(Note: The colonel appears via teleconference from Afghanistan.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Colonel Owens, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me?
COL. OWENS: I can, Bryan. How are you?
MR. WHITMAN: Good. I can hear you. Well, welcome to the Pentagon briefing room via the means of modern technology here. The -- for those of you that are just arriving, our briefer today is Colonel Kevin Owens. He is the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and Combined Task Force Bayonet, and he's also the regional commander, South.
Colonel Owens and his forces are responsible for counterterrorism operations and provincial reconstruction teams in southern Afghanistan. And he is speaking to us today from Kandahar. And he can't see us, of course, but we can see him. And he's got a brief opening statement, I think, that will give us -- set the stage and give us an operational overview of what his forces are doing, and then is prepared to take some of your questions.
So with that, Colonel Owens, let me turn it over to you.
COL. OWENS: Okay. Thank you, Bryan. Good morning to everyone there. Again, my name is Colonel Kevin Owens, commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. In that capacity, I command Combined Task Force Bayonet and serve as the regional commander for the southern region.
RC South encompasses the southernmost districts or provinces of Afghanistan, about 85,000 square miles of territory.
There are approximately 3,400 men and women in CTF Bayonet, including soldiers from Romania and Canada. Additionally, British, French, Dutch, Australian and New Zealand soldiers serve under separate functional commands in RC South and work in close cooperation with us. We also work very closely with the Afghan national security forces.
We arrived in April of this year, relieving 3rd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division. Our initial operations were designed to kill, capture anti-coalition militia, or ACM, and deny them sanctuary in southern Afghanistan.
There are areas in southern Afghanistan that have traditionally been safe places for these enemy forces. During our time here, we have greatly reduced those places of sanctuary and, in doing so, have significantly degraded the enemy's ability to conduct meaningful operations against the people of Afghanistan.
Additionally, we came to help create, in close cooperation with the Afghan national security forces, a safe environment for the recently concluded national elections. We have seen this past weekend how the Afghan people have responded to this landmark opportunity. The people voted without significant incident on the 18th, due primarily to the excellent security provided by the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army. We were standing by, ready to respond if assistance were required, but we were essentially unneeded due to the outstanding job performed by the Afghan forces.
Our enduring lines of operation are security, good governance and reconstruction. I believe all of these are interrelated and you can't have one without the other.
Our security line of operations continues to be our main effort. It concentrates on defeating the enemy insurgency and the -- and security sector reform within the Afghan security forces. The ability and capacity of the Afghan security forces to provide their country security, operating under one flag, is key and essential to long-term success in Afghanistan.
Good governance is a flanking line of operation. This begins by the delivery of a secure and stable environment. Our partnership with the ANA and ANP created such an environment for the recently completed national elections. But this is just a significant step towards a competent and representative government.
Our other flanking line of operation is reconstruction. We have a significant role in helping Afghanistan to restore basic infrastructure after years of external -- (off mike) -- strife under Taliban rule. Our provincial reconstruction teams and maneuver commanders work closely with the Afghan government and numerous commander -- and numerous development agencies and nongovernment organizations. Our priority is developing those systems, such as transportation, water, power and media, all necessary for the long- term stability of the nation.
Perhaps more importantly, we're working with these entities to teach the Afghan people how to complete these kinds of projects for themselves. For example, our engineers are working and teaching Afghan army engineers how to build roads. In other words, what we're trying to do is build Afghan capacity.
Lastly, Regional Command South will play a central role in the phase-three expansion of NATO's International Security and Assistance Force, ISAF. We anticipate turning over control of the southern region to a Canadian-led multinational brigade sometime next spring.
Now for your questions, please.
MR. WHITMAN: Thanks, Colonel. Let's get started right here, with Will.
Q This is Will Dunham with Reuters. We're nearly four years into -- after the beginning of the military operations in Afghanistan. Can you tell us of any progress of late in finding Osama bin Laden, and do you feel like you're getting a better idea where he is?
COL. OWENS: Well, obviously, we haven't found Osama bin Laden. And no, I honestly have no idea where he is. I don't think he is in the southern region of Afghanistan, though.
Q Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press. President Karzai has said recently that he doesn't -- his government doesn't believe that there's a serious terrorist challenge continuing in his country, and he's talked about reducing the number of troops there. What are you seeing in the south? And do you think that there is a reduction in the terrorist threat?
COL. OWENS: No, I -- well, certainly we've degraded the enemy's capability over the last several months since we've operated here. When the Afghan national army is fully trained from top to bottom in all of their collective tasks, they have all the systems in place to perform as a true armed force and in cooperation with the Afghan national police, I think they will be capable of providing security unilaterally and independently for their citizens. Right now I don't think that situation occurs.
The army here, the national forces and coalition forces, have a purpose. I don't think there's any incongruence between what President Karzai wants to have happen in Afghanistan and what the military mission of the coalition forces is here either. All of our operations are combined in nature. In other words, we do them with the Afghan national army and/or the Afghan national police force. When it is necessary to enter a dwelling or a village and conduct a search, we have them do it. Also, all of our operations are coordinated with provincial leadership, and unless there's a time- sensitive intelligence operation, we have their cooperation and buy- in.
MR. WHITMAN: Jim?
Q Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse. Colonel, where is the Taliban active in your region; and, you know, how is that manifested? How many do you think there are out there or still in the fight in some way?
COL. OWENS: Some of the northern districts of Zabul Province, which is one of the -- is the province in our eastern-most boundary, has been traditional sanctuary for Taliban forces. It is very remote, very rugged terrain. It is very isolated both geographically and, because of that, culturally and politically, from the rest of Afghanistan. That and the northern districts of the Kandahar Province, where I'm headquartered, also have a similar terrain set and provide sanctuary -- at least they did provide sanctuary, I think, until our recent operations -- for the Taliban to operate in there.
Hard to get at them in those locations. I think we've had a lot of success in doing so, being able to, frankly, go where coalition forces really haven't been able to operate effectively in the past. So I think we've significantly degraded their presence and their capability and, most importantly, started separating them from the population up there that heretofore provided them some degree of support and sanctuary.
So I think we've significantly degraded their presence and their capability and most importantly started separating them from the population up there that heretofore provided them some degree of support and sanctuary.
So how many are left throughout the southern region? In rough terms, I would say, you know, our estimations are probably about 800 Taliban across all of the southern provinces of Afghanistan.
Q Additionally, is Mullah Omar operating in your region do you believe? Is there any indications of what's happened to him?
COL. OWENS: No, I don't think Mullah Omar is operating in Afghanistan. I think, you know, last reports or most recent reports put him somewhere in Pakistan. Again, a lot of that is conjecture. I don't think Mullah Omar is a decisive factor in the Taliban movement anymore. There are -- we're starting to see fissures in the top leadership of the Taliban movement, and I think Mullah Omar probably served some sort of spiritual role, but I don't think he plays any decisive role in guiding or directing any Taliban operations in Afghanistan.
MR. WHITMAN: Go to the other Jim.
Q Sir, this is Jim Garamone from AFPS. Can you discuss the election day itself? Can you give us how many incidents there were in your region? And overall, just -- you said it went peacefully, but can you give some idea or some anecdotal reasons why you think that?
COL. OWENS: There were probably about a dozen incidents, and you know, an incident being, you know, a discovery of an IED, a detonation of an IED, a couple small skirmishes with combatants shooting RPGs against some Afghan National Police or Afghan National Army Forces, a couple uncoordinated or random mortar attacks on some of our forward operating bases.
So those are the incidents that occurred during election day and the day prior. They had absolutely no effect on deterring the population from coming to the polls. The population was very enthusiastic about the prospects of voting for their provincial and National Assembly. That was manifest in the enthusiasm as you would talk to some of them at the polling stations. They were enthusiastic that their Afghan National Security Forces, both the police and the army, were present and providing a secure environment for them to vote.
So you know, they were free. They were safe. And so, from my perspective, I think they were successfully executed.
MR. WHITMAN: Vicky.
Q This is Vicky O'Hara with National Public Radio. I was wondering if the central government has control over the warlords in southern Afghanistan, or are they operating outside of the controls of the government?
COL. OWENS: Warlordism is something of the past in southern Afghanistan. It certainly had its foundations down here, you know, prior to the Taliban and even after the fall of the Taliban. I mean, there's an extensive disarmament program ongoing. It's been going on for over a year now in Afghanistan designed to take these arms from former warlords, try to return them to society in a functioning capacity, be it the electoral process or some sort of other endeavor. So to suggest that there's warlords in southern -- the southern region that the president needs to gain control of, I'm not sure that exists. In fact, I’m certain it doesn’t.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead.
Q Wendy Wang with Talk Radio News.
How much would you say your force is focused on reconstruction as opposed to combat? Do you have a percentage on that?
COL. OWENS: No, I can't put a percentage on it. You know, from my perspective, every single thing one of my men or women does is a combat operation. Whether that operation is designed to specifically find or kill and capture enemy combatants, whether it is an operation that is designed to improve the capacity of the Afghan national security forces, deliver humanitarian assistance, or conduct other civil military operations, from my perspective, we plan, synchronize and execute all of those as a combat operation. We try to find the balance between, if you will, kinetic and non-kinetic operations, but, you know, we integrate these and we synchronize them and we find that we achieve the best effects if they, in fact, are overlapping vice stovepiped and conducted unilaterally and separate from one another.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead.
Q Lolita Baldor with AP again.
There was a significant increase in violence in Afghanistan in the six months leading up to the election. Are you seeing that continue, or do you think the fact that the election is over, are you starting to see it drop off?
COL. OWENS: You know, there was a lot of talk of -- you know, since we arrived here, at least in the last several months -- about the perception of increased violence in Afghanistan. And I guess there is, you know, there is a perception that this may be a more violent place.
Here is the bottom line. The violence is on our terms. We have retained the initiative since we've arrived in this country, so incidents of violence and contact with the enemy are at the initiative of the coalition forces and the Afghan security forces here in Afghanistan. And that's not just in the southern region; that's throughout all battle space, you know, that we're operating in in the entire country of Afghanistan.
So to answer your question, yes, we have had more contact with the enemy. We've certainly destroyed more enemy combatants, I think, in the last six months than maybe we had in the previous months leading up to this period. But again, it is on our terms, and I think it's significantly degraded the enemy combatants in Afghanistan.
Now what do I think is going to happen post-election? I think that they will -- they're -- again, we have put them on their heels. I believe the enemy is reeling from our recent operations, and I also think the recently executed National Assembly elections are going to have a significant impact of their ability to reach a population that they really had trouble reaching anyway. The enemy can't offer the people of Afghanistan anything but fear and ignorance. And they are reduced to military operations that are either IEDs or uncoordinated and random rocket or mortar attacks. So those are the military operations they have left at their disposal. So, you know, I'm confident things are heading in the right direction, and I'm also confident that we are starting to gain irreversible momentum.
MR. WHITMAN: Jim?
Q Jim Mannion from AFP again. It seemed to me that about a year ago there was a shift in strategy from a strategy of using sort of sweeps and raids in areas where there were believed to be concentrations of Taliban to more of a continuous presence. Has that changed since you-all have arrived? Is your style different? Could you compare and contrast?
COL. OWENS: Well, obviously, by experience I'm not familiar with the TTPs that were used about a year ago. I can tell you that we try to, again, find a balance in our military operations in Afghanistan; one, because based on terrain and the situation, some apply more effectively in other parts of the region; two, we simply don't want to present a pattern of predictability to our enemy, either. So I think a combination of sustained presence is essential, and that sustained presence, what we're trying to do is evolve that over to more of a Afghan national security force aspect. And then certainly, you know, precision operations that are designed to find -- that we've found enemy combatant cells or concentrations of them and then kill and capture them are more of a limited duration. And again, though, we try to use those as a combined nature with our Afghan partners.
MR. WHITMAN: Jim?
Q Sir, the last time I was in Afghanistan, the PRT in -- I think it was Kandahar, was getting ready to turn over to the Canadians. Is that done? And what does that bring to the fight as far as far as you can see?
COL. OWENS: That was completed on 16 July, and so that is certainly step one in phase-three expansion of ISAF down in the southern region. Canada brought their first team here, bottom line. I mean, it is an incredible organization, very robust in both CMO capabilities and also has an enormous capacity to train the Afghan national police, and it's been doing that in spades.
You know, security sector reform is one of their primary efforts here, particularly focused into Kandahar City, and allows my other forces to work in the outreaches of Kandahar Province. So it's a very similar mission to an American PRT, brings a little bit more capability both in scope and in sheer numbers. And like I said before, that's an enormous contribution that the ISAF nations are making towards their eventual expansion here in the southern region.
MR. WHITMAN: Al?
Q Colonel, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America. Can you give an estimate for your region as to when you think the Afghan forces might be ready to either take the full responsibility or at least take the main responsibility, perhaps with coalition forces in a rapid reaction capacity?
COL. OWENS: No, I really can't. I mean, you know, the Afghan national army is a work in progress. They are enormously capable and motivated and professional soldiers, particularly at the individual and small-unit level. I mean, they are absolutely courageous. They are motivated to do their job. There is an enormous sense of pride in what they do and why they do it.
And equally important, they are absolutely revered from their population. I mean, this is something absolutely new to the Afghan people, to see an army that is raised from their ranks, that is representative of all tribes and ethnicities across Afghanistan, providing a secure environment for them. So they clearly have a connection with their people.
But there are many systems that we need to improve on; you know, logistical systems, you know, command and control systems, you know, maintenance systems, things that we're working shoulder to shoulder with them to improve. But to put a timeline or a horizon out there when I think that's going to occur to turn this thing over them, I can't do that right now.
MR. WHITMAN: Jim again?
Q Jim Mannion from AFP again. What about the drug problem in your region? Do you see a larger role for the military in dealing with drugs?
COL. OWENS: The United States doesn't have a direct role in the counternarcotics effort. The lead nation for that is the United Kingdom, and we have certain supporting functions we do. We certainly, you know, coordinate their activities when they're operating in my battlespace. You know, so we're kept apprised of each other's activities, so we understand the ramifications and we can best support each other. But the -- we do not have a direct role and nor do I see a specifically direct or increasing role of the United States military in the counternarcotics effort here.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay. Well, I think we're going to bring this to a close, Colonel. We appreciate the opportunity to talk to you and for the insights that you've been able to provide us. And on behalf of everybody here, we wish you the best, and we hope to talk to you again soon.
COL. OWENS: Well, thank you very much. It's been my pleasure.
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