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Department of Defense Press Briefing on the July 2013 Section 1230 Report, "Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan" in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Presenters: Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia Pacific Security Affairs Dr. Peter Lavoy and Deputy to the Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Jarrett Blanc
July 30, 2013

            ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE PETER LAVOY:  It's a pleasure to be here.  It's a pleasure to talk about this report that is coming out today.  And it's a pleasure to be here joined by my colleague, the deputy SRAP [Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan], Jarrett Blanc from State Department.  The State Department's input to the 1230 report is very important, it's very critical, and they're a good partner on this effort, as well as on everything else. 

            Let me make a few introductory remarks and then get into questions that you might have about the report or about issues that have occurred subsequently in Afghanistan. 

            Going back, you'll recall that we undertook military operations in Afghanistan because the country was the base for terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11.  Let's not forget that.  That's why we went there.  And we've made tremendous progress. 

            And you know personally that we don't feel under the same kind of threat today in the United States and elsewhere in the world, many parts of the world, than we did over a decade ago.  And it's because of the sacrifices we've made in and around Afghanistan to diminish that terrorist threat and the hard work of American men and women, our coalition partners, and Afghans and others in the region. 

            The progress we've made in Afghanistan really would have been practically unimaginable five years ago.  In fact, I came to Washington about five years ago, and I couldn't imagine that we'd be in the situation we are today.  And it really is a situation -- I think we're very near to achieving the objectives we set out at that time before. 

            Back then, five years ago, in 2008, it was questionable whether the government would survive.  Elections were coming up in a year, in 2009.  Would these elections occur?  Would they be peaceful?  Would you have a new representative government coming in?  We're asking similar questions today about elections that will be occurring next year. 

            The ISAF surge over the past three years has put the Afghan government firmly in control of all of Afghanistan's major cities and provincial capitals and has driven the insurgency into the countryside.  That wasn't the situation five years ago.  So this document is a six-month snapshot, if you will, from October 2012 to March 2013 and documents the progress and, frankly, the challenges that we experience in that time period, but, again, I wanted to put that in brief historical perspective. 

            The tasks that we have today is to consolidate the gains that we've made, to support the ANSF, to pressure the remnants of Al Qaida, and to create sustainable security and stability, so that Afghanistan is never again used as a platform for international terrorists. 

            I'd like to highlight three themes that emerged from this report.  First, the conflict in Afghanistan had shifted -- shifted during this time period, again, October '12 through March 2013, into a fundamentally new phase.  It's a phase marked by the United States and its ISAF partners moving into a support role, moving away from the leading combat instrument in the country, changing our mission from counterinsurgency to one of supporting the Afghan army and the Afghan police from a train, advise and assist role.  That's a fundamental shift. 

            And what we've seen since the cutoff of information in March 2013 is this year's fighting season in Afghanistan, the first fighting season where the ANSF were fully out in the lead throughout their country, providing security for Afghans.  And they've done a good job. 

            And I'm happy to talk about the situation after the cutoff of information in this report if you'd like to get into that, too.  But what you know now is that ISAF hardly conducts any combat missions anymore.  Their operational role is primarily focused on that train, advise and assist, although we do remain -- we do continue to do some counterterrorism operations and force protection operations ourselves. 

            The second major trend or theme that emerged in this time period was the incredible improvement of the ANSF itself, the growth of professionalism and patriotism and a very capable Army and police force.  These are developments that, again, were hard to imagine.  People questioned whether they were achievable goals, and we set about developing these goals back in 2009.  But I think that the evidence that we've identified -- and, again, what we've seen to date -- has proven that the ANSF, which basically went through a phase of growing, getting to an end strength of close to the authorized level of 352,000 forces combined army and police, now focusing on quality, demonstrating combat proficiency, and doing the other things that modern militaries do, that we're seeing them do this, but, again, in a way where they are proud of their work, the country is proud of their capability and their performance, they are increasingly patriotic, they're not animated by local ethnic or tribal allegiances, but really by a sense of the whole of Afghanistan.  And they've -- the army, I think, has emerged into the strongest institution in the entire country. 

            The third trend is a -- really, the operational reflection of that second point, is that as they've gone out and taken on the lead for security in the country, they've performed very, very well.  They've been tested.  The Taliban have targeted the ANSF.  The Taliban have tried to identify weaknesses of the ANSF.  They've tried to intimidate the ANSF.  They target, they overrun checkpoints, but -- and the vast majority of the cases, the army or the police get back to those checkpoints, retake the territory lost, and hold those positions. 

            Now, they've suffered a lot of casualties.  Today, the ANSF probably suffers more than 30 to 1 ISAF casualties.  So that's a significant change in that ratio of casualties over the last couple of years, as they've moved into the lead of security.  Despite that, they are doing a very good job there.  They're a very resilient force, and they're out there really providing the security of the population. 

            I'd like to identify three challenges that we see going forward and really focus on three key strategic questions and then turn it over to you for questions that you might have to Jarrett and myself.  I think -- and the questions that really focus on this year, 2013, next year, 2014, and then, finally, 2015. 

            I think the biggest question this year -- and I think we already have the answer to this -- can the Afghan security forces actually provide for the security of their population?  Here we have an unqualified yes.  It's an affirmative answer.  They are securing the cities and the villages in the country. 

            Now, to be honest, they have lost some territory in the rural areas, where they have limited reach, and the Taliban have retaken some areas, northern Helmand, in particular, but generally in the areas of priority, in the populated areas, they've really done a very, very good job.  So that's the answer yes to that question. 

            The second issue in 2014 -- obviously, the key strategic event next year will be the presidential elections in April 2014.  So the question for the Afghan security forces, will they be able to secure that election?  And I think right now, it's a little early to tell, but my sense is that the answer will, indeed, be yes again. 

            Right now, the level of preparations for securing that election, not to mention the other issues that Jarrett can talk about in terms of electoral preparations, were farther ahead of where we this time before the 2009 elections. 

            The other issue is that the ANSF is really taking on this mission as a matter of pride and priority to secure these elections.  And you have -- a final factor is you have -- I think in April 2014, you'll have about 425,000 security forces in country, the vast majority of them being ANSF, a small minority being ISAF, compared to about 250,000 that were in Afghanistan that were tasked with securing the 2009 elections.  So you have a strength now to do this, as well as a focus and a level of preparation that you didn't have before.  So going forward, I think -- I'd like to say that I think that strategic issue, the answer is likely to be yes. 

            And then the final issue -- and it's really one for that transition period of 2014 to 2015 -- is whether we can succeed in transitioning to a much smaller Western or coalition presence, U.S. presence and transition over to ANSF to really take on the sovereign responsibility for the country.  And, again, it's early to see.  I think there are a number of challenges.  There are a number of risks to that.  And those are ones that we're -- we're definitely focused on here in the department and elsewhere in the U.S. government. 

            So with that as a general orientation, I open it up to questions for us. 

            COLONEL STEVE WARREN:  We'll start off with Bob Burns from Associated Press. 

            Q:  Hello, thanks for doing this.  Particularly thanks for doing it on the record.  It's a good change from... 

            ACTING ASST. SEC. LAVOY:  Don't make me regret it, Bob. (Laughter.) 

            Q:  On your point you made earlier about the improved or greater national allegiance of the ANSF, there's a section in the report that describes cease-fire deals that are being done on -- in some local areas between Afghan units and insurgent groups and other kinds of accommodations being made with the Taliban.  You described -- the report describes this as a developing issue that requires monitoring.  On the one hand, it says it's not a major problem, but it can have negative effects.  It seems a bit of a wishy-washy approach to explaining what's going on there.  Could you elaborate a bit more on -- is this a new development?  And since March when this report cuts off, has it been happening more often, less often? 

            ACTING ASST. SEC. LAVOY:  I think it's not at all a new -- a new element.  I mean, going back into Afghan history, there have always been, you know, vigorous fighting, then followed by peace arrangements, cease-fires, and then new -- hopefully new political understandings.  

            Even with ISAF forces, I think it's been actually more problematic at times, where we found out subsequently that some unit has cut some -- made some arrangement with local -- the local population, possibly including the Taliban.  That's been problematic.  We don't see that occurring as much today. 

            Look, the -- the Afghans are providing security for their own population.  They need to get along with that population.  They need to have an understanding with the population.  They're not a foreign force.  They're not a force liberating that population.  They're protecting the population.  So there needs to be understandings. 

            I think generally this is desirable.  It depends on the specifics -- and I can't really get into those specifics now of particular cases, but I think on the whole, as we said in this, maybe it sounds wishy-washy, but as we said, it does deserve, you know, close attention, generally can be positive.  If deals are cut for the wrong reasons, that could be negative.   

            And ultimately, stability and peace will be achieved in Afghanistan by these deals being cut, either from the center or, you know, in regions.  So I don't really see this as a particularly problematic trend.  And, frankly, it is a traditionally Afghanistan trend. 

            Q:  Is it gaining momentum in more recent months? 

            ACTING ASST. SEC. LAVOY:  Yeah, I really can't tell you.  I haven't -- I don't have the evidence of that.  I mean, it's something that we're looking at and -- you know, the next time we're together, I'd be happy to follow up with you about that. 

            COL. WARREN:  So we'll go to Tony next. 

            Q:  A question on page two.  You had this interesting sentence that beyond December '14, ANSF will still require substantial training, advising and assistance, including financial support to address ongoing shortcomings.  It's never addressed again in the full report.  What's the implication there for U.S. forces to -- the size of U.S. forces or the need for U.S. forces post-2014?  As you know, there's been some debate about a zero option.  This sort of knocks that -- knocks the legs out of that option, it seems, but I wanted to get your view. 

            ACTING ASST. SEC. LAVOY:  Okay, well, thanks for that question.  Let me explain the information in there in that sentence and put it in perspective.  As I mentioned very briefly, we've seen a really rapid, remarkable development of the Afghan national security forces.  Initially, the focus was just simply trying to recruit and field a force of people with adequate literacy and training to do the job.  We succeeded in that phase.  Then the focus was improving the quality and the combat performance effectiveness of that force, and that's being proven this year. 

            The phase that we're really focused on now is the sustainability of the force.  Will that force -- will there be some institutions, whether at the core level or the ministerial level, that makes sure that people get their paychecks, that -- you always the soldiers to get their paychecks on time -- to make sure that they're fed, to make sure that fuel contracts are developed.  These are the kind of functional skills and capabilities that Afghans are still developing today.           

            And we envision that it will take a period of time before they can adequately fully have sovereign ownership of all those skill sets, including well beyond the 2014 date.  That's why, as we've looked at a number of options that we've prepared in this building, in concert with our interagency partners for interagency consideration, these have taken into account the train, advise and assist functions, in addition to our own U.S. counterterrorism mission set going forward.  But these would focus less on combat proficiency and really focus more on these functional skill developments at the -- at the core and then ministerial level.  We envision that will take a period of time. 

            So you also asked about the zero option.  In none of these cases have we developed an option that is zero.  Now, if we don't get the permission of the Afghan government in the form of a bilateral security agreement, then we're not going to be able to continue this job of working with ANSF.  And so then you end up with zero. 

            Q:  Just -- to follow up, though, this does portend the use -- U.S. troops in some form, some form or number, staying beyond 2014 to help with these sometimes mundane, but vital functions? 

            ACTING ASST. SEC. LAVOY:  That's correct.  And that is our intention. 

            Q:  Thank you. 

            COL. WARREN:  We’ll go to Phil, and then in the back. 

            Q:  Just a quick follow-up, before that, you said whether -- assessing whether the gains that have been made are sustainable, it doesn't just depend on whether there is a force, but it depends on the size or the structure of that force.  Can you explain a bit about how the size and the structure, particularly the structure of that force, matters when assessing whether the gains of the war can be (OFF-MIC) 

            ACTING ASST. SEC. LAVOY:  Yeah.  Now, when you say that force, you're referring to ISAF or U.S. forces?

            Q:  (OFF-MIC) 

            ACTING ASST. SEC. LAVOY:  Yeah, it will matter.  But we're also looking at a moving target.  The ANSF -- we're seeing for the first time their performance on the battlefield as the lead combat instrument, security instrument in the country.  So our calculations on what will be required beyond 2014 will probably vary after the end of this fighting season than they -- compared to when we first thought about this issue a year ago or even before.  So we're anticipating -- making anticipations on the requirements, on the needs of the Afghan national security forces, and these have changed over time, because you've been looking at a moving target.  We have much more fidelity today than we had over a year ago, let's say. 

            As you know, the president has not made a decision on what that force will be.  And the president's wanted to look -- wants to look at a number of factors that will take place this year currently and possibly going into the future and see how -- and particularly the key factor is the performance of the Afghan national security forces.  So taking into account all of these factors, there will be a decision on what forces appropriate to the tasks at hand. 

            Q:  Thank you, sir.  Thank you.  Raghubir Goyal from India Globe and Asia Today.  My question is that things are not going very well in the region, especially in Afghanistan, according to Afghan people, because they have been suffering for the last 30-plus years civil wars, Taliban wars, Al Qaida wars, and so on.  My question is that Afghanistan will be going elections next year, so will be India, or in India could be earlier, and also Pakistan -- now they had just elections and new prime minister. 

            My question is that, can you have stability and peace like they had in the '70s and a fruitful country of Afghanistan without the cooperation of Pakistan?  Because the Taliban is still in Pakistan.  Now they are fighting in Syria and other countries.  What that's saying is -- and they are waiting when the U.S. and NATO forces leave Afghanistan and they will focus their fighting in Afghanistan, because what they're saying is they have not learned anything but to kill people and fight. 

            My question is here, what role do you think Pakistan will play and what role India will play in the region, sir? 

            ACTING ASST. SEC. LAVOY:  I think both Pakistan and India will play and ought to play very important, significant roles going forward in Afghanistan.  Those countries and other immediate and nearby neighbors of Afghanistan are affected by the security conditions in Afghanistan.  Borders, as you know, are very porous in this part of the world.  They're affected by it, and they in turn affect security and political developments inside Afghanistan. 

            This is a very interdependent region, if you will, from that point of view.  And what you have today is a growing sense, as you indicated, of insecurity throughout the region, in central Asia, even north of there, Russia and other places in China, but most acutely in Pakistan and India. 

            There's a fear in India that there will be what is called as a surplus terrorism.  After there is some stability in Afghanistan, where will these terrorists go?  Will they target India? 

            They have the exact same fears in Pakistan.  Pakistan is now facing a very vibrant insurgency in its country.  They're about 150,000 Pakistani military in western Pakistan fighting this insurgency.  They're concerned that if there is further instability in Afghanistan, this could heighten the insurgency, be motivational or provide some safe haven for insurgents to come over into Pakistan. 

            So everyone in the region has these concerns.  And I think -- and this is really something where my diplomatic colleagues are taking the lead -- is to try to harmonize the policies of each of the countries in the region to try to achieve a common end purpose, a common situation of peace and stability in Afghanistan and, more broadly, throughout the region.  And there are challenges, but generally I think it's going well. 

            Q:  Just a quick follow, sir, quickly, recently there have been very high-level visits to India (inaudible) Secretary Hagel recently and then Secretary Kerry and now recently Vice President Biden.  And they were all talking about the security and U.S.-India relations, military-to-military, and so forth, and also, of course, Afghanistan.  What do you think now there is a firing going on, on the India-Pakistan border, heavy fighting in the region of Kashmir?  What do you think will escalate?  Or what U.S. -- been talking to India when they were visiting or they're -- are they talking about these problems on the border? 

            ACTING ASST. SEC. LAVOY:  Well, it's really for the countries in the region to manage their own relationships.  These are the countries that are most directly affected.  And the situation -- we view the situation in Kashmir as a bilateral situation for India and Pakistan to sort out.  

            And regrettably, there has been violence in -- along the line of control in Kashmir for many years, for many decades now, and that's very, very regrettable.  But, again, we believe -- you mentioned earlier that, with the election of President Nawaz Sharif, there have been overtures made by the Pakistanis to the Indians and vice versa to try to normalize the situation economically and reach some kind of political understanding.  And I know we in the U.S. government fully support those efforts. 

            COL. WARREN:  Blue tie, state your name and organization? 

            Q:  Dion Nissenbaum with the Wall Street Journal.  One of the weakest links in the effort has been corruption, as you know.  And the report goes into a fair amount of detail about corruption at the regional level by a corrupt network running out of Kabul International Airport.  I imagine Shafafiyat and those efforts are winding down, how concerned are you that as the ISAF efforts winds up, that corruption could overwhelm the efforts to reform the ANSF?  And are you seeing it increase as ISAF winds up its efforts? 

            ACTING ASST. SEC. LAVOY:  Corruption is a critical concern.  It has been -- it remains one.  And it probably will be a concern going forward.  There is some -- I'm not trying to justify it, but there historically has been level of influence-peddling, what we would call corruption, in this country.  There are certain socially accepted standards that differ, obviously, from our standards. 

            But then there's clearly abusive corruption, very corrosive, toxic corruption that's taking place.  And it is a priority.  What's very heartening to us is that this is a priority for the Afghan ministerial leadership that we deal with.  Secretary Hagel's counterparts are the minister of defense and the minister of interior.  And in their conversations and other DOD officials with these individuals, they've identified anti-corruption as a priority for them. 

            They've changed out leaders.  B.K. Mohammadi, the minister of defense, has made a really deliberate effort after he took over to change out leaders, to improve not only performance and the quality of forces under new leadership, but to root out corruption, which does have many negative consequences, if you allow it to fester. 

            COL. WARREN:  Let's go to Thom Shanker, and then we'll finish with Gordon Lubold. 

            Q:  (OFF-MIC) on March 31st, which is the fighting season hadn't really gotten underway.  All of us in this room understand the tyranny of deadlines, don't get me wrong.  But if your deadline were today, are there any trends, especially among the security forces, that you would capture in this report in light of the current fighting season? 

            ACTING ASST. SEC. LAVOY:  Yeah, I'd say -- I'd probably point to three trends, and I did allude to them.  Number one, the security forces are out there doing the security job.  This was kind of a question mark before this fighting season, because this is the first fighting season where the Afghan -- where the Afghan army and the police were actually in the lead.  And they've acquitted themselves very, very well.  As I mentioned, they've taken a lot of casualties.  They've been tested by the insurgents, but they've done a good job standing up to those threats.  So that's number one. 

            Number two -- and this is a challenge they're working through -- when they were partnered with American forces, they -- and ISAF forces -- they were partnered with the best military forces in the world.  They were partnered with -- with units that had the best enabling support, whether it's mobility getting into a place, whether it's intelligence that gives you time-sensitive targeting on the threats, whether it's situational awareness, whether you know that there are other threats that could be emerging.  And then after an engagement, how to get out of their mobility, to get out of there and medevac, getting people -- giving them that golden hour to get treatment.  They're used to the state-of-the-art health care. 

            As we've pulled back and now Afghans are taking over not only lead for combat, they are now in the lead for getting their people around the country.  They're in the lead for identifying -- you know, using their intelligence, analyzing their -- infusing and analyzing their intelligence, identifying targets, conducting the operations, designing the operations, and getting their people out of there. 

            So this has been a bit of an adjustment.  I think generally it's been positive, but it's an adjustment away from U.S.-ISAF state-of-the-art standards in all these to something that's different in other cases.  In many cases, they're finding local solutions that work just as well for their needs.  They're finding local hospitals that they can take wounded soldiers to. 

            The third trend is also a bit of a challenge, but it's an anticipated and, frankly, a desirable challenge to have.  It's the trend of the Afghans developing those functional capacities to provide for the logistical support of their troops, to provide for the human capital management, for managing the contracts and finances and budgeting and so forth.  This is -- these are good problems to have. 

            Before, as I mentioned, we were concerned about fielding the force.  Then we were concerned about the operational capacity and wherewithal of the force.  Now we're concerned about these functional enabling attributes.  This is a good problem.  Again, as I said, our theme was we can really imagine having these challenges now.  We thought we'd still be mired in some of those other challenges. 

            So going forward, I think the questions are, can the Afghan forces be able to sustain themselves at standards and with the kind of capacities that they can keep without being dependent on us? 

            COL. WARREN:  So, last question from Gordon at Foreign Policy. 

            Q:  Back to the 2014 question, the commitment of troops after 2014, as you know, there's a frustration that the administration hasn't articulated any number.  And the zero option and all that aside, I'm curious -- you know, there's frustration from the Hill, from allies, from inside this building, why can't the administration say, "Here's our range," barring anything coming up, as you mentioned?  Is there a point of diminishing returns in terms of holding out on this number and not just throwing it out there and saying, "This is what we're probably going to do at this point"?  And also, are you confident that April will -- the elections will happen in April? 

            ACTING ASST. SEC. LAVOY:  Well, it's hard to be confident about events that will happen months into the future.  And I would just like to take your last question, make a point, and fully agree with the significance of that election.  As you look forward, the -- another strategic risk, this -- this gentleman mentioned the neighborhood.  I think that is a strategic risk.  If the neighbors can't get along, that could undermine the security gains in Afghanistan. 

            The other strategic risk, if the political transition does not occur effectively, you could have a fragmentation of elite consensus in the country, political consensus, that could have reverberations in the military forces.  It is a multi-ethnic, multi-tribal military force.  And so to some extent, like military forces in every country in the world, the cohesion of the force is largely dependent on the political cohesion of the society.  And the election could open up schisms that would be problematic, if the -- if the political transition doesn't take place well. 

            So now only do -- are we very hopeful that the election will take place and doing everything we can, particularly Jarrett and my colleagues over at State Department, who have the lead in the U.S. government for supporting the Afghans in that, to support them in this election, but it does have a very strong impact on the security forces. 

            And then you asked the other question on our presence in -- decision-making about our presence to Afghanistan post-2014.  It's a critical issue.  It's something that, you know, we get asked about by countries, leaders of countries all around the world.  The U.S. does have a position of leadership.  It's had a position of leadership in Afghanistan.  It does today.  And it's likely to have that position of leadership in the future. 

            We want to make sure that the decisions that -- that are reached are sound and based on full information in a very dynamic environment and something that, you know, Americans can know are the right decisions to provide for that continuing security in the region so that our interests are protected, so that the terrorist threat to the United States, which has diminished significantly in the last decade, will continue to diminish and will not reoccur in the future. 

            COL. WARREN:  Thank you guys very much.