DOD News Briefing with Gen. Allen via Teleconference from Afghanistan
COLONEL DAVID LAPAN (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Media Operations): Good morning here at the Pentagon and good evening in Afghanistan.
I'm honored to introduce for his first Pentagon Press Corps briefing as commander of the International [Security] Assistance Force, also known as ISAF, and also commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Corps General John R. Allen. General Allen assumed command approximately three weeks ago. He commands a multinational coalition of troops drawn from 48 troop-contributing nations, and he joins us today from his headquarters in Kabul to provide an update on current operations. The general will have some opening comments to make, and then he will take your questions.
So with that, sir, I'll turn things over to you.
GEN. ALLEN: Thanks, Dave.
Ladies and gentlemen of the Pentagon Press Corps, thank you for taking the time today to discuss our nation's effort in Afghanistan.
As you know, last Friday night we lost 30 American service members when a Chinook helicopter went down in the Wardak province. We're deeply saddened by the loss of these magnificent Americans. These fallen warriors represented the best of America. We honor their courage, their devotion to duty and their sacrifice, their ultimate sacrifice, and we offer our eternal gratitude for their commitment to the defense of the American people and our great nation.
This was a tragic incident in a very difficult military campaign. However, this was a singular incident in a broader conflict in which we are making important strides and considerable progress. Now, to be sure, we face challenges ahead, and there will be tough fights in the days to come. However, as President Obama noted in his June address, we are on a path towards achieving our goals in Afghanistan, and we will face the obstacles ahead with a steadfast determination to prevail.
To that end, at approximately midnight on 8 August coalition forces killed the Taliban insurgents responsible for this attack against the helicopter, which we assess was an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] round. This action was a continuation of the original mission to dismantle the Taliban network in the Sayyidabad district of the Wardak province. This does not ease our loss. But we must and we will continue to relentlessly pursue the enemy.
All across Afghanistan the insurgents are losing. They're losing territory. They're losing leadership. They're losing weapons and supplies. They're losing public support. And across Afghanistan, more and more, the insurgents are losing resolve and the will to fight, and they face relentless pressure from coalition and, increasingly, Afghan forces.
The progress in Afghanistan is visible. Last month we began the process of transitioning security responsibility to Afghan government and Afghan forces. Our military is working hand in hand with our civilian partners to secure the gains we have made by strengthening the Afghan government and by advancing economic opportunity. We're committed to working with and strengthening our Afghan partners because we know that only they can ensure the security of their country.
The Afghan forces have made immense strides in their professionalization and their effectiveness. Increasingly they are out in front, securing territory, safeguarding populations and when necessary fighting and dying for their great country and their fellow countrymen.
Now, we lost eight Afghans in this crash, brave Afghans, and we pay tribute as well to their service and to their sacrifice.
I've met troops all across -- in the four corners of Afghanistan. I can say with certainty that our servicemen and -women remain steadfast in their commitment to the mission. We remember why we're here in the first place, and we know what is at stake. Our troops are out on the battlefield, committed to succeed. They have my full and complete support, and they know that they have the support of a grateful nation that stands squarely behind them.
Again, thank you. And with that, I'll take your questions.
COL. LAPAN: OK, just before we get going, the general does have a limited schedule, so I'd ask you each to hold to one question so we can get through this.
Q: General, it's Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press. I was wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about the investigation. I know it's just beginning, so you have no answers yet, but I'm wondering if you could tell us what your key questions are that you posed for the general to answer in his inquiry and what particular information you might be looking for.
GEN. ALLEN: The investigation, as -- you are correct -- is just beginning. We should see it begin very shortly here.
It is the standard questions that we would ask in any investigation of this nature: What was the cause of the crash, and what lessons can be learned as a result of that cause, and ultimately hopefully feeding back into the process of evaluation for our missions, to improve them however we can. This investigation, again, is just beginning. We would anticipate it will take some time. And of course, we look forward to the results of that investigation.
COL. LAPAN: Barbara.
Q: General Allen you say you hold the Taliban responsible for the attack. Can you be more specific, sir? Was this an airstrike? Was it ground action? Who exactly did you kill? Do you know whether you killed the person who fired the round? Did you kill the Taliban leader you were going after? How do you know that you killed these people, and who did you kill?
And just very briefly, how concerned are you that so many special operations forces were put at risk in one place. The SEALs coming in, the Rangers on the ground: Was that a good idea?
GEN. ALLEN: Well, across Afghanistan that night, there were multiple missions very similar to this one. Our special operators are operating, and on a regular basis, multiple missions every single night. This was one of many that were occurring in Afghanistan that night.
As any of these missions do, they generate intelligence, and the intelligence that had been generated to this point led us to believe that there was an enemy network in the Tangi Valley of the Wardak province, and the purpose of this mission was to go after the leadership of that network. As this mission unfolded, we saw some significant success occurring on the objective itself, but there were elements that were escaping. And in the course of their attempt to depart the objective, we committed a force to contain that element from getting out. And of course, in the process of that, the aircraft was struck by an RPG and crashed.
So once again, this was one mission that occurred that night, of many. That same number of missions occurred last night – they will occur tonight, and it will continue to occur. And in the context of our special operations and our nightly special missions, these will continue unabated.
With respect to the enemy specifically, all of these operations generate intelligence. And the intelligence that was generated both from activity on the objective, but also the activity of those who sought to flee from the objective, gave us significant certainty of who they were. We tracked them, as we would in the aftermath of any operation, and we dealt with them with a kinetic strike. And in the aftermath of that, we have achieved certainty that they in fact were killed in that strike.
Q: General, Yochi Dreazen from National Journal. If I could follow one part of Barbara's question, are you comfortable that committing this many special operators, this many SEALs, to a mission where it was not U.S. troops on the ground in imminent danger, but rather, as you say, to contain people trying to escape the battlefield, are you confident and comfortable that that decision was correct and justified?
GEN. ALLEN: Well, all the decisions that are made are made based on the unfolding mission, and in fact that was the decision that was made at that particular moment. And so I'm comfortable that that was the right decision to be made at that time.
COL. LAPAN: Go ahead, Courtney.
Q: Hi, General Allen. It's Courtney Kube from NBC News. Just back to the Taliban fighters that you killed early Monday morning, it sounds like, that were specifically responsible for the shootdown of the Chinook, how many did you kill? And did it include the Taliban leader that you were initially going after? Can you give us a sense of the scope of both the initial firefight that they were involved in on Friday night that the Chinook went down on the way to, how many Taliban fighters were there, and how many you ended up killing in the ensuing search?
GEN. ALLEN: Let me just make a couple of comments. There are a number of issues that I won't get into specific detail about because the investigation remains ultimately to be accomplished, but I also won't go into the operational details associated with it.
What I'll tell you is that on the original objective, we were pursuing a Taliban leader. We anticipated that we would encounter not just the leader but probably some of his followers, as well. And some of them actually got off the objective.
We were able ultimately to determine, as we will continue with respect to that network, where those elements ultimately ended up in the aftermath of the strike on the original objective.
And then once successful in learning their location, we were able to deliver ordnance on that position and to kill them as well.
COL. LAPAN: Craig.
Q: General Allen, this is Craig Whitlock with the Washington Post. You said earlier that the Taliban is losing across Afghanistan; they're losing their resolve and will to fight. Yet in the last six weeks, we've seen a number of pretty major victories from their perspective. And in addition to this tragic incident on Saturday involving the Chinook, they attacked the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul six weeks ago, they killed the mayor of Kandahar, and the president's brother in Kandahar was killed. On what basis are you saying that they're losing given these high-profile attacks?
GEN. ALLEN: Well, the intent ultimately of the surge, which began in the middle of July of '10 and continues on, was to create the opportunity for us to roll back the momentum of the insurgents. We have done that significantly across the country, in particular in the south. We've achieved significant security gains in the Helmand province, in Kandahar, in other places in Afghanistan. Not only have we stopped the momentum, but we've rolled it back. And as a consequence of that, we've seen improvements in governance, we've seen the development of economic opportunity.
And it's not uncommon in an insurgency, when insurgents are losing ground, to resort to spectacular attacks. And in fact, while we have seen their ability to inflict violence and to conduct enemy- initiated attacks, while we've seen those numbers coming down in recent weeks, we do expect that the enemy is going to target those areas where they can get a high-profile payoff, and that, in fact, it was you're seeing here with those particular attacks.
What's not necessarily apparent every single day is the progress with respect to the establishment of Afghan Local Police units in villages and towns across Afghanistan. These villages that seek to embrace Afghan Local Police in the Village Stability Operations program are mobilizing their communities for their own security.
That's not widely understood. It's also not widely covered. But that's a great example of where the Taliban are losing ground and they're losing influence because they can no longer get inside the population of these areas.
Another area where we're succeeding is in the area of reintegration. That program is an Afghan program. We support it as necessary. It's a relatively new program, and across Afghanistan we're beginning to see the Taliban foot soldiers ultimately come forward and seek to rejoin society, and become a member of their villages. And to date we have reintegrated or the Afghan population has reintegrated more than 2,300, and there are about 3,000 more in the pipeline; Success of security operations in the south and in the east, and ultimately in a program that has been well-structured by the Afghans, with our support, we anticipate some more success in that regard as well.
So it's a function of security operations. It's a function of the establishment of Afghan local police. It's a function of the establishment of credible governance, economic opportunity. It's an indicator that they are losing by numbers of them that are coming forward, ultimately, and joining back into society through reintegration.
We're not declaring victory, certainly. We recognize that there are going to be long days ahead and some pretty heavy lifts.
But there are indicators that lead us to believe that we're moving clearly in the direction of achieving our goals.
COL. LAPAN: Tom.
Q: General, it's Tom Bowman with NPR. You talked about those surge troops. And I want to ask you -- as you know, all of those surge troops, some 30,000, will all be pulled out of Afghanistan next year, well before the end of the fighting season. And I'm wondering if you could tell us what impact you think that will have on, as you talk about, the path toward achieving our goals in Afghanistan. And do you plan on rewriting your campaign plan, maybe shifting U.S. troops to the east earlier than anticipated?
GEN. ALLEN: Thanks, Tom. It's important to understand that the surge will occur -- the surge reduction, the movement of troops back to the United States, will occur in two phases. As the president indicated in his speech, 10,000 will depart by the end of this calendar year, and then another 23,000 will depart in September.
We're already well into the planning for the first portion. We are adapting our campaign plan as necessary. That adaptation includes the shifting of certain resources in areas where we believe we have enduring security gains. The Afghan National Security Forces are beginning to come on the field in extensive numbers.
By the time that our additional 23,000 troops come out by the end of September of next year, we'll have seen on the order of 70,000 Afghan national security forces come onto the field. So it's a trade-off in terms of the Afghans who are joining us in the battle space with the forces that will be coming down.
Now, your question was, are we going to change our campaign.
We're constantly evaluating the campaign, and reevaluating the campaign, to ensure that it is adapted to the operational environment and that we're able to focus the resources necessary to accomplish our objectives. And as you correctly point out, we will probably look at options to the east, probably some time after the new year.
We intend to continue to work very hard in the south throughout the remainder of this fighting season, and well into the fall. We're going to fight all winter. We're going to attempt to disrupt the enemy safe havens throughout the winter, the opportunity for him to rest and refit. And then in the spring and in the summer, we will continue to disrupt the enemy and then spend a particular amount of attention in the east.
The time for those decisions remain to be determined. I'm working very closely with my staff; we're doing the staff analysis now. And I'll be making those decisions probably in the relatively near future.
Q: David Martin with CBS. Just to be precise, did you eventually kill the specific Taliban leader that you were after in the original operation? And you seem to be saying it was an air strike, but you don't quite say it was an air strike. Was it an air strike which you used to get him?
GEN. ALLEN: Two separate questions. The first is, did we get the leader that we were going after in the initial operation. No, we did not. And we're going to continue to pursue that network. As I said, we continue to develop the intelligence. We will continue to exploit that target. We will remain in pursuit.
This -- the other individuals that we were able to develop as targets as a direct result of the intelligence that became available as a result of this operation, we did in fact locate them with certainty, and we did strike them with an air strike.
Q: Sir, it's Jennifer Griffin with Fox News.
Was it a breach of standard operating procedure to put one unit on one helicopter, and were you short of helicopter assets that night? Also, in the initial fight, how many Taliban were involved, and how many were escaping when that unit was called in?
GEN. ALLEN: I won't get into the details associated with how we assign units to its battlefield transportation and to tactical mobility. So I won't get into the details associated with that. And in terms of the numbers that were on the objective, again, that's an operational detail, which I'd rather not discuss with you here. We did determine that there were a certain number that came off the objective, and ultimately, when we struck the target for the follow-on strike for this operation, that number was less than 10.
COL. LAPAN: Mike.
Q: General, it's Michael Evans from the London Times here. I'm told that one SEAL is roughly equivalent to about -- in terms of combat value, about six infantrymen. So obviously the death of 22 SEALs is pretty well equivalent to a whole company of regular troops. Is it true that while you are in the process of withdrawing conventional forces from Afghanistan, you will increasingly have to turn to these sort of guys to carry out quick reaction force attacks or rescue operations or follow-up operations, and that therefore they will be in perhaps more danger of this sort of strike action, and that the Taliban will get wise to this?
GEN. ALLEN: Counterterrorism operations occur within the larger context of the counterinsurgency campaign in which we're dealing. You are correct that as our surface area decreases in Afghanistan, the role of counterterrorism operations, and in particular these kinds of special missions, will become prominent.
They won't become the sole mechanism by which we achieve battlefield decision, but they will certainly play a role. So with that as an anticipated outcome, we will pursue special operations on a regular basis both now and for the foreseeable future. And it will be an adjunct and a component of the larger counterinsurgency campaign.
Q: General, was it a mistake to use a CH-47 in this kind of operation? And is that -- using that kind of asset in this kind of operation something that you are either not going to do in the future, or what's your thinking on that?
GEN. ALLEN: We've run more than a couple of thousand of these night operations over the last year, and this is the only occasion where this has occurred. So we routinely use this airplane. It is an important means for tactical ability. And so this is -- the fact that we lost this aircraft is not a decision point as to whether we'll use this aircraft in the future. It's not uncommon at all to use this aircraft on our special missions.
COL. LAPAN: Rich.
Q: Sir, Richard Sisk, The War Report. Can you say, sir, what kind of aircraft carried out the airstrike last weekend? Was it a drone, a manned aircraft or what, sir?
GEN. ALLEN: F-16s.
Q: Sir, I was told that you were briefed or that you read this United Nations report that came out last month on civilian casualties, and I wanted to see what your reaction was to the part in the report about Apache helicopters, that said they were responsible for the majority of civilian casualties caused by airstrikes. The OPTEMPO for fixed-wing aircraft have gone up, same with Apaches. The Apaches (were now) responsible for the most casualties from airstrikes.
GEN. ALLEN: I'm sorry, I did not catch that question at all. It was garbled. Please repeat --
COL. LAPAN: I'll do it here from the lectern. The question was about the UNAMA report last month regarding civilian casualties and one of the conclusions about Apaches being the largest contributor of civilian casualties in air operations and your thoughts on that.
GEN. ALLEN: Well, first, any civilian casualty is a casualty that we mourn. I've been very clear with the command since I've been here that we will do all that we can to adhere to the tactical directive, to adhere to the tactical driving directive, to adhere to the directives associated with the escalation of force, to ensure that on those occasions where we have to apply force, we do so with every possible measure taken to avoid civilian casualties. Unfortunately, there have been occasions where we have delivered air ordnance that have, in fact, inflicted civilian casualties. Every time that occurs, we investigate the reason for that, and we seek to learn from that. But we're very, very careful about the application of force in that regard. And as I -- I'll end where I started, specifically on this, on any occasion where we have civilian casualties, we're very introspective, and we ensure that we learn from that, but with the intent of not repeating it.
COL. LAPAN: Jim.
Q: General, Jim Michaels at USA Today. You mentioned the progress both with reintegration and Afghan Local Police. I'm wondering if there's also any progress you see about -- with regard to the talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban leadership.
GEN. ALLEN: Jim, I'm not involved in reconciliation efforts between the governments. And so while we do have significant involvement in the process of reintegration, we are not involved in the term "reconciliation," at least at my level.
Q: General, thank you. Can you give us a sense of the kind of support infrastructure Taliban and al-Qaida leaders have across the border? And has it come down or increased the last several months after the killing of Osama bin Laden?
GEN. ALLEN: Again, I had difficulty with that question. Dave, could you help me with that, please?
COL. LAPAN: Yes, sir. The question was, since the death of bin Laden, your assessment of the level of support, Taliban and al-Qaida, from across the border.
GEN. ALLEN: We've not seen any real discernible outcome that has -- that the death of Osama bin Laden has had direct effect on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Certainly, there's rhetoric among the Taliban in some -- on some occasions and in some places, that they are conscious of the death of Osama bin Laden. But that has not become a new cause for the Taliban. It has not increased the numbers that we have seen in cross-border operations or inside Afghanistan. So at this juncture, I would say that the -- if there will be effect -- an effect of the killing of Osama bin Laden, it has not been felt on the ground inside Afghanistan.
Q: Thanks. General, it's Thom Shanker from The New York Times. Thank you for your time this morning.
Could you help us understand the decision to deploy one of your Tier 1 CT [counter-terrorism] forces on this mission? Clearly when a call comes in for reinforcements, a quick reaction force, a commander has many assets. The decision to send a Tier 1 force to do this -- was it because of the value of the target? Were they just closest and fastest? And is this one of the questions the investigation will look at? Thank you.
GEN. ALLEN: Again, Thom, as you're probably aware, these missions have a number of packages associated with them. And I won't get into the details of how and why we ultimately make a particular decision on any particular mission, but this force was actually part of the mission. And so with that, I'll end that response.
COL. LAPAN: Larry.
Q: General, a press release sent out just as you began talking to us says that the man you killed, aside from the shooter, was someone named Mullah Mohibullah. And it says that he was a Taliban leader. Was he not the target you were going for on the night of August 6? And if he wasn't, who was?
GEN. ALLEN: I won't tell you -- I would prefer not to discuss the operational details of who we were going for. But you do have the name of the particular leader that we ultimately dealt with.
Q: (Inaudible) -- sir, also says that while the -- it's not been determined if enemy fire was the sole reason for the helicopter crash, it did take fire from several insurgent locations on its approach. Can you tell us what other kind of weapons were fired at this helicopter and whether you know if it was actually hit by any of those weapons aside from the RPG that so many people said is the likely cause of its crash?
GEN. ALLEN: Small arms primarily were the weapons that we encountered that night. We don't know with any certainty what hit the aircraft. The purpose of the investigation ultimately to assess that it was in fact an RPG and ultimately to assess if small arms fire contributed to the crash of this aircraft. And so that will come out in the investigation.
COL. LAPAN: All right, we are out of time, so I'll send it back to you, General Allen, for your closing remarks.
GEN. ALLEN: Ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank you for your time today.
We will always remember the families of the fallen, and we're going to continue to build on the tremendous progress that has been made to date in Afghanistan. We're determined in our mission. And ladies and gentlemen, we will prevail.
Thank you very much for your time today.
COL. LAPAN: Thank you, sir.