Lt Gen Barno: First of all I would like to echo what President Bush said two days ago. Primarily that Afghanistan is no longer a sanctuary for terrorists, a place where they train in safety and comfort.
Note – conference switches from audio only to a video-teleconference.
(Off mike) -- around -- (off mike). This traditional Taliban heartland in Afghanistan has been dominated by U.S. Marines-- in concert with the Afghan National Army and other -- (off mike).
During this operation, more than 80 terrorists -- (off mike) -- have been killed -- (off mike) -- ammunition caches were seized and civil affairs projects carried out. Perhaps most importantly, the 44,000 Afghan citizens there joined more than 3-1/2 million of their fellow citizens in Afghanistan and registered to vote. It's an area where registration was thought to be in jeopardy. And these operations continue as we speak.
Voter registration nationwide now is topping 4 million Afghans. It's up to 90,000 a day registering across the country -- a key barometer of the commitment of the individual Afghans to their democratic future, which is a future clearly that the Taliban and al Qaeda remnants would deny them.
On the Afghan military side, the Afghan National Army continued to expand, further enhanced its reputation throughout Afghanistan. The ANA has now met long-established goal of 10,000 soldiers by the end of June 2004 and is on track to meet its longer-term goal of 20,000 soldiers by June of next year.
This accomplishment is not only a matter of quantity but of quality. The Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police continue to grow and mature, taking on more and more of the responsibility of defending the Afghan people.
Terrorist remnants are becoming increasingly wary of taking them on, because when they do, the terrorists come out second best.
In the Afghani-Pakistan border areas, I would give a strong commendation to the ongoing aggressive efforts of the Pakistani government and military to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries. Their operations against al Qaeda, foreign fighters in the Waziristan region have been well-conducted, relentless combined-arms operations into a region once considered a terrorist refuge. Pakistan's actions clearly underscore the President's announcement of Pakistan as a major non-NATO ally. Pakistan is and will continue to be a key partner in regional security in the area, and the global war on terror.
We've recently established communications capabilities with the Pakistani military at the tactical level so that commanders on both sides of the border can stay in close communication with each other. The coalition fully supports Pakistan's efforts, that continue today, to rid the tribal areas of all terrorist threats. We look forward to the final resolution of this menace, which not only threatens their government and leadership, but affects Afghanistan as well.
As a result of these operations on both sides of the Afghanistan and Pakistan border, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other terrorists are becoming -- are facing increasing pressure across our area of the theater. Unable to mount major military attacks against the coalition or Afghan forces, their recourse has been to mount cowardly attacks against innocent civilians, aid workers, and non-governmental organizations. They hope to intimidate the Afghan people. In this, too, they're failing. The Afghan people are not swayed from their commitment to realize the vision of democracy that they are so readily embracing here across the country. With more than 1,000 voter registration sites up, and almost 2,000 voter registration teams countrywide, the momentum leading up to the Afghan nationwide election in the fall is accelerating.
The coalition military here will continue to work to set conditions for the upcoming historic elections. In conjunction with the Afghan National Army, National Police, NATO's International and Security Assistance Force, and local leaders and elders, the coalition will do its part to ensure that the right of the Afghan people to choose freely their leaders will not be stolen. Those bitter few, the remnants of the despised Taliban regime here, would return all Afghans back to the dark days of terror and tyranny. Anticipating the terrorists' increased spoiling efforts, the Afghan people remain courageous and committed to their democratic future now in their hands, and we stand firmly beside them in their steadfast resolve.
On the reconstruction front, our plan is to establish 15 provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs, by the end of June, and the plan is on track. Our new PRTs in the west at Farah and Lashkar Gah have achieved their initial operating capability. They're already busy identifying projects that will help the population of these provinces and extend the reach of the national government.
The groundwork is now laid for the PRT in Karona (sp) and Paktika province, which should be established by the end of the month, taking us to our coalition summer target of 15 coalition PRTs, in comparison with only four in the country just a year ago. PRTs will help provide the framework for the security of the upcoming election.
After the elections, continued success in the rebuilding of Afghanistan into a democratic nation will come from the combined efforts of the Afghan government, coalition, the international community, NATO, and of course, most importantly, from the Afghan people, who will always be our center of gravity.
What's the way ahead? Clearly, we all know challenges continue, but as we speak very clearly here day to day, those challenges will be faced and overcome.
Challenges include expanding the capacity of local government, eliminating the menace of narcotics, demobilizing regional militia forces, continuing the reconstruction of Afghanistan and expanding the NATO presence.
Meeting these and other challenges that this emerging democracy here in this very critical part of the world faces will not be easy. But the Afghan people will not be facing these challenges alone. To echo Secretary Rumsfeld earlier this week, the United States and our coalition partners are committed to helping the Afghan people accomplish the task of building their new nation.
With that, I'd be happy to take your questions.
STAFF: Sir, this is Lieutenant Colonel Keck. I was wondering if you could do us a favor. At the beginning, we had a lot of audio problems. Could you e-mail that statement to Lieutenant Commander Hetlage?
GEN. BARNO: You bet. We can send it out to you here a little bit later on this evening.
Q General Barno, this is Will Dunham with Reuters. I want to ask you about U.S. policy toward poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. Why has the United States not launched aggressive operations to destroy the crop in Afghanistan? And how much of a concern is it to avoid antagonizing Afghan warlords, as well as the numerous ordinary farmers who grow the poppies?
GEN. BARNO: Well, I would tell you that there's a significant effort under way now to dramatically revisit the strategy and work up a very aggressive plan for the coming year. There's been a new counternarcotics coordinator appointed here in the U.S. embassy, Mr. Doug Wankel, who's got extensive DEA experience. He's on the ground right now to do the preliminary coordination. And I think this is going to be an increasingly critical effort as we look to our long-term policy successes here in Afghanistan.
Clearly, drugs is (sic) a huge threat to the overall success of the Afghan effort here, particularly as we go into next year. And so on the military side, we're playing key roles there in intelligence, in sharing information, in turning over caches when we find them and laboratory when we find them or destroying them on the spot, and I think that effort is only going to expand here as we move forward to the future. But it's an integrated effort that requires all elements of the international community as well as the military.
On the connections to warlords, regional leaders and militias out there, clearly we look to the future. You know, there's a great deal of money in this particular threat, and it's one that potentially can jeopardize local government officials, local police officials, as we see in other areas of the world. We're going to work very hard to put together the right integrated strategy with the Afghan government to overcome that.
Q General, this is Sandra Erwin with National Defense. You said one of your challenges is to get more NATO support. Why are you having difficulties getting additional NATO support? Any specific reasons? And what's expected in the near future from NATO?
Lt. Gen. Barno: Well, in some ways that's probably a better question to ask the NATO leadership. This is the top priority for NATO. You know, they've been working -- I mean, I've been engaged with this well with our NATO high staff commander, Lieutenant General Rick Hillier, in looking to identify the needs and help accelerate them coming into Afghanistan.
Now with the Istanbul summit coming up here at the end of this month and with the movement we see in country, I expect there will be some announcements fairly soon about a NATO expansion here across perhaps the northern-center part of Afghanistan as soon as in the next 30 days. So I think that part, which has taken a tremendous amount of effort, is now moving forward. And we'll see some significant accomplishments there here fairly soon.
In the greater scheme of things, NATO has a longer-term role and a longer-term expansion year, which for our end again in Afghanistan -- we worked very hard to try and identify for the NATO leadership out there and the secretary general and the SACEUR on the military side what's required and assist in any way we can in helping to marshal that forward. But that's really on the NATO nations out there to help put those horses together, and that's been a challenge.
Q General, it's Brett Baier at Fox News Channel. Al-Jazeera yesterday broadcast a videotape. It said -- showed al Qaeda members receiving military training at a camp in Afghanistan. I'm wondering, if you saw the tape, number one if you believe it's possible that this is genuine. They're citing it as the first evidence that al Qaeda had regrouped to train to carry out operations. And does it suggest -- or do you see any renewed confidence in al Qaeda or Taliban there along the border?
Lt. Gen. Barno: Brett, I have not seen the tape, I have heard that it's out there. I take those reports with a great deal of skepticism, and I think it's -- from my perspective, fairly unlikely that that tape was made in Afghanistan. But we have a significant presence throughout the border areas. They're extremely rugged, mountainous. So there's no telling where that may have come from.
In terms of al Qaeda's efforts, I will tell you that between operations here in Afghanistan, which have been very aggressive in the last three months with Operation Mountain Storm, and the current Pakistani operations, which are the most robust that they've ever executed with large numbers of forces, over 10,000 members of the Pakistani military working now over a number of targets throughout south Waziristan, I think al Qaeda and its network is under tremendous pressure here, and that will continue to squeeze them as we operate effectively on both sides of the border with some very significant combat operations.
Q General, this is Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse. Referring to that, there were reports this morning of a fairly major Pakistani attack in the border areas against -- apparently -- well, I thought maybe you might be able to fill us in on who they're attacking, the degree to which you're coordinating your operations with the Pakistanis, and what sort of assistance the U.S. has been able to provide.
Lt. Gen. Barno: I can give you some degree of visibility on that. The Pakistanis, as I noted, are undertaking the most significant military operations in the tribal areas that they've ever done. That includes use of attack helicopters, jet fighters dropping bombs on a variety of targets there. This is their operation. They're focusing in on foreign fighters and al Qaeda elements that they've identified in those tribal areas. We have a very good system of coordination with the Pakistanis, both at the tactical level, as I mentioned, talking back and forth across the border between commanders on both sides, and also I think in terms of coordinating at the headquarters level back in Islamabad.
But I would also emphasize that this is very much a Pakistani-owned and focused and directed operation, and they're picking these targets. Their soldiers are out there taking the risk. They've taken a number of casualties. And they're pressing forward with tremendous resolution, the most I've ever seen over there. So it's a very impressive operation.
Q General, John Lumpkin with the Associated Press. Can you update us on each of the investigations into the deaths of detainees since 2002?
Lt Gen. Barno: There are ongoing investigations that track back to the two deaths in December 2002 at the Bagram Collection Point here. Those are still under way. They're based out of the continental United States, and they are, as I understand it from the reports I get back over here, continuing to interview a number of different elements out there that have now, in some cases, been demobilized back into civilian life, are located throughout the U.S. and have also, in some cases, been sent back overseas into other assignments. That's been one of the significant challenges to bringing that investigation to closure. I'm told that it's moving towards a conclusion here in the fairly near future, but I don't have more details than that.
I would also tell you, as I think all of you know, that we've -- on our part here in Afghanistan, I've directed a top-to-bottom review of all of our detention facilities. It will be conducted by Brigadier General Chuck Jacoby, who is our deputy commander for support in Bagram there with Combined Joint Task Force 76. He's wrapping up that top-to-bottom review now. I'll be getting a report out on where we stand today by the end of the month on all of our facilities vice the standards we've set to make sure we're in complete compliance with our own standards.
So that's a very important effort that looks at the current situation vice looking back at some of the investigations that continue to be ongoing from earlier days, too.
Q General, Julian Barnes from U.S. News & World Report. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about how, in advance of elections, U.S. policy is evolving regarding warlords and militias in Afghanistan, if the military is doing anything to strengthen the central government's control in advance of elections?
Lt Gen Barno: I'll tell you, one of the key elements of that is our PRT expansion. And again, as you look across the south and east of the country, a year ago we had one PRT down there in Gardez; today we have, you know, eight to 10 PRTs in this area of security concerns. But the PRTs are also located in the west and the north in areas where there's -- the strong regional leaders are warlords, as you characterize them.
What the PRTs do is provide an opportunity to reinforce the capabilities and the connection of the central government officials there back to Kabul to provide a conduit both of aide, of advice, of mentorship, and if necessary, to provide a conduit for U.S. military and coalition forces to assist in those areas out there. They've been very valuable, the PRTs, in the national government's decision to send A&A out to Herat, in the case of some civil disturbances out there that were back in the March timeframe, and also up to Maimana in the north, where A&A were deployed in a very rapid fashion to meet civil disturbances up there that were related to militias and factional issues.
So PRTs are probably the most important thing we have out there to help extend the reach of the national government and to facilitate, you know, more strength and more capability out there with the governors in the provinces and with the district officials out there who are working on behest of the government here in Kabul.
Q Thanks, General. Bryan Hartman with ABC News. Going back to an earlier question about poppy cultivation, you sort of hinted at things expanding there, your role in combating opium production there. Are you saying that in the future, we might see U.S. troops actively going on operations to eradicate poppy crops? Is that what you're hinting at?
Lt Gen Barno: I don't think I'd speculate too far out on that. I think that we all realize here collectively that the growth of opium production and agriculture in the country has the risk out there of threatening to undercut all of the other great efforts that are going on right now. The military component here is still a finite force. We're at the largest size of coalition military we had here during our operation in Afghanistan with just over 20,000 right now. But I think our role, our active role in the fight against narcotics will be charted out as we look to the strategies available over the next year.
I think we'll continue to primarily still play an enabling role, which is sharing intelligence, perhaps providing some additional transport and logistics support in certain cases for interdiction forces and things of that nature. But to get much beyond that, I think it's too early to tell how that'll develop.
Q General, its Mike Mount with CNN. Like you just said, you've got a rather large contingency there with 20,000 troops. Thus far, what have they accomplished? There's been a number of missions that we've reported on as well, but can you give a breakdown of what they have been doing since we've -- since you've bolstered the troops to 20,000? And how's the hunt for Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden going?
Lt Gen Barno: I think probably the best way to answer that is that we've had a significant offensive operation being run here since the early spring timeframe called Mountain Storm. A critical component of that was to bring in over 2,000 Marines of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit as a surge force for that operation. We focused them in Oruzgan Province and northern Zabul Province in the south of the country, which were known to be some of the long-term footholds and long-term territory that the Taliban had deep roots in. Their operations recently, that I mentioned earlier, have seen the largest contacts with Taliban forces and the largest number of Taliban who've been killed and captured since last summer in the August time frame, September time frame. So a very successful operation from that standpoint.
Across the rest of the south and the east, Mountain Storm has been more decentralized and it's tied into our area ownership strategy, where our units in the country now have actually pieces of territory that they own, they operate in. They stay there, they gain connections with the local leaders, they visit the same elders over and over again, and they develop intelligence and then move against targets in those areas based on the intelligence they get from the local population. They really build a bond with the people out there. And our PRTs are nested inside of that effort.
So I think collectively that's probably the best way to describe some of our effects here this spring of Mountain Storm, which we've been very, very pleased with.
On the account of the leaders of some of the terrorist movements, you know, that hunt continues. We have a focused effort here that's dedicated on a daily basis to looking for those leaders that are at the tops of these organizations, but it's important to get at the organization, the network, and to take down those terrorist networks as attacking the leadership. We'll continue to focus on finding the key leaders in these organizations and bringing them to justice, but we also are very aware that taking down their network is going to be critical to making sure that their ability to threaten others is not continued.
Q General, this is Scott Foster with NBC News. I wanted to get your take on how concerned you are about terrorists, Taliban, al Qaeda remnants increasing their attacks and trying to disrupt the upcoming September elections.
Lt Gen Barno: That's a great question and it's one that we look at on a daily basis. It's clear to us that given the limited capabilities of some of the terrorist organizations now, that they're in many ways almost forced to go after softer targets because they take severe beatings when they encounter coalition forces or Afghan National Army forces. What that also means, though, is they realize that the election is about the future of the Afghan people, that the Afghan people are fully committed to seeing through a political democratic process that includes this election. So we are seeing indications of Taliban remnants, al Qaeda remnants, looking at ways to create perceptions of instability that would cause the international community to have second thoughts about being able to fully support the election effort.
I spent an hour today meeting with the U.N. secretary-general's senior rep here, Jean Arnault. We have a very close coordination relationship with the U.N. who is, along with the Afghan Joint Electoral Management Bureau, doing the logistics and the execution of the election process. That will continue through the election. As we all realize, that's where the political future of the country is. So I'm confident that the Afghan people are going to see this through, and we're going to provide them the enablers to make that happen.
Q Hi, General. John L'eng (ph) with InsideDefense.com. How would you characterize the status of Operation Mountain Storm? Do you think you're still sort of in the throes of it? Are you close to -- is sort of more winding down? Where are you, if you can even sort of be able to say that?
Lt Gen Barno: I'd say we're in the last third of the operation, would probably be the best way to characterize it. How long it continues, it will be based upon how we develop the intelligence and assess what the enemy's reaction has been and where he's going next. So our challenge continues to be to look around the corners and find out what the enemy's thinking and doing out there. So how we shape our operations and how long they continue and where they focus is really based upon getting out there in front of the enemy and out- thinking him and being there to be able to destroy him when he's making his move.
So, not clear right yet how far that's going to go, but I think having been going on now since the March time frame, we're probably towards the last third or so of the operation at least.
Q General, this is Will Dunham with Reuters again. I want to follow up on the earlier questions about the poppies. You mentioned possible future operations. But could you explain the thinking behind why the United States has not to this point acted aggressively to destroy the poppy crop? I mean, is it a decision that you simply don't want to alienate the farmers or alienate the warlords?
Lt Gen. Barno: I guess from a military standpoint I would make the argument that our capacity here has got to continue to focus on the counterterrorist fight with the number of forces we have in country. We have significant military operations going on around the country that require the forces we have today. The PRT buildup across the south and the east requires a network of forces out there to support that. It's linked in with the local populations.
So in terms of the actual attack on the cultivation and eradication efforts, that's being done by an Afghan-led poppy-eradication force the U.S. is supporting through the Department of State International Narcotics Law Enforcement right now, as well as a British-led effort that's funded and trained an interdiction force that works around the country.
So against the military standpoint, our role is a supporting role. Our primary focus continues to be counterterrorist operations in sustaining and improving security around the country.
Lt Col Keck: One more question.
Q John Lumpkin with AP again. There was a couple of other possible death investigations I wanted to ask about: first one in Jalalabad -- I'm sorry; I can't recall the date. And there was another we had I believe that was in western Afghanistan; that we'd received a death certificate for a prisoner for but there hadn't been any information about that incident. Is there any light you can shed on either of those?
Lt Gen. Barno: Probably need to get a little bit more specifics on those. The two that we know were as a result of military custody were the two that I mentioned in December '02. There are two others out there, and I'm going to have to check locations. They were both in the cases of prisoners that were turned over to us after having been detained by others outside of the military channels who then died shortly after we received them in our custody, as I recollect. So a little bit different investigation profile for those. We could get back to you on what we have on that, but again that -- each of those is not based upon military custody as we have examined it so far.
Lt Col Keck: Okay. Sir, we thank you for your time today and hope we will see you again soon.
Lt Gen Barno: Thanks very much.
And again, we got a lot of great Americans and great coalition partners out here that are doing a difficult task in some arduous conditions. So I encourage you all to write about them and come out and visit them, and any of you are always welcome to come see us face to face what we're doing out here, and we'll get you out to see soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
Thanks for your time today. Best of luck.
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