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DOD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Evans via Teleconference from Afghanistan

Presenter: ISAF Joint Command Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Tim Evans
September 15, 2011

             CAPT. JANE CAMPBELL (Director of Press Operations): Good morning here in the Pentagon press briefing room, and good evening in Afghanistan. 

            I’d like to welcome to the Pentagon briefing room for the first time Major General Tim Evans, the chief of staff for the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, otherwise known as the IJC. As an IJC alum, it’s a great pleasure to be able to introduce General Evans, British Army officer on his first tour in Afghanistan, following two tours in Iraq. He assumed his current duties in January of this year. The general serves as the IJC commander’s chief of staff. The general works very closely with the regional commands together for building a full picture of operations throughout Afghanistan. 

            General Evans joins us today from the ISAF Joint Command headquarters in Kabul to provide us an update on current operations. He’ll make some opening remarks, then will take your questions.

            And with that, General Evans, over to you, sir. 

            MAJOR GENERAL TIM EVANS: Thank you. And what I’d like to say this evening is just short remarks before we move through.

            First, I’d like to take the opportunity to acknowledge the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and the considerable sacrifices that have been made by the American people and the victims of the attacks. 

            As the chief of staff of the NATO headquarters ISAF Joint Command, I can speak from firsthand experience that Afghanistan is one of the most complex, multinational campaigns ever undertaken, with 49 nations participating in operations across Afghanistan. And we are determined to work towards our goal of ridding Afghanistan of these terrorist sanctuaries. 

            You’ll be aware of the attack in Kabul on Tuesday. The insurgents are trying to get media attention with such attacks, and undermine the confidence in the Afghan security forces and the international community. These sorts of attacks have the opposite effect and just stiffen our resolve. In Kabul, the Afghan security forces dealt with the situation with minimal ISAF assistance, demonstrating once again they do have the capability to do so. 

            Now back to the headquarters. IJC is responsible for coordinating and overseeing the day-to-day operations carried out by the six regional commands here in Afghanistan. As chief of staff, my task is to synchronize the efforts of the IJC’s approximately 1,500 staff, both military and civilian, from 33 nations to enable the IJC commander and the regional commands to make informed decisions. 

            And over the past year, we have consciously decided to take the fight to the insurgents. We have relentlessly pursued them, seized the initiative and focused our efforts on targeting the insurgents’ command and control, their support bases and infiltration routes. Our special forces, in partnership with and often led by the Afghan special forces, have had a dramatic effect on capturing or killing hundreds of the mid-level insurgent leadership. 

            We are aware of the challenges that still face Afghanistan, but we are seeing signs of progress. The people’s trust in their security forces and the government of Afghanistan does continue to grow. Our security gains have been instrumental in generating the opportunity for progress, and we have seen this quite clearly in central Helmand and Kandahar. We are on the offensive, exploiting our gains and trying to strengthen the local governance and protecting their population. 

            And we’re going to build upon this momentum. 

            That said, we acknowledge that it is not just about the military operations, and far from it. And we’re seeing some key improvements in governance and development. Afghans are now voting in local elections. And for example, a year ago Marja was a Taliban stronghold. Today it’s an example of coalition success, and last spring the local elections were held, and new leaders were elected. 

            There are also now currently more than 26,000 elected community councils across Afghanistan, which support local community-driven development projects, including road building, electricity generation and irrigation. The merit-based hiring system, civil-service job fairs and representative shuras have also strengthened and increased the capacity of local governance and weakened corruption across the country. 

            The international community has also drastically improved access to education and health care. There are also early indications that the overall level of violence may be down. That said, we are not complacent, and there is still a hard fight ahead of us and for our Afghan partners.

            The progress of Afghan security forces is very promising. They are now more than 300,000 strong. This represents a significant increase over the 90,000 that were gained in 2010. But it’s not just the quantity. We have also seen a significant improvement in the quality of the security forces. They are now gaining in confidence, competence and capability. A number of the kandaks [battalions] are already planning and conducting operations with only limited support and enablers from the coalition. And as this transition continues, that will increase. 

            We will continue to improve support and enablers as Afghan security forces need it throughout the transition and beyond. But recent incidents in Herat, Kandahar and Kabul have demonstrated they are increasing their capabilities and defeating attacks and restoring law and order. 

            Indeed, a number of those involved in such attacks have been arrested and been brought to justice.

            We expect the insurgents will continue to pursue attacks against soft targets, as we have seen recently on Tuesday in Kabul, to create spectaculars in an attempt to exaggerate their influence. We know they are targeting government figures: the Afghan security forces, those who will reintegrate, as well as the Afghan Local Police. These are the tactics against the Afghan citizens who want to guard their villages and communities against the insurgents and, in so doing, threaten the enemy’s existence. 

            Now, over the winter period, we will continue to build on the momentum of the campaign by maintaining as much pressure on the insurgents as possible. They have a choice. They can either continue to fight, in which case they risk being killed or captured, or they can lay down their arms and enter into the reintegration program. 

            We are seeing a steady increase in the numbers willing to reintegrate back into Afghan society. In all 34 provinces, we are now beginning to see the peace committees and nearly 2,400 former fighters have entered the program, and about 3,000 are waiting to do so. 

            As you know, we have already started the process of transition. In July we saw the three provinces of Bamyan, Panjshir and Kabul, the addition of Mehtar Lam and the three municipal cities of Lashkar Gah, Mazar-e Sharif and Herat formally begin the transition process. In fact, the completion of the first phase of transition will approximately see 7 million people, or 25 percent of the Afghan population, being secured by the Afghan forces. 

            Additionally, we expect the second tranche or areas to be announced by the Afghan government by the end of the year to be actually also on track. The Afghan people know that transition will take time. All that’s clear is that the process is still on track and we are seeing the changing dynamics in key parts of the country. 

            So there has been positive progress, particularly on the part of our Afghan partners. We have built up a momentum that we will maintain in the future. We acknowledge that this is not going to be easy -- that  we do not underestimate our task. But we do have the right strategy, the initiative and the momentum, and the Afghans are certainly up for it. 

            Now throughout the remainder of this year, this headquarters will continue planning with the Afghans out to 2014 based on the progress made so far in order that we can continue to apply this relentless pressure on the insurgency. 

            Now this concludes my opening statements, and I’m more than content to take your questions. 

            CAPT. CAMPBELL: Thank you, General. 

            Bob. 

            Q: General, this is Bob Burns, Associated Press. You mentioned Tuesday’s attack and you also mentioned the problem of sanctuaries in Pakistan. Yesterday Secretary Panetta expressed some frustration with the situation with regarding the Haqqani Network. And he said that the U.S. would do everything possible to stop them from attacking in particular U.S. forces in the future. What is possible to be done that’s not already being done? 

            GEN. EVANS: I think for us here in the NATO headquarters, our jurisdiction is up until the border. And what we’re doing now is making sure we can find out where the red lines are for the insurgents when they cross over, and then with our conventional and special forces increase that horrendous pressure so they kill or capture to make sure that we’ve got a layered defense to protect places like central Helmand, Kandahar and Kabul. 

            Q: Just a quick follow-up? There is nothing that you can do directly about the sanctuaries on the other side of the border. Is that what you’re saying?

            GEN. EVANS: Our jurisdiction here in NATO actually is only to the border of Afghanistan. 

            We can only fire across the border in self-defense. So therefore, we concentrate now on trying to look through and see where do we think the insurgents are coming into Afghanistan and then make sure that we can track and then interdict. And that’s what we have been doing over -- certainly over this spring and into the summer with some success. 

            Q: Thank you, General. This is Lalit Jha from Pajhwok Afghan News. You said that a transition has happened in three provinces and seven cities in -- a couple of months ago. What has been the progress in these three provinces and cities, and what is your assessment about the situation there? Are they doing well or it’s not up to your expectations? 

            GEN. EVANS: At the moment for the tranche one provinces and district, it is going well. There are areas now that we can see that they understand, and I think part of it is making sure the people understand what transition is. And it’s important to understand it’s a transfer of responsibility, but for them, making sure they understand that transition is a process and not an event. And therefore, the transition, as we start the transfer of responsibility, is going to take time. But certainly at the moment for the tranche one provinces, we are on track. 

            Q: General, Larry Shaughnessy from CNN. You mentioned Tuesday’s attack in Kabul. Were you yourself in the building when it was attacked? And if so, can you describe what you saw, what you heard, what you did during that attack? 

            GEN. EVANS: No, unfortunately, I wasn’t in the building at the time and not involved in the attack. But what we can say is that we knew that about noon, about 1300 [hours] that we were aware there was a series of attacks inside Kabul. The police very quickly contained and then isolated particularly the Marriott hotel, and that’s why we knew there were a number of insurgents who were trying to fire down or did fire down onto the ISAF buildings and also the embassy. 

            Once they were contained, they knew that it was going to need a deliberate operation for the simple fact that the hotel, which is under construction, is 13 floors high. And therefore, with these insurgents who had small arms, RPGs and grenades, we made sure once they’re contained, that we’re clearing floor by floor. And as you’ll understand, on these operations, it does take time. 

            Q: And a follow-up. You mentioned the skill with which the Afghan security forces put this down. But we’ve been told it took more than 20 hours for these six people with small arms, RPGs and grenades to be defeated. What if it had been 60? Is the Afghan security forces really able to protect the U.S. embassy and the headquarters of the entire international coalition if the Taliban or the Haqqani Network or whatever insurgent group throws a much bigger force at you? 

            GEN. EVANS: I think what I’ll explain here is the reality that there were 11 insurgents; three were very quickly taken out. We then used, as you said, the seven in that building. They did not breach any of the compounds of either the embassy, ISAF or any other government building. What they did breach was to get inside a deserted -- or a hotel that was being built. 

            And then once they were contained, there was no point trying to rush that operation. If at night, as you try and clear through the stairways, the lift shafts, up through the different floors, you are going to do it deliberately, particularly when you know that those individuals are willing to die. And therefore, by the deliberate operation, it meant all seven of the insurgents died, but we did not have any deaths as we cleared the operation, which I think, as you can understand, is a good effect and a good result. 

            Q: Major (sic), it’s Raghubir Goyal from India Globe.  Yeah, this is Raghubir Goyal from India Globe and Asia Today. My question is that any of these attacks -- do you believe that -- in any connection with 9/11 10th anniversary? And second, how much confidence do you think after these new attacks and fear among the people of Afghanistan and also in -- among the international community working there? 

            GEN. EVANS: Firstly, we do believe they were trying to do an attack on the anniversary of 9/11. And actually we thwarted a number of attacks, by both ours and the Afghan special forces. 

            But these individuals -- and, we are told by the police, possibly disguised in burqas -- did manage to get through to the Marriott hotel. But it is a spectacular -- the tactical action, it didn’t breach any of the government buildings, it didn’t achieve any of their aims in the sense of taking through or casualties of any in the ISAF quarter in the sense of killed in action, and as you go through into ISAF or the embassy. Therefore, I would say suicide as a tactical action, of course it will have a wider perception. But we know that the insurgents have changed their tactics to go for these spectacular events in order to get the media coverage. 

            They’ve lost ground in central Helmand. They’ve lost ground in Kandahar. And therefore that’s why they’ve had to change their tactics. They haven’t got that same initiative that they had before. 

            Q: General, this is Joan Soley with the BBC. Were any British military personnel injured in the recent Kabul attacks? 

            GEN. EVANS: Sorry. Could you say your question again, please? 

            Q: Sure. Were any British military personnel injured in the recent Kabul attacks? 

            GEN. EVANS: We did have four injuries from the U.K., as there are advisories as they’re coming through in helping the forces within this instant. And that’s all I can say at this stage. 

            Q: Thank you. 

            Q: General, Bob Burns again from AP. If I heard you correctly in your opening statement, you said that the overall level of violence in Afghanistan may be down. I wonder if you could elaborate on that with any statistics or any more precision on what you meant by that. 

            GEN. EVANS: What I meant by that was, when I said the overall level, is the enemy-initiated attacks, that we have seen that those have reduced over the last few weeks. At this stage I can’t give you the statistics; however, what we’re watching really closely as we are at the moment still in the fighting season, but as we still maintain the initiative, if the level of violence does come down, what we are intending to do is make sure we can exploit, as we go into the autumn and the winter, to make sure we continue the gains that we have made over this last summer and certainly of the winter of ‘10 and into ‘11, to make sure the pressure is kept on the insurgents as they start trying to do their attacks inside here in Afghanistan. 

            Q: If I could just follow up briefly, I’m a little puzzled why you know that attacks are down but you can’t give any statistics. Is that because you don’t have them at hand, or is there some other issue? 

            GEN. EVANS: No, I’m not trying to hide anything in that sense, and I don’t have the statistics to hand, but the trend is, on the enemy-initiated attacks -- for the last few weeks have been reducing. And therefore we’re looking at that trend to see, right, how to exploit that advantage, and as you would expect, therefore planning our operations accordingly. 

            Q: General, it’s Rosalind Jordan with Al-Jazeera English. 

            It’s early in the budget process here in the United States, but on Wednesday a congressional subcommittee has proposed to cut about 13 percent from the U.S.’s training budget for Afghan security forces for the coming year. If that does come to be the final budget figure, what sort of impact could that have on overall ISAF ability to train Afghan forces in the coming year? 

            GEN. EVANS: If there is a cut in a training budget, what we’ll have to do -- and this is really particularly for NTM-A, the NATO training mission, to understand that true effect -- but what I would believe we’ll be looking at, making sure the priorities -- prioritize the efforts of the programs that we’ve got coming through, making sure that the programs that we want as the highest priority are then funded and then adjust if we need to to understand what the true effect of that cut would be. But what’s really important is that we do need to get the Afghan security forces up to the level of 352,000 to ensure now that we make sure that they’re up at front, taking the fight to the enemy with us in support, and as we go through ‘12 and into ‘13, as we know from the transition process, just transfer that level of security to make sure they are then responsible for the provinces, districts across Afghanistan. 

            Q: I have a quick follow-up. Given that the EU is also facing similar financial straits, is it possible for European members of NATO to increase their training budget? Or do you believe that this sort of critical work can be carried out with at least fewer dollars in the near term? 

            GEN. EVANS: It’s very difficult for me to comment on what the European nations will do over their budgets. 

            All we would encourage is that they do at least maintain, or ideally increase, particularly if the U.S is reducing theirs. But whatever budget we’ve got, we’re obviously then going to have to cut our cloth to suit the money that we’ve now got, and that, as I mentioned, is really particularly for the national training mission to see what now they can afford within programs. And also, we would then be very conscious of how does that affect us out in the field? But it’s quite clear that we do want the 352,000 trained in order to make sure we have that transfer of security. 

            Q: General, Larry again from CNN. You mentioned in your opening statement that one of the goals of the insurgents on -- in Tuesday’s attack was to get media attention. And they’ve certainly seemed to have succeeded in terms of the amount of media attention that attack got, versus what it accomplished for them. 

            But my question is, as a military man, what can be done to counter their media -- their attempts to get media attention? Or is that something that you have to leave in the hands of people outside of the military? 

            GEN. EVANS: I think the -- there’s a couple of answers to that one. Firstly, almost -- this evening is one part of it, in that it gives us an opportunity to try and show you or try and explain why we think it’s a tactical action, although we understand it has got greater media coverage and also for the perceptions that might cause. 

            But actually also, I think we need the IO [information operations] effect out with the people of Afghanistan to make sure they understand what it is and what’s the cause and the effect. Because again, as you’ll see from tomorrow and the next day, Kabul will be as it was prior to Tuesday’s attack. As you saw in Kandahar, again, after the big spectaculars, life does return to normal. However, it is a shock for the civilians, but it is a tactical action. So I think we need you to explain our message as to what we think went on, what was the action and also then hope that the media also does give a balanced review of that particular episode. 

            Q: Sir, this is Tyrone Marshall from AFPS. I have a question. With 10,000 troops scheduled to leave by December, what areas have been identified for possible transition to Afghan security forces? And how does that work? Is that a one-for-one transition? 

            GEN. EVANS: On the transition, we’ve already, as you’re aware, had the first tranche in July. Now later this month they’ll be talking about what is in tranche two. We will obviously give our opinion, but that’s then put -- passed through to our higher headquarters and then to the GIRoA. And that’s really [President Karzai’s] decision. That should come out in December or January, and that’s when tranche two should take place. 

            What we’re looking at is, on the surge recovery and the forces coming home, is where best can they be taken from across Afghanistan. However, what we’re trying to do is concentrate on those enablers or areas which are not the maneuver and fighting forces, to assure we can still get the transition process through, transfer that security over to the Afghans, and make sure we’ve got that support with our enablers as they’re required as they run into ‘12 and ‘13. 

            Q: General, BBC again. In terms of the training of Afghan forces. and to follow up with this idea of a big, substantial budget cut, what areas can you see in your opinion should remain untouched? Where can cuts afford to be made? If we can get a little bit more specific? 

            GEN. EVANS: I think on the troop side, I don’t want to be as specific this side because decisions have yet to be made exactly which forces might go home. However, I think what we’re looking at now are at areas of where is there any redundancies, any duplication on the logistics side. 

            Are there areas where we can perhaps spread a little bit thinner but ensure we still achieve the effect of making sure we support our combat forces? But certainly one area we wouldn’t want to reduce on that is particularly on our ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance], special forces and also looking in for those advisory teams that are going to support and actually advise the Afghan forces as we go through this year and into next. 

            Q: General, thank you. Raghubir Goyal again, India Globe and Asia Today. My question is that do you believe that there’s a confusion among the people of Afghanistan and also among the terrorists and the insurgents because of they feel that you’ll be leaving Afghanistan soon? What my question is, what message do you have, sir, for the people of Afghanistan and also at the same time for the militants or insurgents or we call terrorists? Thank you. 

            GEN. EVANS: I think there’s two things here, is, one, as we transfer authority and security across the Afghan forces, we can then draw down some of our numbers. However, we will still be there in support to give the enablers if they require it and make sure they can achieve what they need to achieve. 

            But I think the second message is -- and this is really probably for the insurgents -- that we’re not going to abandon Afghanistan. And even past 2014 there’s talk of the strategic partnership, and therefore again we will be giving support to the people of Afghanistan because I think it is those, the people who are worried about abandonment. But we are going to be here through to ‘14 and beyond. 

            Q: This is JiJi Press. My name is Takashi Fudo. My question is what is the major challenge of transition process to Afghan army?

            GEN. EVANS: What we’re looking at now is to make sure that we can build their enablers, because we concentrated on the infantry kandaks first. And really, as we would call it, it’s the ‘year of the enabler.’ We’re now looking at their logistics, their intelligence, their police, as in the military police, and some of those enablers we’ve -- now working through. We’ve got all the 12 branch schools now established, and we’ve got to get the training of the individuals through these schools to make sure that they’ve got a comprehensive cover across their forces. 

            The other area I think we need to concentrate is on leadership, both in shaping, making sure they understand what it is they will be required to do, and making sure that their leaders know about taking responsibility for the security but also understanding what support we will give them, in that they’re not out on their own, but they are out in the front. And that’s what we’d like to do now, is put them in the front, but with support, so they gain the confidence and so all understand -- anybody out front just needs that support but understands that they are not abandoned, that they’ve actually got the protection and they’ve got the support. 

            Q: Sir, what is the morale of the troops in Kabul now, both ISAF and the -- if you have a feel for the Afghan National Security Forces, what is their morale following this attack? 

            GEN. EVANS: This incident hasn’t dented their morale. I think, again, on the military side, we understand the tactical nature of the event, but obviously its repercussions. And actually, as you see, as we explained, they actually did do a good assault. They did a deliberate action. It did take 20 hours. But as we’ve understood, once it was contained, there was no need to go faster than it required to clear deliberately through that building. 

            So at the moment, morale is high. 

            CAPT. CAMPBELL: All right, sir. General, we greatly appreciate you devoting part of your evening to join us here in the briefing room. And with -- as we wrapped up with questions, I’d like to turn it back over to you, sir, for any closing comments that you may have. Over to you, sir. 

            GEN. EVANS: I think I’d just like to say one thing, if I may, and that’s really, the soldiers, sailors, Marines and air men and air women are doing a sterling job out here in Afghanistan. And I know you’ll be well aware of that. But we now make sure we remain steadfast and also that we would have the resolve to make sure we see this mission through and also support the Afghan people. 

            Now thank you very much for this evening. It’s the first time I’ve done one of these Pentagon press corps, but it was interesting and also enjoyable. So thank you all  for giving me the chance to put our message across. Good evening. 

            CAPT. CAMPBELL: Good evening, sir. Thank you.

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