BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Good afternoon and welcome. It is particularly my pleasure this afternoon to give a warm welcome to the Afghan minister of Defense, General Abdul Rahim Wardak. This is his first time in our briefing room, and I'm sure that you will welcome him warmly, as I am.
It is also my pleasure to welcome back Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, who is the commanding general of the Combined Forces Command in Afghanistan.
Both Minister Wardak and General Eikenberry have been in Washington and in the United States, actually, for several days, in Washington for the past 24 hours, I guess, and have met with various government and department officials here. And they've agreed to spend a little bit of their time with you this afternoon to talk about the ongoing security and the military operations in Afghanistan.
Both of them have a few opening remarks that they would like to make and give you an overview of what they're doing, and then take some questions from you.
So with that, let me turn it over first to General Eikenberry. Sir.
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Thanks, Bryan.
Good afternoon. I last spoke to you in September, and much has happened since then. This week I'm in Washington, D.C., for consultations with Defense leaders and members of Congress.
And I have the distinct pleasure of accompanying the Afghan minister of Defense, Minister Rahim Wardak. Minister Wardak and I were at Fort Bragg, North Carolina last week attending Unified Endeavor, which is a training exercise for our 82nd Airborne Division which will deploy to Afghanistan early next year as the main component of United States-led Combined Joint Task Force 76, the U.S. operational force inside of Afghanistan.
The Unified Endeavor exercise, designed to prepare leaders of the 82nd Airborne for their upcoming mission to Afghanistan, included participants from the Afghan government, the Afghan army, the Afghan police as well as the Pakistan army. Prior to Unified Endeavor, from October the 23rd to November the 6th, about 50 Afghan soldiers and national police traveled from Afghanistan to the Joint Readiness Training Center located at Fort Polk, Louisiana, where they embedded with the 82nd Airborne Division and engaged in tough, realistic predeployment training. This was the first time that Afghan soldiers and national police have deployed to the United States for field training and underscores the continuing development of the Afghan national security forces.
In that vein, I should add that the United States government is considering improving the capabilities and increasing the rate of development and size of the Afghan National Army and the police. In a major development since we last spoke, on the 5th of October the coalition completed the transfer of authority to the NATO International Security Assistance Force or ISAF, which now has the responsibility for security operations across Afghanistan. Some 12,000 American troops are now working as part of the NATO command in Afghanistan.
The remaining 11,000 Americans in Afghanistan under the U.S.-led coalition remain focused on our Operation Enduring Freedom missions: Conducting counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and its associated movements, contributing to the Afghan reconstruction effort and training and equipping the Afghan National Army and supporting the development of the Afghan National Police.
One of the key partners of the United States, the coalition and NATO in our collective efforts to defeat militant extremist terrorists and rebuilding Afghanistan's national security structures has been the Afghan minister of Defense, General Rahim Wardak. As minister of Defense since December of 2004, he has been responsible for the implementation of reform of the Afghan defense sector, including the fielding of the Afghan National Army, reforming the Ministry of Defense and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, or what we call DDR, of the former military and militia forces.
Minister Wardak is a key leader in the Afghan government. And as I think many of you know, he's a committed Afghan patriot who fought with great distinction during the war against the Soviet Union, and he chose to return to Afghanistan to serve his country again.
Minister Wardak, sir.
MIN. WARDAK: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It's a great pleasure for me to be here in Washington and to meet with the leaders of legislative and executive branch to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. I would be really happy to take your questions after I make a few short remarks.
The main purpose of my visit is to discuss the progress we have made in recent months in building the Afghan National Army and our common effort to deal more effectively with the evolving security situation, particularly in southern Afghanistan.
I would like to make one principal point to you. The formula for success in Afghanistan is to enable the Afghan national security forces to defend the Afghan people.
We have made progress along these lines. We have a plan to accelerate this process.
First, the Afghan National Army continues to develop and grow in confidence and professionalism. Its soldiers have demonstrated great courage and fighting skill alongside U.S. and international forces in Operation Mountain Lion, Operation Mountain Trust, Medusa, Mountain Fury and now in Operation Eagle.
Second, in the past few months, we have established a number of new training program to develop a new generation of leaders and improve the professional skills of those who are already serving and have begun to establish new commando battalions.
Third, we are discussing accelerating the development of the Afghan national security forces by accelerating the Afghan National Army's growth and providing it with enhanced protection, mobility, firepower and combat enabler. It will be able to partner more effectively with international forces and more quickly take the lead on physical security.
The NATO secretary-general and SACEUR are also encouraging NATO members to play a great role in training and equipping the Afghan national security forces.
Fourth, we are redoubling our efforts to recruit and retain the soldiers and officers required, train them hard and ensure they uphold the high standard of professional conduct, and to eliminate corruption, poor leadership and misconduct.
We are increasing the throughput of Kabul Military Training Center, and that will further reduce absenteeism rate. We are also taking steps to increase the retention rate of personnel who have completed their first three years of service. On behalf of the government of Afghanistan, I give a personal commitment that we will do our utmost to achieve these objectives.
Fifth, by accelerating and strengthening the Afghan national security forces, the Afghan National Army will not only be able to partner effectively with ISAF forces, it will be able to gradually conduct independent operations with less support from international forces. It will also take on the physical security, allowing ISAF forces to focus on supporting and mentoring roles. Sustaining a well-trained and well-equipped Afghan National Army is far more economical than the deployment of large formation of international forces.
Of course, even when we are able to take the lead on physical security, it will still be vital for our survival and success in a volatile region to maintain enduring strategic relationships with key allies and partners. This is why we have signed long-term partnership agreement with the United States, with NATO, with the European Union and with United Kingdom. These steps will improve the security situation.
As far as my current priorities are concerned, they have been strongly influenced by recent developments in security situations. As you know, there has been a significant increase in the level of violence in southern Afghanistan since the spring. The tactics of the enemies surprised us at first, but gathering in large number and fighting conventional engagement, they exposed themselves to the sophisticated capabilities of coalition and ISAF forces.
As a result, they suffered heavy casualties and failed to achieve their objectives. However, the number of incidents and the geography of the country stretched us, and we need to ensure we are prepared for further offenses.
These are significant challenges, but I'm immensely proud of the courage of the Afghan National Army soldiers and the sacrifices they are making for the nation. My job, with the United States' help, is to provide them with the training, equipment, support and opportunities they need to achieve their full potential. Based on the closeness of our cooperation over the past five ears and our joint determination, I know we will succeed in overcoming these challenges to ensure democracy, stability and continued progress in Afghanistan.
I would like to emphasize that these achievements would not have been possible without the advice, guidance and generous financial support we have received from the United States, the Department of Defense, Lieutenant General Eikenberry, Major General Durbin and the determination and energy of the teams of professionals at CFC and also Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan.
I want also particularly to say that Secretary Rumsfeld has been a greater supporter of the Afghan cause as a whole. He played a fundamental role in delivering Afghanistan from years of destruction, occupation and civil war. Our nation has all the love, respect and admiration for him. He founded a security relation that will endure, and we have every intention to build on those relations.
I would like also to extend the profound and everlasting gratitude of Afghan government and people for everything that the United States government and people are doing to help deliver Afghanistan from years of terrorism and destruction.
I would also like to express my appreciation for commitment and sacrifices of all U.S. military personnel who have served in Afghanistan. They are representing your great nation proudly and demonstrating the high standards of service in professionals. I pray that their sacrifices will one day no longer be necessary, and that my own nation will be able to repay its debt through our enduring partnership with the United States.
So now I would be happy to take questions.
GEN. EIKENBERRY: This is the first time that I've been up at the podium with someone else, and it's -- I would tell you, it's great to have, as we say, flank security up here. (laughter.)
If I could start -- Lolita, then?
Q: General, thank you, sir. Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press. There's been ongoing concerns about whether or not the other NATO partners are meeting their commitments in Afghanistan. Can you discuss or tell us how far short some of the commitments are falling? And if they're not meeting their commitments, does this indeed indicate at a certain point that the United States is going to have to put more troops into Afghanistan?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Lolita, let me just give a brief answer to that, then I'd ask the minister if he'd -- of course, if he'd like to say anything.
But it's important with NATO to remember that the NATO mission has evolved very significantly since 2003, when NATO first arrived in Afghanistan. At that time, they had the responsibility just for the security of the greater Kabul area. There's been a steady evolution of that mission to where they went to the north, to the west, then the very significant step of going into southern Afghanistan, where there is this counterinsurgency fight that's ongoing, and then finally the move into the east.
I give that by way of a background because it's against that baseline that we begin with in 2003. It is important to remember the evolution of the NATO mission. So there's been very steady adaptations by NATO as an organization as the mission has evolved. And if you were to think today where we are in 2006, where the 26 members of NATO, to include the United States of America and 11 other coalition countries joined into the NATO mission, are now fully in charge of the international security force mission of Afghanistan, they're fighting an active counterinsurgency.
That's absolutely remarkable -- the first time that NATO in their history has deployed outside of the European sector and now is there.
Now, having said that, from a military perspective, the question of the amount of capabilities and forces that NATO has contributed at this point -- it's about 85 percent of the level of what was promised.
And then secondly, there does remain the question of some countries that have particular caveats -- that is, restrictions on their ability to commit to all missions of Afghanistan.
I would tell you, as a military commander on the ground, that I fully support General David Richards, who has made calls for the requirements to be fulfilled in terms of capabilities and secondly very much in terms of the restrictions or the caveats that are in place right now for the removal of those, to give the operational commander the absolute flexibility and the full set of capabilities that are required in order to fight the campaign.
MIN. WARDAK: We Afghans, we have welcomed the expansion of NATO to stage 3 and 4. Militarily, the unification of the command was also something which facilitated the coordination for us, to coordinate it with one unified command.
NATO also demonstrated that they have fought well, with confidence and robustly, in the south. And those nations of the south, they don't have any caveats.
We are also hoping that the NATO will take a more effective role in equipping and training the Afghan national security forces. So we will continue to work with them closely.
And as far as the United States is concerned, I think the United States is the greatest troop contributor to NATO. And also a U.S. four-star will command NATO in February of next year.
Q: Sir, can you address if -- it said 85 percent. Does the U.S. have to then step up to fulfill some of those requirements or to meet the requirements of those countries that are restricted by caveats?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: I think, Lolita, the best -- best at this point to wait and see the -- what NATO is able to provide. There's, I know, some -- there's a summit upcoming. There's more meetings that are taking place on the military staff, and this is very high on their agenda, so better to wait and see what the results are.
Q: But General -- but there's no indication besides the Canadians and the Brits and I guess the Dutch that any other NATO members are willing to send combat troops, isn't that right? And if that's the case, will you -- look down at two or three years down the road; are we going to see more U.S. troops have to fill in the gap?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Again, I -- you know, I wouldn't want to speculate that -- on that at all. You know, the requirements, that's for -- first of all, for NATO to address and resolve, and there's ongoing discussions. And then, there's the evolution of the mission itself, and there's the anticipation of what will the enemy threat be.
Q: The thing is now there is little interest in NATO -- other NATO countries of sending combat troops.
GEN. EIKENBERRY: I can't say that. That's not something that is in my domain. That would be in the NATO discussions.
Q: Yes, sir. It's been about a year now since the U.S. instituted a very -- what it thought was an aggressive anti-narcotics program, eradication, interdiction, so on, alternate livelihood and nothing's working, the situation's getting worse. It's becoming more apparent all the time how it's feeding and fueling the insurgency in a myriad of ways.
Why is nothing working? And how much is that impeding the progress towards democracy, law and order, a real economy? And what, if anything, can be done? And if both of you could address that.
MIN. WARDAK: Undoubtedly, drugs and narcotics is a very serious issue, and we Afghans ourselves we are suffering. As you mentioned, I think some of the money's going to finance terrorism. It is also giving us a really bad reputation internationally, and also I think our younger generation is getting ruined through the effects of the drug.
As far as the Afghan government is concerned, I think we have every earnest desire I mean to help in eradication, in interdiction, but also we would like the international community I mean to come up with a more comprehensive program as far as the alternative livelihood is concerned.
Q: General, Pam Hess with UPI.
Could you talk to us about the arrangements that seem to be being made with local forces, warlords, tribal chiefs, whatever, about pulling NATO troops out and allowing them to handle security? What's the philosophy behind that? At what point do you judge whether or not you need to go back in?
And, Mr. Minister, would you tell us how many more troops you're looking to add, and on what pace?
MIN. WARDAK: On --
Q: Your troops, the Afghan troops that you said you wanted to add.
MIN. WARDAK: Okay. Because actually, you see, we are accelerating. Based on London Compact, we were supposed to have the figure of 70,000 somewhere by the end of 2010 and 2011. At the moment, I think we have expedited the process, accelerated the program, and we want to have that figure sometime around October 2008, which -- to reach the figure of 70,000. And for that, I think we have increasing all the capacity, the training, and we will provide the recruits, and we are thinking we'll be training 2,000 soldiers every month, and also add some more through direct accession.
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Minister, do you want to comment on the agreement as well?
MIN. WARDAK: Yeah, the agreement, you see it was the result of some discussions with the elders of that district in Helmand. Actually, I think the only way that you can win an insurgency is to ensure the participation of the people and to win their hearts and minds. In this case also some elders came up and said that we would like to support the government, and there should be no foreign troops and also the Afghan National Army, and they will take care of all the security, they will reopen the schools, and then the Afghan police can come and run the district. So that was a commitment by the elders of that district.
And also, in the meantime, militarily I think we really wanted to take some of the troops out of static defense, NATO troops and also ANA, and so that we should have more maneuver capability to move around, and under the assumptions that it is a good move because it will ensure the participation of the people, they will take on responsibility for their own security. So the deal was struck with them.
But later on I think there was some information, which still needs to be confirmed, that there was some infiltration of Taliban into the deal or they might use this truce for more cultivation of poppies or something like that. So at the moment, we are watching it really carefully. In some other part of the country also some other districts have shown the same desire, but now we are taking this district as a pilot project and we will see if it's developed positively, then we will make another decision. Otherwise, I think we can assert ourself any time when we find out, I mean, the evidence that the deal is not going well.
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Also if I could come back to your question on the Afghan national security forces, just several points on the police development and the army development. That combined with the minister of Defense and the Afghan National Army and with the Ministry of the Interior on the police side, we have collaborated and developed a set of recommendations for qualitative improvements in the Afghan National Army and police very much in terms of equipping.
We've also looked at the, as the minister had said, the path towards the fielding of a 70,000-man army, which was agreed to in the international accord of 2002, and then looking, as well, as the ultimate size of the police force, and important to note that several reasons now make us confident that it's time to move in this direction. First of all, the threat that the enemy poses in the battlefield right now is more significant than it was several years ago, so the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, they need a higher level of protection, they need more mobility, they need better logistics systems, they need increased firepower.
The second is, and very importantly, is the development of leadership, especially in the Afghan National Army. If you remember back to 2002 when the Army was first getting fielded and organized, that the leadership base at that point in time -- no surprise after three decades of warfare and no institutional base -- that the leadership at that time was not strong. And through very hard work of our Afghan allies and through our commitment through training, the leadership base has increased significantly in terms of their competence.
So we believe, I think jointly, that now is a very appropriate time to increase the level of equipment, the sophistication of equipment, because that leadership exists now within the army, increasingly within the police, that they will be able to operate this equipment effectively, maintain this equipment over time.
And then, as the minister pointed out, when you look at the cost of our forces in Afghanistan versus the cost of Afghan forces, well, that's a much more expensive proposition for the United States of America. But at the same time, I know from my discussions with Minister of Defense Wardak and from Afghan leaders that they truly aspire to take charge of their own security. And so we believe that now is the time to move.
Q: Can I just follow up? How is the agreement that you've reached with this district -- how is that not empowering the old warlord structures? I think people look at that and say isn't it a return to what the central government of Afghanistan is trying to stop?
MIN. WARDAK: Well, actually, I think that in that particular district, there is no big warlords. These are mostly the tribal chiefs and also they're religious elders, which traditionally in Afghanistan, I think, in the old days also that their counsel and their decisions will be binding. So it has nothing to do with the re-creation or revival of warlords.
Q: Thank you.
GEN EIKENBERRY: Sir.
Q: Going back to the equipping, could you be more precise about kind of equipment that you'll be providing and how much it costs, what the cost would be?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: I wouldn't want to give any costs right now. And I'd also like to highlight that these are sets of proposals that have been made with still -- our government has not made the decisions yet as to what exactly, if any, of these set of proposals will be approved.
But I'd turn to Minister Wardak, perhaps, to -- Minister, maybe you'd like to outline the kinds of equipment and the capabilities that -- with regard to the Army that you've been looking at.
MIN. WARDAK: Yeah. Actually -- we actually wanted to have equipment which can be interoperable with the units and also NATO, so the same standard of weapon.
The reason was that we really envisaged that in the future, once we are well-trained and well-equipped, we will be able to pay some of our debt to the international community by participating in peacekeeping operation or taking on the operation of shared interest and shared goals and to be also a permanent part of war against terrorism.
So in that we really wanted -- need to have more fire power, to have more protracted mobility and to have air mobility, which is really much required in Afghanistan because of the mountainous terrain and also to be able to respond quickly to the emergencies.
Q: So are you talking about helicopters, armored personnel carriers, radios?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: I can tell you that, for instance, some of the enhancements that we've been looking at based upon our current budget are already being made. As an example, with the Afghan National Army forces, when I talked about improving the level of protection for them, a procurement of the protected helmets and body armor -- very basic needs, but important; with these commando battalions that we've talked about, more elite, light infantry battalion, already in the process right now of procuring up-armored humvees for them. The combination then of better mobility and better protection.
So that's the nature -- or that's the examples of the kind of equipment we'd be looking at, but including helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft for transport of that nature.
Q: Minister Wardak, thank you for spending some time with us. I wanted to ask you, President Musharraf was quoted yesterday as saying, "The Taliban problem is an Afghan problem. The solution lies in what you do in Afghanistan, not what you do in Pakistan. The battle has to be won on the Afghan side."
I was wondering if you agree with that assessment or whether you think there are important active elements of the Taliban that are on the Pakistan side of the border.
MIN. WARDAK: I do believe it's a joint problem, and we have always tried to have better relations with our neighbors and our regional countries. We do believe that the success in finding regional solutions to security and economic development will shape our future military, international ability, strategy, national security policy and also the nature of our defensive doctrine. The key is actually international cooperation because of the nature of the threat.
In most of the cases, the country where the sanctuary is located, they can act effectively. And the required action can be military operation. It can be law enforcement. It can be intelligence work or the developing of education system, which will compete with the ideologies of madrassas, wherever they are located.
So we really want that with Pakistan and with our friends and allies -- to actually develop a view on the nature of the threat of terrorists and extremists; and to help each other to have much more cross-border cooperation; to have routine links of our military, law enforcement and border security forces; and also to go beyond the present level of these very welcome diplomatic and confidence-building exchanges -- to move from that to the delivery of real results, we really would like to be able with Pakistan and our -- all other -- our friends in regional power, to be able to interfere the terrorists' communications, their planning, their weapon procurement and their flow of funding, and even capturing their leaders.
The main thing is -- the issue is that we have to de-legitimize terrorism and counter the support for its ideology. And we shall not only try, I mean, to deny the terrorists their -- how -- the means to operate, but to deny them the means to survive.
In this case, I hope that Pakistan should -- we will work with them closely to fulfill all these requirements. And I think -- where the threat is originating from and where is what, I think that's a really well -- international fact that everybody knows.
Q: Well, could I follow up on that? In terms of Iran, is there a role for Iran in stabilizing Afghanistan's -- something similar to what's going on in Iraq now? It was announced in Iraq.
MIN. WARDAK: I think -- as a neighbor, I think Iran is definitely interested in what is going on in Afghanistan.
So far, I think we had some sort of close cooperation in counternarcotics and border cooperation with them. They also participated in the reconstruction. And we do hope that they will -- it will be in their -- a friendly, peaceful, stable Afghanistan will be in their interests and also in the interests of the rest of the region.
MR. WHITMAN: Sir, we've got time for just about one more.
Q: General, Minister Wardak, would you like the U.S. to put more pressure on Pakistan to clamp down or close down some of the sanctuaries that you just mentioned?
And second of all, the fact that you have a lot of Indian consulates in Afghanistan, does that make your relationship with Pakistan more difficult in trying to beat back the Taliban?
MIN. WARDAK: Well actually, you see, the Indian consulates are a misperception. We have different countries which they have the equal number in the same location where the Pakistanis have consulate, the Iranians have consulate, the Indians have. And there are only, I think, four cities all together. That is only an excuse. Otherwise, I think -- and also, the Afghan government and my president committed that if there were any evidence that these consulates were doing something -- some anti-Pakistani activities, I think they will not be allowed to continue. So.
Q: And on U.S. pressure on Pakistan, would you like to see more? Would it be helpful?
MIN. WARDAK: Actually, we would like, I mean, the U.S., I mean to facilitate that we can cooperate further because we think this threat is not only endangering the security and stability of Afghanistan, you already are seeing the indication of the same -- some indication of the same destabilization the effects of terrorism in Pakistan.
So we think it should be a joint effort and joint campaign, which the U.S. should play a constructive role how to bring out this cooperation between us and to convince them also to participate more actively in this war against terrorism.
MR. WHITMAN: We'll take one more.
Q: General, how would you describe the search for Osama bin Laden at this point?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: The search for Osama bin Laden continues. As I've said on previous occasions here, that Osama bin Laden represents one man in an international terrorist network. He has a significance of his own, but still he is part of an international terrorist network that has to be attacked, as it is, in a very comprehensive manner, which has an aspect of striking against leadership, it has an aspect which is going after their financing, to eliminating their training bases, and a very important aspect which is about strategic communications and trying to change the nature of certain environments which exist in the world today where the messages of hate find resonance with angry young people.
Now, with regard to bin Laden, bin Laden remains a very significant person because it's critical for the American people and it's critical for, I think, all of the world that bin Laden -- a man who has committed atrocities that have affected our nation at great loss of lives, at great loss of treasure -- that this man is one day brought to justice and he is either captured or he's killed. And so the pursuit of bin Laden by not only the United States military but by all arms of our government will continue.
Q: But would you say the trail has gone cold, there's fresh leads, he's still communicating with his al Qaeda subordinates?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: I wouldn't want to characterize matters of intelligence.
Q: How much of a priority is it to locate Osama bin Laden at this point for the U.S. military?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: It remains as much of a priority as it has since the United States of America was struck on 9/11. And the United States military, as with the other agencies of our government that are involved in the pursuit, we're absolutely committed to success.
MR. WHITMAN: Thank you all very much.
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