his ability to recruit.
Again, when you talk about an end state, I think that you have to have a realistic end state and one that you can -- that is reasonable for us to assume that we can accomplish over the next couple of years. And I think that is reducing the level of the insurgency to a point at which the local Afghan security forces are able to be able to handle that. We're seeing that in certain parts of the province. We are seeing that in places like Lashkar Gah. We're seeing that in some other places that -- where we're able to thin out a bit of our force, turn over some of our positions to the Afghan locals, and we don't see necessarily a rise in enemy activity. So I think it's a long process. And at some point the -- it'll be clear that we'll be able to move our forces into other places.
COL. LAPAN: I don't want to infringe too much on your valuable time. How many questions do you think you can bear with?
GEN. MILLS: We've got another 15 minutes or so, I guess, sir. You know, whatever -- if there's anybody left there. I thought you'd have all left by now. They've probably all walked out.
COL. LAPAN: No, it's a good crowd. We have two more questions, so Al and then Tom, and we'll wrap it up.
Q: General, it's Al Pessin again. In your opening statement, you talked about interdicting the supply lines coming from Pakistan. And there was a report issued this week by the Institute for the Study of War, and it said the Haqqani Network, in particular, has moved its operation within Pakistan, and that they're planning to come in on routes that you're not expecting, or that the coalition in general is not expecting. Is that something you've heard? Are you plugged into that? Are you looking at any new routes that they might be using?
GEN. MILLS: Well, we sure are. I mean, these guys are smugglers. They've been at it, moving illegal items across the borders for, you know, generations. But they're just skilled at what they do, no question about it. But, you know, they're subject to terrain, they're subject to obstacles, just as we are when we move about. So when you do a map study of the area, you know, you can kind of see how, if they're going to cross the border, this is -- the border here in my area with Pakistan is extraordinarily remote. There's -- there are no hard-surface roads that cross over into Pakistan; nor are there any formal border crossing points. It's mainly mountainous terrain, best traveled by -- either by four-wheel-drive vehicles or by camel. And when they move into Helmand, the geography here in many ways channelizes them into certain areas. So the interdiction is -- becomes a little bit easier, just simply by reading a map.
The second thing that we do, of course, is the Afghan intelligence services are very, very good at getting information from the inside as to when certain things are coming across the border and where -- and how they're coming across the border, and very good descriptions of who's bringing it in. Again, it's a tough -- it's tough to interdict all of it that's coming in.
I don't kid myself and think that we interdict, you know, anywhere near all of it. We know some gets through. But again, by the intercepts we do have of the enemy talking to each other, we know that we have put a significant dent in his abilities.
And once again, the number of roads that lead into the province are relatively limited. There is only one airport here that services our province commercially, and that is -- we have police at that for instance, our border police at that. So I'm sure he's going to -- like any good criminal, he's going to look for ways to get around the law and he's going to look for ways in which he can, you know, get over on the police that are trying to stop him from smuggling.
And like any good police force, we're going to look for ways in which we can counter it. We're using a layered approach, for instance. You know, one of the things I’ve noticed is we have forces along the border. We have forces along the river line, which is interior, and then we have forces in between, all of which are interdicting. I often look at it like the United States, you know, when we have -- when you catch as many illegal immigrants up in Colorado as you down in Arizona along the borders. You have to have a layered approach. We do; we have that. We have, I think, a pretty fairly effective system of doing it.
As I said, his options are relatively limited. He still has the logistics problems of having to haul heavy amounts of material, whether it be the drugs or whether it be ammunition and explosives across fairly wide-open deserts over some pretty tough terrain to get to where he has to deposit it. So it's not an easy task for him.
And with our UAVs and with our other overhead reconnaissance capabilities and with a fairly significant force on the ground using my light-armored reconnaissance vehicles, he's got a little bit of a -- he's got a little bit of a challenge in front of him.
COL. LAPAN: General, and I stand corrected, I've been informed that we have another engagement here in the room, so we're going to have to end here. So I'll send it back to you for closing remarks.
Q: But --
COL. LAPAN: I really don't have time. We can follow up independently. Sir, back to you.
GEN. MILLS: Okay. Okay, I thank you much -- very much for your time and your interest. I certainly appreciate it. As I wrap up a year here, I can report back to you that I believe that the progress has been steady, has been consistent. And if we remain on the glide path that General Petraeus has laid down for us, I believe that the success is in the very near future.
And again, I want to appreciate the support that we get from back home. It could not be better. Everything we get from the people of the United States, from the government of the United States, is absolutely superb. Everything we ask for, we get. And our support both at home and over here has just been magnificent.
So I want to thank you all very much for your interest, and I appreciate very much this opportunity. Thanks.
COL. LAPAN: Thank you, sir.