DOD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Toolan via Teleconference from Afghanistan
COL. DAVID LAPAN (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Media Operations): Good morning. I'd like to welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room for the first time U.S. Marine Corps Major General John Toolan Jr., the commanding general of Regional Command Southwest. On March 26th of this year, General Toolan assumed responsibility for RC Southwest. The general commands a multinational coalition of 30,000 service members drawn from the United States, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Denmark, Georgia, Bahrain and Tonga. In partnership with the Afghan National Army's 215th Corps, his troops operate in the provinces of Helmand and Nimroz.
As I mentioned at the top, this is the general's first briefing with us in this format. He joins us today from his headquarters at Camp Leatherneck. As most of our speakers, he will make some opening remarks and then take your questions.
With that, General, I'll turn it over to you.
GEN. TOOLAN: Well, it's nice to talk to everybody. And I look forward to reading all the articles after this is over.
The -- as was mentioned earlier, the -- we took over in March. And one of our objectives in taking over the RC Southwest area was to make sure that it was seamless. It's very important that there's a plan in place that, regardless of who's here, things just seem to follow a good sequence. So the takeover was smooth, and we've really basically benefited from those that have gone before us and, you know, walked right in on their plan and can carry it forward.
We're currently -- as you know, we've completed the harvest season. Both poppy and wheat have been completed. And we're now in the phase of getting into what's considered the fighting season. My plan -- our plan during this next six months, particularly taking us through the fall, is that we're going to deepen the hold that we currently have in the Central Helmand River Valley. There's been tremendous success down there, in fact, to the point where one -- the capital of Helmand province, Lashkar Gah, has been designated to be in the first tranche of cities that transfers local security responsibility back to the Afghans. But we need to hold that security picture in Central Helmand River Valley, so that's going to be key to what we try to accomplish this summer, fall or this fighting season.
I think that in regards to the efforts over the past two years in the south, everywhere from Khanishin, which is in the south, Garmsir, Nawa, Marja, there's been tremendous success, to the point where many of those districts will be identified for transition of lead security responsibility in either the next tranche or the following tranche.
So that has given us an opportunity to then reinvest in certain areas where we're probably not as prevalent, not as dense. And we need to thicken our holds in some places, which are mostly in the north.
Task Force Helmand, which is my British task force, is currently holding the central core of the Helmand River Valley in and around Nad Ali, Nahri Sarraj. And Task Force Leatherneck, which is the basis of the U.S. forces, is now arrayed both in the south, where we have great security, as I just mentioned, and also in the northern areas, what we call upper Gereshk, upper Sangin valley in Kajaki, with additional districts, Musa Qal’eh and Now Zad.
We've been very successful in doing a couple of things. One most important effort has been our effort to reduce the amount of financing that's available for the insurgents to fuel the fighting season for them. And we've been able to do that by attacking the narcotics nexus, that combination of Taliban insurgent and narcotics producer.
Since April, since we've been here, we've taken about 30,000 tons of opium [sic; poppy] off the streets, an equivalent of about $65 (million), $70 million. I'm not exactly sure how much that's pinched their pocketbooks, but we could tell just by intelligence gathering that it's had a significant impact, particularly in the south, but not so much in the north, primarily because that is sort of the narcotics haven.
During the summer and early fall, we intend to consolidate our efforts in the north, upper Sangin, upper Gereshk valleys in Kajaki. Some of you know that there's a major dam up there that's key to irrigation efforts as well as power supply through the southern region. So we're -- our intent is to get up there sometime in the next six months, seven months, in order to begin some projects that we have set aside for the Kajaki dam.
The transition in the Lashkar Gah, as I mentioned earlier, is going very well. It's going to obviously be a target for the insurgents; they're going to try and conduct spectacular attacks. They're going to go after the local security, the Afghan local security, and they're going -- and the insurgents are going to attempt to reduce the confidence the public has in the government. I think we have a pretty good plan in place, so that we'll be able to respond in overwatch positions if necessary, but we won't let this -- we won't let the transition in Lashkar Gah fail.
The last point I'll mention is before I turn it over to questions is this whole issue of Afghan National Security Force development. Our objective has been to paint the picture of what the Afghan national security forces will look like in the year 2014, when the U.S. military and the coalition forces plan to withdraw from Afghanistan [sic; plan to transition security responsibility to Afghanistan security forces]. What we're trying to do is establish the infrastructure builds for the army so that they're in overwatch positions while the police, the Afghan Uniformed Police, are really the core, the center of gravity for security in Afghanistan. And both -- they have to be able to protect the population as well as make sure that they secure justice in the districts they're responsible for.
It is a challenge. There are some things, some perceptions that need to be overcome with the police, but we see steady progress as we go through this particular year. In fact, there's been a couple of attempts in Lashkar Gah with suicide bombs and, in each case, the Afghan uniformed police have been able to respond effectively. So we think we're on a timeline that will be able to turn over Afghan uniformed police that's protecting the population and securing justice for the locals.
The Afghan National Army is moving along incredibly well. Probably by the end of this year, we'll have a total number of Afghan National Army and police at about -- (inaudible) --, I believe. The majority of them, particularly those units who have completed their training and been equipped over the past six months, are operating at pretty good capacity. They're well trained, they generally have a second-grade reading level, and they've got some good leadership development going.
What we'll probably have to do in the next year or so is move our combat forces into a greater adviser and mentor role, and that will continue to -- that will continue on probably until the end of 2014 in order to make sure the Afghan National Army is set up to provide security.
I think those are the issues that I would like to just highlight to give you a summary of what's going on here, and then I'm willing to take any questions.
COL. LAPAN: Courtney.
Q: Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. Thank you for doing this briefing. We hope it's the first of many from you during your time there.
I wanted to ask you about something you mentioned in your opening statement. You said that there's -- there are several areas, Garmsir and Nawa, that may be able to transition to Afghan security lead in the next tranche. What's the time frame from that? And then how will that -- what will that mean for the U.S. forces that are operating directly in those areas? Will that be -- will they be redistributed throughout RC-Southwest, or could that mean some sort of redeployment or replacing -- not replacing the ones that are there?
GEN. TOOLAN: Great questions. The tranches are going to be about every six to eight months. The first tranche is actually going in July, next month. That's when Laskar Gah will transition.
The next one will probably be in January, February and then again probably in July next summer.
What it really means is that it's a thinning-out process. I know you've probably heard that term before with General Petraeus, but the objective is, even now we are reducing the number of patrol bases and reinforcing those numbers into larger U.S.-coalition patrol bases while the Afghans are then taking the lead in -- independently in the bases that we're thinning out from.
It's a long-term process. It -- the good thing is, is we're starting early. We're testing the waters. We're seeing how they're doing. And at the same time, you know, we're able to come back in, reinforce where needed. And I think it's working.
So the objective would be that by this fall, for example, we will -- we'll have been able to thin out in certain areas in Nawa and Garmsir and maybe even be able to produce 1,2(00), 1,500 additional combat forces in order to reinvest in other locations. Obviously, from our perspective, that would be in the upper Sangin, upper Gereshk Valley, or over in Now Zad or Musa Qal'eh.
So that's kind of the plan. I will just stress again that the thinning-out process is very dependent upon the success that we have in Lashkar Gah and making sure that transition is successful and not losing any ground in the areas that right now we're identifying as being pretty secure.
COL. LAPAN: Luis.
Q: General, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. Can I ask you specifically about the transition in Lashkar Gah? How long do you envision that process is going to take? We've seen estimates of something like a year to 18 months. Is that accurate?
And what do you -- what do you actually mean by the word "transition" when it comes to security there?
GEN. TOOLAN: Well, you're absolutely right. Transition is a process. It's not a, you know, linear action. There isn't, you know, any one thing that says: OK, transition has occurred or transition has completed. I think it's going to be a continuous process all the way through to 2014.
But from our perspective, the way we're looking at this process right now is that in the initial stages, by January, we will have increased the number of checkpoints around the city, particularly in areas that we think may still be liable and open to insurgent movement into the city of Lashkar Gah.
Those checkpoints will -- over time will be reduced. In fact some of those checkpoints are being manned by the Afghan National Army, and the objective would be for the Afghan National Army to vacate those checkpoints, for the police to take them over, and then eventually for the police to then phase back into their local precincts.
That's going to take time, and I would suspect that the full transfers -- the transition will probably not occur -- and it probably will take a good year, year and a half.
COL. LAPAN: Joe.
Q: General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. We keep hearing here in Washington that the situation in Afghanistan is fragile, irreversible. How much do you think this way of evaluation applies to your area of operation?
GEN. TOOLAN: I think I got your question, sir. But the idea that the situation is fragile and irreversible -- and reversible -- I would say that that's correct in some places. Particularly when we talk about fragile, I think what we really mean is that the local nationals can easily be intimidated by insurgents moving into their areas.
One of the things that is -- we are trying to work very hard at, to build up, is what we call the Afghan Local Police. And Afghan Local Police is a structure of locals that have been supported by the tribal elders. And they have brought these individuals in -- many of them sons, nephews, et cetera -- who stand up and provide local security for those -- their villages, specifically to keep the insurgents away from their intimidation tactics.
But if they're not able to stand up, or if they are co-opted by the insurgents, then that fragility sort of occurs. And it becomes a problem then to get back into the villages and try to reestablish a secure environment. And most importantly, the most difficult thing, really, is to convince the people that they can stand up against the insurgents. But that takes time.
As many of you know, in the beginning stages of Iraq and the beginning stages of Afghanistan, many of us operated inside of towns and districts and villages. And it took months before we could even identify who were the people that we could really deal with, so that we could get their sons and nephews, et cetera, to sign up for the local police; or as in Iraq's case, to sign in for the Sons of Iraq.
So there is fragility, there is reversibility. I think as each phase goes by we're getting less and less fragile, more and more strong, and I think over time, a couple of years, it may become irreversible.
Q: I don't know if you could answer this question, sir. How much do you think the appointment of Ayman al-Zawahiri as new head of al-Qaeda -- do you think will this affect the counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan?
GEN. TOOLAN: You know, sir -- I mean, the fact that Osama is gone and we have a new leader of al-Qaeda, I think it doesn't have a major impact on the people that we're dealing with here in Afghanistan. First of all, most of the insurgents are really mid-level insurgents, mid-level Taliban leaders. They're taking their orders from their senior Taliban leaders who, in many cases, are not leaving places like Quetta and other places.
So I'm not sure that the al-Qaeda organization is really feeding the senior Taliban leadership in Pakistan with guidance on how to prosecute their efforts here. Nor do I think their money is even fueling the insurgency currently in Afghanistan. That's why I feel like we were pretty confident that if we went after the narcotics nexus that's fueling the Taliban's fight -- that if we could do that we'd be able to actually to slow them down.
So I have not seen much evidence of al-Qaeda here directly in Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand province. And I think that his influence, the al-Qaeda leader's influence, is not that significant at this point in time.
Q: General, hi, I'm Kevin Baron from Stars and Stripes. I wonder if you could comment on the predictions of the spring offensive versus what you've seen so far. And I know you just said that in your lead, that the poppy season, the harvest season, was just now completing. Has it been as expected, which initially, as some of us heard, were waves of hundreds of fighters? Or is it more the other side of the scale of spectacular infrequent attacks? And has that changed your projected operations for the rest of the coming year in any way?
GEN. TOOLAN: I think we expected the fighting season to be a little less, as far as activities, than last year. But what we're finding is that, in the areas that we believe were pretty secure, as the ones I mentioned earlier, there has been very little violence.
I am concerned about -- there's been a pickup of violence in the upper Gereshk and upper Sangin valley and all the way up into Kajaki. We expected that. We know that that is really the central point for a couple of very homogeneous, strong-willed tribes who do not want to give up their comfortable lives of producing and selling drugs in order to provide them with a substantial amount of money.
So we know that that's going to be a pretty good battle for the next couple of months as we work our way in not only providing security for the people who live there and strengthening their Afghan local police efforts, we're working very closely with the Afghan army and the police to make sure that the gains that we have, which are fairly substantial that they actually move up into the town of Sangin, where we have done several projects, built new roads, et cetera. We want to to maintain that level of stability. And I'm pretty sure, pretty confident we'll be able to do that, but it won't be without a fight. But it will not be as big a fight, in my estimation, as it has been in the past. I think that we have significantly reduced their capacity to reinforce and, I think, to pay for some of their tools of their trade.
COL. LAPAN: Rosalind.
Q: Good day, sir. Rosalind Jordan with Al-Jazeera English. I wanted to ask you more about the insurgent activity in your area of concentration. Are they indigenous to the region? How many are there? Where are they getting their training? And when you talked earlier about possibly some $60 million in revenue being lost to them for their operations, how severe an impact is that, if you can characterize it?
GEN. TOOLAN: I guess I'll answer the last question first. I did mention the fact that about $60 million worth of opium [sic; poppy] has been confiscated. I think a total of about 30,000 -- 29,000 tons of opium [sic; poppy] have -- has been interdicted by a variety of means by our forces here in Helmand.
What I am concerned about is that when I look at -- and that's happened within the past three months. I'm not sure what 30,000 tons of opium [sic; poppy] translates to as far as total, but there has been some estimates that maybe is less than 2 percent of the total amount of opium that's being produced out of the Helmand province. So you know, if that's the case, there's a lot more opium and drugs to sell and money to be made.
As far as the insurgents themselves, most of the fighters are not very well trained. There are people that are the mid-level leadership of the insurgency who are pretty talented and pretty capable of creating improvised explosive devices that challenge some of our technological advances and that they are pretty creative in how they lay them, so that it's almost a constant back-and-forth on tactics, techniques and procedures, is figuring out what they're doing, countering it, countering what we're doing, et cetera.
But that's a small number of people. And one of my -- one of our primary objectives is to identify the network of those IED builders, find out who they are, and then take them off of the network.
I think we are getting much better at that process. We have had success almost on a continuous basis since we've been here of identifying the IED makers and then targeting them appropriately so we can locate them and either capture them or kill them.
The -- those -- that is my concern, really, is getting after that network, because if I can -- if we can reduce their capability on the battlefield, there's no one to take their place. There is a substantial number of them, they're the ones that are in contact with the senior Taliban leadership in Pakistan, but the senior leadership is not willing to come here because they know, if they come here, in many cases, they'll be captured. And so they stay in Pakistan. And that in itself is a very poor example of leadership, that some of the mid-level Taliban say, I don't think I really want to support that senior leadership anymore.
So it's a combination of things that are, I think, dissuading mid-level Taliban leadership that it's probably not their -- worth their while to continue doing what they're doing. And as they back away, then the locals who are the -- sort of the privates of the Taliban won't have any leadership or desire to do what they're doing, and hopefully opt to either join the Afghan local police or maybe accept some job in the local village.
I think that answered your questions.
Q: Lalit Jha from Pajhwok Afghan News. What is your impression about local provincial government over there? And does the people have confidence in their government?
GEN. TOOLAN: The governance issue is extremely important because obviously what we really want to try and do is build up that legitimacy of the government. And you can only do that when the people have some faith in that their leaders are going to be able to take care of their needs.
There are definitely a lot of competing needs here. Probably one of the biggest challenges that we have is that many of the people who are living outside of the fertile areas but are trying to do some farming are generally squatters. They get very little support from the government. The land that they're living on, they're pushed off of. And yet they are the ones, the ones living in the desert area away from the green zones, that are trying to make a living, are the ones that are harboring the insurgents.
If we could -- as I've mentioned earlier, one of our objectives is to push the insurgents out of the populated areas. So what happens is, they go into these desert places. If the government could, in some way, shape or form, support that indigent population that's living in the deserts by having programs like land-lease programs or whatever, so at least they have an opportunity to feed their families, we'll find that the insurgents will not -- will not have a pond to swim in. They won't have -- they'll be further isolated. And that's obviously the exact objective that we have. So the government needs to step up to the plate and address some of those issues.
In regards to the population, the card-carrying -- tazkira [identity document] -- legitimate Afghan landowning people, I mean, the government still has to prove that it can work with the national ministries and bring down the finances and the projects and the attention that's needed in a variety of different areas from irrigation to criminal justice.
(Audio break) -- Helmand, we have a very successful governor, but unfortunately, in the politics here, he's under a lot of pressures, there's a lot of jealousy. And we are working very well with this governor, but he has some undue pressures that sometimes make his job very difficult.
We have an elected provincial community council, which is an excellent forum for myself and some of my leaders to confer with those individuals who have been elected from the various districts to get a pulse on what's going on in the districts, what's needed; and that sense of governance is really working well, particularly in interacting with us.
But the real challenge that will come is as more and more is turned over to the national government, then it has to be fed through the national government down through the various ministry pipelines to conduct the business of government. And it's working. I think that we could definitely use the mentoring and advising programs that -- and here in Helmand, we have a British-led Provincial Reconstruction Team who are standing side-by-side with the line ministry reps and working with them, as well as our own regional platform provided by State Department, USAID, et cetera, and the work they're doing to also mentor and move along with the government officials to support their province.
So long-winded answer to your question -- I think the governance is good. I think it could do without some of the pressures that it gets from individuals who have disingenuous interests in the province. But I think it -- and overall, it's being very effective.
Q: General, the RC-Southwest concentrates roughly 20 percent of the troop coalition in Afghanistan. Granted the success in the Helmand province, are you confident that combat troops stationed in Helmand province will be able to be part of the drawdown in the coming months after the fighting season?
GEN. TOOLAN: You know, as a commander, I would really like to have additional forces. But the reality is, is that we have what we need and that the progress that we're making is pretty steady. And I think that we're in a good position to bolster the confidence of the Afghan National Army and security forces in general so that they can take over more and more responsibility.
I have several examples of where we have turned -- gone from coalition-only to joint coalition/Afghan to now Afghan-only operating bases, really throughout the southern region from Khanishin all the way north to Nahri Sarraj.
So as the Afghans become more and more capable, as the Afghan Local Police grows, I see that we're able to maintain a balanced level of security.
Our partners, our Afghan friends, have received the benefit of some things that the Western armies have that it's going to take a while for them to build; for example, things like medevac capability or just the idea that a soldier from the Afghan army who hits an IED and loses a leg or whatever, he's being cared for by our doctors.
Those are capabilities that I think are a long-term build. And, you know, that's the reason why there may be some reliance on the part of the Afghans on us. But I'm good -- I think I can always use more, but we're doing -- we're progressing well.
Q: I'd like to ask about the civilian surge and how that's affected what you're doing in RC Southwest. What concrete impacts have you seen from the American -- from the Obama administration's civilian surge in the sort of development, reconstruction, Afghan-life arena. And how has that impacted your area on security?
GEN. TOOLAN: The civilian surge has in many ways already begun in the fact that the -- as I mentioned earlier, the Provincial Reconstruction Team, which is British-led here in Helmand is about almost -- with augmentation from us, is almost about 200 people. And then the regional platform, which is our State Department-run organization, it's currently at about 35 people, but it's going to increase their numbers to about 75 or 80. My point is that in the civilian surge, what we need to do is make sure we bring in the right skills.
I remember going down to Marja to -- I attended a shura. And in my conversation with a couple of the tribal elders, who were all in their 50s and early 60s, were telling me about the days when they were growing up in Marja, when Americans lived among them. And really, USAID and the United States of America transformed Marja and Garmsir into one of the most productive agricultural breadbaskets in Asia.
Among many of those people, to them, America can do anything. And so they asked me, you know, well, why haven't we been able to establish the same types of -- type of progress that USAID was able to do back in the '50s? And obviously the answer is, well, there's been a lack of security. So we can get back to that stage, but the problem will be, is that we no longer really have in our country the capability to do that kind of project that we did back in the '60s and that now our way -- our modus operandi is we contract it out, and we try to contract it out with local workers. And so, you know, there's always going to be issues of maintaining quality, quality control, et cetera.
If you look toward increasing the civilians, particularly on State Department side, what we need to do is we need to find those experts that can come over here and mentor and advise the Afghan engineers, agricultural experts, financiers, et cetera, and that's how I think we'll make greater progress. So my hope is that on the civilian surge side, is that we bring in those aggressive, hungry, talented people who will drive that mentoring and advisory role with the Afghans so that the end product is much better than what it would have been without.
COL. LAPAN: OK, General, it looks like we're out of questions on this end, so I will send it back to you for closing remarks.
GEN. TOOLAN: I guess just in closing, I will say that in two years -- and this is my first tour in Afghanistan, but in the past two years here in Afghanistan, I have heard stories about the violence and the situations that were in places like Nawa, Now Zad, Garmsir. And some of those people who fought in those towns, fought in those villages, are now back here with me again, and it almost -- to the person -- they're amazed at the amount of progress that's been made -- it's almost like a credit to the sacrifices that have been made by the people that they've known, that they were friends with two, three years ago. And when they see the progress, they realize that, you know, maybe this work was worth it.
So thank you very much. And I hope maybe to share more with you later on.
COL. LAPAN: Thank you, General.