(Note: General Champion appears via video teleconference from Afghanistan.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): There he is. General Champion, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me?
GEN. CHAMPION: Yes, Bryan, I can.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, good morning, and thank you for joining us. And to the press corps here, thank you for being with us this morning.
Today we have Brigadier General Greg Champion with us from Bagram. He is the deputy commanding general for Operations and Intelligence of the Combined Joint Task Force 76. General Champion and his forces are responsible for our operations in the southeastern half of Afghanistan, including Bagram Airfield, Kandahar, Jalalabad, as well as other areas.
He has spoken to you before, I know. Early in August, I think, was the last time. He's prepared to give us an operational update. As all of you are aware of, there's an important election that's taking place this weekend in Afghanistan. And while there's been lots of other news in the past week or so, we thought it would be helpful to get an overview of operations there, as well as what the military is doing to support those election activities that are going to take place this weekend.
So with that, General Champion's going to give a brief overview, and then we'll get right into the questions.
Over to you, general.
GEN. CHAMPION: All right. Good morning. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I'm going to give you really a very brief statement here, and then I will open it up for your questions.
On Monday, the people of Afghanistan will wake up to a brighter future, after successfully voting in their new leaders. We have a great historical milestone ahead of us -- the national assembly elections. While this great milestone is a great milestone for our mission, this is also a great turning point for the people of Afghanistan, who will have the opportunity to experience democracy at work for the second time.
CJT- -- (audio break).
(Ringing is heard.)
Q That's him.
MR. WHITMAN: He's calling in. (Laughter.)
General, Bryan Whitman. Can you hear me?
GEN. CHAMPION: I've got you, Bryan.
MR. WHITMAN: I'm sure that was a very enlightening, overview and statement that you had, but we actually lost you. I think I can tell you where we lost you, and that was about at the point where you were talking about the people of Afghanistan being able to experience democracy for a second time. So it was very much up at the beginning of your statement. If you'd like to try to start from somewhere around there, we'd be grateful.
GEN. CHAMPION: Well, that's actually about halfway through, so I'll pick it up and we'll finish it up, and then we'll turn the floor open for questions.
We have transitioned -- CJTF-76 has transitioned from our Operation Determined Resolve, which was focused on capturing and killing the enemies of Afghanistan, as well as setting the conditions for a successful election, into Operation Vigilant Sentinel. Vigilant Sentinel was designed to support the government of Afghanistan and the Joint Election Management Body by providing a safe and secure environment for the voters, along with our continuing pursuit of enemy forces that were trying to disrupt the election. We have also continued during Vigilant Sentinel our civil military operations reconstruction operations. So we have not stopped any operations, and have continued to help the country of Afghanistan in its election preparation.
I want to stress that during the election phase, our coalition task force will serve as a supporting role to the government of Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army, and the Afghan National Police. Though we anticipate attempts to disrupt the election process, we anticipate a very successful election. The people of Afghanistan are tired of this war, and will show that by voting on Sunday.
And with that, I'll be glad to answer any questions that you may have.
MR. WHITMAN: All right. We'll get right into it with Will.
If you'd please identify yourself and your news organization because they're not seeing us on that end.
Q General, this is Will Dunham with Reuters. Can you tell me, are there plans under discussion right now for a roughly 20-percent reduction in the U.S. force level in Afghanistan, and under what circumstance would U.S. forces be able to draw down the number of troops?
GEN. CHAMPION: Any issues regarding the reduction of troops and forces in Afghanistan is the responsibility of the secretary of defense and our command authorities. At this time, I'm not prepared to discuss any conditions that would lead to troop reductions or if there are any troop reductions. That's clearly an issue for the secretary of defense and higher authorities.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go over to Kathleen. Welcome back.
Q Kathleen Koch with CNN. General Champion, can you tell us what attempts to disrupt the election you are anticipating, if any, and how you are prepared to meet those?
GEN. CHAMPION: Well, during the past few months, we've seen an escalation of incidents across the country. However, what we're seeing is still less than what we saw last year in the run-up to the presidential election. The enemy combatants have stated that they want to disrupt the elections by creating a spectacular event, which would be probably addressed towards coalition forces or government of Afghanistan itself. That could be done through bombings, IEDs, those types of events. We have seen the incidence of IEDs go up, but not to the degree that they're looking for. During this process, though, we have been able to disrupt them by continuing our operations while the elections process is going on.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go over to Nick.
Q General, Nick Simeone at Fox News. What can you say about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden?
GEN. CHAMPION: I really can't tell you anything about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. We have not heard or seen anything about him. Quite frankly, we're totally concentrating on rebuilding Afghanistan and this election that's coming up on Sunday.
Q (Off mike) -- somewhere in Afghanistan? (Pause.) (Off mike) -- heard me, Bryan.
MR. WHITMAN: The follow-on question, general, was do you believe that he is still in Afghanistan?
GEN. CHAMPION: I don't know where he is. I really don't have a belief one way or the other. Our fight is against his ideology, against what al Qaeda's trying to do, and that's what our task force is trying to accomplish here in Afghanistan.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, Otto.
Q Otto Kreisher, Copley News Service. General, when you say you're going to be supporting of the government and the Afghan forces for the election, could you expand on that? Do you intend to stay away from the voting places, keep your forces on fast alert, quick response, or how are you going to do the support role?
GEN. CHAMPION: During the course of the elections itself, the government of Afghanistan and its security forces are the principal supporters for security. The Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army will form levels of security around all of the polling stations, approximately 6,000 polling stations in Afghanistan. Coalition forces will be out in the field in support of the elections. We're there for any kind of super emergencies, but the actual security for the voting process will be handled by the government of Afghanistan.
MR. WHITMAN: Jeff, go ahead.
Q Hi, general, Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes. Can you give us an idea of how many helicopters you have in Afghanistan versus how many may be in Iraq?
GEN. CHAMPION: I'm really not prepared to get into quantities of equipment, types of helicopters and our number of helicopters. I will tell you that we have a sufficient amount of helicopters in this country to carry out our missions here.
Q (Off mike) -- criticism seems to be that if you're at a base, you got to wait a couple weeks for a helicopter to come around to pick you up. Do you still feel that the amount of helos in country is adequate?
GEN. CHAMPION: Absolutely. I mean, there's occasions where people might get stuck some places in this country, but to conduct our operations here in Afghanistan, we have a sufficient amount.
Q Yes, general, this is Vince Crawley with the Army Times newspapers. You said you have evolved from more of a combat operation against insurgents to supporting the force. Could you give me an idea of the percentage of troops who are still involved in the combat operation?
GEN. CHAMPION: Well, when I say we've -- we're focusing on the elections, clearly that's our point, but at no time are we shut down from conducting operations against enemy forces here in Afghanistan. We have the ability to move where we need to move to, but our focus is on supporting the election over the next few days. But we never take away our ability to react to any kind of problems.
Q What kind of logistical support would you be giving to the election? I know a year ago there was some movement of ballots by U.S. troops and guarding of -- type of operations. Is that occurring as well?
GEN. CHAMPION: No. We are not responsible for moving of ballots unless there's some type of an emergency situation. But that's, again, going to be handled by the government of Afghanistan and the JEMB and the folks that are running the election. An example would be within the last -- couple days ago, we had -- ballots were being moved from Kandahar north. We had a “jingle” truck break down. The ballots were on that truck. They moved the ballots to another truck and kept on with the mission. We did not get involved in that situation, and that's pretty much the way it's going to be across the theatre. They have the systems in place to move the ballots, collect the ballots and get them back to the counting houses. We would only get involved in an emergency-type situation.
Q Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press. General, would you say that your activities during this election are substantially different than they were during the presidential election late last year? And one other thing, when you talked about having really nothing to say about Osama bin Laden because you’re focusing on the election, are you really suggesting that nothing is being done to either locate him or not, or very little being done?
GEN. CHAMPION: Well, let me answer the first question.
The conditions for the election have changed a little bit. I think the country had almost a year to improve its security, to improve conditions. Reconstruction has improved the facilities of the country. This election is much more complex than the presidential election. During the presidential election you only had 18 candidates. We had, roughly, 10 million voters registered. This election you now have approximately 5,800 candidates, 6,000 polling places. We've had an additional 2.5 million -- approximately 2.5 million voters register, so we're now up to about 12.5/12.6 million registered voters. And of the 2.5 (million) new voters approximately about 45 percent of those are women. So I think from that perspective, it's much more complex. But the situation leading up to the election I think is much more secure.
With regards to your second question, again, I'm speaking from a CJTF-76 perspective. Our mission is to handle the tactical mission here in Afghanistan, work with reconstruction of the country, and improve the security apparatus of Afghanistan. And that's what we're doing.
Q Can I just follow that question? Again, Will Dunham with Reuters, just following up Lolita's question. Your comments would leave the impression that the search for Osama bin Laden, the man considered responsible for September 11th, has been put on the back burner. Is that the impression you're trying to leave with us?
GEN. CHAMPION: Oh, absolutely not. The impression I'm trying to leave with you is the focus of Combined Joint Task Force 76 here. I am -- we are always going to look for Osama bin Laden and, I mean, he is clearly on our minds. But I'm speaking from the perspective of right now, concerning the elections here.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go back to Mike.
Q General, Mike Mount with CNN. You had said this election is a lot more complex than the presidential elections. Over the last couple of months there's been a number of candidates who have been killed or wounded. Have you been approached at all to provide security for some of these candidates, and are you going to provide any security for candidates?
GEN. CHAMPION: Once again -- well, we've had, I think, six, possibly seven, we're still working on whether or not the seventh person is a candidate has been confirmed. But no, it is not our intention to get involved in the security of these candidates. As I mentioned previously, there's approximately 5,800 candidates across the country. The second piece is that this is a government of Afghanistan election, and it will be up to the government of Afghanistan to decide how they want to handle that particular situation.
Q Sir, you speak about a spectacular attempt during the elections. And I was just curious to know if you anticipate something like the coordinated attack in Iraq in recent days, and if so, will the Afghan security forces be equipped to handle such a coordinated attack?
GEN. CHAMPION: We do not anticipate any kind of a coordinated attack. We have not seen the ability of the enemy here in Afghanistan to mount coordinated attacks across this country. I think they would be looking for that one event possibly to get into an area that would create and cause damage, cause possibly loss of life, to where they could get it reported. But I don't see any kind of a situation happening like you're seeing in Iraq.
As far as the security posture of the force -- security forces of Afghanistan, they've taken a lot of steps in a lot of areas to prevent such a thing from happening. The government's been involved in planning to prevent this type of event from happening. So I think that we're in good shape to stop it, but that's not going to prevent them from making an attempt.
MR. WHITMAN: Scott?
Q General, Scott Foster with NBC. The IED attacks you mentioned -- to what extent are you seeing that come from the insurgency in Iraq? And what can you say about that?
GEN. CHAMPION: Right now we don't see the IED attacks that are being carried out here coming directly from Iraq. We're seeing some similar traits of how they're set up. But right now we think all of that's being carried out by enemy forces here within this country. And we don't -- other than that -- we don't see a lot of similarities between here and Iraq.
Q General, it’s Nick at Fox again. Are there any areas of the country that will not be voting, for security reasons?
GEN. CHAMPION: I am not aware of any right now. We've been -- the government's been working very hard. We've been working very hard to ensure that there had been security forces put in, in all the necessary places, with all the polling stations.
As far as whether or not there's going to be any areas that will not vote, that's a decision that's going to have to be made by the JEMB, I guess, and the Afghanistan government, to make that final determination. But I'm not aware of any at this point in time.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, Otto.
Q Otto Kreisher, Copley News Service again. General, what's you relationship with the NATO forces that are in the area supporting the redevelopment programs? There seemed to be discussion that they're not supposed to be involved in the counterinsurgency effort. So how do you relate to the NATO troops in your area?
GEN. CHAMPION: We relate with them very well in our area. We have forces that are coordinated with us in our -- RC South and RC East. So things work very well. They play a very important role on security. The fact that they're not directly out in a combat role does not diminish the importance that they bring to this theater. They're involved in civic activities, civil-military operations, construction and security. So we have -- all of the coalition forces, including NATO forces, are working very well. We all have our missions to carry out.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay. Well, general, I think we've come to about the end of our time, and just want to thank you again for taking the time to be with us today. And as the rest of the world looks on to this important day on Sunday, we appreciate what you're doing over there.
GEN. CHAMPION: Well, thank you. Thank you for the opportunity. And we will have a successful election this weekend. I appreciate the time.
MR. WHITMAN: Very good. Thank you.
GEN. CHAMPION: Thank you.
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