SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: OK. Let me tell you why we’re going and then we’ll just go right into questions to save time. I think that’s the most important thing to do. You know, we’re going to stop in Oman first. It’s simply a jumping off spot, although we will see their chief of staff for about 30 minutes or so, right there at the airport and then it’s off to Afghanistan the next morning. I think in a C-17.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: And there are essentially four reasons that the secretary chose to go to Afghanistan at this time. Well, actually, there are five. First, he hasn’t been in a while.
Q: When was the last time?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: It was in – I think it was in -- oh, gee, I should know – February, I think. Yeah. So he hadn’t been there in a while and it’s important to go. Overarching, of course, we always go to visit the troops to see how they’re doing – very important, part of the secretary’s responsibilities. Secondly, with the elections coming up, he wants to take a look at the U.N. electoral system. We’re going to go out and take a look at the U.N. election support compound about 10 clicks east of the city on the Jalalabad road. We’ll go out and talk to the U.N. folks and see the progress towards moving towards the October 9th election.
He also is going to take a look at a wide range of issues including Afghan national police training, Afghan national army training. As with Iraq, our success, we can’t win these fights. Only the Iraqis and the Afghanis can win in these fights. And our job is to get them up to speed in terms of police training and Afghan national army or Iraqi army training as quickly as you possibly can. So he wants to talk to the commanders there, talk to the ambassador, talk to the folks that are doing the training and get an assessment of where we are. We’re going to, again, accelerate. Another acceleration will come here probably as a result of this visit and to try and get this thing moving at a much more rapid pace. He also wants to talk to minister Fahim and President Karzai about the disarmament process to make sure that if there’s any help that the Afghanis need, that we’re there to certainly help them. And then, the counternarcotics problem he’s very interested in. And we will be speaking to folks about that, probably out of the Jalalabad PRT. We’re going to go out to a provincial reconstruction team in Jalalabad.
I think some of you folks have been with us when we went to Gardez…
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Kandahar, Mazar, and Gardez he’s been to, so this’ll be his fourth visit. This will be a fourth provincial reconstruction team that he’ll visit and we’ll do that as soon as we land at Kabul.
In a nutshell, those are the four or five reasons why we’re going. And let’s just jump right into questions.
Q: [inaudible] one day?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: One day. [inaudible] in one day. We’ll leave – has anyone gone over the schedule with you?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: OK. We’ll leave Kabul late in the afternoon and go to Baku, all right, and we’ll meet with the defense minister and the president of Azerbaijan, again, sort of a stopping off point, but convenient for us because Azerbaijan is important.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. We’re looking, as you know, in Iraq we’ve had Dave Petraeus taking a wide look at the Iraqi training. And by the way, starting in March and April, OK, not – in fact, even a month [inaudible] I think in February he actually started looking at this – and we’re taking another look at how we can accelerate both Afghan national army and police training.
Q: What’s the ethnic breakdown makeup – so what’s the ethnic makeup of the Afghan army?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don’t have a specific answer to that, but I can certainly get it for you on the airplane. But the principal that the Afghans are adopting is that it’s ethnically balanced, OK, and I’ll get you that breakdown. And as far as I can tell, it’s pretty good. There’s no individual Tajik or Poncheri (sp) or Pashtun or Hazeri (sp) units. They’re all integrated. But I don’t know what the percentage breakdown is.
Q: You probably know in the first couple classes, they were unable to achieve sort of this balance among ethnic groups and I’m just wondering [inaudible]. Thanks.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I’ll get you that…
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: …breakdown. Yeah, that was early on.
Q: I remember.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah. That was early on and it’s, I think, we’re up over 10,000 trained now. And these units, by the way, are in the field operating with U.S.forces, especially in the south and the east with our south and our east strategy and all reports from the field are that they are quite effective. They stand their ground, they fight and they are actually very popular with the local people and they’re going to those regions.
And as you know -- well, maybe you don’t know -- but we try to communicate this and sometimes we don’t do a very good job. A year and a few months ago, we did a complete reassessment of our Afghan strategy – euphemistically called it, accelerating progress in Iraq and Afghanistan. We looked at every single area from training of police, training of the army, justice, education, the whole range of issues and ultimately ended up in about a $1.5 [billion] or $1.7 billion commitment by the president. And that money, of course, has flowed. And each department within the agency have a certain responsibility for each one of those areas and every week we meet at the Afghan deputies committee meeting and everybody reports their progress, like a checklist on where we are.
The second thing we did was a strategy to deal with the warlords, OK, about starting in last December. The principal behind this is that this is not a military solution, it’s a political solution. And Karzai has over the past months replaced many governors, many commanders the most infamous of all, of course, was Governor Sherzai in Kandahar and that’s a very deliberate – some would call it slow -- but we have to proceed carefully because we don’t want to get ourselves in between Karzai and the warlords. But by the same token, we want to help him readjust the relationship between the center, government and the periphery and one of those ways is to get the warlords out of the business that they’re in and we can talk more about that on the trip.
And of course, the third component or third core of our strategy has been what we call our “south and east strategy.” Back in December and January, how many people have listened to Dave Barno preach this because I don’t want to repeat myself. But we’re getting a lot of criticism because the south and the east was unstable, if that word is appropriate. NGOs were not happy with the security situation in the south and neither were we. So when General Barno came in, he did a complete review like good new commanders do, did an assessment of the security situation in the south and east and came up with a comprehensive political military strategy. The fundamental premise of which is that he changed our counterterrorism strategy to a classic, what you might call a classic counterinsurgency strategy.
Prior to his arrival, we would take units out of Bagram. They would go out and do a counterterrorism operation in the south and east and then come back to home base. Now what General Barno has done is units will leave Bagram, they will go to the south and east and they will stay there, OK, and they will work with the people, building trust and confidence with the people and conducting counterterrorism operations with the Afghan national army, also follow it up immediately with reconstruction assistance. We flooded the south and east with four new provincial reconstruction teams, developed a concept called the Regional Development Zone. The first one is in Kandahar. So anytime there’s a military operation going on, it’s coordinated with civil affairs, with reconstruction effort and with a provincial reconstruction team, so that whatever we break, we fix. The overall, I guess, strategic purpose of that plan, of course, was if you build trust and confidence with the Afghan people on their side of the Pakistani border, they’ll be more inclined to help us find al Qaeda terrorists.
And I think with the operation that the 11th Corps of the Pakistan army on the south side of the border, the Marine units and the Army units working on the north side of the border, what you’ve seen is tremendous pressure building on the al Qaeda types in the mountains and I think it’s not a stretch to conclude that these dozens of mid-senior level al Qaeda operatives that are popping up in the urban areas, like the [inaudible], have – and that the Paks are rounding up in fairly large numbers as a result of this pressure that we’re putting on them in and as a hammer and anvil strategy that we have in the south and east.
That’s just my assessment. There’s no, I guess, a professional intelligence assessment behind this. That’s just my take on it. What the Paks have found, of course, on their side of the border are lots of Uzbeks and lots of Chechens, OK. But when you put pressure on that area, you start to get movement, OK, not only movement, you get people talking and you get people moving, physically moving and that’s what it was designed to do.
Q: When was the last sighting of Mullah Omar [inaudible]?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No. No one’s given up on him, but I can’t tell you when the last time they found him. So those are the three colors of our Afghan strategy. We’re doing another complete strategic review of Afghanistan that’s under way right now and this is another reason why the secretary’s going to hear from the commanders and from the ambassador exactly where they are. CentCom, the CFC Afghanistan and the U.S. mission and us are all engaged in another review, which we do periodically. It’s not – I don’t want to see glaring headlines that say, you know, “New Strategic Review Under Way.” It’s something that we do consistently and that’s why I laid out those three earlier fillers. And now we’re continuing to look at the way ahead.
Q: May I ask a question [inaudible] just quickly. You say you’re meeting the chief of staff – what’s the U.S. presence now in Oman and what issue, if any, will you be discussing in 30 minutes?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Well, not much, OK. Yeah, we’re going to thank them. They are stalwart supporters in the war on terrorism and with Iraq. We have Navy facilities there. We’ve got Air Force facilities. They provide a lot of intelligence to us and they have been very, very helpful, literally, one of our staunchest supporters not only in Iraq, but in the global war on terrorism as well. And as you know, Oman has a moderate Sunni sect that they are sort of what we would like to see in other Muslim countries. They are professional. Their army is professional. They’re modern. They basically understand the difference between a professional military and the civilian control, even though it is a, you know, self-made, but they’ve been wonderful supporters. And I’ll get you data on the aircraft about how much stuff is going on there as much as I can. You know, these folks like to keep their presence low-profile, OK, and…
Q: There’s one thing you can find out for me when you’re doing this is [inaudible] the Navy was unable to help me on this. I understand that the United States military signed one of its first-ever defense agreements with Muscat in the [inaudible]. It was [inaudible] the first. If that’s true, I’d like to confirm that.
Q: Is Azerbaijan the only Muslim country that [inaudible] in Iraq right now, except for Iraqis, of course?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q: And I know the secretary doesn’t ask. That’s now how he operates. But are the hopes that Azerbaijan will expand the 150 troops there or is that [inaudible]?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Tom, I can’t answer that question specifically. I think in a generic sense, of course, we’ll welcome to the expansion of any of the 34 countries that are on the ground and our international coalition that we really don’t have. So, yeah.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: But we really don’t have [inaudible] national coalition with 34 countries on the ground, 20,000 troops.
Q: What did we make of the episodic upturn in violence in Afghanistan – the types of things that lead doctors to look at borders [inaudible] that? I mean, is your read right now it’s episodic, as opposed to some trend that you can deal with?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We track the attacks very closely, to look for trend analysis, it’s important. But let me be unequivocally clear, there is no – repeat -- no strategic threat to the political process or the government in Kabul from the Taliban. It doesn’t exist. Now, let’s be clear -- there’s tactical level threats, there’s assassinations, there’s bombings, OK. There’s the unfortunate killing of NGOs and the like.
Now there is a debate over whether we’re seeing a spike or whether it’s steady state and that’s healthy to have that debate. But let’s assume that – I don’t know if there is a spike, because it depends on how you count incidents OK, but let’s assume that there is one. I don’t consider that unusual by any stretch of the imagination what these thugs do is they attack success. They see the political process moving ahead. There were local and regional loya jirgas, dozens of them all over the country over the past few months [inaudible] past year culminating in regional loya jirgas and the constitutional loya jirga in January.
We have moved from an interim government to a transitional government. We’re moving to a permanent government. A constitution has been drafted. Political parties are being formed. The election process is taking place. What is this? This is democracy. This is pluralism coming to Afghanistan and these are fascists, they’re totalitarians and they see this as a direct threat to their existence. And so, quite naturally, they would try to organize and step up their attacks. In fact, one of the reasons why we went into the south and the east the way that we did – I forgot to mention this and Barbara, I’m glad you brought it up – was in anticipation of the elections. If we keep their heads down, keep them on the defensive, complicate their planning, make it more difficult for them to attack the election process, then we’re accomplishing our strategic goal of bringing this representative process to Afghanistan. I’m not saying it’s never a good thing, all right, but I completely understand why these totalitarian thugs would want to step up attacks on us because they’re trying to derail the political process which they see as becoming successful.
Q: Is there any discussion about, again, increasing U.S. troops levels? No. And just on the election, for those of us who are completely ignorant about all of this, October 9th is strictly presidential, right? And then isn’t there another one scheduled?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Parliamentary elections.
Q: Right. And October 9th is contested. It is a contested election. He…
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: [inaudible]
Q: He’ll have an [inaudible]
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: There are 23 people who have signed up [inaudible]. Having said that, this is good news that there are a lot of people contending to run. This is what we want.
Q: Well, on background. I mean, what’s the view if Karzai doesn’t [inaudible]?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We will [inaudible] with the outcome of elections if the Afghan people decide in free and fair elections do they want, we will establish, you know, good working relationships with whomever’s elected. I don’t want to switch back and forth going off the record, because I’ll get confused. We’ll talk about this more on [inaudible] trip. They’ll have some pretty strong feelings on why we’re…
Q: In our trip, where is Iran going to come up [inaudible] as a topic of discussion?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: It may come up in Oman. Gulf states are very nervous about Iran.
Q: What would Oman be nervous about?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Oman has a – there’s a debate – they have recently wrapped up a lot of terrorist, by the way. They crossed from Iran in boats across the Strait of Hormuz and that’s why we’re going to provide them with some patrol boats. We’ve been trying [inaudible] do this for quite some time because they need help with their coastline in their counterterrorism campaign. Iran will probably come up in discussions in Afghanistan because of the influence that Iran has in western Afghanistan around Herat. And generally speaking, when we talk to foreign leaders about the global war on terrorism, Iran usually pops its head up in these discussions. So we may even discuss it in Azerbaijan.
Q: In terms of the Afghan presidential elections, is there any sense or any assessment that if somebody loses then they turn to violence or do all the players seem to be very much of a..
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We believe that the players that are involved in the political process share the same goals and objectives and principles that we do and that the body politiq in Afghanistan does.
Q: [inaudible] the outside groups [inaudible], the Democratic and the Republican Party and other groups have election themes that go over. Are you then looking at Karzai that you know about?
UNKNOWN: You mean, like IRI and the other’s one NRI, I think? Yeah. I know that they have been there. They’ve come back and filed reports and maybe we ought to have somebody in charge of those, like we do in the ICRC reports and [inaudible]…
UNKNOWN: Yes. [inaudible] and you can talk to the U.N. election commission people when we get there as well because they’ll give you a better feel for it. It’s remarkable, I mean, the amount of people they’ve registered. Of course, we may have – careful, you got me worried – encouraged by the numbers that have registered already, especially the numbers of women that have registered to vote. It’s quite remarkable. We’ll break those down on the trip. Yeah, I got to go here in a minute. And some people are claiming that those numbers are inflated – they may be, OK, but you can poke around and explore when we get there about whether or not they’re inflated, but it’s quite a remarkable thing. It started out slow, OK. We have to get behind the effort, OK, and push it along. But it’s coming along quite well. I think they say they need to get nine to 10 million registered for somebody’s rules for free and fair elections, I think, and I think we’re close, yeah.
Q: Thank you very much. We appreciate it.