CMDR. BILL SPEAKS: Good morning here in the briefing room, and good evening in -- I'm sorry, in Bagram.
I'd like to welcome Major General James McConville to the briefing -- Pentagon briefing room.
Major General McConville is the commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force 101st Regional Command-East and the 101st Airborne Division Air Assault.
Major General McConville commanded the 4th Brigade, 1st Cavalry in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and served as the deputy commanding general support for 101st Airborne Division Air Assault, CJTF-101 Regional Command-East in Afghanistan during OEF from 2008 to 2009.
Prior to assuming command of the 101st, he was the Army's chief of Office of the Legislative Liaison.
This is Major General McConville's first time here with us in the Pentagon briefing room. He will provide brief opening remarks and take your questions.
With that, sir, I'll turn it over to you.
MAJOR GENERAL JAMES MCCONVILLE: Well, thank you, and good evening and greetings from Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.
And we're very pleased to be here tonight. I've been the commanding general of Regional Command-East for a little over five months now.
And before I take your questions, I'd just like to make a few opening comments.
And really, from -- by way of perspective, as I describe things, it's really based on my time here from 2008 to 2009 during a 15-month tour with the 101st Airborne Division.
And during that time frame, we did most of the fighting. The Afghan security forces were just developing. They were a nascent force. Most of our operations were un-partnered, and during that time frame we did most of the fighting.
When the 101st Airborne Division came back next time, 2010, 2011 with then-General John Campbell, the Afghan security forces had grown both in quality and quantity. And so, the American forces and coalition forces in Regional Command-East were able to partner. In fact, they had a term, they call it “shohna ba shohna,” and they fought side-by-side. This time when we've come back, the Afghan security forces have significantly improved their capacities, their capabilities, and we have moved into an advise-and-assist role.
And in that advise-and-assist role, the Afghan security forces are in the lead. They are doing most of the fighting. And really, for us, what winning looks like is getting them to take lead responsibility for security so by 2014 they are actually in position to have full responsibility for security.
When we were here last time, we used to have brigade combat teams. Now, what we have is we have security force assistance brigades that actually pair up at the corps level, at the brigade level and in some cases at the kandak level, and they work very closely with the Afghan security forces advising and assisting them.
We're also -- right now we're starting to bring our forces down. When we arrived here in March we had 58 bases. Right now we have 17 bases and 11 assistance platforms.
And, you know, one of the interesting that I've seen since I've come back here, is there's been a lot of changes with the Afghan people. They've had the opportunity to go to school, the kids for over the last 12 years. There's been a lot of economic development. They've had access to health care.
And one of the interesting that I've noticed, the kids are playing a lot more sports, which I found very interesting. Cricket, soccer, volleyball -- a chance to get out there and do some of the things that we -- I did not see when I was here in 2008 to 2009.
The Afghan security forces inside of Regional Command-East, we have two corps here, the 201st and the 203rd. They conduct corps-size operations. They do combined operations. They integrate artillery into the operations. They do -- in fact, the 201st just did the largest air assault in recent Afghan history with six Mi-17s and two Mi- 35s into Hesarak. And that operation is going on as we speak.
One of the things, the tasks that they're working very closely is integrating. We have a concept called "laid security framework" here, which is made up of the different Afghan security pillars. And they have an organization called the operations coordination center at both the provincial and regional level.
And they use those organizations to closely coordinate and synchronize the Afghan pillars of security, and what that is allowing them to do is become united -- get unity of effort between all the pillars and making them a very strong defense for the enemy.
The enemy, what we're seeing right now is the enemies of the Afghan people are challenging, they're contesting, at least the Afghan security forces in Regional Command-East. They are -- have some challenges. We do not think, nor the Afghans, that they've been able to meet their objectives for this -- for this fighting season.
And they’ve also starting to have a problem now, as we've leaned our forces down and our forces are no longer present in the numbers that it used to be, they used to be able to say that they were fighting foreign occupiers. And they can no longer really say that anymore because they're fighting Afghan security forces and they're fighting against the Afghan people.
Right now, we're at a key and decisive time. Ramazan has just finished. We're expecting a spike in violence. With about 60 days left in the fighting season, we expect the enemies of the Afghan people to come out and try to achieve those objectives that they've not been able to achieve.
I think we're at a very critical time. This is the first time that the Afghan security forces have been in the lead during the entire fighting season. And they believe they're winning, and I tend to agree with them.
The other thing which is coming up, which is certainly of concern to all, is the bilateral security agreement. That enduring commitment is, you know, at least on the ground in Regional Command-East, as I've talked to commanders and the people, is key to maintain the confidence of the Afghan security forces and the Afghan people.
And just before I take questions, I'd just like to, you know, tell the American people out there that their sons and daughters are doing an incredible job over here during a very challenging mission. And they're making a difference every single day.
And to that, I will open it up to your questions.
CMDR SPEAKS: Sir, before I take questions, I just want to point out to the audience, I'm sorry about the audio difficulties we experienced earlier, but I will make sure that you get the entirety of Major General McConville's remarks.
Q: General, this is Bob Burns from AP. Having heard what you said about the progress that the Afghan security forces have made, what would you estimate -- how much beyond 2014 do you think they will continue to need some foreign military support, assistance and training?
MAJ. GEN. MCCONVILLE: I think right now it -- they're going to need it beyond 2014. They're making progress every single day. I think they're winning.
And what I would suggest is the stronger the -- I believe in the Afghan security force -- I believe right now that they're winning and that they cannot be defeated by the enemies of Afghanistan.
And what we're seeing right now is their ability to run the score up. They're winning, but not but a significant over-match or a significant score that the enemies of Afghanistan feel that they have a chance to continue fighting.
So as they get better every single day. And in certain areas, like the Afghan Air Force, it's going to take a few more years before they're at fully operational capability. And that's going to give them the capability to be so strong that the enemies of the Afghan -- of Afghanistan are not going to be willing to continue the conflict.
Q: A little bit more on the -- a little bit more specific about the time frame as you see it from -- from R.C.-East. In addition to the Air Force, do you think the Afghan security forces will need foreign assistance for a couple of years or for a decade in order to continue to be over -- to be winning against the Taliban?
MAJ. GEN. MCCONVILLE: I think I'd probably put the terms of a couple years.
Q: Andrea Shalal-Esa with Reuters. I wanted to ask you said that you think that even the Afghan security forces don't think they've achieved their goals, their targets for this year or this fighting season. Could you -- could you be more specific? Where are they falling short? What is it that makes you feel that you are -- you know, they're winning but there's not an over-match; they're not -- it's not decisive? So what sort of problems are you seeing that you could explain?
MAJ. GEN. MCCONVILLE: Now, what I thought I said -- I'll just make sure -- I thought I was pretty clear -- is -- what I said was the enemies of Afghanistan had not achieved their objectives for this fighting season. Maybe I didn't make that clear, but that's what I thought I said. But if I didn't say that I'll say it again.
And then as far as the Afghan security forces, I believe -- I think it's more important what they believe -- is they believe they're winning right now. And especially with the Afghan National Army, they've had some major successes as far as major operations that they've done both with the 201st Corps and the 203rd Corps, they've gone into places like Wanat, into -- along Hesarak, into Marawara, into Azra, places that historically they haven't been. And they've been able to go in there and clear and hold those areas which they weren't able to do before.
Q: What does it -- sir, just to press you, I mean, you say that you're -- you know, they're -- they think they're winning, but you don't think it's a significant -- by a significant margin. So where do you see shortcomings? Where do you see areas that they still need to improve?
MAJ. GEN. MCCONVILLE: When I say that we're not winning by a significant margin, if at the end of today the enemy of Afghanistan thought that they were losing by such a significant margin, then they would have stopped the conflict. So the conflict continues. So there're still enemies of Afghanistan out there that for one reason or another, they think that they can continue to hurt innocent people in Afghanistan and continue to do high-profile attacks into Kabul.
So as far as what can the Afghan security forces do better, in -- in areas such as the Air Force, in areas such as combined arms operations they can continue to improve. And they have made tremendous progress over the last six months since we've been here and really over the last couple of years.
Q: Hi, general. This is Kristina Wong from The Washington Times. Thanks for speaking with us.
Can you elaborate a little bit more on the spike of violence that we're expecting over the next 60 days? Can you just describe what we should be seeing, and whether or not the Afghans can handle that, and what types of things you'll be looking at in terms of whether the ANSF are adequately handling that?
MAJ. GEN. MCCONVILLE: Well, we've taken a look at -- you know, we've kind have been looking through the entire fighting season. And usually the fighting season in Afghanistan starts in March, around March 15th -- that's what we saw this year -- and then progress is through September to October time frame depending on the weather conditions and really the political situation.
What we've seen so far is the enemies of Afghanistan really have not had any successful type operations. So we're kind of expecting -- and that's what we do in the military, is we kind of plan for the worst; that they're going to have to do something, because they -- you know, they haven't met their objectives. They would like to do some high-profile attacks, hopefully get into Kabul and maybe blow up some things, maybe hurt some innocent people. They'd like to maybe assassinate some senior leadership. And they would like to attack our troops.
And so we anticipate that, and we're prepared to do those type things. And at the same time, the Afghan security forces, like they've done the entire fighting season, are going to be in the lead and they're going to try to block these attacks.
Q: Just to follow up. We can't make any definitive decision or definitive assessment of the ANSF until after those 60 days of whether -- how they did this fighting season?
MAJ. GEN. MCCONVILLE: Well, I think -- you know -- you know, when I first came here people asked me, 'Well, how are the Afghan security forces doing?' I think it's best to describe -- to see how they did. And I've been watching this year since we've been here -- they've had some major events so far that have been an indicator of how well they're doing.
One of the first major events we had was the Afghan New Year. And during that time frame a lot of people go out, and there was a good opportunity for the enemy to go ahead and attack. And the Afghan military was able to secure that day. And then they had a major Islamic festival in Ghazni. Again, the enemy was trying to disrupt that, and the Afghan security forces were able to secure that. They had a victory day, another major event, that when we were here last time and the enemy was able to disrupt. The Afghan security forces were able to secure that.
So they have had multiple events along the way that have shown that they are doing a good job. But as a military commander -- we have more days left. And what we need to do is stay focused on the mission so we don't allow the enemy to have any type of success during this fighting season.
Q: General, this is Carlo Munoz with The Hill.
Just again, following up on your comment about the spike in violence. I wanted to get your assessment on how do you see the flow of foreign fighters into eastern Afghanistan for this particular fighting season. One kandak commander near -- I think it was the Khost-Gardez Pass -- said that the number of foreign fighters now outnumber the number of Afghan fighters in his particular area.
So -- and I have a follow-up, as well.
MAJ. GEN. MCCONVILLE: As far as -- what's interesting about the -- there's an interesting narrative going on here on foreign fighters versus local fighters. You know, each side -- you know, the enemy used to say that they were fighting us, foreign occupiers. And now, as we move forward, that -- that, kind of, narrative no longer holds true that they're fighting foreign occupiers, because they're actually fighting Afghans. And so we do see some foreign fighters as advisers helping the enemies of Afghanistan conduct their operations, but we don't see very large numbers of those advisers.
Q: Are those numbers possibly increasing as part of this -- as part of this anticipated spike of violence, is that -- is that a track you see playing out as the fighting season comes to a close?
MAJ. GEN. MCCONVILLE: Well, what's interesting is -- as we look -- we've actually seen a decrease in the violence so far as we worked our way through Ramadan. And so where see said, it could continue to go down, but what I'm planning for is the worst. So if it doesn't spike then things went well. So -- but I want to plan for the spike, and the Afghans are planning for the spike and have major operations planned coming out of Ramazan so they can blunt any type of enemy offensive if that happens.
Q: Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg News. I had a couple questions about Pakistan.
Can you compare and contrast the level of effort the Pakistan military has undertaken against Afghanistan focused insurgents in the safe havens, in the sanctuaries? Compare -- contrast the last seven or eight months with maybe 2008, 2009. Has the level of effort increased greatly or remained the same, or dropped off?
MAJ. GEN. MCCONVILLE: Well, when we -- you know, one of the things we're seeing with Pakistan and Afghanistan is the importance of the constructive relationship.
And I don't have full visibility of what the Pakistani military is doing in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. I really don't have the capability to say, 'Hey, this is what's different from 2008 and 2009.'
I know, both countries share the same goals of having a safe and secure border. What we've seen over the last month or two is actually -- and what we think is very important is to have a constructive relationship, a constructive bilateral relationship between the Afghans and the Pakistani military on the border.
We just found in the province of Paktika, which we thought was a pretty major event, was that the Pakistani military and the Afghan military had what we call border flag meeting, where they met together on the border, they discussed some of the challenges that both were having on either side with insurgencies -- insurgents getting in between them. And they were able to work out coordination measures so they were able to deal with the insurgents right on the border. And we're starting to see some more of those things. They're going to have those scheduled. So both the Pakistanis and Afghans understand the importance of working together to combat the insurgency that they have.
Q: Well, then operationally, what movement are you seeing between -- cross-border between Afghan-focused insurgents in the sanctuaries into your region? Is there fairly consistent back-and-forth, or is it more like a trickle these days?
MAJ. GEN. MCCONVILLE: Yeah, I don't see major movements coming across the border right now.
Q: Sir, Richard Sisk for Military.com.
Sir, you said you're down from 58 bases to 17 in R.C.-East, and 11 assisted platform. What do you mean by "assisted platform?” And also, sir, incoming down from 58 to 17? Can you -- can you say -- can you -- can you tell us what the -- what the idea is in R.C.-East as far as withdrawals between now and the end of the year? And does the delay -- or at least the difficulties in reaching a bilateral security agreement, does that affect your withdrawal plans?
MAJ. GEN. MCCONVILLE: Let me start with kind of our concept for advising and assisting. And what we have found is when -- you know, I would describe this fighting season that, you know, we've been fighting with Afghan fists. The Afghans have been in the lead. They've been working these operations. They're doing most of the combat operations. But they appreciate our advice and our assistance.
So as we brought the force down, we wanted to stay with the -- with the Afghans as long as we can, so we went to a concept called the assistance platform. And if you can imagine, we used to have U.S.-only bases, and within the U.S. bases was just only our soldiers. Well, as we begin to transition security to the Afghans, we're actually transitioning these bases to the Afghan security forces. So they're taking over the bases, so they can hold the areas that we previously were conducting combat operations in.
So rather than just leaving suddenly, we want to do a transition, we go to an assistance platform. And what the assistance platform means is we keep a small portion of the base and keep our advisory team and security team at that base. And then the Afghans actually sign for the base. And they learn how to contract, how to really run the base. They go through all the -- you know, the logistics and the contracting.
So when we're -- when we leave, they're ready to run the whole base, which in itself, is kind of a challenge. So what we do is we bring -- and we've done this with multiple bases, with other assisted platforms -- but as we transfer the base to the Afghans, we go to an assistance platform, and that allows us to stay with the base and make sure that they can actually run it. And then we eventually leave.
And in some cases we leave what we call a "warm base," which is, again, a small area at that base so we can come back and do some specialized training or advise and assisting as the Afghans need it.
And so as we come down, you know, what we're doing is, we're slowly passing the security responsibilities to the Afghan security forces. And as we come down, what we're doing is we've gone to what we call a provincial hybrid advisory team. And what does that mean, is for each province, we're going to stay over the next period of time, at least till the elections. And what we will do is we'll advise -- we'll have one base in each province, just about. And what we'll do is, we'll advise the Afghans at the brigade level, at the police headquarters level, and also, at the Operations Coordination Center Provincial, which is an organization that helps coordinate all the Afghan security elements that are inside the province.
So from there we can have a pretty good idea of how things are going. If they need our assistance or if they need our advice, we're in a position to help them, but at the same time, they are in the lead and they are moving toward full responsibility for security.
Q: Sir, just want to follow up on two things. One is -- you may have mentioned this at the beginning, but we couldn't hear you. Can you say what that reduction in the number of bases translates into in terms of the number of forces? So you're down to 17 bases and 11 assistance platforms. How many troops does that translate into in the change?
But then also, on the Afghan air force, can you talk to us for a moment about the delay in getting those light attack planes to the Afghan forces, and to what extent that is impeding your, you know -- or their ability to get up to speed? Is that one of the factors? Or what exactly is the problem that you see with the Afghan air force?
MAJ. GEN. MCCONVILLE: Well, let me take -- I'll take the first question and talk about the numbers.
We were about 18,000 soldiers in RC-East when we arrived here. We're down to a little over 12,000. The force will come down to meet the -- by February for 34,000. And that will be -- I won't get the exact numbers of where those forces are, but that's for all of -- for Afghanistan. And then there'll be decisions made after that how the rest of the force comes down based on senior leader discussions.
Now, as far as -- with the Afghan air force -- what I can talk a little more about is on the -- you know, how we work with them with their Mi-17s and their attack helicopters. And they have -- you know, what we're seeing over the last six months is some significant progress. And what we've seen is -- when we -- when we first came here, they really did not have the capability to do casualty evacuation by their helicopters. They really were just starting to do resupply operations with their helicopters. They did not have the capability to do air assaults with their helicopters or secure those.
And I kind of mentioned it, you know -- and so, they have made tremendous progress in that. They just did a pretty major air assault by anyone's standards with six Mi-17s and two Mi-35s with four turns of troops going into Hesarak, which is -- which was a pretty good operation for a new air force.
They are starting to go to the most difficult places and resupply their troops. They're starting to go and casualty evac their troops. And so that's coming along.
What they need is -- again, as they move forward, they're going to want some more close-air support, and whether they -- that's provided by helicopters or that's provided by light attack aircraft -- or in some ways, what we're trying to do is develop the capabilities that they have internal to help mitigate that. And I'll give you two examples.
One is on casualty evacuation. They don't -- they are never going to have the helicopters or the capability that we have in our military. When we have a wounded soldier in our military, we send a medevac helicopter, because we're not from the area, so we're going to send that medevac helicopter within the golden hour, pick up our soldiers, and bring them to one of our medical facilities.
But when I'm back in Boston, if I get hurt, I don't get in a helicopter. I go to a local medical facility, unless it's a real serious type incident, or in a place where I can't get to it. Well, for them, we're developing the same type of thing.
If they get hurt and they're in their village or they're in their town, the first thing we want them to do is go ahead to use the ambulances they have and their vehicles to go ahead and move their casualties to the local medical facility, and then get treatment there. And then if they need to go further, they can bring in helicopters, they can do those type things. And they are starting to do that. And we're starting to see a lot of progress.
The second thing I want to talk about is their capability to use indirect fire. And what I meant by indirect fire is that they have -- they now have the capability to shoot D-30 howitzers. And they can shoot them in the indirect mode. They also have 82 millimeter mortars and they have 60 millimeter mortars, which allows them to get over-match in the indirect fire -- with the indirect fire systems against the enemy.
So in some cases, that can help them out. Where we may use close air support, they can use their howitzers and their mortars to make up for that.
And long term, would they -- would they want more close-air support? Absolutely. Do they want more attack helicopters? That would give them much more over-match in the future. And that's going to take some time for them to get there.
Q: General, it’s Carlo Munoz with The Hill.
Just wanted to follow up on your comment about this particular fighting season. You said ANSF and U.S. forces were fighting with an Afghan fist. But it seems like some of your units in the area are still conducting operations with no support from ANSF or local police. Now, most of these missions are reconnaissance surveillance-type operations, street-level engagement sort of things.
But what I wanted to ask you is, how long do you foresee those sorts of missions continuing, considering the Afghans are in the lead in your area and across the country?
MAJ. GEN. MCCONVILLE: Are there any more questions?
CMDR SPEAKS: Could you repeat that, Carlo?
Q: General, it's Carlo Munoz again, with The Hill. I just had another quick question.
You talk about the Afghans being in the lead for this entire fighting season. But some of your forces are still running operations with no support from the ANSF. Most of those are reconnaissance surveillance missions, some are street level engagements, but they're still going out on their own.
Do you foresee that continuing on the run-up to the drawdown? Or do you see those missions stopping once your troop numbers drop below a certain point?
MAJ. GEN. MCCONVILLE: (OFF-MIC).
MAJ. GEN. MCCONVILLE: I’ll make some closing remarks, if that’s the case.
You know, the enemies of Afghanistan used to say that we had the watches and that they had time. But with all the development that's gone over the last 12 years here in Afghanistan, I think the Afghan -- the Afghan people would say that they now have the watches and they don't have the time for the enemies of Afghanistan.
And I'll just close with that I'm real proud of the soldiers, sailors and airmen that I have the opportunity to serve with every single day. They're doing great things, and their parents and family members and friends should be all very proud of what they're doing. I certainly am.
Good to see you on the high ground. Air assault.
CMDR SPEAKS: Thank you, sir.