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DOD Background Briefing with Senior Defense Official from the Pentagon on the Afghanistan 1230/1231 Report

Presenter: Senior Defense Official
April 29, 2011

            Report is published at http://www.defense.gov/news/1230_1231Report.pdf .

            LT. COL. ELIZABETH ROBBINS (Press Officer, Defense Press Operations): Good morning.  I’d like to welcome back to the Pentagon Briefing Room a senior defense official who is here to discuss two reports on Afghanistan:  the recent -- the “Report on Progress Towards Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” which is a biannual report to Congress; and the “United States Plan for Sustaining the Afghanistan National Security Forces,” which is an annual report to Congress in accordance with Section 1230 and 1231 of FY 2008 NDAA. 

            This is a background briefing, which means that you may quote our speaker today as a “senior defense official.”  Please know that our speaker has another engagement following this brief, so we must conclude at 9:45.  And I request your cooperation with this hard stop time.  Our speaker will make some opening remarks and then take your questions. 

            And with that, sir, over to you.

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Hi.  Hello, everybody.  I think I know most of you.  Those who I don’t, hello as well. 

            Since we only have 45 minutes here, I’ll try and keep my remarks very brief.  But I hope you’ve had a chance to read the report, and I wanted to focus on a couple of things -- first, on the key judgments of the report, which are that we and our Afghan partners have made tangible progress over the last six months in not just arresting insurgent momentum but reversing it in a number of key areas, and we’ve taken away, we’ve wrested away areas that the insurgents have had under control for years in a number of cases.

            I want to also put this in the context of what the purpose of this report is.  This report is a historical document.  It’s about the last six months.  And we do one every six months, and a number of you have been here for prior briefings on this.  So I do want to point out, if you go back and look at our January 2009 report, you’ll find that the situation was deteriorating.  If you look at our October 2009, you’ll see the situation continued to deteriorate.  Safe havens, for example, and other areas and issues were dominant in that.

            In April 2010, after the surge began, we pointed out that we were making progress.  We were seeing signs that we were starting to blunt and in some cases halt the momentum.  Last fall, we said we were making -- that there were signs of real progress.  And this month’s -- this six months’ report says we’re making tangible progress in some really key areas.

            So if you look at the narrative arc over that two-year period, you’ll see that there was a real problem.  The situation was deteriorating.  The administration’s reviews identified that, identified the means that were necessary to reverse that, and not just reverse it but begin -- but really make a serious effort to push it back, and that over the last year, year and a half as we put those forces into place, the situation on the ground is fundamentally changing.

            The situation on the ground is fundamentally changing.  And this is something that happens day by day, week by week, month by month, and over the past two years.

            I know there’s always a temptation, and I’m sure I’ll get asked questions about recent individual events.  But if you look back over the last two years, I’d say there’s been very little correlation between this or that -- this or that spectacular event, this or that assassination, this or that attack here or there.  You need to look at the entire campaign; you need to look at the entire effort; and you need, most importantly, to look at the results.  And so that is the focus of this report.  The focus of the report is what’s happening over time.

            So I’ll be happy to answer your questions on the report.  But again, I really urge you to look at the progress over the last two years, the progress over the last six months.  And as we look ahead, as you’ve heard from Secretary Gates, as you heard -- as you and the Congress heard from General Petraeus, we have made this progress.  This progress is fragile.  This progress is reversible.  There’s still a lot, a lot to do.

            There’s going to be some very tough days ahead, just as there have been tough days in the past.  There’s going to be -- there’s going to be efforts to make spectacular attacks, and there’s going to be individual incidents.  But I would really urge, as you look at that, as you look at any of these individual attacks, you know, good days, bad days -- horrible days sometimes, where we have losses -- as the secretary said, over a thousand, I think, fatalities on our side, each one of which -- and with our Afghan partners and our other colleagues, the casualties of any kind, military or civilian, are tragic and regrettable.  But the sacrifices that all are making are paying off in this tangible progress that we’re making.

            So with that, I’ll turn over the next 40 minutes for your questions.

            Q:  It’s a pretty optimistic report.  Do you have any sense of what impact that will have on the decision of bringing troops out in July?  Do you get a sense of, with this report, maybe you can bring out more than you anticipated?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Well, first of all, I didn’t anticipate how many there are, and that’s a judgment that’s being made by General Petraeus.  And he’ll be, as you know, making his recommendations to the secretary.  I think the secretary spoke to this the other day.  You asked some questions about that.

            What this situation -- what this report does is it reflects the situation on the ground.  And it does show progress, but I’ll also -- again point out that it also points out that we do have a resilient enemy.  There are tough days ahead, as I said, and all those decisions are going to be made -- as has been described to you, the commander in the field will make recommendations; the decisions will be made here.

            But the report itself doesn’t play a role in the decision, but obviously, what’s going on on the ground is a key part.

            Q:  Can you -- (off mic) -- when that decision will be made?  Are they going wait till, you know, later in the spring?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I have nothing to add to what General Petraeus and the secretary said on that.

            Q:  But just to follow up on that, in your personal opinion does this report -- given that it sort of points out there is progress but it is fragile, does this report at least provide evidence or help make the case for a continued, you know, sort of aggressive military stance, just setting aside how many are drawn down, but that the surge must continue, at least in some level, to put pressure on the Taliban?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Those of you who’ve spoken with me before will know, and you’ve heard not just from me but from many others, that the -- that our objective here is for Afghan security forces to be able to take the lead.

            And you’ll note that the key event that we’ve -- that we point to in the report is President Karzai’s decision to begin moving forward with transition in certain select areas.  We’re able to move forward with transition because of the growing capability of the Afghan security forces, the Afghan army and the Afghan police.  That is the fundamental factor that will allow us to make those transitions.

            So the -- as everyone knows, the president in December of 2009 said that we would begin a withdrawal in July, and that’s the questions you’re asking about.  Well, I’m not here to comment on any individual decisions.  The progress that we have made, the progress that’s reported in this report, is consistent with the results that we expected to get from the surge, from the additional resources we put in, so we are definitely making progress towards transition.

            Q:  So --

            Q:  And putting -- putting the decision itself aside, what do you believe about the troop levels in the immediate future?  Do you personally -- based on your experience and knowledge of what’s going on there now, do you believe that this July is too early to begin withdrawal of combat forces, whatever the numbers?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Absolutely -- absolutely not.  I mean -- you’ve got too many -- too many questions in there.  Do I believe it’s too early?  Absolutely not.

            Q:  I’m talking specifically about combat forces.  I’m not talking about forces in general.  Do you believe that July is too early to begin withdrawal of combat forces, given the fact that the surge operation and the -- and the level of fighting is predicted to rise?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  The level of fighting is predicted to rise, but again, the most important thing that this report highlights is the growing capability of the Afghan security forces.

            So while we have surged and our allies have surged, the Afghans have surged even more, both in numbers and in capability.  So, for example, if you look at the questions I was being asked a year ago when we briefed the report a year ago, the question is, why are there so few Afghan security forces on the ground in Kandahar; what’s the -- what are the ratio of Afghan security forces to coalition forces in Helmand and the areas of our focus?  And the answer a year ago is it was very different than today.  We have in many cases six, seven times more forces on the ground in areas in Kandahar and Helmand than we did a year ago.

            So as there’s more fighting, that fighting is more and more being done by the Afghan forces.  The -- and it’s not -- again, I’ll remind everyone that it’s not just our objective to have the Afghans; it’s the Afghans’ objective -- from Minister Wardak, from President Karzai on down, the Afghans want to be responsible for their own security.  They say that they’re embarrassed that they’re not able to do that.  They want to do that.

            So in answer -- the answer to your question is that transition from coalition lead in the role that we and our partners are playing to Afghan lead -- is that happening -- yes, it is.  And as they do more fighting, then we will do more supporting.  And that is certainly the case.

            Q:  And just one other question, please.  And what can you tell us about the progress being made in terms of interdiction of forces coming in from Pakistan in the past six months, year?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  The issue relating to Pakistan -- and you will have heard Admiral Mullen’s comments on that a few days back -- continues to be a serious issue.  However, as the Afghan security forces working with ours and as we have some good cooperation in some areas of the border with Pakistan and areas where we’re trying to increase that cooperation, that’s an area where we have to do more, we’ve done somewhat more, but still remains a problem.

            Q:  The report also does raise some concerns about the pace of the training and the lack of trainers.  Did you see any problems with any specific areas that President Karzai has laid out for transition?  Are the -- all of those areas moving along at the pace you would like to see for transition? 

            And they’re also -- the report also raises concerns about border patrol.  And so getting back to Mick’s question, are -- is that not a very serious problem, particularly along the Pakistan border where you don’t have the trained and -- or the sufficient number of border patrol?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  In terms of the responsibilities along the border, they’re shared with the Afghan Border Police, the Afghan National Army.  And of course, there’s still -- there are a lot of coalition forces along the border as well.  Improving the police, which still remain behind the army but have made significant strides over the last six months, remains important.  And -- but if you look at the record of our achievement over the last 18 months, the pace of the progress, both in terms of number and quality, that -- we can’t predict that it will continue.  All the evidence is that it’s going to continue.  And I think we have a very solid track record there -- we meaning both ourselves and the Afghans.

            On the issue of trainers, the trainers that were -- that are discussed in this are, by and large, trainers for the capabilities that the Afghan National Army needs to become a self-sustaining force.  So these are trainers in the areas of medical -- of medicine, logistics, transport.  Our effort in training the Afghan forces over the last two years has been focused very heavily on building light infantry, the people who go out and fight on the front lines. 

            As we move forward to transition to -- to a transition where the Afghan army -- the institutions it needs to support it are in place, then you require a higher level of trainer, more specialized trainers.  So they -- those are the kinds of trainers we’re looking at.  There’s a much smaller universe of such trainers out there.  But I would say that even since the time the report has been -- it was written, in the intervening month or so, we’ve gotten more commitments on trainers.  I’ll be happy to maybe talk about that in a separate session.

            Q:  Well, in the seven areas -- I’m sorry, just the part about the seven areas that Karzai has talked about transition, are any of those in danger of -- based on the more specific statistics in the report -- are any of those in danger?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  There’s challenges everywhere, but I certainly would not use the word "danger."  There are challenges everywhere, and the biggest challenge in terms of the Afghan security forces are building the institutions that are needed to support the really strong fighting forces that are in place.  And this would be the institutions in the Ministry of Defense; again, the support, the logistics, the purchasing -- the tail of the army, which is -- which for -- especially for sustained -- a sustainable force, is the most important.

            Right now, we carry a lot of that.  The coalition, the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, gives a lot of assistance in those institutional areas.  And those take longer to build, as well.

            Q:  Yeah, can I just build on that?  The literacy rate in Afghanistan is very low, as you well know.  And these areas that you’re talking about require folks who know how to read and write.

            Is that -- is that hampering what you’re doing?  And what do you do to make that right?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  What we do is we train people in literacy.  And one of the major initiatives over the last two years has been to begin training recruits who are not literate or training those who are of limited literacy to increase their ability to function in a more modern environment. 

            And that program has been extraordinarily successful.  In fact, now literacy training is cited as the number-one reason by a number of people who reenlist because they have found it so beneficial to them.  So we are very aware of that problem.  You’re right, it is a challenge, but our objective is to have those people in place.

            And at the same time, we’re profiting from the expanded educational opportunities in the rest of the Afghan society because while overall it’s not a very literate society, given the vast expansion of education over the last 10 years, we are now beginning to get people who are coming out of school and joining the military with -- in many cases -- with a higher level of literacy than was possible three, four, five years ago.

            Q:  If I could follow up --

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Sorry, why don’t we -- I’m going – [motioning to reporters] sort of going like this, let’s go back like this.  Tom.

            Q:  If I understand your comments correctly, you’re urging us not to pay attention to individual spectacular successes achieved by the syndicated insurgency.  OK, I got it.  The reason for that is because of tactical improvements in the Afghan forces; the surge forces that are brought in have created an operational success.  Got that, too.  What is still missing for strategic victory and success in Afghanistan?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I would say -- I would not say what is missing, but the areas where we face the greatest challenges for that strategic victory remain -- and you’ve all heard the same thing from others before, including General Petraeus in his testimony -- it’s the follow-on ability of governance, rule of law, the structures that need to be in place after the military operations, the clearing operations are completed; in the counterinsurgency lexicon, the “hold and build” part.

            And I would not -- I would say it’s not that this -- it is the absence.  There’s a lot of presence there in Kandahar and Helmand --  our strategic focus over the last 18 months.  We -- places where we -- where there were no district officials in place, now we have two, three, four, five, six, seven district officials in place.

            So is that enough?  No, but is it -- it’s a big improvement from before:  the efforts at civil-service reform, civil-service training that are bringing those people and the willingness of people to serve in those areas, because in the immediate aftermath of fighting, civilian officials are reluctant to go places where they might be killed.  However, their willingness to serve in those areas is -- has been dramatically increased over the last 12 months.  And that continues to increase.  So that’s one of the key trends to look at over the coming months, and it will certainly be one of the areas that we’ll be looking at even more closely in our next report.

            Q:  I was going to ask you about -- in more detail about the security forces and the governance structure.  The report says that most Afghan security forces are still capable of working on their own with help and that even though there’s been some improvement in bringing governance structures to areas of the country, only about half of the country still has an effective government presence or a significant government presence.  How do you think that’s going to play out if we do start withdrawing troops this summer?  Is it going to be just a sink-or-swim situation?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  No, it’s not at all a sink-or-swim situation.  What -- what’s happened over the last two years through the increase in the training, the increase in the size, and the increased capabilities that the Afghans have through the partnering that they’re doing now, is they are more and more capable of operating independently and they need -- and they’ll need less and less support.

            So it’s a -- it’s a gradual process.  It’s not something that you -- say, today you need help, tomorrow you don’t. 

            And it’s a process that can go back and forth.  A unit may be operating at a certain level and then have problems, need more help.  And so you -- again, you have to look at it over a longer period of time.  So you’ll have instances where -- and I’m sure you’ve seen reports of those, where Afghan forces have not performed very well.  But then you need to look at what happens to that unit after that experience.  What kind of mentorship, what kind of training, what kind of assistance did they get, and then how are they able to do six months later?  And that’s the kind of intensive partnering that we’re working on in that in terms of the support for the -- for that.

            Again, this is not going -- this is not something that is -- that happens in one day.  And the -- and the spectacular attacks happen in one day or a couple of days, but the progress takes place over that period of days, weeks, months that I was mentioning before.

            Q:  And the governance?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Pardon?

            Q:  And about the -- about --

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Well, as I said, governance is -- governance takes longer; it has to follow security.  So, first, you have to get the security in place, and it’s making progress.  But -- and the biggest predictor of governance success is this -- is the security in the area.  The more security is, the higher quality officials you get.

            Q:  You said there are still challenges but no -- not danger as such.  And yet -- but the --

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I’m sorry.  I mean, there’s lots of danger and that’s -- it was -- it was on that specific question.  I don’t -- please don’t generalize.

            Q:  OK.

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  There’s -- obviously it’s very, very dangerous in Afghanistan in many places.  But what I’m saying is, for the strategic success, we have challenges.  But I don’t think there’s any area where -- that we need to make progress in for strategic success that we’re in danger of failing.

            Q:  OK, but I wondered because the executive summary specifically says -- uses the term "strategic risk" when it talks about the shortage of trainers, and it refers -- in the area of governance, it says, you know, threaten the progress made in the last six months.  That seems fairly strong.  So I’m not quite --

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  There’s a -- there’s certainly a level of concern there.  And the point about the trainers -- as I mentioned before, the trainers that we’ve been short at -- although we’ve made some progress in the last month -- are the ones that are needed to build the institutions that will be the foundation of Afghans being able to take care of their security needs for the long term.  And so that’s a strategic risk right now.  But the strategic risk we’re talking about is the success of institutions that will be needed in 2013, 2014, 2015 and the years beyond.

            Q:  Given that strategic risk --

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Going back to follow up there and come back.

            Q:  Yes, just going -- follow up on -- at one point in the report, it says there are not expected to be any significant force reinvestment opportunities or redeployment dividends arriving from the first and second tranches of transitioning provinces, that it will largely include areas already largely uncontested.  I don’t quite understand what the bottom line is.

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Well, if you look at the places where -- that President Karzai announced -- for example, Panjshir province -- there just aren’t any combat forces there.  So you can’t reinvest what you don’t have, where there’s a PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] there, I think, of 75 people or so.  And so that -- and in -- similarly in Bamiyan, there’s a very small number, because these are places where either there’s a very low security issue or, say, in the case of Mazar-e Sharif, again, where the forces are almost entirely Afghan.  So that’s the case.

            So they’re -- we’re starting off in the transition in those areas -- in a number of areas.

            Now, we’re also, of course, transitioning in area -- in areas -- Lashkar Gah, Mehtar Lam -- that are -- where there are security issues, and have been security issues.  But if you’ve been to Lashkar Gah in the last couple of weeks, which I have, then you’ll see a very different Lashkar Gah than you saw a year ago.  So it doesn’t say that there -- and -- but what’s happened there is we’ve already -- the Afghans are already in security lead in many areas in Lashkar Gah, and so the kind of reinvestment opportunities in some cases have already happened.  We’ve already -- commanders in the field have already started redistributing forces in some of these areas.

            Q:  Given the strategic risk on the trainers then, if some coalition members are unable to come up with the trainers needed, then inevitably it has to fall on the United States – or, can’t take that risk and --

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Well, there’s a number -- some trainers are -- have to be military; others can be contract.  And so there’s a number of solutions.  It doesn’t all necessarily have to fall on the U.S.  And again, these are -- the numbers are in the that we’re talking about here is -- are in the hundreds and -- but each specific capability, sometimes there’s two, four, five, six trainers in a very tiny technical area that we need, such as, you know, how to repair a particular part of an Mi-17, for example.  And so some of these capabilities are ones we just don’t have.  And then we’ll continue to seek, if not from people who are providing now, there are others.  Because ISAF continues to expand, and we continue to add countries as troop-contributing nations to ISAF.

            OK, next, over here.

            Q:  Yeah, I see here that the -- it says that if the levels of attrition throughout -- seen throughout the last five months continue, there’s a significant risk to ANA growth.  I mean, I didn’t see a level of attrition cited, so I was just wondering what that is.

            And then -- and then also, I mean, when you talk about operating independently, as you (inaudible), none of the police units are currently operating independently.

            And I didn’t see a figure cited for the ANA [Afghan National Army].  I’m not sure if any of them are yet working independently.

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  If you look at the graph on page 22, I believe, which is our Afghan National Army graph in there we have figures on the growth of the force.  And if you look at the blue line -- the little blue line, that’s retrition -- that’s retention, and the red line underneath is the attrition.  So there are figures there, and the purpose of the graph is trying to put it into context over the last year. 

            And you’ll see that there are variations in all of those.  But -- and I think when we say risk, we don’t mean that it’s impossible, we just mean that it’s hard.  And so despite in some cases attrition much higher than we would like, we still manage to -- we, and that with Afghans in the lead, have still continued to grow.

            The strategic risk to attrition, however, becomes greater over time because as you’ve invested more in training people, then the cost of attriting more highly trained people can add strategic risk.  So as we’re training these people who have -- we’ve invested in increased literacy training, teaching higher-order skills, then it’s even more important to keep them in place.  So that’s why over a longer term, attrition actually becomes a more serious issue than it is today. 

            Right now we’ve been able to grow the force with these attrition levels because we can continue to recruit people in -- to be infantry soldiers, they don’t need as much of the kind of skills that they’ll -- that we’ll need for a sustainable force farther on.

            I hope that I’m not getting too technical for you here, but I think that -- we’re trying -- I’m trying to put that into context why we use the word "risk."  Overall, I think whenever we use the word "risk" -- again, risk doesn’t mean it’s impossible, because we’re achieving a lot of things; we’re achieving progress in the areas where there are risk.  It just means it’s hard.

            Q:  But if U.S. troops are working with these forces and none of them are operating independently right now -- that I can see -- do they need to be operating independently in order for U.S. troops to leave, to pull out -- I mean, not just to -- you know, transition control?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  The figures in here -- the descriptions in here are broad brush.  There are Afghan forces in many areas in Afghanistan that already operate independently.  So -- and -- in some of the areas that were selected for transition; for example, the Afghan police operate with minimal, in some cases no, additional resources from us.

            And the process for this is a gradual one.  And as you -- as I’ve mentioned before, as you partner with units -- originally you have to increase -- you’re doing partnering with all the units, and we’re almost there with everybody.  And then as you partner, you begin to pull back; you reduce the level as the unit shows that it can operate more and more independently.  But the slope of that reduction can take place over a long period of time.  But there are a number of Afghan units that are operating independently, but at the scale that we’re talking about in the report, not yet.  But that’s -- it’s at larger scales.

            Q:  Admiral Mullen in his interview with Pakistani newspaper “Dawn” in his recent visit to Pakistan, he said that elements in ISI [Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence] has the support and has links with the Haqqani Network, which is a (inaudible) terrorist organization.

            So I have two-part questions.  One, if it is linked with a terrorist organization; and by law what actions you are taking against ISI, because it has links with a terrorist outfit?

            And secondly, can you win the war in Afghanistan, given if it continues, given if ISI partner continues to have (inaudible) these outfits?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  As I mentioned before, I’m -- Admiral Mullen’s statements certainly stand on their own, I -- and I agree with them 100 percent.  In terms of the legal issues that you mention, I don’t think the issue is there.  It needs to be looked at from a -- what the legal requirements are.  And I’m -- but that is -- the issue is something that I’ll leave to my colleagues at the State Department who are in charge of those kind of determinations.

            However, the concern about the role of safe havens in Pakistan and the role of actors in Pakistan -- including the Haqqani Network, the Afghan Taliban who are located primarily -- the leadership is located either in the south or in the north around Peshawar -- that remains a significant challenge.  And what we’re looking for is continued, increased cooperation with the Pakistanis on the border.  And as we’ve seen it some areas; other areas we’ve seen it -- we’ve seen it doing very well in some areas; other areas it’s gotten better; other areas we’re seeking much more improvement.  And that’s something that we’ll -- that we continue to look at very closely.  It’s certainly an area of strategic risk.

            At the same time, given the progress that we’ve made in areas that we’ve put our effort into over the last 18 months through the search process, and our ability to make progress in areas that -- where it seems intractable -- in Kandahar and Helmand particularly -- are we through that success on the ground able to mitigate that?  And one of the keys will be -- and I’m -- you’ll recall that General Petraeus mentioned this in his testimony -- the fact that there are people who are coming in to reintegrate and the fact that there are people -- some of those people who are coming in to reintegrate are people who were in Pakistan before.

            So the -- there was a recent ceremony in Kandahar where a group of about 40 or 50 Taliban fighters appear to have come in and reintegrated.  So as we see more and more of those -- the numbers are still small, but the numbers appear to be increasing, and that’s the kind of thing that can mitigate against a risk of those existing safe havens.  But it’s still going to be a huge challenge.

            I’m sorry, then we’ll move back.

            Q:  I’d like to ask about the state of the insurgency.  The report asserts that we’ve been able to degrade the capability and diminish the influence of the Taliban.  At the same time, it also says that the insurgency has -- is evolving, has become -- that it’s resilient and that it won’t be apparent until well into 2011 what the cumulative impact of ISAF operations is. 

            Just sort of can you help us draw, like, a big-picture conclusion?  Is the insurgency more or less potent than it was one year ago, two years ago?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Overall, as we say, it is -- I would -- I’m not sure what -- how to define “potent,” but what we can say is it controls less area than it did, it controls significantly less of the population that it -- than it did, and that it has been removed from key areas that -- especially the districts around Kandahar that they had controlled since the mid-’90s. 

            So these are strategic changes.  So it’s not just the influence on the ground.  It’s the influence in the view of the Afghan people as they see them being pushed out.

            So this is more than just an issue of military capability, the ability to carry out attacks.  So they continue to have -- if we want to use "potency" -- the ability to carry out attacks, they continue to have those.

            And they’re going to be as -- and they’re going to be carrying out more and more attacks as the fighting season begins and gets in -- and those opportunities are there for them.

            But the key question remains, is where are the Afghan people?  Are they supporting the Taliban?  Are they under the control of the Taliban?  And that’s the big -- that’s the big issue.  It’s -- I’m going to push back on the issue of whether it’s this attack or that attack, or, you know, one day or another there might be, you know, many, many more attacks, or whatever might happen.  But the trend over time that’s important to look at is the number, the percentage of the population, and most importantly, those in key areas.

            So if you look at the chart that talks about the -- that shows the variation in attacks by area, you’ll see that in Kabul -- despite Kabul being a strategic target, a -- very clearly, a strategic target of the Haqqani Network, the ability to bring security to Kabul.  And those of you who have been traveling to Kabul for years will notice that over the last year the security situation in Kabul continues to improve, and has improved quite a lot over the last year.

            That doesn’t mean that there aren’t attacks, like the one at the Ministry of Defense the other day.  It means that the society and the security institutions, they have the resiliency to handle those attacks, to defeat the vast majority of them.  And that’s the real story; not the potency of the ability to carry out this attack or another.

            Q:  On balance, do they seem to be less of a strategic threat than they were in the past?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  What we say in the report is that we reversed their momentum.  So I think you could draw from that that “yes” because if we -- because when they have the momentum, they’re a greater strategic threat than when we’ve reversed their momentum in a number of areas.

            So yes, I would say definitely we -- but that, again, doesn’t mean that day-to-day there aren’t big challenges.

            Q:  You said that --

            Q:  (Off mic) -- reporting about how much of -- how many districts they’re in control of.  Are there statistics in here showing that?  Because I didn’t find that specifically, in terms of how many districts they controlled compared to, you know, a few years ago?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yeah, we do provide statistics on that, but -- as part of our reports to Congress, but those right now are classified.  So we’ll -- but the diagrams in there that show the focus of the insurgency and sort of the focus of our efforts, I think, show what we’re doing.

            Q:  Why are they classified?  Before these reports, they weren’t.

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Pardon?

            Q:  In some of these reports before, there were key terrain districts.

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Right.  And we talk about the key terrain districts here, and we have --

            Q:  In previous reports, they were spelled out and they had maps and they showed which ones each district was leaning toward.  I think there were 46 or something like that.  And to Viola’s question, I mean, in past reports, that was highlighted in the report.  Now you’re saying that’s classified?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  What we talked about before that wasn’t classified is not classified now.  But what I’m saying is we have better -- we’ve always had better metrics that are classified than the ones we were able to release.  So that’s just -- that’s really a separate question than what was in before.

            The approach we took in this report, however, was to look at the broader campaign, and there’s -- because of the -- there have been changes in the way we look at districts.  Rather than trying to use -- trying to fit individual statistics into -- that don’t match from year to year, we’ve tried to be more discriminating about the statistics we’ve used.

            Q:  You say that the objective is to make the Afghan army self-sustaining, but how can you do that if the amount of financial assistance we’re providing them is three times the government’s annual budget?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  When I was talking about sustaining before, I was talking about their ability to carry out all the tasks themselves.  I wasn’t talking about the financial fiscal sustainment, because, first, in order to have a force that can sustain itself, the first requirement is that they can sustain themselves institutionally.  So building those institutions is first.  So first we have to build the institutions.  And as I said, it takes longer to do that. 

            So I -- you’ve caught me on a word term, "financial sustainment" -- and I’ll separate that out from the ability of the force to carry out its mission.  Financial sustainment is going to be a much longer and much more difficult thing for the Afghan government. 

            But financial sustainment depends on the financial need.  We don’t know what the security needs of Afghanistan will be in 2014, 2015 and beyond currently.  They have a very high security need because of the state of the insurgency.  But as the insurgency becomes less and less able to control the population as the -- as we move forward on reintegration and -- I want to point out, of course, the important effort, the “third surge” that Secretary Clinton referred to in her speech -- her Asia Society speech and go back to a point that all of you have heard, our objective in this war is not to kill every Taliban.  Our objective is for there to be a political process that is Afghan-led, that results in the Afghans coming up with their own way forward.  And that is very much the focus of this third surge.

            So as those things change, you can envision an Afghan society that needs significantly less security capability than it would need -- than it needs today.

            And so that’s another variable in there.  But you’re absolutely right.  The financial cost of sustaining the Afghan forces once they’re able to -- once they have the physical capability to sustain themselves is going to be a big challenge.

            Q:  But as they take on more and more responsibility for security, wouldn’t their financial requirements actually go up the greater the burden they’re bearing?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Not necessarily -- well, it -- again, it depends on the need.  If they’re fighting the same level of conflict or greater level of conflict, then yes.  But if they’re taking on more responsibility but there’s less conflict, then the requirements would be less.

            The key variable here is the amount of conflict that’s going on.  And our objective is to drive down that level of conflict through our military operations, work with the Afghans to have them more and more be able to carry that out; and then through our political efforts, to work with the Afghans towards a political resolution that results in a society with a level of violence that’s much, much less than it is today.

            Q:  If those levels of violence don’t go down and the costs remain high, will the U.S. be willing to continue to provide that financial --

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  You’re getting -- obviously you’re presupposing failure, which I’m not going to do.

            Q:  Now, despite your answer to that last question, despite all the progress made, et cetera, in Iraq, the yardstick for success and progress was often linked by people like General Petraeus and others to the dramatic drop in the levels of violence and the dramatic drop in the level of casualties, particularly in the last two or three years.  You can’t use that yardstick in Afghanistan, it seems.  Why do you think that is?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  The situations -- and General Petraeus is much more qualified than I am; and he’s talked about the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq are quite different.  And the situations in Afghanistan are quite different.  Again, I’ll refer you to the graph on security incidents across the different areas of Afghanistan.

            The insurgency is very different in the many different areas of Afghanistan.  So -- and what we’re doing in Afghanistan has, I think, so many dissimilarities to Iraq that I wouldn’t use that comparison. 

            However, the objective continues to remain to be an Afghanistan where there is significantly less violence.  And it’s -- the objective isn’t to fight a continuing high level of insurgency forever.  And the progress that we’ve made in Kandahar and Helmand -- and if you look at where the violence is occurring, the vast majority of violence is occurring further away from the people.  The point that we make in this report we’ve made in earlier ones, that even though violent incidents go up, many people in the country feel more secure, because it affects their daily lives less.

            But we’re not predicting that violence is going to continue to go up forever.  We are -- we’re continuing to see year-on-year increases, because last year we had significantly less forces, less Afghan forces, less coalition forces in place than we did now.  It was just the beginning of the surge.  But as we move through the summer, given the level of effort that we put in is -- that we -- as we note in the report, there’s some -- there will be some -- there’s some very important trends that we’ll be looking for over the summer to see how we are positioned for the next several years.

            (Cross talk.)

            LT. COL. ROBBINS:  Two more questions.

            Q:  You’re suggesting that violence levels -- hopefully, if things are going the way you expect them, that it will go down, that the violence may have peaked?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  We -- I’m not suggesting the violence may have peaked now.  No, not at all.  But I’m saying in the coming months, at some point, the violence levels may peak.

            Q:  At some point this year, they might?

            SR. DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  This year -- I’ll tell you, within the next 12 months.  I mean, if the -- if violence levels continue to go up forever, then obviously what I said I’m not going to do -- presupposing failure -- is happening.  But the -- certainly, this year and this spring, the Taliban are going to make some significant efforts.

            Maybe I’ll just close with that point, and I apologize for not being able to answer every question.  But the pushback of the Taliban out of these key areas the last year is really a strategic defeat for the Taliban.  They’re going to have to respond, most particularly to being pushed out of areas like Zhari and Panjwai and Arghandab and Kandahar.  How they respond, whether it’s attacks there, attacks elsewhere, I don’t know.  But given that strategic setback that they’ve suffered, they’re going to try and send messages to the population in other ways that they’re going to be able to come back.  And that’s going to be a big challenge for the Afghan forces, for us, as those efforts are made.

            However, again, if you think as you look beyond the day-to-day violence statistics and at the increasing amount of security Afghans enjoy, and the effect that it has on them, people are making choices.  They’re making choices to side with the government or to side with the insurgents.  And this summer, we certainly expect to see many, many more people making that fundamental decision to reject the Taliban.

            Again, thank you very much.

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