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DoD Press Briefing with Lt. Gen. Strock at the Pentagon

Presenters: Commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Carl Strock
October 18, 2006 10:00 AM EDT
(Note: General Strock appears via the Digital Video and Imagery Distribution System from Afghanistan.)

COL. GARY KECK (director, Press Office, Department of Defense): Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Pentagon briefing room. I'm Colonel Gary Keck, and I have the pleasure of introducing Lieutenant General Carl Strock, the chief of engineers and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. General Strock commands more than 35,000 civilian and military members in engineering services, including planning, designing, building and managing of various construction and reconstruction projects.

General Strock is in Afghanistan, reviewing operations, and has agreed to speak with us this morning to provide an update on important reconstruction efforts there.

Please remember during the Q&A portion that General Strock cannot see you, so provide your name and news organization to him. And remember we have about a three-second delay, so give him a moment to answer after you've asked your question.

With that, General Strock, I'll turn it over to you for any opening comments.

GEN. STROCK: All right. Thank you very much, Colonel Keck. And ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for being here with us today and showing this interest in what we're doing here in Afghanistan.

As Colonel Keck mentioned, I do command the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one of the Army's major commands. And our role here in Afghanistan is twofold. First of all, we're here to support the security operations of the coalition forces, and we're doing that throughout the country. We're also here to support the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and we're doing that in cooperation with the Afghan government, our State Department and other countries' diplomatic corps and with the security forces.

The purpose of my visit here today was to evaluate how well we are doing in both of these mission areas and to ensure that we have the necessary resources in the hands of our people who are deployed to accomplish their missions out here. I've done this over the last few days by -- (audio break) -- of government representatives, with members of the NATO staff here and with the U.S. security forces at all levels. I've also visited with the U.S. ambassador to ensure that we're doing things consistent with the State Department's plans in this area.

This is one of many visits I've made to this area that go back to 2003. And I can tell you as a general statement, each time I come I see steady and relentless progress in both the security area as well as reconstruction. This progress may not be apparent on a day-to-day basis to those who are here in the country, but as someone who comes in periodically and sees this, I see dramatic improvements each time I come. We have a lot of traffic on the streets, very busy marketplaces. Everywhere I go, the Afghan people are moving about and going about the business of getting back on their feet.

It's important as we discuss our work here to set the context and understand where we've been. Afghanistan is the fifth poorest country in the world. It's roughly the size of Texas, with a population of about 35 million -- 31 million people, compared to 22 million people in Texas. Texas has 500,000 kilometers of highways; Afghanistan has 34,000 kilometers of highways, and only about 16 percent of those highways are paved, as compared with 80 percent of the highways in the surrounding countries. Fifty-eight percent of the population is rural and thus have limited access to health care, education and the marketplace. Only about 7 percent of Afghans have reliable electric power. The life expectancy is 43 years. And it has the third-highest illiteracy rate in the world.

Now, these statistics are quite depressing, but it shows how far -- where we were when we started and how far we have to go. But I can tell you that what is alive and what is healthy in this country is the hope of these people. They are very resilient people.

They have tremendous pride, and they have tremendous human capital resources, and we're seeing those applied every day here in both the security forces as well as on the economic sector.

Where the security forces are concerned, our mission here is the normal things that engineers do in a contingency environment. We improve the life support and safety of forces who are deployed here so they can focus on their missions, and I think that part of the mission is going very, very well. It's a joint effort. It's not just the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We work with engineers from all services -- the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines -- and we work with the coalition engineers from around the world to accomplish this purpose. That part of the mission is going very, very well.

The other part of our mission is reconstruction. That, too, I think, as I mentioned, is going in the right direction. We have sufficient momentum. I think we have sufficient resources, and we are in the business of gaining steady progress here. We do this with the Afghan ministries. They really help us to understand the requirements of the people and help us set the priorities as they think they should be. We also work with the diplomatic corps from various nations. The U.S. Agency for International Development, notably in our State Department, is a very big player out here, and we support them in the infrastructure area. We also work at the local and regional level with provincial reconstruction teams that are linked in directly with the Afghan leadership, and they at the local level identify needs and set priorities that are then fed upward for resourcing.

So we have a very well-established network to understand the requirements of the country and to work together to satisfy those requirements.

Just a few examples of some of the success we've achieved over the last few years.

We have currently 921 kilometers of road currently under construction or completed.

That's about a $170 million investment.

To address the shortage of electricity in the country, since there is no national grid, the only practical way to get power to the people is through local pinpoint electrical sources. We're very sensitive to the fact that these people have limited resources, and so if we were to throw generators out there around the country, then they have a requirement to fuel those generators and maintain those generators.

So what we are doing right now is providing electrical power in a way that's consistent with Afghan culture and resources. And we're doing this through a program called micro-hydroelectric power. This involves installation of water-driven generators that run anywhere from 7.5 kilowatts up to 150 kilowatts. In the case of that 7.5- kilowatt generator, if we can get water to drop over about 10 feet from one of the irrigation canals, we can provide enough power through that generator to put two light bulbs and a television set in 100 homes in a smaller Afghani [sic] village.

This is the kind of system they need. It requires no resources to operate except the natural flowing water. It's consistent with their agricultural practices and irrigation programs. And yet it does give them a resource that they have not had available to them.

And we also, as we install these hydro-generators, we also have noticed that the ingenuity of the Iraqi [sic] people has converted them to other uses. Instead of putting a drive belt to a generator, they've put the drive belts to small grist mills in which they grind their grain into flour, and that helps them produce their bread. So this is the kind of approach we're taking. In this area, with a very minor investment of about $3.4 million, we've completed about 70 of these micro-hydroelectric plants in six different provinces. And these plants are installed by and operated by the people themselves.

Where water distribution is concerned, we've had two significant projects which totaled about $1.8 million. And those are just a few examples of the kinds of things we're doing.

A very important part of our reconstruction effort is what we call capacity building. And this occurs at all levels, from the institutional capacity at government level, through their academia, through the private sector to help private industry get back on its feet by employing them as contractors on our jobs, and it goes right down to the individual level, in which we try to incentivize our contractors to provide training in the trade crafts for their employees.

There's a tremendous amount of ready labor here. Most of it's unskilled. Most of the population is illiterate. But they're willing to learn, and so what we do is team the local Afghans with our construction contractors and they learn the business of becoming an electrician, a carpenter, a plumber or a mason. In fact, they're quite good masons, and we're learning a bit from them in that area.

So we're very much focused on capacity building, to leave behind something that the Afghan people can then take to the next level.

Our entire strategy, to combine security and reconstruction, is to work with the Afghan forces to develop their own security forces. That is another very important part of the Corps of Engineers' mission here. We are providing facilities for the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police and the border patrol. We are helping them to seal their borders, to control commerce across those borders, to introduce the rule of law throughout the country, and also then to deploy national army forces across the country.

This is something that's very important. The Afghans do not have very many national institutions, but their national army is on its feet and working. As the national army moves into a province and begins to establish security, then other elements of government flow forward and the new government begins to get traction and take hold. And this is what we're seeing.

There is an uptick in violence right now, and -- (audio break) -- from my perception, I see that as we begin to push out into the countryside, we are pushing into areas where the enemy has had a relative free rein. And they're pushing back, and that's a part of it.

They're also seeing that we are making a difference, and they're seeing the level of hope that's increasing on the part of the Afghan people. And the enemy now is trying to step in and take that hope away.

So yes, there is an uptick in violence, but I can tell you that from the last few days of traveling around the country, I have not seen that impact on the pace of reconstruction. We are not slowing down. We are not stopping projects because of the security situation.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, that's just a brief overview of what we're doing here. I'd like now to take any questions you have. Again, thank you very much for joining us this morning.

COL. KECK: Pam?

Q Sir, this is Pam Hess with United Press International. Yesterday we had a briefing from General Richards, who said the next six months are going to be pretty decisive in the future of Afghanistan, and a big part of that is going to be reconstruction projects that the Afghan people actually see and appreciate.

And you mentioned in your opening statement that maybe they're not seeing it, but you're seeing it. What plan do you have for the next six months? What projects are you undertaking that will make that difference, and how will you make sure that the Afghans see it and feel as though that conditions are improving?

GEN. STROCK: Well, there are couple things we're doing there.

On the sort of national level with NATO, we are targeting specific areas of the country where we have had some security challenges, and we're focusing reconstruction projects in those areas.

But across the board, we're using provincial reconstruction teams that are located at the local level in each of the provinces, and these are teams that are comprised of State Department people and military people that link directly into the local government organization. And we're doing a kind of a bottom-up approach where we're solving local needs, immediate needs now and showing the local people that things are actually occurring. At the same time, we're working at the national level to try to carry out the Afghan national development strategy. So we're working on a bottom-up and top-down basis.

As far as specific, focused areas, it's really on the road networks. We're very close to completing the national ring road, which is the primary road which links all the major cities of the country around the circumference of the country. We're now branching out and doing secondary and tertiary roads to connect the provincial centers, and then move out into the village areas. So I think we have a very solid plan to increase the transportation systems in the country. That's going to do two things. It's going to open the country for access to the government as it moves forward. It also provides access to the people of the country to all those things I talked about -- health care, economic opportunity, education and all those sorts of things.

So the roads are really one of the most important areas we're working on now. And again, we're working at all levels, at the provincial level and the national level.

The other part that's very important is working water and electric programs. And we have similar approaches there. I won't take a lot of time to go into the details of those, but it's a similar approach of a national strategy that works from the top down and will meet local initiatives from the bottom up.

Thank you.

Q Why haven't the Afghans felt like they've seen an improvement in conditions if you have?

GEN. STROCK: Well, you know, that's interesting. I've taken the opportunity to take some Afghan media with me on the trips that I've made out around the country. I've visited a number of provinces, a number of military bases. I've taken print, radio and television journalists with me. And as a small sampling of the Afghan people, these journalists were absolutely amazed at the things that are going on out there that they had no idea about, because part of the problem is, with the difficulty of getting around the country, with the challenges of communication, if you're not in the immediate vicinity of one of our projects, you may not know anything about it. And the nature of this rugged country is that two villages in close proximity are separated by very rugged terrain, so it's very difficult for people to really understand what's going on around them.

I think that's part of our challenge here, is somehow letting the Afghans know that good things are occurring so they can maintain their hope and their patience. So it's communication, I think, is part of our problem here.

Another part, too, is that we're really trying to work with the Afghan government to really take the lead in these efforts. And as you know, this is a very new government. They're starting from way behind in terms of the institutions they have, and it takes a bit of time for the governments to get up and for this government to get up and move ahead. I think we have sufficient resources, and we're now in the process of gaining that irreversible momentum we seek, with the real lead of the Afghan people.

Thank you.

Q Pauline Jelinek of the Associated Press, sir. Just to follow up on that in a little different way. General Richards said yesterday that he felt there had been some sort of disconnect between what was being delivered and Afghan expectations. Do you see that, that they don't appreciate the types of projects you've been doing? You've done a considerable amount of work.

GEN. STROCK: You know, it's difficult for me to answer that in a -- because I've only been here a short time and I haven't really got a sense of communication with the Afghan people.

General Richards has been around a bit longer than I have.

You know, I think that like we found in Iraq, the people of Afghanistan have a very high sense of expectation that when the U.S. and coalition forces came ashore, that things would change overnight dramatically. But again, if you recognize the starting point we have with this country, I think it's somewhat understandable that we are not achieving all the success the Afghan people expected or would like.

So there certainly is a high expectation. I've heard quite often that "you can put a man on the moon, but you can't put electricity into my kitchen." Well, there certainly is that sense of expectation as not being met here. But I can tell you that looking over the programs that we have lined up, the available resources, the will of the Iraq -- of the Afghan government and the people, I think that they'll see the kind of progress they're looking for very shortly. Thank you.

Q All right. General, Jeff Schogol, Stars and Stripes. Yesterday General Richards also said that reconstruction projects in Afghanistan have so far not been aggressive enough. Do you agree with this? And if so, what are you doing to correct the problem?

GEN. STROCK: Well, again, I'm not sure of the -- you know, the context of General Richards' remarks.

It is a tough environment to work here in. You know, the Taliban actually destroyed a lot of the infrastructure and intentionally kept the people from improving here. So we really -- this is not a reconstruction mission. This is a construction mission. And when you look at the resources available in this country, it's going to take a while to mobilize them. And it is going to take time.

Are we aggressive enough? I can tell you that about a year ago, as we put out requests for proposals for the projects we're doing, we're trying to use Afghan firms first. As we put out those requests for proposals, we would typically get about three firms that would bid on our jobs. And their submissions were not very good. We have an obligation to make sure that they are giving responsive bids. So we worked with them to ensure they really knew what they were getting into and had the capability to accomplish what it is they wanted to accomplish.

But over time, we've worked with the local industry. And now, every time that we put out a bid, we get about 13 Afghan firms that bid. Now, that's not a huge number. But relative to where we were last year, it is a dramatic improvement.

So we do see steady progress, but it's not dramatic progress. Were we aggressive enough? There simply weren't the means in the country to have an aggressive reconstruction program that could be immediately turned on. So that has been a challenge in getting the kind of momentum we seek, and we're working very hard to make that happen across the board.

I think the presence of the NATO force here and the demonstrated commitment of many more nations will bring many more streams of resources in. It'll put many more sources of eyes and strong backs and shoulders -- (audio break) -- forward. So I'm very optimistic about the coalition effort here and what it's going to do on the reconstruction front.

Q -- General Richards' statement that the coalition only has about six months in order to show demonstrable progress in reconstruction efforts before it risks losing the confidence of the Afghan people.

GEN. STROCK: I'm sorry. I think I've lost you all. I heard that you mentioned General Richards' statement, but I didn't hear a question.

COL. KECK: Who else had a question? Go ahead.

Q General, this is Andrew Gray from Reuters. Can you hear me?

GEN. STROCK: Yes, I can. And I -- let me just address the last question. I didn't hear the question, but I understood that it had -- it was related to General Richards' comment that we only have about six months before we may lose the support of the Afghan people. And I didn't hear the question that followed, but, you know, I think, again, General Richards has a much better sense for the environment than I do. I do know that we are in a race against time, and I can tell you that we're putting every effort forward to win that race.

Now, sir, I didn't get your name from Reuters, but I'll take yours now. Thank you.

Q Thank you. It's Andrew Gray from Reuters, general. Just to follow up on that, bearing in mind that there does seem to be a general agreement that there is this window of opportunity now, but that the time is limited, do you have any plans to significantly accelerate or expand your operations to take advantage of that period of time?

And are you -- do you see the criticism that comes that not enough reconstruction has been done as criticism of your own operations or of those of other aid agencies? And what can they do more if they are the problem?

GEN. STROCK: Well, Andrew, as I look at the projected workload for my organization, the Afghanistan Engineer District that's here in Kabul, what I see in this coming year is about a doubling of the workload, and it's across all sectors of security and reconstruction. So I really do see a significant uptick in activity over the next year. And as I've talked to the NATO staff here, they see that 2008 will even be a bigger year, that they really think that 2008 will be the largest effort that will kick in. Now, you might say that's two years from and that's not soon enough, but I think that if we show steady progress -- and it's visible progress -- if the Afghan people can see that, then we'll get where we need to go.

As far as criticism, you know, I don't have a sense of criticism directed at our agency or others. I don't see that there is a problem per se. I think the challenge here really is to get our arms around the real requirements of this nation and then to direct the resources where they need to go. Again, it's a very, very challenging environment to work in. It's not just about security, it's about just getting around in this country is a challenge for us. But for example, as we complete our work on the roads, and we begin to extend those roads out to provincial centers and then down to villages, that will enable us to move the reconstruction effort forward. But right now, you simply can't get into some of the places that need the most help.

So it's just -- it's a matter of laying the conditions, and it takes a while to put a foundation in. But once that foundation's laid, I think you'll see that the work will begin to dramatically improve over the next couple of years.

Thank you.

Q General, Gordon Lubold with Army Times. You mentioned the ring road and again the roads in some of the outlining areas. Can you talk a little bit about -- well, first of all, how many more miles of road do you hope to build, say, within the next six or eight months? But also when I was last there, which was, like, maybe a month or so ago, I had a sense that there was a problem getting enough funding to build those roads, and I wondered if you just talk to resources. Do you have enough with what you're trying to do, and if not, how much more do you need?

GEN. STROCK: You know, I don't have the figures in front of me right now about specifically how many more kilometers of road we have on the books, but I can tell you that the most important road project is the ring road, which will go all the way around the country. Most of that road is in place now and all of that road now has been committed to by various nations. We have a number of nations -- the Japanese, the Indians and others -- who are committed to building segments of that road. So I think we're well on the way to completing that road. And that is the most important part of the system. And then from that we'll begin to push out.

Again, I'm sorry I don't have the details of how many kilometers and how many dollars. But as I talk to the people who have a handle on the resources, they feel that the resources are there, that we have sufficient resources now; it's just a matter of applying those resources. And again, getting out into the country is going to be an important part of our ability to apply those resources.

COL. KECK: Jeff, one last one.

Q Thank you.

General, you have said that the coalition plans to double reconstruction and security projects. Can you elaborate a little bit about what you plan to do and when you plan to do it?

GEN. STROCK: Well, the doubling has to do with the workload of my engineer district here in Kabul, and that's just one small part of the effort. I think the main effort, again, is the transportation network. We'll continue to push the micro-hydro programs forward. We'll work with the Afghan government to move their energy and their water policy forward and their water strategies forward. So those are the three big areas.

The engineer district here has something like about 600 projects, I think, that we're committed to over the next year, so that gives you an idea of the numbers. And the total if all of that occurs is about a billion dollars worth of effort across both security and reconstruction. So it's a massive effort. It's across the entire country and it's in all areas of infrastructure -- of transportation, electricity and water.

You know, there are other aspects of reconstruction going on that I'm not directly involved with, and that's the business of governance, of developing systems, institutions to grow the government here. Those are also receiving a tremendous amount of attention, and I'm providing the infrastructure element, along with others, to make that happen.

Thank you.

Q (Off mike) -- totaling $1 billion. Can you give us a sense of what kind of an increase that is?

GEN. STROCK: Well, where my district is concerned here in Kabul, it's about a doubling of the workload that we've seen to date.

So it's a significant uptick in activity, and I don't know how -- you know, where that fits into the overall scheme of things for the overall investment in reconstruction. But that's what the Afghanistan engineer district is prepared to do.

COL. KECK: (Off mike) -- Colonel Keck. We appreciate you giving us some time today and providing us with an insight on what's going on in Afghanistan with your command. And we just want to give you an opportunity to provide any closing comments.

GEN. STROCK: Well, thank you very much. I'll tell you, it's been really gratifying to be a part of this effort, to see the many, many people who have come here to this country to help these people get back on their feet. And it's not just military people that are here. It's people from all walks of life that are here, trying to do what they can to make a difference.

I think the -- and the bottom line for me is the fact that I get over here about once every four to six months, and each time I come, I see significant improvements in the country. And that's the important thing, I think, to understand that we are achieving a difference every day. And it may not be visible day to day, but over time, we really are making a difference here. And as I look down the road, as the NATO security forces are gaining a foothold here and having an increased role in this operation, I'm filled with optimism for this effort, from both the security and the reconstruction front.

So this soldier feels very good about the direction and the momentum that we've been able to achieve here. Thank you very much.

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