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DOD News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Scaparrotti via Teleconference from Afghanistan

Presenters: Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, Commander, International Security Assistance Force Joint Command; Deputy Commander, U.S. Forces -- Afghanistan
June 11, 2012

            (Note: General Scaparrotti appears via satellite from Kabul, Afghanistan.) 

            CAPTAIN JOHN KIRBY (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Media Operations):  Good evening, sir, there in Afghanistan.  

            I'd like to welcome you all -- or I'd like to welcome back to the Pentagon Briefing Room Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, United States Army.  He is, as you know, the commander of ISAF Joint Command and the deputy commander of U.S. Forces - Afghanistan.  He last joined us in person in February this year, and this is his third briefing with us as the commander of IJC.  It's also going to be his last.  As you probably also know, he will be -- there will be a change of command of IJC tomorrow, when he will turn over to Lieutenant General Terry.  This is General Scaparrotti's second tour in Afghanistan, and he did assume his duties in July of 2011.  

            The general regularly travels throughout Afghanistan to gather a full picture of ISAF's coalition and partnered efforts.  He joins us today from IJC headquarters in Kabul to provide a full -- a final operational update before completing his turnover.  We will allow him to make a few opening comments and then turn it over to your questions.  

            As we've done in the past, I'd just ask you to please identify yourself and who you're with before you ask the question.  I'll call on you, but the general can't see you, so it would be helpful for him to know who it is he's talking to. 

            And with that, General, sir, I'll turn it over to you for any opening comments you might have. 

            LIEUTENANT GENERAL CURTIS SCAPARROTTI:  John, thank you for that introduction.  And good evening to you all from Kabul. 

            Tonight I'd like to give you an update on the progress that's been made in Afghanistan by both Afghan and coalition forces.  Over the past year, Afghanistan has seen significant advances.  Today there are over 346,000 Afghan national security forces protecting the country, and the number of independent Afghan and partnered operations continues to increase.

            Over the next six months, we will see the Afghan government taking the lead for security in areas representing 75 percent of the population.  My two top priorities over the past year have been accelerating the development of the ANSF, moving them into the lead, and maintaining the momentum of the campaign in relentless pursuit of the enemy. 

            The combined team, Afghan and coalition, has the initiative, and so far the enemy spring offensive hasn't been successful.  Additionally, the enemy's mid- to low-level leaders remain frustrated with their leadership in Pakistan, creating the opportunity for both formal and informal reintegration across Afghanistan.  Currently there are over 4,000 formal reintegrees, with many more informally laying down their arms and returning to their homes. 

            There are still many challenges, and we still have setbacks.  The enemy continually proves its adaptability, and safe havens in Pakistan remain one of the greatest concerns. 

            Today our main effort remains in the south.  During this past winter and into the summer, we have consistently expanded our security gains, allowing us to move the Afghans into the lead.  Together we've secured the Helmand River Valley, Kandahar and most of the surrounding districts, and now our Afghan partners are taking the fight to the enemy.  

            In the east, we are seeing some positive signs in several of the most kinetic areas.  One recent accomplishment just occurred in Paktika province where Afghan soldiers learned the fundamentals of field artillery and, with the help of coalition advisers, these soldiers will increase their capabilities from effective with partners to effective with advisors over the next year.  These incremental steps, especially in the development of enablers, are the building blocks of a trained and sustainable force.  

            The capital region has remained secured by the Afghans for almost two years.  They've repeatedly proven very capable of handling some very serious security threats, including the complex attacks on 15 and 16 April.  In the west, Herat in particular, security continues to improve.  And finally, in the north, the level of insurgent activity has decreased, and the Afghan forces continue to demonstrate growing confidence in their operations and their ability to neutralize credible insurgent and criminal threats. 

            In conclusion, I would like to highlight the remarkable difference between Afghanistan today vis Afghanistan under the Taliban rule.  Today more than 5 times as many children are in school, roughly 85 percent of Afghans have basic health care within one hour of where they live, women represent 27 percent of the parliament, and 52 percent of the Afghan people believe their government is headed in the right direction. 

            All of this success has been the result of a strong partnership and also great sacrifice.  I want to take this opportunity to thank the brave men and women currently serving across Afghanistan for their sacrifice and dedication to the mission.  It has been an honor to serve as their commander over the past year. 

            Now I'd be happy to answer your questions.  Thank you. 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  Bob. 

            Q:  General, this is Bob Burns with AP.  A question for you about the ground supply routes through Pakistan.  We were told here today at the Pentagon that the U.S. team that has been in Islamabad for several weeks to spearhead the negotiations is leaving.  And I'm wondering, from your perspective, do you feel any urgency to get those routes reopened?  And does the failure so far to do so -- does that have any spillover effect in the relationship with the Pakistanis in your operational environment? 

            GEN. SCAPARROTTI:  Well, Bob, it's a good question.  I appreciate it.  First of all, in terms of the GLOC, as you know, the GLOC was closed last November on the incident that had occurred along the border.  And since that time we've continued to operate without an impact at all, in fact, and we've continued to build the supplies that we have in Afghanistan.

            So I -- as the operational commander, we've continued to do our job.  It's not really affected us.  And I don't expect it to be a problem here in the future.  We have several other means, and they're providing sufficient resupply for our forces.  

            In terms of the relationship with Pakistan, we're working very hard on a mil-to-mil relationship, to try and develop that and to bring it back perhaps to where it was at one time in the past, when I was the RC East commander.  We're a fair ways from that right now.  

            But our focus -- my focus, as I talk to my counterparts, is -- has to do with areas of mutual interest, and that is along the border, our cooperation along the border, potentially future complementary operations along the border against insurgents that are a threat to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the coalition forces as well. 

            So those are the things that I'm focused on primarily, to re-establish the communication that we once had and then begin to work from that step on to -- into operations on both sides of the border that's complementary to both their security and our coalition objectives. 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  Spence. 

            Q:  General, Spencer Ackerman with Wired.  A related question:  What can you tell us about the coming offensive in eastern Afghanistan?  We've been hearing that this may be the last major U.S. offensive ahead of the 2014 deadline.  Has it started?  What constitutes success? 

            And you were mentioning future complementary ops that you desire with the Pakistanis.  What can this offensive accomplish if the Pakistanis aren't providing those operations? 

            GEN. SCAPARROTTI:  Well, first of all, I think you're referring to the operations that we've begun in the east, predominately in the area of Ghazni -- we've inserted a brigade there from the 82nd Airborne Division. 

            And the intent there is to place sufficient combat power into a region that really has been an economy of force for the last couple of years.  And as you know, it's not so much a sanctuary as it is a transient -- or transition area that provides for -- really support areas for attacks into Kabul.  

            So that's the operation we're running now.  We'll be running it throughout this coming fighting season.  And I don't -- I wouldn't see that as the last large operation, per se, at all.  We'll continue to conduct operations as necessary in the future to ensure that we attain the conditions that we need in the east and that supports the stand-up of Afghans and -- because, you know, this is really a formula of the Afghan security forces growing in strength and taking the lead.  And then we and our forces reduce that threat in the area and, you know, continue to help shape the -- shape the insurgency so that they can in fact take the lead and then hold the ground. 

            With respect to the border itself, the Pakistan sanctuary and its condition today, and if it doesn't improve the relations with Pakistan obviously makes reaching those conditions more difficult for us.  And it means we also have to do more work with respect to the Afghan forces, the strategy that they employ along the border and to ensure that it'll be successful for them to secure their own country.  I think that's doable, but it's going to make it more difficult. 

            Q:  Follow-up?  Sir, should we understand that this offensive is basically based around Ghazni, or will it either expand or move beyond there? 

            GEN. SCAPARROTTI:  Well, I don't know that I want to be specific operationally on the intent of the entire objective or where it'll -- whether it'll move or where it'll move to.  That's not something that I want to talk about in the open.  I would just say to you again that we realize that in some areas, there in the east, south of Kabul, we needed to insert the greater combat power, and we'd needed to do that for some time.  And we're now -- we're now undertaking operations to secure areas in Ghazni and area surrounding Ghazni that we'd needed to do for some time, and we're also working very hard with our Afghan partners to then gain in strength and to hold those areas once these operations are done. 

            Q:  General, hi.  Chris Carroll from Stars and Stripes.  Could you outline for us the new agreement that General Allen has made regarding aerial engagements and comment on whether this could potentially encourage insurgents to start taking shelter increasingly in homes where they think they may not be able to be attacked? 

            GEN. SCAPARROTTI:  Thank you.  Well, you know, General Allen's guidance -- first of all, it doesn't change the rules of engagement.  Our rules of engagement remain the same.  Our soldiers, sailors, Airmen and Marines have the right of self-defense against hostile act, hostile intent.  That will not change.  And they'll have everything available to ensure their self-defense. 

            The second I would say is that it's guidance that we will not employ aerial-delivered munitions on a civilian dwelling, unless of course it is the last resort and it is -- it is in fact to ensure the defense of our soldiers.  It does not mean that we will not go after insurgents, that we don't expect insurgents to use civilian dwellings.  As you know, they've used dwellings and they've used civilians themselves as shields pretty much throughout this time that we've engaged with them.  But we have other means and other methods, and we'll -- our ground force commanders will use that full array of means and methods in order to engage the enemy.  

            CAPT. KIRBY (?):  Go, Chris. 

            Q:  Will this make it more frequent that ground forces will have to engage themselves and possibly, you know, raising the risk to those forces? 

            GEN. SCAPARROTTI:  I don't -- I think overall, it -- in a large way, it will not.  Let me -- let me get -- put this into context for you.  

            Over the last six months, we've had 3,531 rotary and fixed-wing kinetic engagements where we employed munitions against, you know, a civilian compound or a compound was damaged as a result.  And that's really a very small percentage, you know, of the number of operations that we conduct on a daily basis.  So really this guidance gets at a very small part of the wide range of operations that we run every day.  Another way to put that, if you look at over the last two years, the number of CAS sorties, air sorties, over the last two years, only two-tenths of 1 percent of that CAS resulted in civ cas.  

            So, again, you know, we have worked very hard to bring down civilian casualties.  In fact, last year when I came in to -- compared to now, the coalition has worked very hard, and we've brought down civilian casualties 52 percent in this period of time.  

            So, again, I think we're talking about a precise envelope here, a precise set of -- a very small set of events that take place in the -- in our operational scheme of things.  We do have other ways of handling that, and we'll make sure that our soldiers have what they need.  And if they're in a situation where there are no other options, of course they'll have availability of air-delivered munitions.  

            Q:  Hi, General, it's Andrew Tilghman with Army Times.  Follow-up on Chris' question about the air strikes, I'd like to ask you to talk a little bit about how this change fits into the rules over the past several years.  Back in about 2009, 2010, the ROEs were relatively strict and conservative due to concerns about civilian casualties, and then I -- it's my understanding they were -- they were loosened a bit due to concerns about troop safety.  Are -- is this latest shift going to take those -- the guidance -- is it going to be on a par with what we had several years ago or will it not be quite that significant of a change? 

            GEN. SCAPARROTTI:  No, it -- I was here in '09 in fact and actually we've not changed the ROE, the rules of engagement, that lays out legally what our soldiers have -- how they react to hostile attempt/hostile act.  But it -- but it was guidance at that time, and that's -- in '09 is when we published the first tactical directive, as I recall, that really provided guidance on the employment of fires.  And over time, as you know, each commander has revised that a bit.  

            My personal opinion, having been here in '09, '10, and back now, is that this is a prudent and a logical evolution here in Afghanistan, in line with the campaign plan.  

            We have been moving to bring Afghans more and more to the front.  We're moving to bring Afghans into the decision cycles of both our operations, to include the use of munitions.  They now have about 50 percent of the country that has gone through transition and Afghan security lead.  And I think as we move forward, this is a natural transition in the guidance to our troops. 

            But once again, they have availability of our complete array of munitions.  Should they need air munitions in self defense when all of their other options are not available, they'll have them.  But those don't -- that really only occurs in a very small set of circumstances.  And I'm confident that we'll -- we will continue to protect our troops.  I'm confident that we can still maintain the momentum of this campaign against the enemy. 

            Q:  General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra.  You have mentioned many times the word "enemy."  Is it possible to give us a clarification about -- if you have any figures, any numbers about the size of that enemy, and does it include the Haqqani network?  And my second question, do you still believe that elements inside the Pakistani government still supporting the Haqqani network? 

            GEN. SCAPARROTTI:  OK.  Well, first of all, in terms of the size of the enemy, you know, we use figures from, you know, 20(,000) to 25,000 overall, but it's made up of -- it's a complex web of different insurgent networks.  Now, you mentioned Haqqani.  Haqqani is a small part of that, probably 10 percent or less.  But it's a very effective and lethal part of that network. 

            And of course the largest part of this insurgent network is Taliban.  And I think it's pretty true today that in most areas in Afghanistan, about 80 percent of the insurgents or our enemy are local, and only about 20 percent are foreign or come in from other areas or across from Pakistan. 

            What's true about our enemy today that's changed in the last year is that -- is that we believe their numbers have come down and -- in the studies that we've done here in the past year.  We know for a fact that they're having more trouble generating the offensive tempo that they had in the past.  Since about last May their offensive tempo, or their ability to execute enemy-initiated attacks, has been on the downturn, and it continues to be -- that continues to be the case.  This year, year on year compared to last year, it's down 6 percent right now.  Sometimes during the winter it was as much as 20 (percent), 25 percent reduction in their ability to initiate attacks against coalition forces. 

            And we also know that the complex attacks, which is their ability to put together a more sophisticated attack, is running about 14 percent below the norm since last year.  And the percentage of those attacks that are effective is only about 16 percent of all the attacks they conduct are effective, in other words, they reach an objective of destruction of property or injury of coalition troops. 

            So that would be the way I describe the insurgency broadly for you.  In terms of Haqqani, again, I said it was -- it's probably one of the most lethal aspects of the different networks within the insurgency.  And, you know, we have -- we have indicators that there is some support for Haqqani. There is some coordination with the ISI and Haqqani.  And certainly it's been our desire and what we -- I have talked to my Pakistan counterparts about is the need for them to take on the Haqqani network in that sanctuary, because it is a threat to us, it's one of the most lethal threats, but it's certainly a threat to them as well. 

            Q:  Dave Martin with CBS.  You said you'd done a study which showed that the number -- you believe the number of enemy to have come down.  How much have they come down? 

            And I've got a second question on a different topic. 

            GEN. SCAPARROTTI:  Well, Dave, good to hear from you again.  And I would put it to you broadly this way.  We had generally -- at least my experience -- an enemy force, if you looked at broad numbers, was, you know, above 25,000 to 30,000.  And as we looked at it this year, and our intelligence folks, it was trending to about 20,000.  

            And then the other is, is if you look at reconciliation, we've got about 4,300 formal reintegrees -- I'm sorry, reintegration, not reconciliation, but about 4,300 now, and those in the pipeline will bring us to about 5,000. 

            But we also know that there's more informal reintegrees than there are formal.  I hear that constantly from my commanders on the ground who have good visibility, the populations in the villages, et cetera, and I hear it from our Afghan counterparts, as well. 

            Q:  You mentioned a number -- I think you said in the last six months there had been aerial attacks on 3,531 civilian compounds.  You know, that's 7,000 civilian compounds a year, and if -- and if it's a small percentage that result in civilian casualties, it still can't make you very popular to be destroying civilian dwellings. 

            GEN. SCAPARROTTI:  Yeah, Dave, could I -- I'd like to jump in here. Let me get the facts straight with you.  

            It's -- those were 3,531 rotary- and fixed-wing kinetic engagements.  OK, that's total kinetic engagements over six months.  Now they engaged or caused damage to 19 compounds in all of those.  So the point I'm making is most of our rotary-wing and fixed-wing engagements are engagements with the enemy that are not in compounds.  It's a very small number that actually are in compounds.  And out of that 19 that I cited within this six months, five of those incidents, you know, caused civ-cas.  And I just want to check with you and make sure I kind of straightened that out again.  [sic - Since Jan 2012, ISAF conducted over 1,300 close air support engagements (fixed and rotary wing), during which 32 civilian compounds were damaged and 5 incidents of civilian casualties were confirmed.] 

            Q:  (Off mic) -- you did certainly correct what I was mistaken about.  But that leaves you with 1 out of every 4 times you hit a civilian compound, you're causing civilian casualties. 

            GEN. SCAPARROTTI:  I don't -- I'm not sure; I'm not doing the math here -- 1 out of 4 times.  If you're talking about if you hit a civilian compound, you cause five incidents out of that, I've got it.  One of the reasons that we're working this very hard is, is that -- is that we want to bring the civilian casualties to zero, if possible.  

            I think that given the fog of war, that's going to be very difficult to do.  But I said, we've brought it down 52 percent in this past year.  And we are dedicated to bringing it down.  After all, you know, we know that in a counterinsurgency, the focus is on protection of the people.  And that's what we're here to do. 

            And it is very difficult when we create a civilian casualty.  It's never intentional.  The enemy's is intentional often; ours is not.  But we've got to get after that.  And I think that's part of this.  It's the spirit of the tactical directive to get us to a very reduced number of civilian casualties, because as you said, in this case, 19 compounds, and in five of those, we injured civilians.

            Q:  Sir, this is Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg News.  I want you to summarize, to the best you can, this question -- the answer to this question:  How critical is it to the surge withdrawal and the overall withdrawal after -- over the next two years to both blunt the Haqqani offensives from the northern provinces and open the GLOCs?  The sense I get from you is that neither are critical to U.S. withdrawal plans.  Is that an accurate -- is that an accurate understanding? 

            GEN. SCAPARROTTI:  Well, I'll put it to you this way:  I am presently confident that we can continue this campaign and supply this campaign and that we can also conduct our surge recovery simultaneously with the different means that we have for both resupply and surge recovery. 

            Q:  Safe havens, though -- if those are not taken care of by Pakistan, can the United States still accomplish its withdrawal goals, albeit with some additional difficulty? 

            GEN. SCAPARROTTI:  Yes, I think we can still attain our withdrawal goals.  And I also believe, while very difficult, we can attain our objectives of Afghan secured by Afghans in 2014.  Now, as we move through this, as you always know, we're going to look at our progress and we'll assess conditions and make adjustments as need be.  But, yes, I believe we can do this. 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  Last question, Julian? 

            Q:  General, Julian Barnes, Wall Street Journal.  Is your operations in the east -- are they primarily focused on Haqqani attacks in the -- on Kabul, are they focused on reducing that as a main objective?  And secondly, what's your current view on the Haqqani network?  Are they irreconcilable or could they be -- from your view over the last year, could some of these fighters be reintegrated into Afghan government and Afghan society? 

            GEN. SCAPARROTTI:  Right.  Well, first of all, the operations themselves are focused on the insurgency in a broad way.  As you go south to Kabul, there is both -- there is a mix of Taliban as well as Haqqani.  As you know, Haqqani is good at facilitation and coordination.  So they predominately work with other insurgents and provide expertise, facilitation and some leadership to conduct the operations that they want to -- they want to conduct. 

            In terms of Haqqani itself, I think the foot soldiers they employ are much like many of the others.  Given the opportunity -- a better opportunity, I believe they'll choose not to fight and they'll choose to come home to Afghanistan. 

            We know, from our intelligence and -- from those that we've brought in recently and from the intelligence we intercept by other means, that many of these Taliban fighters, the foot soldiers, are weary of this fight, they're distrustful of their leadership, they're looking for a way to reintegrate.  And some of them are making that step both formally and many informally today.  

            From their point of view, it's really a question is the opportunity better under GIRoA that they're seeing now, and in many places they're seeing security and advancement of basic services, and they're asking themselves -- primarily what they want to know is, can I come back safely and can my family come back safely?  And where they find that to be the case, they've reintegrated. 

            So I think the Haqqani foot soldiers are much like any others.  I think Haqqani themselves, the senior leadership is intent on a minimum at -- their intent would be to secure what is traditionally their area of operation, in Khost, Paktika, Paktia and that area. 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  OK, thanks very much, ladies and gentlemen.  That's the end of the questioning. 

            Sir, I'll turn it over to you for any closing remarks you might have. 

            GEN. SCAPARROTTI:  Well, thank you very much.  It was an honor to be here with you again tonight.  

            It's been my honor to lead coalition forces here in Afghanistan once again for this year.  I am constantly in awe of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and the coalition soldiers' focus on this mission, their dedication to it, and the sacrifice they make to secure Afghanistan but -- and just as important -- to secure their own nations and our nation.  Their sacrifice is great.  Their confidence is inspiring. 

            And so first, you know, this has not come at -- this has been at a great cost, and we've got to always remember that, and we've got to make their sacrifice matter.  We are going to continue this mission.  We must.  And I believe we can -- we can complete this mission that's been set out for us.

            And then finally, I would -- I would thank the families of all these soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and our civilians at work here, because they serve as well, they sacrifice as well, and they give full support to those who are here doing this important mission.  It's been my honor to be a part of their formation again this year. 

            Thank you very much. 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  Thank you, General. 

            Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes our press conference.