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DoD News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Eikenberry from the Pentagon

Presenters: Commander, Combined Forces Command Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry
September 21, 2006 10:35 AM EDT

         BRYAN WHITMAN (Pentagon spokesman): Good morning, and welcome. I think you're all familiar with Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry. He's the commanding general of the Combined Forces Command in Afghanistan. He's here to give you an operational assessment and talk about the progress to date, and some of the upcoming challenges in Afghanistan still. He was last here, I think, in May when he talked to you. And we're fortunate to have him today. He actually is a little bit under the weather, but he wanted to keep this appointment. And we may have to keep it short if he starts to not feel too well, but he did want to meet with you. And we're glad that he's here today.

         Thank you.

        GEN. EIKENBERRY: Thanks, Bryan.

         Good morning.

         Q Good morning.

         Q Good morning.

        GEN. EIKENBERRY: I'm in Washington this week to brief the department and congressional leaders on our ongoing efforts in Afghanistan, and I thought it was important to give you an update as well.

         As I told you when I was here in May, the progress we're making in Afghanistan is significant, especially when viewed from the baseline, October of 2001, when we first began Operation Enduring Freedom.

         But against this progress, Afghanistan remains the target of international terrorists, militant extremists, drug traffickers, and a determined criminal element. The enemy we face today in the field is not especially strong. Their influence has grown in some areas in the south and southeast, where the presence of the government of Afghanistan has never been strong. In some areas there are more Taliban extremists than there were at this point last year. And within some areas, they are demonstrating better command and control and they are fighting harder. They remain an enemy, as well, that is not bound by international borders, and poses a common threat to all nations within the region.

         The challenge that we face is not one of a military nature. The coalition, NATO and Afghan National Security Forces dominate wherever they encounter the enemy. The critical task at this stage is strengthening the government of Afghanistan, developing the economy, and helping to build Afghan civil society.

        However, NATO and U.S.-led coalition and Afghan national security forces are moving aggressively to deny the enemy safe havens, to interdict his movement routes, and most importantly to extend the authority of the central government.

        The combat phase of the coalition's current operation, Operation Mountain Fury, in southeastern Afghanistan is only the precursor to our longer-term goal of strengthening governance, establishing the rule of law and facilitating reconstruction and economic development.

        This emphasis on government and development is the centerpiece of coalition and NATO's overall approach to the Afghan campaign. Provincial reconstruction teams are actively engaging district and provincial leaders to facilitate good governance. Medical assistance teams are treating thousands of Afghans who otherwise would not have access to medical care, and we are building hundreds of miles of roads. These roads, along with schools, with bridges, wells, health clinics and other reconstruction we are providing, are the heart of our long-term effort to rebuild Afghanistan's middle ground; that is its civil society that's been ravaged by three decades of brutal warfare, extremism and terrorism.

        In a campaign such as this, the construction of roads and schools can be just as decisive, if not more, than military actions. The international community must make greater efforts in this area. The Afghan national security forces are a key part of this effort to restore the middle ground. Today, over 76,000 army and police are trained, equipped and engaged in security operations. While still lacking sufficient capability, they are increasingly playing a major role in ensuring the stability of their nation, as evidenced by their successful participation in operations Mountain Lion and Mountain Thrust earlier this year, and in NATO's Operation Medusa just completed, and in the ongoing coalition Operation Mountain Fury. It's imperative here too that the international community maintain its support and commitment to these essential but still emerging institutions of the Afghan state.

        Finally, the coalition continues to work towards the seamless transfer of authority in Regional Command East to NATO International Security Assistance Force. The coalition transferred Regional Command South to NATO on July the 31st, and we anticipate turning over Regional Command East to NATO later this year.

        A key point to remember in this transition is that the United States maintains its full commitment in Afghanistan. It will be undiminished. As a NATO member, the United States will remain by far the single-largest contributor of troops and military capability. We will maintain our strong national capability in support of counterterrorism missions to strike al Qaeda and its associated movements wherever and whenever they are found. Moreover, our military will continue to play a central role in the training and equipping of the Afghan national security forces, and we will maintain our important contribution to Afghanistan's reconstruction.

        In closing, significant challenges do remain in Afghanistan, but we continue to make progress against an enemy and against the conditions that allowed terrorism and militant extremism to take routes there in the first place.

        These challenges require an uncompromising commitment and resources from the international community if we are to succeed at making Afghanistan into a viable, self-sustaining member of the international community, free from international terror.

        Thank you, and now I'd like to take your questions, if I could start with Will Dunham.

       Q Will's not here.

       GEN. EIKENBERRY: Will's not here. (Laughter.)

       Okay. Then I'll start with Will's replacement.

       Q I'm hoping you can talk to us a little bit about the drug issue in Afghanistan. We heard yesterday from General Jones that counternarcotics is really not a military mission in Afghanistan. But I'm wondering, sir, if this fight can be won without a real solution to the opium problem.

       GEN. EIKENBERRY: We can't attain success collectively -- we, the Afghan people, the Afghan government, the international community -- no, we cannot attain success without eventually bringing the narco- trafficking problem that Afghanistan faces under control.

       We have a military role that we do play in the fight against narco-trafficking, in the counternarcotics mission. We play a role in supporting law enforcement in various ways. As an example, we provide intelligence support to law enforcement in Afghanistan. We provide what we would call in the military in extremis support. That is, if law enforcement forces are to go forward and conduct an interdiction operation, we can provide them with, should they get into trouble, with additional military support on an emergency basis, or we can provide them with medical evacuation support.

       So we do support law enforcement, but it is -- at the end of the day, it's a law enforcement lead. 

       Now, the complexity of the problem, of course, goes far beyond just law enforcement with the problem of this nature. There's many aspects to the campaign against narco-trafficking and poppy production. There's a law enforcement dimension. There's eradication. Very importantly, there's providing the farmers of Afghanistan with alternative livelihoods or with alternatives to growing of poppy, which is important in a very poor country such as Afghanistan.

       There's an aspect that has to do with providing public education. There's an aspect that has to do with building a judicial system, which has been absolutely destroyed after three decades of warfare.

       I've given the example before of a successful campaign against narco-trafficking on the scale of this one, and that is Thailand. But in the case of Thailand, we have to remember that it took over two decades of sustained effort by the international community and by the Thais in order to bring this problem under control. And in the case of Thailand, it was starting with a very much higher social baseline and economic baseline than we face in Afghanistan.

       There's good work going on right now in Afghanistan. President Karzai and his administration have stated very firmly their awareness of the problem, their opposition to it, their intention to try to work against it. The international community continues to make efforts to assist the Afghan government, but it's going to be a long, sustained effort in order to achieve success.

       Q Even within the restricted or limited military role, there's growing concern among overseers in Congress, at DEA, and so on, that the military isn't doing much even in a support role. Let me read you two sentences from a congressional memo from people involved in oversight:

       "During the last 12 months, CJTF-76 supported only three DEA requests for air support of interdiction operations. DEA made 23 such requests before realizing that DOD has very little interest in supporting the counternarcotics mission in Afghanistan."

       I'm wondering if you have any thoughts either about the specific tempo and help or -- and more broadly, philosophically, is it a difficult thing to do, when you're trying to defeat insurgents, to do other missions that would drive people into the arms of the Taliban?

      GEN. EIKENBERRY: You know, the prioritization of our task in Afghanistan, of course, is waging the war against terror and fighting the counterinsurgency. We do provide good support to the Drug Enforcement Agency, what you're referring to there. That's part of our support mission that the military has to -- is tasked to provide. And we pride ourselves on the assistance which we render.

       I'd have to look at the numbers that you're referring to and, you know, perhaps we can get back later, Bryan, and provide some information on that.

      But I would tell you that we're very partnered with the Drug Enforcement Agency right now in terms of intelligence-sharing. For instance, we have an integrated intelligence operation center at my headquarters at Kabul, in which the Drug Enforcement Agency is present there for that. Intelligence-sharing goes on. We continue to provide support to them.

      Now, I do know that the Drug Enforcement Agency, also very much with Department of Defense assistance here, is planning to field their own set of helicopters in Afghanistan. And capacity is always a -- and demands is always a problem for all of us. And we're very optimistic that with the establishment of that capability, that the DEA will be able to prosecute its law enforcement missions in a much more expansive manner. 

      Q Thanks. On the second half of that, if I could, sir, is there any strategic tension between fighting the war on terror and fighting drugs? 

      GEN. EIKENBERRY: I'd tell you that in looking at the war on terror, the war against drugs that when we talk about the -- the question earlier about what is the threat that narcotrafficking poses -- narcotrafficking poses two very significant threats to us and to the government of Afghanistan. 

      One is, first of all, just the prospect of the absolute corruption of the government that could occur when you have narcotrafficking and money moving at that scale.

      But the second is the possibility, then, of the money of narcotrafficking then coming together with terrorism, and that's something that we're looking at very closely, and so the nexus there is something that does start to get into a military domain.

      Q General, on Osama bin Laden, President Bush yesterday was asked on CNN -- you saw the remarks -- would he go across the border if you had actionable intelligence, and he said absolutely. President Musharraf had a different interpretation. From a military perspective, how do those two different perspectives complicate any cross-border snatch mission if you get the intelligence?

      GEN. EIKENBERRY: The intent of our commander in chief, President Bush, is very clear to commanders at every level, to include my level and down, so I -- that's all I'll comment on that.

      Q Can I ask --

     Q General, General Abizaid just recently said that he thought troop level reductions -- U.S. troop level reductions in Iraq would be unlikely before spring of next year. What can you tell us about the prospect for reductions of U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan?

      GEN. EIKENBERRY: Jamie, I'd say two things on that.

      First of all, as we're now proceeding with the expansion of the NATO mission to include Regional Command East -- that is, now NATO at some point later this year -- we expect will take command of all the operational forces, save U.S. forces committed to other missions, such as the building of the Afghan National Army, our counterterrorist forces, that our expectation that our troop levels in Afghanistan will remain about steady through the point that in February of '07, when the NATO command rotates to a U.S. lead -- and I'm sure there'll be a reassessment at that point our forces on that ground -- that we'd see steady state really through early next year, and then military commanders making recommendations to General Abizaid and the Secretary of Defense about any adjustments, but steady state now.

      The second point I'd make that's important when we talk about troop levels in Afghanistan, I talked earlier about the baseline of 2002 that we begin with. Remember militarily with our mission of Operation Enduring Freedom, the baseline of 2002; in 2002, when we were just moving into Afghanistan with Operation Enduring Freedom, at that time there was no Afghan National Army. Since that time, we now have perhaps 5,000 of our forces that are committed to the mission of training and equipping the Afghan National Army. 

      In 2002, when we talk about reconstruction and stability operations -- I think most of you know the term Provincial Reconstruction Team. In 2002, we hadn't invented that term yet. And in 2003, we started to place Provincial Reconstruction Teams, primarily committed to the mission of stability and reconstruction in Afghanistan. We now have 12 of those teams out. So when you add those teams up and the logistics support that goes with them, perhaps that's another 2,000.

      So, important when you're looking at the numbers of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in Afghanistan at any point, missions have changed over that time. Very importantly, there's still the combat mission; there's the counterterrorist, there's the counterinsurgency mission. But another set of missions have evolved. And so when you talk of the rise of forces, make sure that you're not looking at all those forces as combat forces; that's simply not the case.

      Q Can I also ask you about this -- the picture that was released of the Taliban funeral? I heard just again on the radio, as I was driving in this morning, a lot of second-guessing from people back here about whether or not that was a missed opportunity.

      From your perspective as the commander over there, was it a missed opportunity?

     GEN. EIKENBERRY: Jamie, let me -- I'll make two points about that. The first is with regard with what we call the rules of engagement. And I'll say up-front that the rules of engagement that our command operates with in Afghanistan, that they allow us, they allow me the authorities that are needed and the flexibility that's needed to, as we say, take the fight to international terrorism, and at the same time, very importantly, they allow all the authorities and flexibilities that I feel that I need in order to protect our troops.

      The second point I'll make now is with regard to -- I think you're referring to a picture that was released that was reportedly of a Taliban leader funeral, and then the question came up as to why did the commander not allow to strike that target. Let me talk about that just for a moment. 

      The picture that was taken, indeed we did believe -- the commander on the ground that was looking at it had good intelligence to believe that that was the funeral of a mid-value -- or a mid-level Taliban commander. It was also reasonable to believe that as he looked down at that photograph, or looked down at the video, that a number of the people that were standing there at that funeral were Taliban fighters. What's not shown in the picture, just off the picture is a village. And it also was reasonable for the commander to conclude from that village that there were probably innocents, maybe sympathetic to Taliban, but innocents, non-combatants, that had moved to participate in that funeral. It was also questionable whether there were women that were standing there. It was also questionable whether there were children that were standing there. So that commander made a decision, based upon our values as a people, based upon our values as a nation, that he would not strike. 

      I would point out to everybody that that stands in very sharp contrast to an enemy that will kill religious leaders wantonly, that will kill teachers in order to intimidate parents to keep their children out of school houses; that will, as they proved themselves last week, throw a suicide-bomber at a patriotic governor of Afghanistan who came from his home in Australia to serve his nation.

      That's what distinguishes us from the enemy.

      And with regard to our commanders' decisions, our commanders make decisions like this in the field every day, and I have complete confidence in my commanders that they always make the decision for the right -- for the right reasons and in the right way. 

     Q General, this week the U.K. Defense secretary has said that the scale of the task in pacifying southern Afghanistan had been underestimated by NATO and also that Taliban opposition there has been more fierce than had been expected. I'm wondering sort of what your reaction is to that, and I'm also I'm curious if you can shed some light on, you know, why the scope of the situation has been underestimated by NATO and what that means moving forward for taking control of Regional Command East later this year. 

     GEN. EIKENBERRY: You know, it's fair to say that, if you had asked me at this time last year -- this time last year is about the time of the parliamentary elections that had just concluded -- had I looked ahead to this point in time or least say maybe to the May-June time frame of this year several months ago -- if you had asked me for my forecast of the level of Taliban influence in some provinces and districts of southern Afghanistan, southeastern Afghanistan, I would have said that it would not be at the level that we did find this spring and the summer. 

     So you know, the NATO assessment, I'll also say, as U.S. coalition commander, the same -- did not anticipate. Why would that be? Complex causes for violence, as I've said before, in southern Afghanistan and southeastern Afghanistan, important to remember that every fight that occurs down there is not necessarily Taliban extremist. There's great difficulties that obtain from long-term entrenched tribal violence that has been a way of life in certain areas for hundreds of years. There is the problem of narcotrafficking, especially in Helmand province, one of the provinces of southern Afghanistan. There's problems with land disputes as refugees come back into Afghanistan from Iran and Pakistan and try to reclaim their own lands with titles and deeds that, over the change of four different regimes, are now not clear at all. 

     And what you do is find a phenomena -- you do find a phenomena throughout southeastern and southern Afghanistan that, when there is fighting, one side will always call the other side "Taliban extremist." 

     And so I don't want to at all understate the capability that Taliban has developed here, as I said, over the course of the past year in several districts and several of the provinces. But important to remember -- causes of violence are complex and are not focused solely on Taliban militant extremism. 

     There's another point that's important to remember here as well when we talk about the fighting that's going on in southern Afghanistan, and that is that in no instance -- yet to date -- has Taliban influence emerged in a particular district or in any particular area where heretofore the government of Afghanistan had a strong presence. We're still at a stage now, about four plus years into this campaign, where the challenge is developing the government of Afghanistan, extending its influence, developing Afghan national security forces. And into those areas and particular districts where the government of Afghanistan and its security forces have yet to reach, you do have challenges where Taliban has moved into an area that you could perhaps call a vacuum or at least very weak governance. 

     You know, if I were able to show on this map a map of 2002 where international security forces -- at that time mostly U.S. -- Afghan National Army, well, I wouldn't show anything because there was no Afghan National Army in 2002; and Afghan National Police, I wouldn't show much because there wasn't a reform police program in 2002; if I'd show you in 2002 in the south and the southeast and the east, where we had permanent presence -- good, reliable, permanent presence that would reassure the Afghan people of their future -- there would not be a lot of bases shown there.

     If I were to show you now where we have combinations of international security forces -- U.S., coalition, non-U.S. NATO -- if I'd show you Afghan National Army base camps and now a growing police presence, it'd be quite impressive. 

     As that presence moves out and extends, then there are clashes, because into those vacuums there has been, as I said -- and in certain instances the growth of Taliban influence. Militarily, the situation remains extremely manageable. Wherever our forces go, wherever NATO forces go, increasingly wherever the ANA, the Afghan National Army, goes, then the enemy is defeated and they disappear. 

     But there is an aspect of this, especially in southern Afghanistan, where you have very weak infrastructure, huge tracts of desert, huge tracts of mountainous regions. Wherever you put the pressure on the enemy, then the enemy moves to another area where the government of Afghanistan has yet to extend. 

     And the last point -- a long answer here, but the last point I'd make is in terms of looking at the difference of last year and this year. And of course then you have an enemy that fights across a border and doesn't respect those borders.

     Trend lines that I see -- I still remain optimistic about the trend lines -- the growth of NATO forces that's occurring in southern Afghanistan; our presence in eastern Afghanistan, soon, hopefully, to be under a NATO flag; the building of the Afghan National Army; pretty good sets of decisions from the central government of Afghanistan to address governance problems. Provided that we get adequate reconstruction efforts, I remain optimistic that the trend lines are in the right direction. 

     Q General, General Abizaid this week said he was skeptical about a peace agreement that was reached by the Pakistani central government and the tribes in that semi-autonomous border area. Are you also skeptical? And how are you going to deal with the problem of Pakistan, of a safe haven for this larger, better organized Taliban challenge? 

     GEN. EIKENBERRY: Yeah. I didn't see the quote that you're referring to, but it would seem unusual -- the word chosen. But I'll still -- let me address it. 

     First of all, a little bit about the agreement. The agreement, I think everyone knows, is in north Waziristan, a particular agency within the Federally Administered Tribal Agency of Pakistan. It sits against the Afghanistan border in southeastern Afghanistan.

     The agreement itself -- the principles, the tenets of the agreement are very good. What are those tenets? First of all, no Talibanization will occur in the north Waziristan area, and this would -- this being an agreement that was reached between the government and then the political and tribal leaders of north Waziristan. 

     So the tenets of the agreement -- the first, no Talibanization of the area. Broadly speaking, then, that means that there will not be an active campaign to expand extremism within the area -- very critical, because it's the ideology, at the end of the day, which has to be defeated. 

     Militarily, very important, as I looked at the agreement myself, is that firmly against supporting or allowing cross-border attacks by militants into Afghanistan -- very importantly, proscribes foreign fighters from having sanctuary within north Waziristan. 

      Then the last piece, in my own discussions with the Pakistan military in terms of their military presence, important to remember that this does not represent a removal or a relocation of Pak mil forces, Pakistan military army forces, from north Waziristan; they remain in north Waziristan. And I've been told by my Pakistani military counterparts, the intention is, then, with that capability, where they're now not present in setting up roadblocks and checkpoints, which are being turned over to the Pakistani police in the interior of north Waziristan, a relocation of those military forces to the border of Afghanistan, and then using that additional capability for quick reaction forces. 

      So that's the agreement. The tenets and the principles of the agreement are very sound. And now we have to wait and watch for the implementation. 

      MR. WHITMAN: We'll have to make this one the last one, unfortunately. 

      Q General, you mentioned a second ago the demand for helicopters over there. Give me an idea what's pushing that demand; in other words, what kind of mission sets you're doing, and what you need to alleviate the aircraft problem, I guess, or the --
      GEN. EIKENBERRY: Yeah, that -- I'll tell you, if I could take a moment to just recognize two groups that fly aircraft in Afghanistan, the United States Air Force and the United States Army with its army aviation. Absolutely critical to the success of our mission is the United States Air Force support and our very capable Army aviation support that we have in Afghanistan. The breadth of missions that they perform -- you were asking about the helicopter force in particular -- with our helicopter force providing movement of our forces as they go on counterterrorist operations, counterinsurgency operations. They also provide a critical role in terms of providing close air support, or with our Apache attack helicopters providing ground support, intelligence support. They provide the capability, when our soldiers are wounded in combat, to provide medical evacuation on a very timely basis. Absolutely indispensable role in terms of the logistics support that they provide. It's fair to say that without the contributions of our Army aviation and the United States Air Force, that the amount of ground forces that we would need to have in lieu of that capability would rise very, very significantly.

      Q Just, what do you need now to alleviate some of the demands on that right now?

      GEN. EIKENBERRY: Well, I know that NATO has asked for additional helicopters under their command. At this point, I'm satisfied on the U.S.-coalition side that we do have adequate helicopter force capability. 

      MR. WHITMAN: All right. Thank you very much.

      Q Thank you, General.

      GEN. EIKENBERRY: Thank you.


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