DoD News Briefing with Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel from Afghanistan
(Note: General Votel appears via digital video imagery distribution system from Afghanistan.)
COLONEL GARY KECK (director, Department of Defense Press Office): Okay. I can see Brigadier General Votel.
Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Pentagon briefing room. I'm Colonel Keck, the director of the Press Office, and I'm glad to have you here today.
It's my privilege to introduce you to our briefer today, who is Brigadier General Joseph Votel, the deputy commanding general for operations of the 82nd Airborne Division and Combined Joint Task Force 82 in Afghanistan. He's been in country since January, and General Votel and his forces are responsible for operations in NATO's Regional Command East, as well as overall responsibility for all Operation Enduring Freedom operations in Afghanistan. And General Votel is going to provide us with a comprehensive view of the security, reconstruction and development operations in Afghanistan.
He is speaking to us from Bagram and -- north of Kabul. And with that, General Votel, I'd like to turn it over to you for opening comments.
GEN. VOTEL: Okay. Thank you very much.
Well, good morning, ladies and gentlemen, from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. As Colonel Keck mentioned, I'm Brigadier General Joe Votel, the deputy commanding general for operations for Combined Joint Task Force 82 and Regional Command East here.
This morning what I'd like to do is begin with a brief introduction to our mission and our ongoing activities here in Afghanistan, and then I will answer any of your questions.
As many of you already know, the 82nd Airborne Division replaced the headquarters of the 10th Mountain Division in early February here in -- here at Bagram Airfield and assumed responsibility of the ISAF -- NATO ISAF Regional Command East and the Combined Joint Task Force 82 for all OEF forces.
Our mission here is fairly simple, and it is this. In conjunction with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, our joint interagency and multinational partners, CJTF-82 conducts full-spectrum operations to neutralize insurgent forces in Regional Command East, develops Afghanistan national security capability and supports the growth of governance and development in order to build a stable Afghanistan.
Our current operation is called Okab Ham Kuri, which is Dari for "Eagle Teamwork." It began on February 22nd to build on the success of Operation Mountain Eagle by the 10th Mountain Division. This operation is being executed in conjunction with our clear, hold, build counterinsurgency strategy.
In the clear phase, we are focusing on separating the insurgents from the population. This requires the Afghan National Security Forces' participation at all levels to kill or capture the enemy and disrupt his command and control capability. To this end, we are conducting military operations in the interior of the country and along the border area with Pakistan.
In the hold phase, we assist in establishing the Afghan government as a permanent presence with effective integration and positioning of Afghan National Security Forces at the provincial and district level.
And finally in the build phase, we begin to leverage the investments in development and expand government capabilities into these provincial and district areas.
As I mentioned, we're partnering in this operation with the Afghan National Security Forces that include the army, the police and the border police, and we conduct combined planning and combined execution with these forces. This partnership is absolutely critical to the success of our operations and to developing the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces. Our combined forces live, plan and work together to execute their mission. We coordinate routinely with our counterparts in Pakistan and hold regular meetings to ensure cooperation throughout the border area.
Operation Ham Kuri is not solely centered on the kinetic fight. While security is certainly a large part of it, combat operations are not the only measure of effectiveness. The other key elements to our overall success are building the Afghan National Security Force capability, extending the reach and influence of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan's government and development projects in the provinces.
We are working very closely with the U.S. Agency for International Development and other national and international non-governmental organizations to ensure our military operations are quickly followed by reconstruction and development activities that extend the reach and influence of the district, provincial and national governments.
In this fiscal year, Regional Command East has invested over $125 million using the Commanders Emergency Response Program, or CERP, and I'll talk with you about some of those projects in a moment. Our top development efforts are focused on provincial coordination centers, district coordination centers, the development and capacity building within the Afghan national security forces, roads, agriculture, border security, education and health care.
I'd like to give you some examples of our progress over the past few months. What we've been focused on is realigning and establishing partnerships with both the Afghan National Police and the Afghan Border Police. We have not previously worked with these entities to a great extent, but we clearly recognize the need to do that now as they expand their capacity.
We've identified, selected and began training of the first Afghan army commando units, that will be operational later this summer. We continue to train the Afghan National Army to conduct unilateral operations, and in many cases they take the lead in both planning and execution. We've discovered and exploited dozens of caches of weapons, ammunition and improved explosive devices. We've worked with the local Afghan civilians and discovered literally dozens of IEDs throughout our area. And we've recently completed rule-of-law surveys throughout all the provinces and most of the districts to understand what their needs are in these particular areas. These all fall generally into the area of security.
Some of our biggest achievements, however, have been in development. Let me cite a few examples for you. Over the last two and a half months, we've pursued 14 different agricultural projects, ranging all the way from providing seeds and tractors and trees to providing veterinary care for farmers and their flocks. We've pursued over 60 educational projects, building schools, both brick-and-mortar and tent schools, providing books and other school supplies so that school could start on time here about three weeks ago. We've pursued about 20 electricity projects, in particular micro-hydropower plants, solar lights and generators to provide electricity and power down into the villages.
We've worked over 40 health-care projects, equipping hospitals, clinics, providing training, ambulances and medical supplies. Water is a key aspect here in Afghanistan, and as a result, we've worked 25 irrigation projects, repairing dams, water systems, flood walls and canals. Over 95 urgent humanitarian or reconstruction projects, providing emergency food supplies, clothes, tents, tarps and tool kits. Over a dozen civic and cultural repair projects, ranging from renovating women's centers to mosques to parks. Over 30 governance and rule-of-law projects, creating provincial and district centers, postal centers and public works buildings. Nearly 65 transportation projects -- roads, bridges, retaining walls; 40 water and sanitation projects -- wells and repairs of dams.
All of these projects were funded by the Commanders Emergency Response Program that I referred to earlier and are coordinated with the local government officials and our non-governmental organizations. And they represent priorities not for us but priorities for the Afghan people. We believe we are making a difference, and together with our NATO coalition and Afghan partners we are bringing positive change to Afghanistan.
I would be happy at this time to take any of your questions.
COL. KECK: All right, then I would remind you that General Votel cannot see you, so please identify yourself and your news organization.
Go ahead, Pauline.
Q Sir, it's Pauline Jelinek of the Associated Press.
You mentioned that you found dozens of weapons caches, and yesterday General Pace said that weapons from Iran have been now found in Afghanistan. Can you from what you have in your area shed any more light on that, the numbers of times you've seen such a thing, when, what kinds of things they are?
GEN. VOTEL: Well, I think the reports that General Pace discussed yesterday were a result of some cache finds and some weapons and other material finds that were picked up down in Regional Command South, the area to our south. So I don't know all the particulars of those finds. We are obviously aware of it, and as a result we will continue to look as hard as we can at everything we find.
I think it's important to recognize that whenever we do do military operations and we do find caches or weapons or other things, that we try to exploit those; we try to figure out where they've come from. And if we're not sure, we have the means and methods to evacuate those pieces back to the laboratories and other places back in the United States where further analysis can be done.
Q And sir, the things that you have found, what are the sources? Where do you think they've come from in your area?
GEN. VOTEL: Well, I think they come from a variety of locations. Obviously there are -- some of these weapons are of all kinds of different makes. Obviously the most common thing we see with insurgents here is AK-47-type weapons, RPGs that all emanated throughout the former Soviet Bloc countries, and as you probably are well aware are populated in literally dozens and dozens of countries around the world.
So it's difficult for us to trace where they're all coming from. There certainly are some markings that can be indicative of where they've come from. What our job to do is, is to get those caches, get them under control. If something looks suspicious, then we try to get it back into the right channels so they can exploit and determine where those weapons have come from.
COL. KECK: Pam.
Q Sir, this is Pam Hess with United Press International. Could you talk to us about the border area and what you're seeing? How much traffic comes across there? How much of that is Taliban and insurgent? And what the status is of the tribes in that region who said that they would be cracking down on it for the Pakistani government so that there didn't have to be Pakistani forces or U.S. forces going in there. Have you seen results from that, or is there something else that needs to be going on there?
GEN. VOTEL: Well, thanks for that question. We see ebbs and flows of activity along the border, and literally every day at places along the border we have some level of contact, albeit relatively small in most cases, with some insurgents or other personnel along the border.
Our approach here has been to work very, very closely with the Pakistan military. And I would just tell you, I think there's three main things that I would try to emphasize to you that we are doing. First of all, the most important thing in the border area is communication. And so we have worked very hard over the last couple of months to ensure that our tactical headquarters on the Afghanistan side of the border and the Pakistan tactical headquarters on their side of the border can talk and communicate freely. And I will tell you, we have seen significant progress in that communication chain across there.
The second thing that we are trying to do is engender cooperation along the border. You are probably aware that the border area is largely tribal; extensive Pashtun tribes that operate in that area, have for generations, and reserve the right to move freely back and forth across. So it is very difficult to know the exact numbers of how many people move back and forth across the border area. It probably ranges in the thousands every day throughout the entire almost 570-mile border that we have in Regional Command East here with Pakistan. But what we try to do is we try to identify those likely infiltration routes, work with the Pakistan military, and then position our forces so that we have control over those areas and we minimize the disruption.
And then the final thing is cooperation. I've already mentioned the communications aspect of this. There are certainly a variety of things that take place in the border area. So what we try to do is make sure that that Pakistan military is aware of the operations that we are conducting on our side of the border; and likewise, we are aware of the things that they are doing on their side of the border.
Recently, one of the initiatives that we've pursued has been combined patrolling that is designed to basically patrol on both sides of the border in close cooperation with each other so we're covering both aspects of personnel entering and exiting the border area.
And that seems to be working quite well.
Really since January, we've seen, I think, a decrease in the amount of incidents that we've had along the border. And I really attribute that to the very close tactical cooperation and communication that we're able to achieve with the Pakistan military in the border area.
COL. KECK: Jaffe.
Q Greg Jaffe, Wall Street Journal. There was a lot of concern earlier this year about a spike in attacks and a spring offensive. Have you guys seen an increase in attacks over the course of the spring? And I know that you guys plussed up the number of troops you've got in your area to deal with that. How much longer do you guys see you needing to maintain this higher level of troops?
GEN. VOTEL: Well, we hope that the increase in troops will be an enduring requirement here in Afghanistan, and we certainly think that has helped to make a difference here. It's certainly given us the flexibility to position forces at broader areas across our specific area of operations and given us not only the ability to position along the border but, more importantly, the ability to operate in the interior, which is where the people are and where there are also threats. And so we're hopeful that we're going to continue to maintain that for some time, until we accomplish the mission.
As you're probably aware, the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, who was extended to create that second brigade the first time around, is due to rotate here in the next 45 days. And we will be bringing in a brigade from Italy to replace them. So we're very glad to be doing that.
With respect to the first part of your question, the spring offensive, I'm not sure I would classify it as an offensive. We have been more offensive than I think they have in our posturing and in our ability to dominate areas on the battlefield.
And so as a result of that, I think we've seen a decrease in activities along the border. And our ability to be in more places, along with our Afghan national security force partners, has enabled us to address a broader area across Regional Command East.
So I would not necessarily characterize it as any kind of offensive. We certainly haven't seen it manifest itself to any great degree.
That, of course, is not to say there haven't been attacks. There have. We continue to be probed on a regular basis. We continue to see attacks in the interior. But we have not seen what I would describe as a spring offensive by the Taliban.
COL. KECK: Jim?
Q Sir, this is Jim Garamone. I'm with American Forces Press Service. The Army, of course, recently extended tours to 15 months in Afghanistan. What are you hearing from your paratroopers about that? What are they saying to you?
GEN. VOTEL: Well, you know, soldiers are soldiers, and nobody wants to stay any longer than they're required to stay here in Afghanistan. But that said, you know, we are relatively early on in our deployment here. It was not unexpected completely that we might be extended. We certainly have seen that occur with the 3rd Brigade that was here, and we've seen it occur in other locations. So it's not a phenomenon that was completely unexpected.
With that, I think in talking to most soldiers out there -- and I do have a pretty good opportunity to get around and visit with them and talk to them -- they are glad to be here participating in this mission. They believe in it. And I think they're committed to stay and accomplish the mission. And we will trust that our leaders will be taking care of our families and get us back as soon as we can and when we've completed our portion of the mission.
COL. KECK: Nick.
Q General, it’s Nick Simeone at Fox. General Pace, of course, mentioned that weapons made in Iran have been found in Afghanistan. What, to you, does this say about Iran's intentions in Afghanistan? And do you see Iran trying to behave similar to the way they are accused of behaving in Iraq?
GEN. VOTEL: I'm not sure I really have the visibility to address that particular problem -- that particular issue there. Being in Regional Command East, you know, our focus is more over on the Pakistan border, so we certainly don't see anything direct influence from Iran. And I think the situation in Afghanistan is a little bit different than it probably is in Iraq. We don't really have a very good feel for what those influences might be right now. And as General Pace said, I think it's relatively -- it's relatively unknown at this time what those exact linkages are back to Iran, other than the fact that maybe some Iranian materials have been found in Afghanistan.
Right now it's not having an impact here in Regional Command East.
COL. KECK: Pam.
Q Sir, it's Pam Hess again with UPI. Could you talk to us about the incident in Jalalabad with the Marines Special Operations Force? I think that's in your AO. What measures have you taken since they were pulled out? How are you all keeping security there? Have you compensated the apparent victims of this? And what are you doing to prevent something like this from happening again?
GEN. VOTEL: Okay, thanks. Yeah -- good question.
Certainly that incident remains, as you're well aware, remains under investigation, so I won't talk about any specifics with that.
You know, I think it's important to recognize that that incident started with a terrorist attack on a Marine convoy that was conducted in the very close proximity of a civilian marketplace. And so by virtue of doing that attack, the insurgents, the terrorists exposed not only our Marines but civilians to harm as well.
What we have done with that is we, through our Provincial Reconstruction Teams -- we have a very good relationship with the governor of Nangarhar province. We were very quick to get out and link up with him and get out and talk with the tribal elders and other government officials that operate in that area. We worked very closely with them to identify the victims and the families of these victims and arrange for compensation, and that has taken place, and it continues to take place even as we speak.
Certainly these types of incidents always causes us to go back and look at our procedures, and so we have done that as well. And what we have done specifically is look at how units respond when they're in close proximity to civilian areas, and we try to emphasize the various escalation of force measures that are approved for use here in Regional Command East and try to emphasize those techniques. And we've essentially done some retraining throughout our entire force to make sure that everyone is fully aware of that. We obviously regret the loss of any life, and we're committed to protecting the Afghan people.
Q This is Kristin Roberts with Reuters.
We've seen, I believe, yesterday some coordinated attacks on police posts and a government headquarters just northeast of Kabul, which led the provincial government to call in U.S. military reinforcements. I'm hoping you can give us some additional details about those attacks by the Taliban. And tell us, what is your thinking on how far the provincial government is from being able to protect its own police posts without U.S. assistance?
GEN. VOTEL: Well, with those attacks yesterday, those occurred in an area just, I think, actually to the east of us here. And in that case the local authorities felt like they were under some threat. Obviously I think it demonstrates the close relationship that they have with both the coalition forces we have here and with the Afghan national security forces.
And so we quickly responded to that. We were very able to get some close air support on to the station very quickly and get some of our forces as well as Afghan national security forces down into the area as quickly as we can and secure the situation. So that is not something that we're unaccustomed to doing, and it's just the nature of business here that we're dealing with.
With respect to the other part of your question there relating to the provincial government, this is an area that we watch very, very closely. And through our provincial reconstruction teams, I think we have a very good handle on where we are with the development of our provincial governments here in Regional Command East. I think we are very happy to have some very good governors throughout our regional command here who are very actively involved with the people -- who have no problem getting out and meeting with them and who maintain excellent relationships not only with our forces but more importantly with the Afghan national security forces out there.
So I think we're making real progress in this direction. I will tell you that our number one priority for development here is to ensure that we have our provincial coordination centers and our district coordination centers up and operating. And that means that we have facilities that are built and capable to handle these representatives from the security forces, that we have the communications in place, that we have the procedures in place and more importantly that we are starting to build the trust in the people that they can go to their provincial coordination center, they can contact their district centers and get help.
I had an opportunity last week to go out and visit the provincial coordination center out in Khost province, out in the extreme eastern part of our area. And I will tell you, it was very refreshing to see the cooperation and the coordination that was taking place in that provincial coordination center, very good communications, very good cooperation, representation by all the elements of the Afghan National Security Forces -- army, police, border police as well as the coalition forces. So I think we're definitely moving in the right direction with that.
Q Just a follow-up, then. I mean, we've just heard you say that the increased forces you've received you hope will be maintained. I'm just trying to get an idea of the timeframe here on this. How long do you expect you're going to need to provide protection to the provincial governments or -- in other words, when are they going to be stood up and in a position to not need to call in U.S. military reinforcement when the Taliban attacks?
GEN. VOTEL: Well, let me just clarify for a second as to the example that I just cited to you on Khost province. The security for that provincial coordination center -- for two other district centers that I visited that same day was not being provided by coalition forces, but it was being provided by Afghan National Security Forces. So in many cases, they have taken on responsibility for doing this.
The Afghan Army is -- you know, is approximately 30,000 strong, growing to about 70,000. The Afghan National Police are about 55,000 to 60,000 strong, growing to about 82,000, so there's still growth that has to occur in those particular forces. But they are definitely moving in the right direction.
With respect to the timeline, I'm not sure I could tell you that. I think we will continue to provide the levels of forces here and assistance as long as the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan's government wants us to be here and as long as it's required. As I mentioned to you, we're going to replace the second Brigade here very shortly and maintain that level of force. I think it's making a big difference right now, and it's helping to create the conditions where the Afghan National Security Forces and the government can really start developing some capacity and extending their reach and influence beyond Kabul and the provincial capitals out into the villages where the people live and work.
COL. KECK: Time for maybe one more. Courtney.
Q Hi. This is Courtney Kube with NBC News. I just want to get a little bit more information about the Marines that were involved and the civilians who were killed several weeks ago. Can you just give us an idea of, number one, the final answer on how many civilians were killed and how many were wounded? And also, by the U.S. military providing payments to the families of those killed, is that an admission that they were killed -- that they were innocents that were killed?
And then, finally, if you can give us an idea of why it was that the Marines left Afghanistan.
GEN. VOTEL: Okay. I think you might have dropped off there, but I think I have the gist of your question. I think you were interested in me providing a little more information on the unit that was involved in that incident up in Nangarhar province and then a little bit more detail on the number of civilian casualties that may have taken -- or may have occurred. Is that correct?
Q (Off mike) -- and then also if you could tell us why it was that the Marines left Afghanistan so early into their tour.
GEN. VOTEL: Okay. Okay. Thanks.
Well, let me just say this. I think the numbers -- as I mentioned earlier, there is an investigation ongoing. We know that there was somewhere between eight and 12 civilians who were killed in that incident and probably somewhere between, I think, 20 to 25 that were injured. I don't know the exact numbers, because that investigation is actually being conducted outside of this headquarters. But those are the approximate, initial reports that we had. So that's what I think that it was.
The unit that was here was a company that -- from the Marine Corps -- that was operating as part of the Special Operations Forces here. And I think, as that command said in their press release regarding this, that this incident had really created conditions here that would have made it very, very difficult for that unit to continue to operate in this area, and so the decision was made to withdraw them.
I think any more specific questions in that particular area would really need to be directed to the command who is doing the investigation and who actually made that decision.
Q (Off mike) -- met with the local tribal leaders? Who from the U.S. military?
GEN. VOTEL: I'm sorry. You're a little bit broken there. I caught "local tribal leaders."
Q Who from the U.S. military met with the tribal leaders to discuss all this after the incident?
GEN. VOTEL: Well, first of all, as I mentioned, we use our Provincial Reconstruction Teams to help do this. In this case it's not necessarily the U.S. military that is out there addressing their concerns, although our Provincial Reconstruction Team commander and the brigade commander who operates in that area where out there available and actually met. But for the most part, most of this was handled by the governor, the provincial governor and other leadership there. We were quickly in contact with them, they were quickly involved with the tribal leaders, went down and conducted a series of meetings or shuras with them to discuss the incident and make sure that they understood what occurred from their perspective. And we've continued to use that mechanism to work the solatia payments to the families of those who were killed or wounded.
COL. KECK: One last question.
Q Thanks. It's Pam again. You mentioned several times a decrease in the attacks or incidents that you attributed to the work that you guys are doing. Would you put numbers on that, please?
GEN. VOTEL: Yeah, the numbers -- well, I think -- I'm not sure I would tell you that -- any particular number. Here in Afghanistan it ebbs and flows a little bit over time. For example, as we look at suicide IED attacks, we saw a little spike in the fall here. We've seen some here this spring. But in general, the numbers are trending in a downward fashion with respect to those type of attacks. We were having relatively frequent contact along the border, probably three to four times a week with attempts to make contact with our forces. We've seen that drop off probably to about half of that on a regular basis.
So that's probably how I would try to quantify that.
COL. KECK: Okay, sir, we have come to the end of our time. We appreciate you being with us today, and we'd like to turn it back to you for any closing comments.
GEN. VOTEL: Okay, well thank you. I appreciate all of your questions today and I appreciate the opportunity to address you. I'd just like to say thank you to all those who are continuing to support our mission here. We're very grateful for the support that we get from the people of the United States, as well as the international community -- our NATO partners and the other coalition countries who contribute forces and resources here for the future of Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan National Security Forces also deserve an enormous amount of credit for the valor and patriotism that they bring to this mission. I feel privileged to serve alongside them, as do our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
And I will just tell you that our troops, all of them here in Afghanistan, are doing a tremendous job not only for Afghanistan but for the United States and the world, and they truly deserve our respect and admiration.
Their dedication and devotion to duty is extraordinary, and every American should be very proud that our sons and daughters are doing this noble work here in Afghanistan.
I firmly believe we are making steady progress here in Afghanistan, and we're going to continue to do so. There is a lot of work to do here, but we are undaunted. And together with our NATO and coalition partners and with the support of the international community and the Afghan people, we're going to overcome the devastation that this country has endured for 25 or 30 years of war. We will overcome all these challenges and bring peace and stability and development for the future of Afghanistan.
Thank you all for your time today and for your continued support.
COL. KECK: Thank you again, sir. We hope to see you again down the road.
GEN. VOTEL: Thank you very much.
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