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News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry

Presenters: Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, commanding general, Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan
December 08, 2005 9:20 AM EDT
News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry

            BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs):  Good morning, and welcome this morning.  I think many of you know our briefer here, but it's Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry.  He's the commanding general of the Combined Forces Command in Afghanistan.  He's got extensive experience in Afghanistan, having been -- previously he served as the U.S. security coordinator and chief of Office of Military Cooperation in Kabul.  He is here in Washington and has been kind enough to give us some of his time to give you a bit of an update, an operational update, on where things are at in Afghanistan and to answer some of your questions.  And so with that, let me just turn it right over to him.  Thank you. 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  Thanks, Bryan. 

 

            Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to provide an assessment of the situation in Afghanistan from a military perspective.  I'd like to briefly cover the contributions of our coalition forces to date and add as well a quick survey of the major challenges we will face in the coming year. 

 

            This is my second tour of duty in Afghanistan, and it's a distinct privilege to lead a tremendous group of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and civilians from over 20 nations as we contribute to and witness the historic drama that continues to unfold there. 

 

            My assessment of our progress to date should be viewed within the context of where we've been.  And even though much of my description will be a snapshot of the current situation, I often say watch "Afghanistan:  The Movie" to get a more accurate feel of just how far we've come. 

 

            Shortly after September the 11th, 2001, President Bush directed a military response against the terrorists that attacked our country. At that time, Afghanistan was under Taliban rule and was a haven for al Qaeda.  

 

            The mission then was twofold:  First, to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban regime that harbored them, and second, to set the conditions to prevent Afghanistan from ever again serving as a sanctuary for international terrorism. 

 

            The first task is being successfully executed.  Although the fighting continues, al Qaeda has been ejected from Afghanistan, and the Taliban has been toppled. 

 

            As for the second task, just consider where we were only four years ago.  Afghanistan at that time had endured two decades of brutal warfare, including the Soviet occupation, civil war and the Taliban's years of oppression.  Much of the population was heavily armed and factional fighting was rampant.  There was no nationally recognized security institutions.  Much of the infrastructure of the country had been devastated.  Roads, communications, power, education and health systems were destroyed.  There was a 20 percent literacy rate.  Women were denied access to schools and health care.  And I could go on. 

 

            Now, against that backdrop, consider where Afghanistan is today. The country now has a constitution.  Political processes have been formalized.  The country has a democratically elected president.  A representative National Assembly and provincial councils have been elected, and parliament will sit within the next two weeks for the first time in decades.  The Afghan National Army now numbers about 30,000 strong, and is a nationally recognized institution with a nationwide presence.  In fact, the Afghan National Army has completed its first deployment out of Afghanistan, which it did in support of the relief efforts to the Pakistan earthquake.  The Afghan National Police force is taking shape as well.  Roads, wells, schools and clinics are being built around the country.  Millions of children are now attending schools, many for the first time.  And just as important, there is a strong international consensus in place to continue this productive partnership with the Afghan people. 

 

            Clearly there's ample reason to be both proud and to be optimistic.  But before I get to your questions, I would like to briefly lay out some of the challenges we face as we move forward in the coming year. 

 

            First, we must continue the war against al Qaeda and its associated movements in full partnership with the Afghan national security forces and our coalition friends.  We will not pause in prosecuting our fight against this international threat. 

 

            Second, we -- and by we I mean here the United States, the coalition and the Afghans working in full partnership -- will continue to build the Afghan national security forces, including both the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.   

 

            We're emphasizing quality over quantity.  We're working to develop leadership and the organizations necessary for the Afghans to sustain their army and police forces.  And very importantly, we're building forces of which the Afghan people have confidence and will be proud. 

 

            Next, we must continue to work with the government of Afghanistan and the international community to improve governance and develop the nation's infrastructure.  This campaign's center of gravity is decreasingly in the military domain and increasingly in the domain of governance and economic development.  The London conference next month will be an important step in renewing the commitments of the international community and the government of Afghanistan to support these priorities. 

 

            The production and trafficking of the illegal narcotics remains a significant concern in Afghanistan.  Afghanistan and the international community are increasing their efforts to stop narco trafficking and to eliminate poppy cultivation.  And our military plays a supporting role in these efforts. 

 

            Just as we have seen, though, in other parts of the world, success here will require a long-term sustained campaign that includes providing viable alternatives to Afghan farmers.  This is a very complex undertaking especially given the degree of poverty and the broken infrastructure in Afghanistan. 

 

            Finally, I expect that many of you are aware that we continue to work in close partnership with NATO's International Security Assistance Force, and that we are planning a transition of responsibility for Regional Command South to NATO/ISAF, in the coming year.  NATO is already a major contributor to Afghanistan's security fielding nine provincial reconstruction teams and some 12,000 troops. The United States is a vital part of NATO and will continue to be a major contributor to NATO's mission in Afghanistan.  Political discussions are ongoing now to address this planned expansion, which will benefit all parties and most especially the Afghan people. 

 

            I hope this brief survey provides a useful update on the situation in Afghanistan, and now, I look forward to your questions. 

 

            Charlie? 

 

            Q      General Eikenberry, a couple of questions.  How many U.S. troops exactly are in Afghanistan right now? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  Charlie, we have about 18,000. 

 

            Q      And NATO foreign ministers today approved rules of engagement for the expanded NATO force.   Is this going to allow that force to go directly after the Taliban and al Qaeda as opposed to simply protecting sites?  And are you going to be able to cut the deployment of the brigade from the 10th Mountain Division because of that? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  The -- as you know, Charlie, there's political discussions that are still ongoing now within NATO into the exact configuration of how the command of the Regional Command South will look.  With regard to the rules of engagement, the expectation of NATO and its forces when it moves into Regional Command South -- that it will have the sufficient rules of engagement to vigorously fight the threat that exists in that area.   

 

            With regard to our own numbers, Charlie, I wouldn't want to speculate on exactly what the configuration of the force would be. Clearly, if the expansion down to Regional Command South moves forward, our force levels will be adjusted.  Now, having said that, we'll make contributions to that NATO force.  As I said during my opening remarks, when we talk about NATO, it's not NATO, the U.S. -- we are part of NATO.  We're one of the 26 members of NATO.  We'll be making a contribution to the forces in Regional Command South.  For instance, Army aviation forces will certainly continue to have a provincial reconstruction team that exists in Zabul province, and that will continue to be in place.  But with regard to the exact numbers with an expansion into Regional Command South, I wouldn't want to speculate, but clearly there'll be adjustments.  Those particular decisions, though, will be made by Secretary Rumsfeld and by the president. 

 

            Q      By you mean "clearly there will be adjustments" -- are there likely to be adjustments downward?  And do you have a contingency plan not to move the 10th Mountain Division Brigade in, based on whatever happens? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  Charlie, if we -- if the regional -- if NATO does move down to the south, clearly I could expect with the  adjustment of forces that there could be less U.S. presence in that region. 

 

            Q      General Eikenberry, following the Pakistan earthquake, a lot of people have wondered about Osama bin Laden.  What is your professional judgment?  Do you have any reason to believe he died in the earthquake? 

 

            Are you still going on the -- working on the assumption and basis he is alive?  What's your judgment on this? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  The -- we have no reason to believe that in the earthquake -- that Osama bin Laden was killed by that. 

 

            A couple of points about that, though, Barbara.  It's an important question.  It's an important question, I know, for the American people. 

 

            The first thing I'd like to say is that I had the honor on Monday of being in New York City at the World Trade Center site and the memorial there.  And I was able to present a flag that had been flown by our coalition command over our headquarters in Kabul and present it to the chief of police of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Chief Trusillo. 

 

            I say that because that's symbolic of the direct connection that our coalition, our United States forces in Afghanistan make to 9/11 and make to the al Qaeda.   

 

            I'd say that it's important, though, for us all to remember with regard -- when we talk about al Qaeda, this is not about one man. This is about a network.  It's about a movement.  And we've continued to make progress over the last several years, and we've continued to make progress over this past year in Afghanistan, with the attack against the leadership network of al Qaeda that's present in that part of the world, and our progress that we're making in the campaign against the associated movements, and working hard to change the conditions that give rise to that. 

 

            But back to bin Laden.  What I would say -- that it's important for the American people and it's important for the international community and it's important for Afghanistan in terms of bringing that man to justice.  And our forces will not rest until he is either found and captured, or killed. 

 

            Q      General, can I just ask you, then -- your working assumption, I take it, remains that he is alive today.  Do you still believe, does the U.S. military still believe he is somewhere inside Pakistan, along the border?   

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  Our working assumption is, Barbara, that he is alive today.  I will not speculate on his location. 

 

            Q      General, could you talk a little bit about the supporting role played by U.S. forces in the narcotics problem?   

 

            And also, you mentioned the viable alternatives for the farmers in Afghanistan.  Discuss that a little bit and the cost estimates of that. 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  Yeah.  The narco-trafficking problem and the problem that stems from the production of poppy in Afghanistan is immense. 

 

            I saw it just before I had a chance to come here this morning.  I had seen an ABC survey that was conducted in Afghanistan that had a lot of very positive findings in terms of the confidence of the Afghan people and the way things are moving forward.  It was quite interesting when they talked about the threat that they face today, they placed as the number two threat, the threat from narco trafficking.  So it has a -- it does represent a very significant threat to the future stability of Afghanistan and to their ability to stand up the institutions of governance and justice. 

 

            Now, with regard to the campaign that's being waged by the international community and by the United States, as you've pointed out in your question, this is a complex campaign.  There's a law enforcement dimension to it.  There's a dimension that has to do with eradication.  There's a dimension that has to do with providing alternative livelihoods to farmers.  There's a justice aspect to it. And there's an aspect of public information.  And the United States government is very broadly engaged in all of these facets:  our Department of Justice, the DEA, USAID, State Department and the military in support operations. 

 

            Now, the military, our role in the supporting operations includes several aspects.  First of all, we provide support for intelligence. We provide support if there is a interdiction operation or a law enforcement operation, depending upon the circumstances.  We can provide what we call in-extremist support, that would be casualty evacuation or medevac support, or we could provide close air support if it was required.  Very importantly, though, when we talk about the other aspects outside of law enforcement with our military, you know that we have these provincial reconstruction teams -- we have 12 of them -- throughout eastern and southern Afghanistan, and they play a very important role when we talk about the alternative livelihood programs, with the outreach of the governors and the leaders of Afghanistan to try to offer alternatives to the farmers. 

 

            Q      Did anyone come up with a dollar figure on the alternatives, what that's going to cost countrywide? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  No, but we have that.  And I think that after this, if we could -- if we could, we'll try to get that to you.  Okay? 

 

            Please? 

 

            Q       Just along those lines, is there any discussion or further discussion about spraying for eradication?  And would the military play any role? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  No. 

 

            Q      No on both? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  Yes.  (Laughter) 

 

            Q      General, there's been some recent detail on the -- that's come out on the July 11th prison break in Bagram.  And I was wondering if you might be able to tell us a bit about -- what you can tell us about what had happened there. 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  Yeah, you're referring to -- on the night of the 10th and then extending into the 11th at the -- what we call the Bagram theatre internment facility -- the escape of four detainees that occurred.  We had announced back in July, several weeks after the escape, there were several contributing factors. 

 

            First of all, physical security at the interment facility was inadequate.  And then secondly, with regard to the deployment of the security force and the supervision of the security force, it was inadequate.  We immediately took steps, then, to improve the physical security of the interment facility.  We've also re-looked at our training procedures for the security forces, and we took administrative and disciplinary action against members of that security force. 

 

            Q      Can you tell us what disciplinary action was taken? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  No. 

 

            Q      Why not? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  We don't talk about the specifics of our disciplinary action. 

 

            Q      Can you tell us at least if the folks who had disciplinary action, if they were U.S. troops or if they were local folks working in the -- 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  They were U.S. forces. 

 

            Q      General, when you look at the training of the Afghan army and then you look over at the situation which is unfolding in Iraq, you say that you've emphasized quality over quantity.  Do you think that that was an error, flipping the process around in Iraq?  Also, what's your assessment of the way things stand there? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  I don't want to speculate on Iraq.  What my responsibilities are, are for Afghan national security forces.  But as we move forward with the fielding of security forces -- and here I will talk about Afghanistan -- I think it's very understandable, when you go back to the baseline that I talked about here, that we're beginning with a 20 percent literacy rate in the case of the military -- absolutely no military traditions that was understood by all of the military members of the Afghan National Army.   You know, you look at their past, you have some with a Western tradition, some with the Soviet tradition, some with the Mujaheddin tradition, some that had been under the Taliban years.  Trying to put all of this together within the context also of a very broken infrastructure, it's logical that you're going to -- and I think it's very understandable that as the program moves forward, you're going to have adjustments.  At the  end of the day, it's not about the quality of the force, it's about the effects that that force can achieve on the ground. 

 

            With the National Afghan Army, one of the important effects that they're achieving on the ground is that they are a very respected institution and their national presence gives the Afghan people tremendous hope and confidence that their nation is coming back together.  So as we move forward working in partnership with the Afghans to look at those kind of adjustments in the program, you can expect those to occur. 

 

            Q      If I could just follow up on that, you said, I think, if I understood you correctly, that the police are lagging behind in terms of their development; is that right?  And why does that seem to be? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  The police program, there is a very strong program that is under way currently.  Over the last several years, there's been a great training program for the police, but it's now time to shift to a program which not only emphasizes training but looks comprehensively at the provisioning of equipment for the police, communications equipment for the police, mentoring for the police, and that program's in place and it's starting to gain some momentum right now. 

 

            Q      General, this transition to a NATO command in Afghanistan is occurring at the same time that there's been a shift in -- or seems to be a shift in insurgent tactics; more IEDs, suicide bombings.  I think that there have been a couple of incidents where helicopters have been downed as a result of ground fire.  What’s going on there? And are these tactics being imported from Iraq?  Do you see links in terms of the people who are advising them, training them?  What's going on there? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  Important questions, a question that, of course, we continue to ask ourselves every day.  A couple of points, though, that make -- first of all, let me come specifically to your question about linkages between Iraq and Afghanistan.  What we would say right now is that we have no concrete evidence about, let's say, fighters or facilitators moving from Iraq into Afghanistan and conducting direct training of the Taliban forces or the associated movements of al Qaeda.  Foreign funding continues to be made available to those forces, but we're not seeing a direct linkage, as I said, between fighters and facilitators and trainers coming from Iraq into Afghanistan. 

 

            Now, with the trends that we see, if I could make a couple of points.  First of all, it's important to remember that with the growth of the Afghan national security forces -- the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police working in partnership with the coalition forces and their forces operating independently -- these forces now, these combined forces, are able to operate in areas that previously -- in previous years we weren't able to move into.  So in places, say, in northern parts of Southern Afghanistan, traditionally points of Taliban influence; points in Eastern Afghanistan, traditionally places of Taliban influence, that are very difficult to get to, mountainous areas, we're now able to move into those areas.  So, indeed, there has been more fighting over this past year, but there's been much more fighting that's been initiated by Afghan forces and by our own coalition forces and working in combination. 

 

            The second, with regard to the tactics that the enemy's using, if you look at it from a military perspective, the enemy this spring and summer in some of their major engagements against our coalition forces and the Afghan army, when they massed their forces, they suffered some very decisive defeats.  If you look at it from a Taliban military perspective, what's happened over this last several years?  Just the drama that I said in my opening remarks that's unfolded -- constitution, democratically elected president, democratically elected parliament.  If you're on their side and looking at the trends that are out there right now, the tide of history is moving against you. So a shift in tactics is not necessarily a sign of strength.  My belief is that a shift in tactics right now is very much a sign of weakness. 

 

            Q      But we've seen in Iraq how disruptive the suicide bombings and IEDs are.  And, I mean, this seems to be something new in Afghanistan.  Aren't you concerned that -- you know, that you could find yourself in a situation that's sliding towards an Iraqi scenario? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  We see no trends that -- we see no indications that such is the case.  Now, you're correct again, there have been an increase of IEDs, there has been increase of suicide bombers.  What I would say is suicide bombing is clearly against Afghan culture.  The numbers that we're looking at right now -- if you look at the size of Afghanistan -- are not extraordinary.  Are we taking measures, working with the Afghans, to combat those tactics?  Of course we are.  We're very vigorous in our pursuit of counter-IED tactics.  We're sharing our techniques and our training with the Afghan National Army and with our coalition partners.  We're working hard on our intelligence to  break these cells that are developing the IEDs, and we continue to take the fight to the enemy. 

 

            But the broader trends that are out there with Afghanistan, when you look at the huge developments that are taking place, the big positive steps that we're witnessing there, our sense is that the Afghan people are winning.   

 

            And again, I mentioned this ABC poll that I just read when -- before I came out here -- very interesting poll to look at, because who's the most important person to answer the question of, "Are we winning?" It's the Afghan people.  That poll's extraordinary in the degree of confidence the Afghan people have right now about the way things are going.   

 

            Q      General, you mentioned that poll, and in that, it says nine of 10 view Osama bin Laden unfavorably, as unpopular as they view the Taliban.  In that environment, it seems ripe for tips about senior al Qaeda and particularly Osama bin Laden.  Have there been an increase or has there been an increase in tips? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  I would not -- I don't want to comment on intelligence here. 

 

            Q      Well, can you talk about -- we've seen in Iraq how this -- that environment turns tips up, the numbers, about Zarqawi's location. Can you just talk about whether the Afghan people are providing information? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  What I would say within Afghanistan, where the fight in Afghanistan is against -- a lot of it's against the associated movements, the Taliban forces, a network that's called Hakhani network, a group that's called the Hekmachar network.   

 

            What I would tell you is that the Afghan people, over time, their willingness to come forward to Afghan national security forces and to us and to provide useful information -- that has steadily increased. And it has a lot to do with the conditions that exist on the ground.   

 

            These areas that I talked about in -- that we're operating in for the first time, in which there has been, I'd say, a Taliban influence over a period of time -- the people there will need reassurance -- as the Afghan government reestablishes their control and the Afghan national security forces operate in that area, they'll need reassurance.  And then we see, over a period of time, that with that confidence comes some very -- some very great help from them. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  There's time for about one more, I would say. 

 

            Q      General? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  Jim? 

 

            Q      Can you update on the situation in Afghanistan vis-à-vis two things that have come up recently for Iraq?  One, do you have folks under your command who place stories in the Afghan media?  If so, are they are properly identified as such, and do you pay for that placement?   

 

            And the other story is, what directive, if any, have you given to your troops in Afghanistan regarding their responsibility to stop any abuse that they might see of prisoners by the Afghan forces? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  The first question was with regard to the -- the information that is provided to the media.  We've done a review of our own procedures.  When I get back to Afghanistan, I'll take a careful look at this.  But what I would tell you at this conjuncture, that I have no evidence that the procedures you're talking about, that we have used those in Afghanistan. 

 

            The second was with regard to instructions to our forces.  Yes, I do have instructions that stand with our forces with regard to any of our soldiers in the coalition that were to see abuse by Afghan national security forces, an obligation to stop those and an obligation to report those to our chain of command. 

 

            Q      Use force, sir, to stop it? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  I'm not aware of any situation we've had where that has been necessary.  I would also tell you that a very critical part of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police training program does include human rights and how to handle properly detainees. 

 

            Q      General, the 6,000 NATO troops that are expecting to go to southern Afghanistan, you said they'll have sufficient rules of engagement to fight the enemy.  Is it accurate to write they will conduct combat operations? 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  I wouldn't want to characterize that for NATO. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Very good.  Thank you all. 

 

            Q      Thank you. 

 

            Q      Thank you, General. 

 

            GEN. EIKENBERRY:  Thank you.

 

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