DOD News Briefing with George Little and Capt. Kirby via Teleconference from Afghanistan
(Note: Captain Kirby appears via satellite from Afghanistan.)
GEORGE LITTLE: Well, good morning. I'll open with a few remarks on Afghanistan, and I am pleased to be joined by my fellow spokesman via video link from Kabul.
Since we learned last week that ISAF forces mishandled Islamic religious materials, including the Holy Quran, political and military leaders, from the president to secretary of defense and the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan moved quickly and forcefully to express apologies for this incident. And both American and Afghan leaders have met with Muslim religious leaders over the past several days to enlist support in conveying that message.
Tragically, many in Afghanistan have been killed or wounded as a result of violence there. Extremists have killed four Americans, including two officers within the confines of the Afghan Interior Ministry. These are tough losses, and they demonstrate that we will experience challenges in the course of this campaign.
But let me be clear. First, Secretary Panetta and Chairman Dempsey are fully committed to our strategy in Afghanistan. They believe we have achieved significant progress in reversing the Taliban's momentum and in developing the Afghan security forces, and they believe that the fundamentals of our strategy remain sound.
Second, we will not let recent events allow us to lose sight of the progress we are making toward our broader objectives, including our core goal of defeating al-Qaida and its terrorist allies and denying it the ability to maintain a safe haven in Afghanistan.
Third, we are unwavering in our commitment to achieving the transition to Afghan security lead along the timeline agreed to at Lisbon.
Fourth, we join President Karzai and other senior Afghan leaders who have called for calm and an end to violent protests.
Fifth, we appreciate the steps President Karzai is taking to quell violence in the country, and we commend the hard work and sacrifice of the Afghan security forces who have suffered casualties attempting to quell the violence.
We respect the right of all Afghans to peaceful protest, but further bloodshed serves neither the coalition nor the Afghan people, who are themselves falling victim to violence.
Finally, our relationship with our Afghan partners remains strong. We continue to strengthen the mutual trust between ISAF and the government of Afghanistan as well as Afghan forces and civilians.
Every day our forces, together with our Afghan partners, face a brutal enemy. There are now about 330,000 Afghan security forces defending their own country, and they are partnering with ISAF forces in well over 90 percent of operations. Together, they fight in very difficult situations, building trust and mutual respect despite recent incidents.
We know that the spirit of American, coalition and Afghan forces will be tested throughout the campaign in Afghanistan. Anyone who believes they can weaken our resolve through these cowardly attacks is severely mistaken.
Let me repeat that: Anyone who believes they can weaken our resolve through these cowardly attacks is severely mistaken.
Our coalition will emerge from these challenges far stronger and as determined as ever to provide -- to provide security for the Afghan people. There is much at stake in Afghanistan, and our commitment to our mission and our strategy will not waiver.
With that, I'll be happy to take your questions unless Captain Kirby from Kabul has any further comments.
CAPTAIN JOHN KIRBY: No thanks, George. I thought you covered that very, very well. I'm ready for the questions.
MR. LITTLE: Okay, great.
Q: George, with respect to the -- General Allen's decision to remove all advisers from the ministries, what needs to happen -- what must happen before that changes, before they go back into that partnership? And more broadly, when you say that the fundamentals -- I think you said the fundamentals of a strategy remain sound. One of the fundamentals, of course, is the partnership and the trust that you referred to, which seems to have deteriorated to put it mildly. Is this business as usual? Is he just going to proceed with his strategy without any reconsideration?
MR. LITTLE: Look, when it comes to the particulars of ensuring that there's appropriate security for ISAF personnel and for ANSF, that's something that we constantly work on together. The fundamentals of our strategy do remain sound. We continue to fight alongside our Afghan and ISAF partners, and we -- the mission continues. We continue to fight the enemy, and we will do that.
We work alongside thousands of Afghans every single day to ensure a better future for the Afghan people, and nothing that has happened over the past week is going to deter us from that goal.
We're making progress. We have put the enemy on its heels in many parts of the country. Doesn't mean that there isn't work to be done -- there is -- but let's not let the events of the past week steer us away from the reality that we have made significant progress throughout the country.
On the first question, let me turn it over to John, who might have some updates from Kabul.
CAPT. KIRBY: Thanks, George.
General Allen has made it clear that the advisers will go back into the ministries when he's ready for them to go back, and he's not put a deadline or a timeline on that. And he is in discussions every day with the minister of the interior and the minister of defense about what we're doing to improve security in the ministries so that he can get to that decision point. But -- and I -- and I wouldn't really at this point want to go into any specifics on that because obviously, we -- you know, you want to preserve a little bit of your force protection measures. But suffice to say, he is not ready right now to have the advisers go back. But this is temporary.
And the other thing I'd say is -- and he made this very, very clear yesterday in meetings -- was he wants the work to go on. The advisers are still remaining in contact with their counterparts in the ministries via phone and email. So the contact is still there. The work is still continuing. It's just that they're not physically at the ministry buildings.
MR. LITTLE: Spencer.
Q: Have you taken -- has ISAF taken any additional measures about pausing or de-partnering any patrols or routine contact with ANSF personnel as a force protection measure? How can ISAF personnel be confident that in the wake of these protests, they aren't vulnerable to attack by the very people they're mentoring?
MR. LITTLE: John?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, look, Spence, great question.
But, I mean, as you know, when we've talked about green-on-blue incidents in the past, this is something we're all -- it's a challenge that we're dealing with all the time.
But I would tell you that -- and each of the regional commanders, the -- General Allen certainly urged them to be vigilant, but he also made it clear that operations must continue.
And I'll just tell you we just wrapped up -- RC South just wrapped up an operation today. It was a three- or four-day operation down there, partnered with RC Southwest. Over 900 Afghan national security force troops were a part of this -- operations, nearly half the number total of troops that participated. And it was a -- it was what they call a spoiling attack, a spoiling mission. They wanted to get ahead of any spring offensive by the enemy down south. And they did tremendous work together. It was -- it was a very successful mission: over 200 pounds of explosive -- homemade explosives captured, 53 pressure plates, 29 IEDs taken. They inspected over 5,000 vehicles along Highway 1 through two districts down there.
So I mean, that's just one example, but the work continues, as George said, throughout the country. Partnering continues. The growth and development, the training of Afghan national security forces -- that hasn't been impacted.
Clearly everybody's going to be a little more vigilant right now. That's the right thing to do. It's appropriate to do. But the mission itself continues.
MR. LITTLE: Justin?
Q: Hi, Captain Kirby. Please give us your best assessment of what's happening on the ground right now. How widespread are these protests? How often are they happening? How dangerous is the atmosphere? And what, if any, additional steps can you tell us about that you're doing to protect Americans in general, troops and civilians?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, Justin, right now all that's been done in Kabul is -- nothing has changed over the last couple of days. The advisers are not in the ministries. And movement here is restricted, especially anything outside the Green Zone.
And I'm not going to -- you know, obviously -- I mean, I'd be less than honest if I didn't say that things are tense here in Kabul. They certainly are. But I will tell you that it's getting calmer here. On Saturday we had 24 protests. A majority of them -- not a majority, but a great number of them were violent. Yesterday only nine protests, and they were not throughout the country. There was four in the north, four in the east, and only one out west. Today there was only three protests, and only two of those three were about the Quran issue. One was about land disputes. And none of the three were violent. So -- so things are calming down.
There has been a call by religious leaders, certainly by President Karzai and other government officials, for calm and peaceful protest, and we are starting to see the results of that effort to urge restraint.
MR. LITTLE: Craig?
Q: Captain Kirby, Craig Whitlock here. Could you give us a status update of the investigation into the -- as George put it the other day, the murders of the two U.S. officers in the Interior Ministry? Why hasn't the perpetrator been caught? And why haven't the Afghans even said publicly that this was an Afghan who carried this out?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, I wouldn't -- I'm not going to speak for what the Afghan ministries are saying or not saying or why. That's something that they should talk to.
Then -- this just happened, as you know, so the investigation is just now under way. The Afghans are also investigating it as well. We're working together with them on that. The killer fled, and there is an active search to find him. I'd be loath to go into any more detail than that.
But believe me, Craig, what happened the other day has everybody's attention here and sharp focus, and it's a real tragedy. And again, our hearts and our thoughts and prayers go out to the -- to the families of the two that were killed.
But to the larger point -- and then George said this very well -- as tragic as that was and a shock to the system here, certainly to ISAF personnel here in Kabul, everybody wants to continue the mission and get back to work. And that's what we're focused on.
MR. LITTLE: Kevin?
Q: Hi, George. So can you tell us where things stand now with reviewing the entire Afghan strategy? We heard in December from Dempsey that he had asked General Allen to do a review for the post- surge strategy. And then this morning, I think, if not the Post, the Times story said that, you know, White House, Pentagon, everybody was getting together this week to look things over -- and to NATO. Where does -- where does it -- where do we stand now? What's expected? When are we going to get the report from Allen, if that's what we're waiting for? And how does everything that's gone on this last week change any of that planning?
MR. LITTLE: Well, we're taking the long view, Kevin, on this. In terms of troop draw-downs between now and the end of 2014, no decisions have been made. We're still having those discussions inside the U.S. government. And of course, we'll consult with our ISAF partners.
The important thing, we believe, is to sustain the progress that we've made. And I think that, as I said, the fundamentals of the strategy remain sound.
We're not going to let the events of the past week, which are regrettable and unfortunate and tragic, influence the long horizon view that we're taking with respect to our partnership with Afghanistan and to our enduring work there.
Q: Can I just ask you the bottom line here, though -- to go back to Bob's original question, is in fact trust between the U.S. side and the Afghan side strained right now? And where is it strained? Can you trust them?
MR. LITTLE: John, feel free to comment on this as well. I'll offer my perspective.
When we learned of the incident last week involving sacred religious texts, including the Quran, we took immediate steps to apologize to the Afghan government. When our officers were killed over the weekend, Afghan officials apologized to the secretary and to others for this incident and pledged to take immediate steps to curtail violence in the country and to do what they can to protect ISAF personnel.
The measure of trust in a relationship like this -- and it is a very strong relationship, a strong partnership, with the government of Afghanistan -- is, when something like this happens, when we have tragic events, how quickly do we respond? We have taken responsibility for what we have done over the past week, the Afghans have taken responsibility as well, and I think that is a key measure of trust.
We're going to continue to work together. We're going to continue to work in ways that further the partnership. And I think that is the essential ingredient.
John, do you have anything to add?
CAPT. KIRBY: No, George, I think that's right.
I -- look, trust and confidence are the keys to coalition warfare. And there's -- there is going to be issues. There is going to be some tension. There's going to be disagreements. There's certainly -- and as we've seen throughout this, there's going to be these very dreadful, regrettable, lethal incidents.
But I can tell you that at the leadership level, everybody here is focused on maintaining that trust and confidence and continuing to work together. And it's been, you know daily contact between General Allen and his counterparts in the -- in the Afghan government.
Q: Do you believe that the Karzai government did enough to stop the violence in the initial days, number one? And number two, as we all sit here today, could Leon Panetta walk into the Ministry of Interior or the Ministry of Defense in Kabul and be safe, without extra protection? We understand he travels with protection. Can he walk into -- would he walk into either of those buildings right now?
MR. LITTLE: We believe that Afghan officials clearly understand the problem of violence throughout the country. And they have pledged to us that they do recognize that issue and are taking steps --
Q: Did they do --
MR. LITTLE: Let me finish, Barbara, if I can.
Q: Well, my question is did they do enough in the days following the initial outbreak of violence?
MR. LITTLE: They -- and feel free to weigh in on this, John. My understanding is we were in constant dialogue with our Afghan partners in the days after the Koran incident. And we believe that they did not want to see the kind of violence that spread throughout the country. And we believe that they are committed to curtailing violence. They have pledged that to the secretary and to others. And we look forward to seeing violence abate in the -- in the coming days.
Q: Yeah, are --
MR. LITTLE: Or I'll let John -- I'm sorry, John, do you have anything to add?
CAPT. KIRBY: No, that -- no, George, nothing to add.
MR. LITTLE: Joe?
Q: Captain Kirby, I want to go back to the incident -- to the incident of the -- of the minister of interior on Saturday. Are you sure -- are you hundred percent sure that the shooting inside the ministry is related to the Quran issue? And second, my second question, do you think that some senior Afghan officers could be involved in this incident?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, Joe, the answer to both of your questions, quite honestly, is we don't know. We don't know what the motivation was behind the murders. And we don't -- we don't know all the facts surrounding how this individual got into this space and, frankly, was able to get out as quickly, and apparently as easily, as he did. So that's what the investigators are working through right now, and that we just -- we just don't have that level of detail.
MR. LITTLE: All right. Time for a couple more questions. Viola?
Q: All right. Can you update us on the status of the investigation into the Quran burning itself? Has anyone been placed on leave in -- pending the outcome of that investigation, and where is that? We were told last week that there would be some preliminary results within 24 hours or something. We haven't heard much about that.
And what was the decision-making about recalling advisers from the ministries within Kabul and around Kabul but not in the rest of country? What is the distinction there? Why do you think that advisers around the country are safer than those in Kabul?
MR. LITTLE: OK. John, do you want to take that question?
CAPT. KIRBY: Yeah, sure.
On the -- on the status of the investigation, it's ongoing and it's not yet complete, and I would be loath to get into a specific deadline here. But I can tell you that they're working very, very hard on this. I'm not aware of anybody being put on leave or anything like that as a result of this. The work -- the work's going on and they're working very hard at it, because they -- you know, General Allen did want this done -- rightly, but expeditiously, and that's where we are. So I just don't have a better feel for it than that.
On your other question, you know, this was such a very specific act clearly against two men who were advisers inside a ministry. And based on what we knew at the time and in the hours after, the most prudent thing to do -- and General Allen made this decision very quickly -- was to get everybody back inside the ISAF compound, because we didn't have any indications that the threat was anywhere other than in Kabul.
He also -- and I said this earlier -- he also made it clear to all the regional commands out there that they also needed to take whatever appropriate force protection measures that they felt they needed based on conditions on the ground where they were. And without getting into details of what each and every one did or didn't do, I can tell you they all took -- took that guidance to heart.
MR. LITTLE: All right. Mik?
Q: Could you tell that -- if those force protection measures included separating armed Afghan security forces from U.S. and ISAF forces in any of those outlying operating areas? And also, could you give us an update on this food tampering business at Forward Operating Base Torkham this morning? Was it a -- was it an intentional intent to poison U.S. forces there?
And also, could you give us an update on this food tampering business at the Forward Operating Base Torkham this morning? Was it a -- was it an intentional intent to poison U.S. forces there?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, on your first question, Mik, as I said, we just concluded a very successful partnered operation in RC South. So we're still out there in very kinetic operations with Afghan partners. So I mean, I'm -- I wouldn't want to speak for each RC commander or what they did or didn't do in terms of upping their vigilance. But I -- as I said earlier, partnered operations and training of ANSF continues today.
On the other issue, the alleged food poisoning, we are investigating this right now. We don't have all the facts. The -- what I can tell you is that an employee at a dining facility had reason to believe that there could have been some tampering of the food, reported it up his chain of command. They immediately closed the dining facility, brought in a team to examine the food, did find high -- higher -- high levels of chlorine in the coffee and on some fruit.
And what we don't know right now -- and again, this is why the team is looking into it. We don't know if this was a deliberate act to poison or whether it was just inadvertent, perhaps using, you know, more Clorox in the cleaning process than they should have. We just -- we just don't know right now.
Q: OK, quick follow up. Do any of the commanders, particularly at this -- at the upper levels, considering the events of last week, consider U.S. forces in the field fighting side by side with armed Afghans at greater risk today than they were a week ago?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, again, I wouldn't want to speak for operational commanders that I haven't spoken to, and I'm here in Kabul and not out with them. What I can tell you is that the -- that all the RC commanders are continuing operations every day. And the process -- and it's not just -- it's not just field operations. It's the process of transition, transition and training, and it continues as of today. I mean, I sat in with -- in the briefings today in -- this morning, where they all outlined their ongoing efforts.
So the work continues, Mik. You know, they're -- certainly everybody is a little bit more vigilant, and they have taken whatever force protection measures they deem appropriate, but not to the degree, at least not that I've seen, that it affects the mission itself or the pursuit of the strategy.
MR. LITTLE: And -- (inaudible) -- for a final question. David.
Q: George, I mean, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the wheels are coming off a little bit here. I mean, we have this -- incidents of the last week. We have the border still closed with Pakistan. Understanding that you're focused on the Taliban, the relationship with partners is in crisis. It's -- I mean, I think that's fair to say.
So are you ruling out any changes in the strategy, any adjustments to the drawdown schedule? Are those measures under consideration? Or are you just saying it's business as usual?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not denying that this is a period in Afghanistan -- but a tense period of fundamental change in strategy. (Off mic) -- on the long view here and to take stock of what's happened, but there has been no shift in the strategy. I mean, there -- our strategies are always developing. They're not static. Strategies tend to be living.
And that's what, you know, we recognize. But there has been no fundamental change.
Q: Just a quick clarification: So -- regarding what Mik asked, so have there been any changes to the way that advisory and partnering operations are taking place, other than what's happening with the ministries? You said that Commander Allen has given the regional commanders purview to make their decisions, but have there been operational changes anywhere else?
MR. LITTLE: I'll throw that to Captain Kirby.
CAPT. KIRBY: None that I'm aware of, Missy. Yeah, none that I'm aware of. But again, I don't have my finger on the pulse of each RC command.
What General Allen -- what he -- the guidance he gave was, they needed to be vigilant and take whatever appropriate force protection measures they felt they needed to take. He did not order them to change the way they're doing business every day or the mission or the strategy. And I just -- as I said, there was a very successful operation down south that just concluded. So I'm not aware of any operational changes as a result of this.
But again, I don't -- you know, I don't -- I'm not in contact with each of the RC commands, and I couldn't speak to, you know, individual detailed daily operations. But I'll -- I mean, I'll tell you that in general, across the country, everything is continuing. The mission does continue. The effect over the last couple of days has largely and almost solely been felt here inside Kabul and with -- specifically with the advisory mission to the -- to the ministries.
MR. LITTLE: That's a wrap. And --
Q: (Off mic) -- a few more questions? This is an important issue. I think everybody who wants to ask a question should get one in.
MR. LITTLE: OK.
Q: And I didn't ask my one question.
MR. LITTLE: OK, all right. We'll go to -- we'll do -- we'll take one or two more and then wrap it up.
Q: John --
MR. LITTLE: Nancy.
Q: -- you talked a lot about the situation being tense. You talked about the polls going down and of course the callback of the -- of the troops from the ministries.
I want to ask what this says about counterinsurgency broadly. We've spent 10 years trying to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan. The fact that we're at this point, that how horrific the incident was a week ago, that Afghans are not accepting the U.S. apology -- the Afghans that I've talked to have said that they saw this as an attack on faith -- what do you say to those that suggest -- that say that this suggests that the mission to win hearts and minds has failed?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, a couple of thoughts, Nancy. You said 10 years, and yes, we've been in Afghanistan 10 years, but you know as well that it's really own been a properly resourced strategy in just the last couple of years. And I think it would be -- it would be wrong to try to extrapolate from the events of the last few days some sort of broader declaration about the failure of COIN or the -- or gaps in the strategy.
These events, they're troubling. They're worrisome. They've got everybody's attention. And yes, tension is high here in Kabul right now. But across the country writ large, things can -- you know, the mission continues, and we're seeing the protest activity decline.
And there's 3 1/2 million people here in Afghanistan. The number of protesters just since Saturday dropped from about what we estimated was 11,000 total to roughly 3 to 4,000, out of the 3.5 million Afghans.
And I certainly wouldn't speak for each and every individual Afghan about how they feel about this. As George said, we recognize that our forces mishandled the Holy Quran. We apologized for that. It certainly is not emblematic of how we respect the religion of Islam.
And I just think -- I think it's really making a leap here to try to extrapolate from what's been happening the last week or so to some sort of failure of the strategy or of COIN in general. The mission continues. That mission is essentially a counterinsurgency strategy, and we're still conducting it.
MR. LITTLE: I know there's some hands up.
Q: Quick one here. Captain Kirby, did General Allen or any other commanders there, leaders, reach out to President Obama, asking him or suggesting to him that he should apologize to President Karzai, as he eventually did?
CAPT. KIRBY: The decision to apologize was the president's. And General Allen supported that decision.
MR. LITTLE: OK, just a couple more now. Kristina, and then --
Q: Thanks. In a NATO video released last week, General Allen spoke to troops after the second and third deaths and said -- and urged for calm and I believe urged troops not to take revenge. From your perspective on the ground in Afghanistan, are these -- are these killings having an effect on troop morale? And what's being done to make sure that the morale doesn't degrade?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, I mean, General Allen was very clear with the troops that he visited about the need to continue on and to not let this affect the relationships that they're building with the Afghan National Security Forces or the work we still have to do with them.
I would be loath to try to speak for each and every individual American soldier, sailor, Marine and airman, Coast Guardsman that are here in Afghanistan and how they feel about this. But I can tell you that writ large, the sense in the force is that the work is really important. We want to continue it.
And I can tell you that many of the advisers that I've spoken to here at the ISAF compound just in the last day and a half have said uniformly to me that they want to get back out there. They've got important work to do and they want to continue it. They're doing it remotely, obviously, right now, but they want to get back to their office spaces. And so -- you know, and that will happen, but it'll happen in due course.
MR. LITTLE: OK, we'll wrap it up with Chris.
Q: Following up on a few of the earlier questions about the difference between the security situation in Kabul and elsewhere, what does that say about what you know about the security situation in Kabul? Is there -- you know, is there a group there that is suspected? What in Kabul is unique about -- what's unique in Kabul?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, again, this was -- what prompted the pullback was this murder inside a ministry building, in a secure space. So I think it was the prudent thing to pull back there. I -- again, I'd say it again, things are still tense in Kabul, but they are -- but they are getting better. I said there were three protests in the country today; only two of them related to Quran burning. One of them was in Kabul, but it was a peaceful protest, no violence whatsoever. So we're starting to see things abate.
MR. LITTLE: Thank you, everyone, appreciate it.
And John, you don't look bad in cammies. Take care.
CAPT. KIRBY: Thanks, everybody.