COMMANDER BILL SPEAKS: Good morning here in the briefing room, and good evening in Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. I'd like to welcome Major General Lee Miller, commander of Regional Command Southwest and commanding general II Marine Expeditionary Force, Forward, to the Pentagon Briefing Room.
Major General Miller currently leads servicemembers and civilians from 11 different nations, conducting security force assistance operations to guide, assist -- guide, advise and assist approximately 17,000 Afghan national army and 12,000 Afghan national police, as they transition into lead security responsibility throughout the southwestern Afghan provinces of Helmand and Nimruz.
In the summer of 2006, Major General Miller was assigned as the assistant chief of staff of U.S. European Command and held that position until reassignment to headquarters Marine Corps Combat Development Command in the summer of 2008. He served as director of the Joint Capabilities Assessment and Integration Directorate, the Marine Corps representative to the Joint Capabilities Board. In June of 2009, he was assigned as the director of Capabilities Development Directorate.
In July of 2010, Major General Miller served as assistant division commander, 2nd Marine Division, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. In July of 2012, Major General Miller was assigned to his current billet as commanding general, II MEF Forward. He assumed command of R.C. Southwest February 28th of this year.
This the first time for Major General Miller here with us in the Pentagon Briefing Room. He will provide brief opening remarks and take your questions. And if I could ask that you all speak up and identify yourselves when asking questions of him.
With that, sir, I will turn it over to you.
MAJOR GENERAL LEE MILLER: Thanks, commander.
What I'd like to do is just give a brief overview of where we are today with Regional Command Southwest and hope that you all had a very good Memorial weekend and a safe one and that you had time to reflect on those that have worn the uniform and given their all in the past.
Right now, Regional Command Southwest, some primary focus is on train, advise and assist our Afghan national security force partners, in order for them to open up the white space for the government to take hold with the people. Secondary to that is our movement towards the Afghan national security forces taking lead responsibility for the security of the Afghan personnel. And we're very close to that right now; in fact, there's arguments as to whether we're there or not. I believe we are. And then, finally, we're poised for our redeployment of -- and retrograde of personnel, as well as equipment here in the future, when it's time to return to CONUS.
For the train, advise and assist mission, it's going quite well. We're shifting from combat advising quickly into infrastructural advising, so that when we leave Afghanistan, Afghan security forces can maintain the credibility that they need and their ability to continue to provide the security to the nation. In train, advise and assist, we're not just focused on the Afghan national army. We're also focused on the Afghan national police.
Now, we did originally start with the army years ago. We've been working with the police since. The army has a leg up, if you will, on the police, but the police are quickly -- they're rapidly moving up and catching up to the Afghan national army and their capabilities.
Transferring lead security responsibility, right now, if you were here, you would see the Afghan national security forces, all the pillars of that security force, in a fight in Sangin. They're closing that fight rapidly, and they've done quite well. I suspect by tomorrow the Taliban will have been defeated in Sangin and move out to wherever else they intend to go here in the future.
With that, I'll take questions.
Q: Bob Burns with AP. I think I want to just follow up on a couple of the statements you made there, including the last one about by tomorrow. Did you mean literally by tomorrow the Taliban would be defeated in Sangin? And can you expand on that a little bit?
And also, could you elaborate a bit on your earlier statement about -- I think you were talking about the Afghan forces taking the lead responsibility throughout your region. You said you believe we are at that point. Could you explain what you meant about where you stand on that?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: Certainly. It will fall in with the Sangin fight that's going on. I do believe that the fight in Sangin will be completed by tomorrow. It's been going on since the 25th. The Afghans, other than some aerial support, as well as some resupply that -- and logistics they need some work on, they've done this fight quite -- pretty much by themselves. I just met with General Malook about three hours ago, around a map, and we discussed what was going on and what he needed.
He is not asking for anything other than aerial support to move some personnel around and for some logistical support in chow and water. They've -- I asked him specifically if he needed help with getting rearming done and some ammunition moved forward, and the answer was, quite honestly, no.
So he's taking the fight to the enemy and clearing up the center of Sangin right now. What he did was move from the south and the north simultaneously to close in on the enemy towards the center of Sangin and then push them out of the Kalaigal, to either to the west, where he's positioned his commando forces, or to the east, where he would -- where they would cross back over into the -- into Kandahar. Most of them tried to go to the west, and he's got them trapped as we speak.
The second part of the question I believe was, where are we -- why do I believe that we can transfer lead security? A lot of what I just said is the reason. They're taking it on themselves for the most part. We do believe that the enablers that'll be required in the future will be in the areas of medevac capability, as well as continuing to work with the logistical personnel to learn how to move things out more rapidly and maintain control of their requests.
Does that answer your question, sir?
Q: Yes, could I ask a follow-up? Yes, thank you. And just a brief follow-up on the Sangin fight. To what degree would you describe that as a pivotal point in the overall situation with the Taliban in Helmand?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: I don't believe it's pivotal at all yet. The fighting season is still up in the air and up for grabs. But what they've shown in Sangin, while simultaneously fending off an attack in Khan Neshin, as well as Musa Qala, Musa Qala last evening, Khan Neshin two days ago, while they had a major fight going on in the district of Sangin, should show you where they are.
In both cases, both Musa Qala and Khan Neshin, there were no requests. I found out, other than the intelligence I had on the fights, I found out from General Malook after the fact. In other words, he didn't ask for assistance. So that should give you an idea of where we're headed.
The time now is to shift from combat advising, which we're still doing. Soon we'll be off at kandak level -- which is a battalion to you and I -- to the brigade level, and then later next year, we'll move from brigade to strictly at the corps level on our advising capabilities. While we're shifting, we're also going to move towards the institutional piece, and that's really wrapped around how they sustain themselves in training.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Raghubir Goyal from India Globe and Asia Today. General, could you say -- if -- just follow-up, Bob, what he said -- is there -- if this fight continues in parts of the Afghanistan, as far as Talibans are concerned, one, how can you leave the Afghani people under this Taliban, again, this 12 years of war? And, finally, if you have been going around talking to the Afghani people, if they are ready for -- and if they believe and trust their security forces and police after you leave?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: Sir, if I understand the question correctly, we're not exactly leaving them without having trained them properly in what they need to do. The real -- the real question is to the Afghan people. Do they want a future other than with the Taliban? The Afghans have told me at many shuras that they don't want the Taliban, that they want what they've got right now and they'll continue to hold.
When you take a look at the Sangin fight, it's a perfect example of where the people are. The heroes -- the original heroes in the Sangin fight were the Afghan local police, the neighborhood watch, those that don't want the Taliban back. They're not going to let them come back. All we're doing is ensuring that they have the capability and the sustainability to maintain control of their country. The people, it’s their choice. And my belief is, they've chosen to stay the course and not have the Taliban back into their midst.
Q: A quick follow, just -- next week, Pakistan will have a new government under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. And in the past, there was a clash between Afghan and Pakistani forces on the border. What do you think is the future role of Pakistan, as far as a stable Afghanistan is concerned? Thank you, sir.
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: Sure. Certainly, Pakistan plays a role in that -- in the Middle East. But that question -- right now, my focus is here in R.C. Southwest. I'm not sure I'm the right person to answer that question.
CMDR SPEAKS: Courtney?
Q: Hi, general. It's Courtney Kube from NBC News. In your opening statement, when you were talking about the Afghans taking the lead, you said that there have been some arguments about that now. And I guess, could you just elaborate on that? Who are those arguments between or among about the Afghans' ability to take the lead right now?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: Courtney, I may have -- may have said arguments. I didn't quite mean that. There could be -- it could be arguable that they're already in the lead, other than the enablers that we're providing them on a -- on a fairly regular basis right now. It takes a while to build an air force, and that's what they're doing now.
I do see fixed-wing, Afghan fixed-wing flown by Afghans here in -- at Bastion airfield, and I've also seen Mi-17s, but it takes a while to build that up enough to where they can take it on themselves. So if I -- if I said arguments, that's not what I meant. I apologize for that.
Q: If I could just ask one question about Sangin, too, you know, it's been two-and-a-half years, I think, and almost three years now since the Marines went in and cleared out Sangin. We heard for a long time that it was the most dangerous place in the world at that time in late 2010, I think it was. And now you're talking about the Taliban coming back to that area.
And I recognize that the narrative here is that the Afghan security forces have been able to -- or close to being able to push the Taliban out of that area, but I guess, what does it say about the overall state of R.C. Southwest, of Helmand and whatnot, that the area gets cleaned out, cleared out at great loss to U.S. Marines at that time, and then the Taliban still come back some time later?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: What -- what you have to keep in mind is, five of the 10 most kinetic provinces within Afghanistan reside here in R.C. Southwest. They are looking -- they're probing for a whole to get through. The point I'm trying to make is, they went for Sangin first. They aren't able to get through. They're probing up in Musa Qala. They were unable to get to the district center. They did the same in Khan Neshin, unable to get through.
It's that people stopped them. In most cases, the first ones stopping them are the local police, those from the neighborhood, those that have been vetted by the elders to allow them to join the local police. That's where -- where it's at today, and they're holding them out.
If we think the Taliban will be completely destroyed, that's not feasible. They'll continue to show up. The key is that we get the Afghan national security forces to the levels where they can maintain security for the populace of Afghanistan.
Q: Thank you.
CMDR SPEAKS: Phil?
Q: Yeah, hi, just a quick follow-up on something you said earlier within a separate question. So earlier, you had said that you weren't told about two different battles that the ANSF was waging in your region, and I'm wondering, how common is that, that they don't talk about different fights that they're in with you or with people in the -- in the ISAF force?
And my second question was about ANSF casualties in your region. Do you have a sense of how -- where they are from the start of the year until now, compared with the same time last year?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: Yeah -- yes, I do. And I'll cover the first one -- or the second one first.
It is true the Afghan national security forces are taking -- taking a toll, but nowhere near what the Taliban is. But if you compare it to the toll taken by the coalition forces last year, you'll find that the number of casualties is less. That should tell you where the Taliban is and how strong their attacks are.
The first question -- can you repeat the first question, please?
Q: I'm sorry. I didn't -- I don't know if I quite understood the answer to the second one. You said the -- what did you say about ANSF casualty levels, they were -- that they're -- I don't think I understood. Could you please repeat the answer that you just gave me? I didn't understand it.
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: The ANSF -- the Afghan national security forces' casualty rate is less than the coalition forces' casualty rate at this time last year by a fairly significant amount. And I think the first question was about how -- about the other two battles that were going on while Sangin was going.
Part of this is being comfortable with being uncomfortable. When you have less personnel on the ground from your coalition forces, you don't see everything right away. However, we are receiving our intelligence input, so I'm getting it fairly rapidly.
When I said that they had gone on without me being informed, what I was talking about was, I was tracking Sangin very closely. I knew there were two other fights going on in Musa Qala and Khan Neshin. But what I'm trying to do is get a lot of my reporting from the Afghan core commander. Until today, he had not brought up either Musa Qala or Khan Neshin, even though I did know through coalition sources what was going on. Hopefully that helps out.
Q: Thank you.
CMDR SPEAKS: Lalit?
Q: Lalit Jha from Pajhwok Afghan News. On -- on this train, advise and assist mission, what kind of presence do you think you'd be having in R.C. Southwest post-2014? Do you also believe -- what is the number of your CT mission in R.C. Southwest after 2014? Are you also looking for any base in R.C. Southwest after all the security transitions are over in 2014? And do you believe that the police would be able to catch up with ANA before 2014?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: The only thing I can answer is, when it comes to post-2014, is I know what the president has decreed, so that's -- that's my answer there. As far as up to there, I know that you know that we're cutting the force in half throughout Afghanistan from the U.S. side.
The figuring as to what is going to be required is being done. A lot of it will play out once we see how the fighting season goes this year and where we need to put our focus.
Q: About the police?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: I'm sorry, sir. Please say again?
Q: In your earlier remarks, you said the police has not been able to catch up with the level of Afghan national army. And do you think by before 2014 they play important role? Would they be able to increase their standards in the levels before you transition -- before you do the security transition?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: Most certainly, sir. They're moving up rapidly. They have their own training area at Lashkar Gah. Pretty soon they'll change the name of it to the Helmand Training Facility. And they are moving out rapidly.
We just graduated 54 students today from the Afghan local police at that academy. They run the Afghan uniformed police through it, as well. So they're already taking over their own training. We're just advising the trainers over there.
My point was, we had started out earlier with the Afghan national army, years ago. And now the Afghan national police are catching up, not quite there, but they're in the fight in at Sangin right now, and they've been in the fight in both Musa Qala, as well as down in Khan Neshin.
Q: Hi, general. Jon Harper with the Asahi Shimbun. To what extent are you seeing Taliban infiltration of the ANSF in R.C. Southwest? And how big a concern is that for you?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: Sir, it is a concern, and it will always be a concern, as far as green-on-blue, insider threat. To date, since I have been on board in R.C. Southwest, I have not seen it yet. I'm always wary. We're always taking precautions to include the Afghan national security forces, both the provincial chief of police and, in particular, the commander of 215th Corps regularly preach to their people what this can lead to. And so far, that preaching has been working.
CMDR SPEAKS: Andrew?
Q: General, it's Andrew Tilghman with Military Times. I'd like to go back to Courtney's question for a minute about Sangin and kind of -- I'd like to ask you to tell us a little bit about what your sense of the trajectory over the past few years has been there. I mean, we've been hearing about Marines who were in a pretty tough fight there several years ago, and there's been a pretty good presence there for a while. Does the Taliban presence that you're fighting there now or the Afghan soldiers are fighting there now, is -- does that reflect a little bit of a back-sliding or a re-infiltration at some point, either over the winter or during the last fighting season? Or is this really the first time that you're hoping to fully get those guys out of Sangin?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: Sir, these -- the Taliban that showed up in Sangin were not there prior to the fight, other than pockets, maybe. The numbers that came in came from the north up in Baghran, as well as from the east, and as it's being reported to me, several are foreign fighters.
Sangin's district center and its populace have been running quite well for the past year, that I know of, and perhaps a couple years now. So they have good governance. They have paved roads. Things have been going quite well. They do not want to slip back, and they definitely would not allow the Taliban in.
I had the opportunity to meet with a man named Omar Gul. He's just north on the northern edge of Sangin. And he's the head of 250 local police there. He was emphatic: Not on his watch. They're not coming back. As long as he has ammunition, he's going to fight them.
Q: If I could just follow up, just to clarify, you're talking about those Taliban coming back into Sangin from the north, other parts, over the course of the winter period, since the last fighting season? And can you give us any estimate on how many Taliban we're talking about there?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: Sir, if you see some reports earlier on Sangin, you would have heard there were 1,000 Taliban. What that was, was information that I was told the Taliban had slipped through the reporting agency.
The kick in the rear end that the Taliban received in Sangin they'd have been fools to have reported themselves. The numbers were nowhere near 1,000. I'd say closer to 150, and the Afghans handled it. As far as when they showed up, they just appeared from the east and from the north, moving down from Baghran, past Kajaki, setting up on the northern edge of Sangin, and then from the east around Panjway.
CMDR SPEAKS: Final question, Bob.
Q: Okay, general, just a very brief follow-up there. In your description of the fighting force, you mentioned several foreign fighters. You mean al-Qaeda? Or who are you talking about?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: Negative, sir. I've not seen nor heard the term al-Qaeda since I've been onboard in February. What I'm talking about is fighters from outside of Afghanistan.
Q: From where?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: At this time, I'd prefer not to be specific, sir.
Q: South Asia or from Middle East? Which -- or Central Asia?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: Sir, I missed that. I'm sorry.
Q: Where are these foreign fighters from? Are they from South Asian countries or Mideast or Central Asian countries?
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: Sir, at this time, I'd prefer not to answer that.
CMDR SPEAKS: Alright, sir, with that, we'll turn it over to you for any final remarks.
MAJ. GEN. MILLER: Sir, the last thing I'd like to say -- it's been an honor and a pleasure to be -- to command this coalition. Whether it's from Georgia, whether it's from the U.K., whether it's from Guam, or whether it's from the United States Marines, airmen, soldiers and sailors, they've done a tremendous job switching from fighting to advising and being prepared. I'm proud of them, and I hope you all are, as well. Thank you.
CMDR SPEAKS: Thank you, sir.