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DOD News Briefing with Brig. Gen. Jacobson via Teleconference from Afghanistan

Presenters: Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, German Army, ISAF Spokesman
February 22, 2012

[NOTE: this is the second part of a two-part Defense Press Briefing that included Maj. Gen. David Hook, Royal Marines, Director of the ISAF Force Reintegration Cell (FRIC), and Brig. Gen Carsten Jacobson, German Army, ISAF Spokesman.]

            CAPT CAMPBELL:  Our second briefer this morning is the ISAF spokesman, Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson of the German army.  We've asked him to join us this morning to provide an operational update of the situation in Afghanistan.  We believed that that was an important topic for you beyond the topic that General Hook just discussed with us.  He'll obviously make introductory remarks with that update, and then we'll turn it over to questions for you.   

            So we will -- we will take this sort of pregnant pause until we see General Jacobson come up on the screen, and then I will just do a very brief introduction of him as we -- as we continue.    

            And I think for -- for most of you, if you haven't gotten a note, based on us being able to schedule this, we have canceled this morning's gaggle.  So we will -- this will be your news event for the day.  (Laughter.)  So -- 

            Q:  Thank you. 

            CAPT CAMPBELL:  So thank you. 

            Good evening, General Jacobson.  I've just briefed the Pentagon press corps of our next step as a part of this briefing.  As I said, General Jacobson is a German army general.  Prior to this assignment, he was the chief of staff of the German army forces command.  He has served in his current capacity as the ISAF spokesman since June of 2011.  This is his first time joining us here in the Pentagon briefing room, but hopefully it won't be the last.   

            So, General Jacobson, we are grateful that on very short notice, you were able to join us, and also thanks to the folks there on the other end that made the seat swap from General Hook to you so graceful and effective.  But we will note for you that they did turn off the camera on this end, so we didn't see any of it.   

            So, General Jacobson, over to you, sir. 

            BRIGADIER GENERAL CARSTEN JACOBSON:  (Chuckles.)  Well, good morning to Washington, just on the brink of cherry blossom -- and it's good to be back because I was with you from 2001 to 2005 as the military attaché in Washington.  Can you hear me loud and clear? 

            CAPT CAMPBELL:  Yes sir, loud and clear. 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  I think we lost voice.   

            OK.  Well, good morning from Kabul.  As you already know, we had an unfortunate incident early yesterday at Bagram Air Base, where ISAF personnel improperly disposed of some religious materials, which we believe included Qurans.  As soon as we learned of this mistake, we stopped this action, and General Allen quickly initiated an investigation to discover how and why this happened. 

            This incident was completely unintentional.  Material was inadvertently given to troops for burning.  The decision to burn this material had nothing to do with it being religious in nature or related to Islam.  It was a mistake.  It was an error. 

            Today an Afghan delegation joined the investigation at Bagram, as we want to be as transparent as possible in determining how this incident occurred.  We have deeply -- we're deeply concerned about the possibility that Qurans or religious materials were damaged in this incident, and we will get to the bottom of what actually happened. 

            ISAF has complete respect for Islam and the reverence in which the Quran is held.  We are very serious about making certain that it -- that if someone failed to follow our rules, they will be held accountable. 

            Last night General Allen issued a new directive that all coalition forces in Afghanistan will complete training in the proper handling of religious material no later than the 3rd of March.  The training will include the identification of religious materials, their significance, correct handling and storage. 

            General Allen and ISAF, again, give sincere apologies for any offense that this may have caused to the president of Afghanistan, the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and, most importantly, to the noble people of Afghanistan. 

            And with that, I will now be ready for a few questions. 

            Q:  General, it's Justin Fishel from Fox News.  You said the disposal had nothing to do with religion or Islam, yet we were told that these books were taken out because they were extremist in nature. 

            So I'm trying to understand how that -- how that -- they had no relation to Islam or religion. 

            And then, secondly, can you tell me if the detainees who were apparently passing messages to each other were actually writing in the Qurans themselves?  Were they writing on those books?  Is that why the Qurans specifically were set for disposal? 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  Well, I will start with the second part first. We haven't got any proof of that yet, and that is a vital part of the investigation that is ongoing.  And we want to make sure that this is as open as possible.  That's why the material was handed to Islam -- Islamic authorities straightaway after the incident occurred, and why an Afghan delegation was taking part in the investigation that we had this afternoon. 

            That is one of the questions that had to be answered, which basically comes down to:  Why was this material selected?  Why was it selected to be destroyed, then given to soldiers who actually brought it to the burn pit of the Parwan detention facility?  There it was brought to being burned, to be incinerated, and the local workers at the facility discovered what type of material it was.  It was just material that was driven from the soldiers' point for destruction. The workers immediately interfered; pulled material out, pulled material out that was partly charred.  And we have seen Qurans that were partly charred. 

            It is a very vital part of the investigation that we find out: What was the material?  What was the reason for the decision to dispose of it?  Who gave the orders?  What was the chain?  How did the material then go to the burn pit, and what actually happened at the burn pit?  That is the investigation, and on that we will come out very shortly. 

            Q:  Just one quick follow:  Was the entire library thrown out or just some selected materials? 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  Well, it was a considerable amount of material. I cannot say before I see the result of the investigation if it was an entire packet that was coming from one place or how it was collected. The material that was at the pit at the time was secured straight away, partly by the workers who were there and partly it was then very quickly looked after by Islamic authorities at the location.   

            It is part of the investigation to actually look into where did the material come from:  one location, more locations?  What was the reason for the decision?  Was it used for any other purposes?  What type of material was it?   

            The thing that's moved us obviously more than anything is that Qurans were amongst the material.  Qurans were also charred in the fire.  So this is what has led to the unrest that we have seen over the last 48 hours. 

            CAPT CAMPBELL:  David. 

            Q:  David Martin with CBS.  I'm not sure I understand what part of this was inadvertent.  Was it inadvertent that these religious materials were taking -- taken out of the prison or was that a deliberate decision?  Was it -- or was it just inadvertent that they were given to the troops for disposal or was it inadvertent that the troops then took them -- took them to the burn pit? 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  Well, the mistake that I'm talking about -- and it is a great mistake, and we're obviously all aware about the grave implications that this mistake has, in particular, when it comes to mishandling Qurans -- was made somewhere down the line, and that is what has to be found out in the investigation:  who basically failed to discover the quality of this material, who basically told soldiers to take it and to dispose of it in an improper way.  It is part of the orders that left the headquarters yesterday, signed by General Allen, in how to handle and how to store Islamic material, to increase the awareness, to know what is inside a library, what is inside a facility, what is the type of the material, to lead to the correct decision and to not take this -- these decisions unanimously but to always ask for cultural advice when it comes to questions like this. 

            Somewhere down this line lies the mistake.  The mistake was made. The mistake led to General Allen immediately coming forward yesterday morning and apologizing in the way that I said in my initial statement.  And we basically have to wait for the results of the investigation on where, what went wrong. 

            Q:  Those orders that you're referring to were issued yesterday. What were, at the time of the incident, the standing order for the handling of religious material? 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  Well, when it comes to the dealing with religious material, we have the normal procedures that all nations of the coalition are doing in their pre-deployment training and once on deployment. 

            We have, of course, for all nations, all 50 nations that form ISAF, regulations that very clearly deal with pre-deployment training and cultural awareness.  And let us not forget that six of our 50 nations are actually Muslim nations.  And when it comes to the city of Kabul, where we had unrest today, actually Turkey is quite in a vital part of responsibility for the city. 

            So there is a number of safety guards.  There are cultural advisers on all levels and at all installations, which, of course, in situations like this, have to be asked. 

            Something, as I said, went wrong.  Some of the security brakes didn't work.  And somewhere a decision was made that was highly unappropriate and that brought us into a situation which is very delicate.  And what we have to do in the coming hours is trying to calm the situation, closely together with the government of Afghanistan, put a lid on violence that we have seen today in demonstrations, because we are very, very well aware on how culturally sensitive this action has been. 

            Q:  General Jacobson, this is Viola Gienger from Bloomberg News. Can you tell us a little bit more about the investigation?  How many Afghans are involved?  And are they from a police unit or from an army unit or other government agency?  And how many coalition forces are involved in that?  And have you been given any advice by the Afghan authorities on what the coalition needs to do to try to alleviate the concerns that are inflaming the violence as a result of this? 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  We have, obviously, been in close contact with a number of ministries, reaching from the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs to the security ministries:  the MOD, the National Department of Security, and the Ministry of the Interior.  And it is basically, in the core, the Ministry of the Interior that formed the Afghan part of the delegation that looked into the case in Parwan today.  There were other advisers there.  It was a mixed delegation.  I cannot at the moment give you the exact number of the members that were in this delegation. 

            We are expecting them back in the hours of this evening, and we expect to come out with a statement as soon as we are aware of the material that was found, the documentation that was done and actually what the findings were.  This will take the coming hours, and we hope that, at the latest, by early tomorrow morning we will come out with a very clear statement on what we see has happened on the ground. 

            Q:  Thank you.  General, I wonder if you could elaborate just a little bit more on the nature of the cultural and religious sensitivity training that the troops receive both before deployment and after deployment.  And how will that differ from what General Allen has ordered? 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  Well, General Allen's order of yesterday deals specifically with the consequences that have to be drawn out of this incident.  And that is that somewhere in the chain of command, or right down to the personnel who have given the order to dispose of this material, somebody did not recognize the importance and the nature of the material which right from the beginning should have led to the involvement of cultural advisers. 

            And as I say, we have cultural advisers and translators -- Afghans -- on every level, and we have Afghan workers with us on every level. 

            The training of forces before their deployment and their training on deployment are regulated by the troop contributing nations, but they all involve standards of cultural awareness.  And as I said, we have a considerable number of Muslim members in the coalition, and we are working together on a daily basis with Afghans -- 130,000 soldiers of the coalition with 300,000 Afghan national security forces -- who are going out sometimes in the most extreme situations and conditions. 

            In general, we are quite confident that the measures that we are taking pre-deployment and on deployment are sufficient.  In this case, we have seen a mistake; in this case, we have seen misjudgment; in this case, we have seen what should have happened, what should have been guided, where guidance should have been asked for, not happening, and that led to this tragic mistake.  By touching the Quran -- obviously, a mistake that has considerable consequences; in particular, here in Afghanistan.  And we've seen that in the demonstration over the last -- in the demonstrations over the last 48 hours. 

            Q:  General, this is Joe Tabet with Al-Hurra.  Do you know if those religious material had extremist content and that's -- that was the reason to remove them from the library and to burn them? 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  Well, we've heard about this reporting, obviously, and that is one of the -- one of the contents of the investigation that was ordered.  

            As I said, we have to find out what led to the decision, what was the chain that then followed, who said what -- this has to be all destroyed or whatever -- that led to the transport of the material to the burn pit.   

            But we also have to look into the reason for the decision, and that will include looking at the material that was secured.  And in that respect, like in every other respect, it is good that the majority of the material has been secured.  What was actually the reason for this?  Was it leaflets, was it including leaflets that held inflammatory material?  Was it pamphlets?  And how did Qurans come into this amount of material that was then taken to the burn pit?   

            So these are the questions that we have to answer.  These are the questions that the investigation team took with them to Parwan this morning, and this is what we are looking for to comment on as soon as we got the answers available. 

            Q:  Sir, a quick follow-up.  Do you know the number of the materials that have been burned? 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  Well, again, that is something that we can only find out when we hear the report from Parwan.  The important thing is that we do know and we do see that Qurans were at least charred, so we do see not only improper treatment of Qurans but we also see that they were amongst the material that was delivered for burning.  We have to look at how much was in the fire.  

            We have to talk to the local workers who actually intervened, interfered, took the material out.  I have seen the reports today that a worker was coming forward saying that he actually burned his hands by pulling material out and saving it.  That is part of the questions.  

            It was an amount that was delivered as normal material for destruction by soldiers who had been given the orders.  And somewhere down the chain, as I said earlier on, somebody did not realize how delicate and how sensitive and how important this material was, and how much it needed to be at least in conversation with cultural advisers to talk -- what to do with what and how to dispose of what and what procedures would be or would have to be.   

            A mistake was made because a mistake was made.  Because of the gravity of the mistake, General Allen came forward so quickly yesterday and immediately took the action that led to the orders that were passed out yesterday. 

            Q:  Hey, General, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News.  I understand everything is under investigation and you're still trying to figure everything out, but many of us here yesterday were told that the Qurans had already been desecrated, that prisoners were writing in them.  

            Just very simply, yes or no, is that your understanding, that some of these Qurans may have been written in by prisoners; they were used as a conduit to send messages between one or -- one another?  I know it's under investigation, but is your understanding that that was one of the reasons they may have been set for destruction? 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  I cannot give you a yes or no on this question because I do have to see what the result of the investigation is. 

            That is exactly why the investigation went up.  That is exactly why the material was secured on the spot under observation of Islamic authorities, and that is exactly why we did the process that we did today, together with the Afghan side, to stop any speculations that might lead to the wrong conclusions.   

            If I could give you a yes or no, it would make things a little easier for us.  It would not change the situation on the streets.  And we have to be very careful in what we do, what we say, what we look at.  This is a very sensitive subject and we have to be exactly clear on what was found, what was the reason for decisions that were taken, and it has to be done together with the Afghans.  So a yes or no at this present moment is not possible. 

            Q:  OK.  Well, as far as the situation on the street, can you tell us just simply what it is that you're seeing there, wow many Afghans have been injured or killed in the protests today, and in what areas you're seeing the most outrage in the country? 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  Well, let me quickly summarize the events of the last hours, as most of us have watched also on television. 

            What we've seen yesterday was an immediate demonstration, mainly outside the Parwan Detention Facility.  The numbers were four-digit -- around about 2,000 demonstrators.  There were attempts to enter the facility.  There were some fires.  Generally, overall, not a very violent demonstration. But when it came to the near-penetration of parts of the facility, we have seen the helicopters' over-flights, the flares that came from the helicopters, and we have seen the use of rubber bullets yesterday. 

            All demonstrations ended and dispersed yesterday evening.  There was also small demonstrations in Kabul. 

            Today we have seen a small demonstration outside the Parwan detention facility, largely peaceful.  We have seen approximately four demonstrations of size in Kabul, all between 200 and 500 demonstrators, mainly at facilities that are used by foreigners -- by ISAF, but also by contractors and other foreigners, accommodation, mainly in the east of Kabul. 

            Outside these facilities, we have seen acts of violence, we have seen burning tires, we have seen stones thrown at vehicles, stones thrown at the installations, and we have seen shots fired at some of the installations.  ISAF in general has seen no direct violence against it.  We haven't seen any serious casualties on the ISAF side. But we are aware that we have fatalities, not only in Kabul but also in overall Afghanistan, mainly to the east and to the north of Kabul, in similar demonstrations. 

            Locally, local demonstrations, demonstrations in numbers in the hundreds, but in part today we have seen acts of violence in various areas.  And unfortunately, we have seen casualties.  As we are very well aware of, the fact that the potential of this incident has, everything has to be done in close cooperation and is done in close cooperation with the security ministries, but also across the board with other instances of the Afghan government and the religious community in Afghanistan, to calm these demonstrations down, to publish as much of the truth as quickly as possible, to be as visible as possible, to stop this so that no more lives are lost over this incident. 

            Q:  Excuse me, General. Chris Carroll from Stars and Stripes. To step back to the issue of the burned Qurans themselves, who actually has possession of them right now?  And do investigators have full access?  And when do you think we could actually maybe see images that show whether the Qurans were, you know, previously written on by insurgents in custody? 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  Well, that will not happen before we got the result of the investigation.  As I said, I expect, with the report that is coming back this evening or during this night, video footage and photographic image which will probably give us the answer to the questions that -- to the question that you have just asked. 

            What we have seen mainly in the demonstrations yesterday was that there were Qurans who obviously were charred.  So therefore, this is some imagery that we have so far.  But what was inside and whether there was writing, whether there was any improper use of this material beforehand and that led to the decision, that has to be seen.  That has to be the result of the investigation.  And that is why it has been executed over this day in the way that I described. 

            Q:  Is -- I mean, is it -- is it clear where these Qurans actually are?  Are they kind of distributed among the crowd?  I mean, are they all in one central location?  Where are they? 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  What we have seen in the hands of those who were in the demonstration was probably taken out by the workers. 

            The incident came to public knowledge when the night shift that was involved in the period when the burning actually appeared left work and the day shift came in.  And they told them what they had seen, what had happened in the night, and that is when material left the facility.  Everything else, when the process was stopped, was handed over and overlooked by Islamic and Afghan authorities. 

            Where the entire material is in the moment, I cannot answer.  I would think that the majority will be still at the detention facility in Parwan, and that parts will come back with the investigation team to Kabul.  But I'm going into speculation, and I cannot tell you actually what is where at this very moment. 

            Q:  General, this is Joan Soley with the BBC.  I have two questions.  You spoke of acts of violence.  Is one that's been brought to your attention as related to the fallout from the Quran burnings a local Afghan reporter that's been beheaded?  I understand he works for a station that is funded by the U.S. government and/or military. Second question:  Has this incident, or these types of incidents, happened before?  Are you confident that they have, or have not? 

            GEN. HOOK:  Well, first, to the first question, there has been a lot of very inflammatory reports very quickly.  And unfortunately, yesterday we saw four beheadings by Taliban which had nothing to do with this incident, which had to do with four people who, what they called, were spies.  So the word "beheading" made it into the papers. 

            Definitely, there have been no reports of beheadings or any acts like that in the course of today.  And there have been no acts reported where ISAF was involved in lethal force, to my knowledge. 

            At the moment, what I am aware of -- that again, at the place of penetration, we have seen three rubber bullets fired up in -- up in Parwan Detention Facility, but no lethal force was used.  That is to -- that is to that point. 

            When it comes to, did this ever happen before, not to my knowledge have we ever seen a desecration of the Quran in a way that is similar to this incident.  And again, I can only repeat:  This desecration was basically unintentional.  It happened down the chain of command by misjudgment of the situation, by misjudgment of the material.  It was a mistake. 

            CAPT CAMPBELL:  General, I'm going to limit -- we've got two more questions on our end.  Despite a lot of questions on our end, I'm going to limit it to a -- to a number of two.  So let me -- we'll wrap up on our end. 

            Q:  This is Tejinder from the AHN and TV India.  You said, General, that these Qurans were probably taken out by the workers.  Doesn't it raise questions about the security of the facility, that -- how these were taken out, half-burned Qurans being taken out by the workers? 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  I would say to the contrary; local workers are operating the burning pit.  And it is a sign of the fact that it actually was a mistake, that this material was treated like normal material for disposal.  That was the mistake, that somebody down the line did not recognize the type of material that he was dealing with, the sensitivity that went along with it, perhaps not even knowing that Qurans were involved in this.  And this is -- this is what we have to find out in the investigation. 

            The fact that it was brought to the normal destruction facility, to the normal burn pit where paper is destroyed and where the Afghan workforce is working and the Afghan workforce is destroying this material and this paper, while those who bring it to the facilities are present, is just showing normal procedures.  This means that material that it's decided -- paper material that it's decided should be destroyed and dispersed is brought by personnel to this pit, and the Afghan workforce operates the facility, as there are Afghan workers in every facility that we're operating, from washeries, laundries, right across to assistant staff in our office.  We're working close together, shoulder by shoulder, every day.  And that comes back to the question of cultural understanding. 

            So I would not say there was a security breach here.  It shows, the more tragic, that basically the people who were handling this material were not aware of the sensitivity of what they were actually doing. 

            CAPT CAMPBELL:  Last question and answer. 

            Q:  General, Craig Whitlock with the Washington Post.  If I could ask more broadly what kind of strategic setback do you think this incident poses for ISAF's campaign?  You know, whether it's intentional or not, or unintentional, you know, it seems to confirm a lot of the Taliban propaganda about the motives of foreign forces, non-Islamic forces in Afghanistan.  Do you see this resonating for a long time to come? 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  Without going into speculation on long-term effects, we are obviously aware about the graveness of what has happened, about the graveness of this incident. 

            Desecrating the Quran, mistreating the Quran, is a grave incident in the Muslim world.  And as we are not only here to protect human rights, but also religious freedom, and obviously here to protect the people of Afghanistan and the way that they live and in -- what they believe in, this is a grave incident. 

            We have seen the implications, the understandable anger of people of Afghanistan about what they have seen and what they have heard. The important thing is now that we are all together -- together with Afghan authorities and together with the people of Afghanistan, treat this with the necessary care; explain to the people as much as possible that mistakes were made.  And as I said in my initial statement, if we do find that there are responsibilities down the line, yes, there will be legal consequences to this, and we have to look into this in detail. 

            It is important that we deal with this rightly in the coming hours.  What is important for ISAF, and what is important for Afghanistan -- government and people of Afghanistan -- is that violence does not flare; that this is not used to inflame the people of Afghanistan; that this is not used to drive a wedge between the people that we are working closely with on a very daily basis -- the Afghan national security forces side by side with us on operation, in very dangerous missions on a day-to-day basis, trainers who are training Afghan personnel in every aspect, not only in the security sector. 

            We are very close to each other, and therefore it is of the utmost important that we explain very, very clearly what happened; explain how sorry we are about what happened; explain that this was a mistake; explain what led to it and talk about the consequences. 

            CAPT CAMPBELL:  General Jacobson, we are extremely grateful that you took the time to spend with us here this evening.  We invite you to come here in person, would that opportunity present itself, so that you could come back to Washington, since I think you would like to come back and visit where you once served as the military attaché.   

            Again, thank you.  "Danke schoen."  "Tasha khur.”  And we thank you.  So thank you again, sir.  Have a good evening. 

            GEN. JACOBSON:  Next time under better circumstances.  Thank you. Thank you.

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