CAPTAIN JOHN KIRBY (spokesman, OSD Public Affairs): Well, good morning, everyone. Captain John Kirby here at OSD Public Affairs. And good evening to you, sir, as well. I'd like to welcome back to our briefing room Major General Michael Krause of the Australian Army. He is the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command deputy chief of staff. And this is General Krause's second tour in Afghanistan. He assumed his current duties in February of this year. The general serves with the IJC commander, Lieutenant General Scaparrotti, as his senior plans officers. General Krause regularly travels throughout Afghanistan to gather a full picture of ISAF's coalition and partnered efforts.
The general last briefed us in June of this year, and he joins us again today from his headquarters in Kabul. He will make a few opening comments, and then we'll be turning it right over to you for your questions. With that, General, sir, I'll turn it to you.
MAJOR GENERAL MICHAEL KRAUSE: Well, John, thank you very much for that introduction. Good morning, everyone. It is good to be beaming back into the Pentagon. As John said, I spoke to you last on the first of June, and I thought it might be useful tonight, as General Scap's (Lieut. Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti) chief planner, to give you a quick analysis of how I see things have changed since then, to look ahead at what we expect over the winter and, indeed, into next year.
As John said, I'm Scap's chief planner. I've been here for about eight months now, and so I've got a pretty good idea of what's going on and an idea of our future plans. And I'm happy to share your insights -- or my insights into those tonight and then take your questions.
Now, the way I've seen this year is I've seen it as a bit of a contest or a struggle, if you like, for the key population areas here in Afghanistan, especially Kabul, Kandahar, Central Helmand River Valley, and I'd probably also include in the north and west Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and the Kunduz-Baghlan corridor.
You'd remember that last winter, we secured all of those areas, and we said that it would be our intention this year to retain them with our emphasis in the south, that is, we would ensure that the insurgent did not reoccupy these areas nor push the Afghan security forces out.
The insurgents, particularly the Afghan Taliban, for their part said that they would do just that, that is, they would retake those cities. Now you may remember their offensive -- I think it was called Al-Badr -- where they claimed that they were on the offensive. Well, I think it's timely to take stock. Now let's compare what we said to what they said and what actually happened.
We still hold all of those population centers, and we've done so since we secured them. The Taliban has not been successful, and his offensive has failed. He has not retaken a single objective that he said he would. In some of the most contested areas, such as in central Helmand, the improvement in security is really quite remarkable. And the insurgent-initiated attacks are down 80 percent. So we can see that he has failed.
And importantly, he also knows he's failed. How do I know that? Well, we intercepted a very, very welcome transmission from the inner shura not so long ago that admitted that Al-Badr had failed. In fact, the translation used the phrase: utterly failed.
Now this is pretty significant, as we've seen the insurgency cede the initiative to us. We know this because enemy-initiated attacks are down in every region now except for Regional Command – East.
Now, every year since 2006 the violent trends have gone the other way, that is, they've got worse. Every year there have been more violent activities in Afghanistan since the previous year except this one. Over the last two months the violence trends in Afghanistan have reduced compared with last year according to not only our statistics, but also the latest U.N. report. Our statistics show that enemy-initiated attacks have been lower in 2011 in 17 of the last 22 weeks.
Now, that's a trend. And although we still face tremendous challenges and we always must remain realistic about our objectives and goals, that's a very, very welcome trend and the first year that we've seen that trend. So when you accept that we still hold all the population centers we started the year with and there's been an appreciable and sustained downturn in the level of enemy-initiated attacks, I assess that we have the initiative, that we have the momentum.
Now, there has been a couple of days when there have been spectacular attacks in the middle of those population centers that have gained wide media coverage. But as an operational planner, I need to look in terms of weeks and months and, indeed, years. And this year so far has been a good year from a security point of view, allowing better governance and better development to take root.
Now, it's already starting to get cold here in Afghanistan, at least by Australian standards. And we've had the first dusting of snow in the Hindu Kush. The number of violent incidents has dropped sharply in the last few weeks, and it could be that the insurgent fighting season is coming to a close. Now, we don't have fighting seasons. We fight all year round. And over this winter we will remain on the offensive and drive home our initiative. We will continue to retain what we've fought so hard to hold, and we'll expand in some places.
Importantly, we will use this period to increasingly see the Afghan security forces in the lead in more of Afghanistan as they continue to develop their capabilities. This is not just about their numbers, although they're now at 305,000. But we're also seeing now increased capability and competence, and with that comes growing confidence. Our intent is that if there is the traditional cyclic pattern, a return of the insurgency next year, that they will face not the coalition, but the Afghan security force in the lead, who will be able to demonstrate their ability to retain key centers and expand their influence. This, coupled with expanded ALP and other police throughout the country and continued aggressive offensive operations on the approaches to key centers should see Afghans in a great position to demonstrate their ability.
So while there's still much to do, I look back with some satisfaction at what has been achieved in a relatively short time. The transition process in the first areas has gone very well, and 20 percent of the population are now secured and governed by Afghans, with us in a supporting rule. The Afghan president, we expect, will announce other areas later this year that may take the total of the population under Afghan security lead to approximately 50 percent by early next year. We're also seeing a steady increase in the numbers willing to reintegrate back into society. In all 34 provinces, we now have provincial peace committees, and nearly 2,400 former fighters have entered the program, and 3,000 are waiting to do so.
Now, I expect that there'll be tough days ahead, and I don't think we can be complacent, nor are we complacent, or think that we're near the end. This was never going to be easy, and I expect that there will be setbacks and some bad days ahead. That's the nature of what we do. We are up against a ruthless and cruel adversary. He uses everything he can to try and stay relevant, whether it be the deliberate, indiscriminate killing of civilians or the indiscriminate use of roadside bombs that kill Afghans who are just trying to go about their daily business or the coerced use of children as suicide bombers or even the assassination of Afghan officials who step forward to help their communities.
But despite this, the trends are positive. I work on a daily basis with the Afghans in -- and their planners. And as John said, I have the opportunity to get out and see the country. And I'm sensing that the Afghan people sense that they have the initiative. They do have confidence in the future. Now they are born skeptics. They've been let down before. But their children are going to school. They are healthier, and they have a brighter future.
And this is the least that anyone should expect, and we should be proud, and I'm certainly proud of what we've achieved so far. Security, stability, prosperity and indeed opportunity are the rights of every Afghan. Every Afghan has the right to live in peace, and that is certainly what we're doing here at IJC. That's certainly what we're doing at ISAF. We're doing our part to ensure that the Afghan people can look forward to a brighter future and that we will prevail.
Now that's my opening statement. I'd be delighted to take any questions that you have. Please note that I have about a five-second delay over the audio.
CAPT. KIRBY: Thank you, General. We'll start opening up here, and they'll identify who they are before they ask the question.
Q: General, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. When you talk about the violence levels being down as a trend, how do they compare with previous years? I mean, are these lower levels comparable to the high levels of one year ago or two years ago?
And when you talk about the U.N. report, there's been discrepancy -- I know you mentioned that there's been some correlation in the downward trend with their numbers as well, but the overall report indicated that there was an upward trend. How do you distinguish between the two?
GEN. KRAUSE: Well, let me answer the second question first, if I may. The U.N. report did say that there'd been overall increase, but it also admitted that there has been the decrease over the last two months, which is consistent with what we said.
They're also, to a certain extent, comparing apples with oranges. So they're tracking security incidents rather than violence. So, for example, they would include demonstrations, or they include intimidation in their figures. So there is to a certain extent apples and oranges there.
Going back to your previous comment, we are comparing year-to-year violent statistics. And there was an increase from every year, except this one. We've seen now a 27 percent decrease over this year, compared to last. That's the first year we've seen that downward trend, and it is a very, very welcome outcome.
Q: Hi. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. I have two questions. As long as we're talking about U.N. reports, there's one out today that says that poppy fields or the land that is poppy in Afghanistan is up by about 7 percent this year from last year and that there are some estimates it could mean as much as $700 million in revenue for insurgents in Afghanistan. What are you doing to combat that? Does there need to be a renewed emphasis again on breaking down these poppy fields? And can you talk a little bit about what the planning is for the future to stop this?
GEN. KRAUSE: Yeah, sure, Courtney. Thank you very much for that question.
And I have just scanned that report. As you said, it came out today.
We're not surprised to see an increase since last year. You remember last year there was the poppy blight, and we're seeing that there is about a 7 percent overall -- but what you're also perhaps not seeing is a change of tactics that we've used this year. The poppy, at the end of the day, is a flower until it's cultivated and turned into drugs. So what we've gone after this year are those -- are the drug labs, are the people who are actually taking the poppy and turning them into opium or into other products.
And so far this year we've been incredibly successful. Indeed, there were two hits the other day in Delaram which is the province just to the north of Helmand, where in two hits we took out three-quarters of a billion dollars' worth of heroin, which is an extraordinary achievement. And I hope you don't mind me noting that that was done by Australian special forces.
CAPT. KIRBY: One more for -- one more for Courtney here.
Q: General, if I can I ask you one other thing from your opening statement? You mentioned that the areas that you secured last year, there was an emphasis on the south, and that this winter you'll continue to expand in some places. Where exactly are you going to expand? I know we've all been hearing about additional operations in the east, but are you -- are you considering at this point moving into some of the regions that you haven't been in as much, some of the provinces that there haven't been as many coalition forces as Taliban and insurgents have pushed into those areas as you -- as you've cleared them out of the south and the east?
GEN. KRAUSE: Well, Courtney, I'll assume you're not a Taliban spy, but you'll understand that I would be loath to give away the exact plan over the winter period. But we will see certainly some expansion in the northern areas of the southwest, and the Marines are doing a brilliant job down there.
We are also expanding some of the areas in the east. And certainly by the spring period in the east we expect to have secured some of our last major objectives in the east; particularly the Ring Road through the Ghazni province. So that will mean that we've secured all of the key population centers, we'll have secured all of the key communication routes within the country. And it's our intention then next year to demonstrate the Afghans' ability to actually take over the lead from us.
And I think that will have a really, really important effect. Although we're committed to support the Afghans for many years to come, the fact of the matter is that until the Afghans are able to demonstrate, anything we do can only be of a temporary nature. Once the Afghans are in the lead, that will have an enduring effect. You can't out-wait, or wait out the Afghan security force.
Q: Sir, Richard Sisk, TheWarReport online. Sir, you mentioned that the trends look good, except possibly for RC – East. What can be done about that, sir? Are the plans still in the -- still in the offing to have the Marines transferred out of Helmand, some of the Marines transferred out of Helmand, moved up there? Or is that -- is that not feasible anymore?
GEN. KRAUSE: Richard, I had the honor of serving two years at Quantico, and I know that the Marines are always looking for an additional fight. I think the Marines are doing magnificent down in the southwest. And it is our intention to actually seek a decision in the south. And from where we are at the moment, we think that's quite possible.
As I said to you in my opening remarks, we've been delighted with the success we've had in the south. The Afghan Taliban has been unable to take any of the objectives he tried to do, and has taken actually significant casualties in trying to take those. So we're fairly confident where we are in the south, and we think it's reasonable to expect the Afghan security force to take over the south during the course of next year.
Now, we will then switch our focus to the east, and we will certainly be fighting in the east for some time to come. It's pretty tricky terrain over there. We come up against the Haqqani Network in the east, who are a reasonably ordinary bunch of criminals who employ terrorist tactics. But we are taking them on, and we're certainly taking on their leadership.
Q: Could I follow up, please, sir? Is there -- are there plans to increase the number of coalition troops in the east as it stands now?
GEN. KRAUSE: Look, we'll have a look at that, Richard. I think the better way to put it, you'd be aware that we have a drawdown upon us, we have the surge recovery. And it may simply be that we draw the east down last, so that will effectively mean that we have the extra forces in the east. But I don't think we'll be able to free up appreciable troops to move to the east. We may simply draw down the south, and that may be part of our surge recovery.
CAPT. KIRBY: Luis?
Q: General, it's Luis Martinez again. As part of -- going back to the Marines, as part of the surge drawdown in the south, is there consideration being given to having the Marines in RC – Southwest expand their authority into Kandahar, and that way -- that would be part of the drawdown?
GEN. KRAUSE: We're looking at all options for the south and southwest. It's probable that we will merge the two RCs. We'll certainly pay continued attention to 215 Corps, which is the Afghan corps in RC – Southwest, and 205 Corps, that's in the south. But in terms of expanding the Marines, while we'll look at all options, I'd hate to -- I'd hate to flag our plans in great detail at this stage.
Q: I have a follow-up on the poppy report. Last week we had a briefing with the Marine general from down at Helmand, General Toolan, and his PRT companion, or colleague, told us that there had been a 40 percent reduction in the poppy crop in Helmand. Does that mean we're playing poppy whack-a-mole, if you will; that if the crop down in Helmand has gone down that significantly, is it increasing elsewhere?
GEN. KRAUSE: The first thing is that what's really pleasing down in Helmand is that as we've changed the environment down there, as we've cleared out the insurgents, as governance has come back, and above all, now that the roads are far more secure and indeed paved in many areas, we're starting to see farmers plant wheat rather than poppy, because they've got a much greater chance of getting their crop to market than perhaps they did previously. That is a really, really positive sign. And it's not only growing wheat rather than poppy, but it's a key indicator to us that the locals are having confidence in us and planting the wheat instead of poppy.
In terms of it going elsewhere, look, we track reasonably closely where it goes. It is still a very, very important source of revenue for the insurgency. We've really taken it down a great deal, as I said previously, perhaps stopped looking as much at the amount of poppy grown and see what happens to it. That means that the farmers are still getting paid and then we're taking out the drug manufacturers and the drug movers, the real criminals in this game.
So while those -- they are a disappointing set of figures, certainly the 7 percent one is because of the poppy blight last year, as I mentioned, and that 61 percent of possible increase is a projected figure. And I hope I've put your mind at ease that it is most unlikely, from where we are, that it would reach that, because we are actually attacking the system or the network after the poppy is harvested.
Q: Hi, General. It's Courtney Kube from NBC News again. Thank you for assuming I'm not a Taliban spy, by the way. Please pass it along to your colleagues there.
Can I ask you a little bit more about the east? You said that the coalition will be fighting there for some time to come but that as the surge draws down, you're going to likely be drawing forces out of the south but not necessarily adding more to the east. I know men in uniform love to give their opinions on things because it generally works well for your career, but in your opinion, would it be more effective to be able to keep the surge troops there longer, move them up into the east and cut down on the time that you would need to clear out the east, to clear out the Haqqani Network in that difficult terrain?
GEN. KRAUSE: Well, it's a simple question of math. And we have our orders. We will draw down to 68,000 U.S. troops by October next year.
But what I would say is that that surge recovery -- firstly, it's not a surprise. We're expecting it. The president of the United States told us that the surge was always temporary. We have had the effect in the south, we've had an appreciable effect in the south, and I think it is reasonable to expect that we can draw down troops from there.
In terms of the balance of troops that we have remaining in the east, and we project forward that we will have in the east, we're fairly comfortable with the numbers that we have. Look, we would always like more, but that's what military always asks for, and we always expect to be disappointed. So we'll work with what we've got.
From where I'm sitting as the chief planner, I work with east very closely, Dan Allyn out there in command of the magnificent 1st Cavalry Division, and we're working very, very closely. And from where we are with the operational lay-down that we have, the operational sequencing that we have, we're fairly comfortable. What we are looking at though is moving more of the Afghan security force to the border, whether it be temporary deployment of some of their mobile troops, their National Civil Order Police or their commandos or, indeed, potentially having a rotation system of their kandaks, of their battalions that are in the north and west to move to the border. We're also working very closely with the Afghan Border Police to make sure that they have a closer relationship with the Afghan National Army. So we're putting in a lot of thought to this. We've got some, I think, pretty robust plans. Ultimately, by 2014 it is the Afghans who have to be able to show that with our support, they can secure their border and the approaches to the key cities.
CAPT. KIRBY: Yes, ma’am.
Q: Sir, it's Joan Soley with the BBC. I was wondering, speaking of U.N. reports, the latest that I was looking at yesterday regarding systematic torture, as they phrased it, in Afghan detention facilities, how do normal Afghans view the security forces in your experience? In your opinion, is this going to help or hurt the relationship going forward? As you all say repeatedly, Afghanistan, the drawdown depends on leaving capable and confident Afghan security forces in place.
GEN. KRAUSE: Well, the first thing is, I think the use of the word "systematic" is a very unfortunate word. That suggests that there is a system, that there is top-down suggestions or, indeed, a top-down direction for this to happen. And indeed, the report says that that isn't the case. So we consider that these are -- these are isolated incidents, although any incident is unacceptable.
In terms of the feelings of the Afghans towards their local police, to their army and indeed to the Taliban, we run some fairly extensive surveys here. I think I saw the figure the other day was 16,000 people have polled across the country; it's something like that. And what's been -- what's been pleasing lately is that we're seeing a growing confidence in the army -- I mean, that's always been there -- but also now a growing confidence in the police -- in some areas, the police actually rate higher than the army, which again is important -- but also a growing distrust of the Taliban and a growing rejection of the Taliban. So when you see that increased confidence in their security force coupled with a decreased belief in the Taliban, now they're statistics that I take notice of, and they give me some confidence that we're trending in the right direction.
CAPT. KIRBY: Sir -- one more question, and it will be the last one.
Q: Sir, Richard Sisk again. Where does it stand as far as draw downs from the other members of the coalition? Are others planning to reduce their forces? What's the situation with your own government, with the Australian forces?
GEN. KRAUSE: Well, that one actually I do know, Richard. Our prime minister, Prime Minister Gillard, has committed us to staying at the same troop levels right out to 2014, and has -- and indeed has recognized and accepted that we will have a role to play beyond 2014. So I'm, as an Australian, quite proud of that.
As far as the other contributing nations, we do track them. Some of the announcements are public. Some are not. And so I'd prefer not to try and remember them, because I'd invariably get it wrong.
CAPT. KIRBY: OK. This will be the last question. One more.
Q: Speaking of being Australian, are you ready for the shellacking the All Blacks are going to give you this weekend?
GEN. KRAUSE: I think that's an outrageous and hurtful comment, and what I have great faith in is the fact that the All Blacks have always choked in the quarter finals and have never beaten Australia in the quarter finals.
Could I say well done to the American Eagles for scoring 5 points against Australia. You should be very proud of that.
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, sir, on that note, I think I'm just going to turn it over to you for any last comments you might have, and then we sure do appreciate your time.
GEN. KRAUSE: Hey, look, thanks. I've actually enjoyed that. I didn't think I would, but I did.
And look, thanks for your continuing interest in the country. This is tough. We've always said it was going to be tough. But I think, you know, I am seeing progress. I look at it every day. And you know, the constant drumbeat of pessimistic reports about this country, quite frankly, I don't think, firstly, do justice to the Afghans, and they certainly don't do justice to the Afghan security forces. And while it is true we've had soldiers here and of course Marines for 10 years, really we've only had the resource needed to do the job really for about 18 months, perhaps only 12 months, when you consider the surge.
And so I'd ask you to judge us on that. Certainly from where I'm sitting, as the chief plans officer, we certainly got a lot of plans ahead. It is it going to be critical over the winter and spring to see the Afghan security forces stand up.
But as an anecdote, I worked this morning with their chief planners. We were planning ahead, and indeed all the planning is being done in Dari and then translated back into English. Now that may not seem important, but it's actually a real indicator to me that they are taking ownership, they're ready to step forward, and they're ready to defend their own country. And from my point of view, that's great to see.
CAPT. KIRBY: Thank you very much, General. We appreciate your time and know how busy you are. And thanks again for making time to speak to us here in Washington.
GEN. KRAUSE: All right. Thanks, mate. I'll tune in again in three months' time.
CAPT. KIRBY: Fair enough, sir. We'll be waiting for you.