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DoD News Briefing with Brig. Gen. Votel from Afghanistan

Presenters: Deputy Commanding General for Operations, Combined Task Force-82 Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel
June 26, 2007 9:00 AM EDT
            (note: Brig. Gen. Votel appears via video teleconference from Afghanistan.)
 
            BRYAN WHITMAN (Pentagon spokesman): Good morning and welcome. Let me just check with General Votel and see if he can hear us okay. 
 
            General Votel, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: Hello, Bryan. How are you? 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: I'm doing fine. 
 
            Thank you again for spending some time with us. This is Brigadier General Joseph Votel. He is the deputy commanding general for operations of the 82nd Airborne Division and Combined Joint Task Force-82. He has been in the country since January. Many of you know him from his time in the building and his pioneering work with the IED Task Force. But now he and his forces are responsible for operations in NATO's Regional Command East, as well as overall responsibility for all of Operation Enduring Freedom operations in Afghanistan. 
 
            And again, we welcome him back. I think the last time he spoke to us was in April, and today he is at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, where he speaks to us today and is going to give us a brief overview and take some of our questions. 
 
            So with that, General Votel, let me turn it over to you. 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: Okay. Well, good. Thank you, Bryan. Appreciate that, and it's good to talk to you. 
 
            Good morning to all of you from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. This morning I'd like to give you an update on our operations here in eastern Afghanistan, and then I'll be happy to answer any of your questions. 
 
            Let me start by updating you on some changes in Regional Command East since I last had the opportunity to talk to you in April. The 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division departed after 16 months of operations and activities that played a critical role in the development of Eastern Afghanistan.   
 
            They left in early June. They were replaced by the Sky Soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. The 173rd is now building on the great accomplishments of our mountain soldiers and continuing the development in this area by partnering with our Afghan national security forces, local government officials and most importantly Afghan citizens.   
 
            Our international partners as well have renewed and reinforced their commitment to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. A Polish battle group of over 800 soldiers known as Task Force White Eagle is now operating beside U.S. and Afghan forces in Regional Command East. The Republic of Korea hospital here at Bagram recently began its 11th rotation in-country since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom. Likewise the Egyptian hospital recently conducted a change out of their forces. These dedicated doctors and nurses are improving the lives of 6 (thousand) to 8,000 Afghan citizens monthly, providing health care and education to them. The Republic of Korea army support group continues its assistance with vital civil engineering projects as well.   
 
            Turning briefly to the security situation here in Regional Command East, the enemy continues to use all means available to him to attack our forces and disrupt the lives of Afghan civilians. As the weather has improved through the spring and now into the summer, the numbers of insurgent attacks have increased. This was expected. In addition to IEDs, rockets and mortars, the insurgents use intimidation tactics to frighten the population into abandoning their support for their government and disrupt development and governance activities. In many places we see this insurgent tactic failing as Afghan citizens reject these efforts and in some cases literally fight back against the insurgents.   
 
            Our operations since the spring have had a significant effect on the Taliban insurgency here. We continue to be focused on neutralizing insurgents and creating a security environment that will allow development and extension of the legitimate government of Afghanistan. We have successfully killed or captured dozens of Taliban commanders and subcommanders, leaving their elements without experienced leadership or direction. We have moved into provincial districts that were previously controlled by the Taliban, reestablished control, and enabled legitimate Afghan government officials to come in and do their jobs. We are building roads, schools and district centers.   
 
            Our efforts at coordination along the Afghan-Pakistan border area is resulting in better cooperation and communication between all partners and has successfully allowed us to interdict insurgent infiltration back and forth through the border area. 
 
            Key in all of these activities is building a robust and capable Afghan national security architecture that truly allows the Afghans to fully assume the lead. The best recent example of this is Operation Maiwand, an Afghan 203rd Corps-led operation in the Ghazni province that commenced on the 1st of June. Here Afghan forces are taking the lead in clearing areas of insurgent presence, working with district and provincial leadership, and providing the foundation for sustained security. Many of you had the opportunity to speak with Major General Khaliq, the Afghan corps commander, last week during the press conference, and so you know that he is and remains in overall command of this operation. 
 
            The security that the Afghan national security forces and ISAF forces bring to eastern Afghanistan is allowing us to continue infrastructure development. Over the last two months we've provided seed corn to farmers and commenced building an agricultural research station to improve the ability of Afghan farmers to produce food products. We've repaired four schools and built 10 other ones. We completed eight other educational projects, ranging from self-help workshops to school and equipment -- to school equipment and supplies, in an effort to help improve the future of Afghan children. 
 
            We're not only improving the future of Afghanistan; we're helping the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan provide for their basic needs right now. As we speak, we're building four micro-hydroelectric power plants, two of which are on schedule for completion in the next month, that will bring power into villages that have never had it before. 
 
            We've also worked seven irrigation projects, increasing the vital water supply in Afghanistan, with retention dam repairs, windmills and wells. All of these projects were coordinated with local government officials. They represent the priorities of the people as established in the Afghan National Development Plan, a plan that starts at the lowest level and is coordinated and developed at all stages of Afghan government up to the national level. 
 
            Finally, before taking your questions, let me comment on some recent reports regarding civilian casualties resulting from ISAF and in particular U.S. operations here in Afghanistan. We deeply regret the loss of any innocent lives. All of us have families, and many of us are married with children, so it is absolutely agonizing when these type of events do occur. In the final analysis, we are here to protect the people of Afghanistan, and so we take any report or incident of this nature very seriously. We do not target civilians, and extensive measures are undertaken in all of our operations to absolutely minimize any effects on Afghan civilians. When injury, death or damage does occur as a result of our actions, we are quick to establish communications with tribal elders and Islamic Republic of Afghanistan officials, accurately determine the facts, take responsibility and hold ourselves accountable. 
 
            Unfortunately, we operate against an insurgent enemy who has no regard for the civil population, frequently conducting terror operations within population areas, waging a campaign of intimidation and in some situations using civilians to shield their activities. They accept no responsibility for their actions and make no attempt at accountability. We will continue to operate in accordance with the values we treasure as fighting men and women and as Americans who are members of the greatest military alliance known, the NATO Alliance, while always doing everything we can to protect the very people who have invited us into their country. 
 
            Thank you very much for allowing me to be here this morning, and with that, I would be happy to take any of your questions. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: All right. Well, thank you for that overview. We do have several questions here, so let's go ahead and get started. And we'll start with Andrew and then go over to Barbara. 
 
            Q     General, this is Andrew Gray from Reuters. To follow up on the point of civilian casualties, by one count in the past month, NATO and coalition forces killed more Afghan civilians than the Taliban. What additional procedures, if any, have you been looking at, if you look at that situation, to try and minimize those casualties? 
 
            Have you taken any additional measures in addition to what you already do? 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: Okay, thank you. You're coming in with a little bit of static there, but I think that question was about civilian casualties, and I think you're asking about what additional measures we take to protect civilians there. 
 
            First of all, with every operation we do, we always do a very good look at the area in which we're going to operate and identify those areas where civilian population may be affected. We hold our commanders to a very high -- a high level of responsibility out on the battlefield. They have the obligation to always positively identify the enemy before engaging him. And when we are conducting operations in areas where there will be some civilians, we use a collateral damage estimate process that allows us to accurately look at where effects may occur and then helps us determine how we can mitigate those things. So those are the principal things that we try to do. 
 
            What we've continued to do is, whenever possible, when the situation allows, we try to work with local government leaders to let them know that we are operating in their area so they can communicate with the people and ensure that they have awareness that there are ISAF or U.S. forces operating in their areas. 
 
            Q     Could I just follow up? Have you taken -- there seems to have been a recent spate of these killings? Have you reviewed procedures as a result of that and made any changes perhaps with regard to the use of air power? 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: I'm sorry, can somebody at the podium there repeat that question? 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Sure. It has to do with whether or not you can speak to some of the additional measures. 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: Well, as I've mentioned just a few minutes ago, I mean, we always use positive identification of enemy forces. We use an accepted U.S. and, quite honestly, NATO process that when we are doing deliberate targeting of insurgents allows us to make sure that we have the right procedures in place and we've made the right estimate of collateral effects. You might be aware here in Afghanistan we have a very low tolerance for that. And so in most of those cases we choose to use other methods. In a number of instances we will try to go work with local Afghan authorities to help us identify those persons that we're interested in trying to bring under control or talk to rather than going in and using some other more kinetic means to try to get them.  
 
            Increasingly, we try to -- we are partnered with the Afghan forces here and particularly the Afghan National Police. They have the legal authority to come and operate in these areas, and so we always try to -- we always conduct our operations in conjunction with the Afghan forces and we try to use them whenever we can to get in and work with the people and help and allow them to do the operations that are right in civilian areas and keep ISAF forces out away from those areas. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Andrew, does that get to the part of the specificity that you were requesting? 
 
            Q     I think that, you know, -- (inaudible) -- there's been a recent spate. We're asking if any additional measures have been taken as a result of the most recent -- if they've reviewed procedures and whether any additional measures in addition to the procedures they already have are being taken. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: I don't know if you heard that, general. Just -- it was kind of a second follow up to the same thing. 
 
            With the most recent incident, are there any new procedures that you've initiated as a result of these latest incidents? 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: No, there's no particularly new procedures that we are using right now. We think the procedures that we have in place are good. They work; they help us minimize the effects on this. I think it's important to understand that in a number -- in the majority, really, the large majority -- now, I won't say every instance, but in a large majority of these incidents where we -- we would, unfortunately, do have a civilian injury or death or we caused some damage, in most cases these are caused principally by insurgents who are initiating activities in the direct proximity of villages or where civilians are located. And of course, that puts a -- that makes it very, very difficult for our forces who are operating out there because they do have a responsibility to respond; they have a responsibility to protect themselves and their forces. 
 
            And so that tactic that the insurgents use unfortunately in some cases exposes civilians to this. And in that case, we have to rely on training; we have to rely on experience of our leaders out there to make the right decisions on the scene as these actions are being executed. And while it's never acceptable and we want to minimize to the absolute any damage or injuries or death caused to civilians, it does unfortunately occur. And while there have been instances of that happening here, I will tell you that there are dozens and dozens and perhaps hundreds of other operations that occur across Regional Command East that are successfully executed in and around civilian populations with no negative collateral effects on the people.   
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Very good, thank you.   
 
            Barbara.   
 
            Q     General Votel, Barbara Starr from CNN.   
 
            To follow up on some of that, can you bring us up to date on last Saturday's strike that you -- ISAF now says resulted in a hotel or building inside Pakistan being struck and nine Pakistanis being killed, civilians, as a result of action by the 82nd Airborne. Very specifically, sir, what can you tell us about this strike? Did you mean to strike inside Pakistan? Did the insurgents go to this location and you struck and you didn't realize you were striking inside Pakistan?   
 
            And I would also like to ask what you can tell us about the criminal investigation now opened into an alleged detainee abuse incident in your region as well.    
 
            GEN. VOTEL: Okay, thanks. I think you asked a couple questions there, one about the strike down in the vicinity of Bermel, Afghanistan, along the Afghan-Pak border, and then about some allegations of abuse.   
 
            So let me start with the Pakistan situation. What -- first of all, that incident is under investigation, as all of these incidents are. Whenever we have an operation or an activity that occurs in the close proximity of the border, we always go back and do a thorough examination to look at what our actions were and ensure that they were appropriate and to determine what we can learn from that.   
 
            So it's a constantly evolving learning process here to make sure that we are doing things right and we're adjusting to the insurgents and their activities.   
 
            In this particular case -- and again, I'll just remind you that this is under investigation right now to determine all the facts -- but in this particular case, we had an insurgent element, fairly sizable, came across the border, displayed imminent threat to a U.S. or an ISAF fire base. And the commander on the ground, really through the use of some of the surveillance tools that we have given to him, was able to identify that early and took the appropriate action in that particular case to protect himself and in accordance with the rules of engagement that allow us to take these type of actions. 
 
            As this action was under way, the insurgents broke contact, as they often do, and began to move back in the direction of the Pak border. We were able to continue to observe them and continued to bring fires onto their locations. And as you're aware, that did extend into Pakistan. 
 
            With regards to the any Pakistan casualties on there, we certainly extend our deepest regret for any casualties that were caused among Pakistan civilians on that side. That is under investigation right now to determine the extent and exactly what occurred there. 
 
            But let me just say this is a fairly common tactic, again, that the insurgents use of trying to expose gaps between the Pakistan military and the Afghan security forces and ISAF forces that operate on the Afghan side. And so we have a practice of very careful coordination and communication with the Pakistan military. I would assess our relationship with them to be excellent. We meet regularly at all levels to discuss procedures and activities along the border.   
 
            We -- over the last several months, we have taken some very significant steps to improve our communications. In areas where there was no communication between battalions on both sides of the border area there now is communication, and we are much better now than we were in January. 
 
            Unfortunately, these type of incidents still do occur because the insurgents continue to operate in that area.   
 
            So this is under -- this -- any of the activities that took place on the Pakistan side are under investigation. 
 
            We are talking with the Paks. They are cooperating with us and helping us get to the bottom of that particular instance. 
 
            With regard to the other portion of your question, with regards to detainee abuse, we were not aware when this article was released over the weekend that that incident had taken place. I will tell you when we became aware of it we have immediately have taken action to investigate the circumstances of that, talking to everybody that is involved, to include the detainee himself who was apparently featured in that, who was, by the way, released that same day of the alleged incident, and talked with him to ensure we have a complete picture of what happened.   
 
            And again, that's under investigation. We take that very, very seriously, any allegations of detainee abuse or inappropriate behavior with them. And so we're looking at that in great detail here trying to determine all the facts, and then we will make the appropriate judgement based on that.   
 
            But we don't condone any of that. When we are made aware of that, as we were in this instance, the commander on the ground, the commanders at the level at which I am operating immediately address it and take -- begin to take the appropriate action to determine what occurred so that we can make the right corrections if they're appropriate. 
 
            Q     General Votel, very, very briefly, can I just make sure I understand; is it correct that U.S. forces did not mean to fire into Pakistan? Is that correct? And do you have an estimate of how many civilians have been killed accidentally by the U.S. military in the last month? Is it accurate that more civilians have been killed than Taliban? 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: Okay, I got the last part of the question. It was about my estimate of how many civilians have been injured as a result -- injured or killed as a result of our actions. And I think the first part of your question dealt with the appropriateness of firing into Pakistan, if somebody could just clarify that. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Actually, the question was, for clarification, did U.S. forces intend to or not fire into Pakistan as they continued that operation. 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: In this particular situation the commander on the ground determined that he needed to continue to address that threat until it was eliminated, and that included firing into areas that were in Pakistan. What -- (short audio break) -- to do in these situations, as I mentioned about the communications, is to establish communications as quickly as we can with the Pakistan military so that we can coordinate any of these actions and ensure that we are deconflicted on both sides of the border. So, you know, U.S. commanders have the responsibility to take action to protect their forces to the extent that they need to based on the threat that is presented to them. 
 
            And as I've mentioned to you, we're looking at this whole incident in full and complete detail here so we can understand what exactly occurred in a fairly dynamic situation here, when a commander on the ground is making decisions that are presented to him in a pretty rapid situation. 
 
            And I'm sorry. I think I forgot the other part of the question there. 
 
            Q     The other part dealt with some assertions that there have been more civilian casualties than Taliban deaths during the last month of operations. 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: No, that is absolutely not true. I mean, there's a recent report -- I think it was released in April or May timeframe by the United Nations Human Rights Commission -- that basically laid out the amount of casualties that were caused from Taliban or insurgent actions versus ISAF or OEF coalition force activities, and it is significantly greater. 
 
            Let me give you one statistic here with suicide IEDs. There has been a spike in the use of suicide IEDs here in Afghanistan. The numbers here are relatively small when you compare it to something like what we see in Iraq, but nonetheless there has been an increase in that particular tactic. From that particular tactic, well over 65 percent of the casualties that are caused from suicide IEDs by Taliban or insurgent operatives are innocent civilians, so it's not a particularly effective technique against the Afghan National Security Forces or ISAF forces, although we do in some cases have people who are killed or injured as a result of these. 
 
            But the people who are bearing the brunt of these types of attacks are the Afghan people themselves, and so this tactic is barbaric in that it's attacking the very people that the Taliban express their desire to control and to lead, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to me. And I have a hard time understanding how anyone can provide any allegiance to any kind of force that advocates the use of suicide attacks as a tactic or a method, particularly when most of those casualties being caused from -- are innocent civilians. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Let's go to Pauline; if we have time, then Courtney. 
 
            Q     Pauline Jelinek of the Associated Press. Sir, the last time you spoke to us, you told us about Operation Eagle Teamwork; it started in late February and clear, hold and build. I wonder if you could go back now and tell us, is that over? What did you clear? Is it being held? What's the building going on? Just sort of an update to give us a sense over the months what happened and how it turned out. 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: Okay. I'm sorry. I'm going to need to have you repeat that one from the podium -- 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: This has to do with your last briefing, when you talked about Eagle Teamwork, the -- Operation Eagle Teamwork, and if you could give an assessment, now that you've been into that for a few months -- is that completed? 
 
            Did you achieve your goals? What were the objectives and anything you can provide with respect to how well that operation was conducted? 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: Yeah, good. Okay, good. Good. Thank you very much for that question. 
 
            That operation, Ham Kuri, our teamwork is -- as the Dari word implies there, it really continues here in Regional Command East. That will be an operation that will continue really, I think, through -- as a broad operation will continue through the summer and perhaps into the fall when we start to change our focus into other areas. 
 
            My assessment is, is we are doing very well with this operation. The operation that Colonel Schweitzer and General Khaliq talked with you about last night -- last week, Operation Maiwand that is a occurring in the Ghazni area is a very clear example of what we're trying to do with Ham Kuri, one of the sub-operations that's taking place underneath that, and it's been very, very successful. You know, we've -- as a part of that, we've detained really -- the Afghan national security forces detained in excess of 50 team leaders out there. We've killed a number of Taliban subcommanders, includes several very, very important individuals out there who were facilitating IED networks and generally causing a variety of other problems out in the area for the Afghan civilians. 
 
            We've effectively brought governance down into that area. As part of this operation that is now a little over three weeks old, we've held nearly 40 shuras out in the district areas and throughout the province, where we brought Afghan government leaders in to talk with the tribal elders and to explain and to help build support for the government. We've had the president of Afghanistan came down and spoke at one of these shuras. 
 
            So I think we're doing very, very well, and Maiwand is a very good example of it. Of course, Teamwork -- Op Teamwork here extends really beyond the Ghazni province and includes the operations that we're doing along the border and the increasing cooperation and coordination we're building with our Pakistan partners to the east, and it also includes operations that we're conducting in the northern portions of our area, where we're addressing insurgent strongholds. 
 
            We're going into districts where they have support areas. We're pushing them out of there. We're capturing or killing them. We're separating them from the people, and we're allowing the government to get in there. 
 
            As part -- the whole focus of this operation for us is to help us create the situation where we can allow development and governance to take place. And we are definitely seeing that, not only in the Ghazni area, which is our principal focus area right now, but also up in Nangarhar and in some of the areas up around -- that surround the Kabul province up here in the north central portion of our province. 
 
            So I think we're making very, very good progress with this overall operation, and we're going to continue to work it very, very hard. 
 
            Q     The question really was, when you tell there there's an operation going on, four months later, are you -- is it possible to tell us we now have cleared this area, that, with some specificity what you've accomplished -- cleared 10 areas, we do hold them, we lost one of them -- you know, a detailed explanation of what happened at that thing you've said four months ago you started? 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: Okay. I'm sorry. If you can repeat that -- I'm sorry. The press mikes are coming in very staticky. I cannot understand the question. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Actually, what the question is looking for is whether or not there are some specific things that you can cite four months into this operation that helped quantify the success that you're taking about -- areas that have been secured, accomplishments of a concrete, quantifiable-type measurement.   
 
            GEN. VOTEL: Yeah, certainly. Yeah. I'll just -- I'll start in Nangarhar province here, a very important province that borders on -- in -- Pakistan here and has some vital lines of communication through that. 
 
            Our operations up there have basically allowed the U.S. Agency for Internal (sic/International) Development, USAID, to basically invest over $100 million in that province this year alone to help with the alternative livelihoods program up there for the people.    
 
            We've got several what have been described as super-madrasses but really they're educational centers of excellence being built throughout the provinces right now that are really an extension of the Afghan minister of education program to bring education to the people. These centers of excellence will help combine religious education with secular education, with vocational training, out in the provinces. And we've got several of those under construction now. 
 
            We are well in excess of 8,000 kilometers of roads that we have continued to add to what our predecessors have done here in Afghanistan. We work with the Afghan engineer district, Corps of Engineers element here, to help build those roads, identify them and get them in place. I think if I was to put you in a helicopter and fly you up over the northern portion of our province in the Nuristan, Konar area, heavily mountainous area, you'd be surprised at the amount of roads that have been carved out of this very difficult terrain that are allowing us to extend commerce or extend governance up into those areas.    
 
            We have literally built or repaired dozens of schools throughout the area. In the Andar province, for example, where we were several months ago before we started operations, where we were measuring the amount of children going to school in the teens and very low hundreds, we're now seeing thousands of students who are attending school, both boys and girls, in that province, in that area, because we've started to create the security situation for that. 
 
            This is a long process. We very carefully study what the insurgents are doing. We look at the districts in which they're operating and we try to focus in on those where we can make immediate gains and we can achieve some effects. Last week I had an opportunity to go out to the Khost province and participate in a district center opening in the Bak district. 
 
            I had been out to this area just a couple months previously, and this was an area -- this district center was just a mess. It was not being taken care of. There was no extension of governance out there, and what we've been able to do in that particular area, working with the Afghan national police in there and with the local authorities, is get some security established, get a very effective district center put in place and allowed the leadership of that province and of that district to get out there and start looking after the needs of the people. So there are lots of examples of what we're doing. We're bringing humanitarian aid to people, just in Operation Maiwand, 246 tons of humanitarian aid delivered just over the last several weeks in one small area of our operations.   
 
            MR. WHITMAN: General, we have reached the end of the time that has been allocated for this, but I'm told we have one very short question. Do you have time to take one more?   
 
            GEN. VOTEL: I certainly do.   
 
            MR. WHITMAN: I'm told that it's a yes or no answer, but I'm suspicious of that. So we'll let the reporter ask it, and I may have to repeat it for you, though.   
 
            Go ahead, Courtney.   
 
            Q     I'll be loud. General, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News.   
 
            This is a very brief question regarding a strike last weekend in Paktika province, the one where seven children were killed on a compound. Do you know any more about whether Abu Laith was killed or injured or captured?   
 
            GEN. VOTEL: Okay, I think that question was about an operation that took place last week where there were some reports of -- where we were going after some high-value individuals and there were some civilian casualties, reported as children, in that incident. Is that the one you're referring to?   
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Specifically whether or not a specific individual, Abu Laith, who was believed to perhaps be part of that strike, was killed or not in that operation. 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: Okay. Well, I think I got the gist of the question here. 
 
            With respect to that operation, we did capture a number of insurgents in that and have brought them in for questioning. There were several others that were killed as a result of that. We did not necessarily get all the individuals we were going after in that particular operation, but we continue to work that very, very hard. And obviously, we have continued to work through the governor of the province there in Paktika to ensure that the proper condolences and other cultural customs are adhered to with respect to those children who were unfortunately victims of this operation. 
 
            Q     (Off mike) -- Abu Laith? 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: I think that -- perhaps if you can hear me, the specific question was whether or not you have any information with respect to Abu Laith and whether or not he was killed in that operation. 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: With respect to -- I'm sorry. Say the name? 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Abu Laith. 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: Yeah, right now I don't have any evidence that he was killed in that particular operation. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: All right, General. Well, thank you very much for your time this afternoon and for hanging in there with us with the less than perfect audio. We appreciate once again you giving us some time, and we hope that you'll be able to join us again soon. 
 
            And before I close, let me just turn it back to you in case you have any closing thoughts. 
 
            GEN. VOTEL: Well, thank you very, very much. I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you today, and I apologize that I've had to have so many of these questions repeated. 
 
            I appreciate all the questions, and I appreciate the opportunity once again to address you. 
 
            I'd like to take just a moment to thank -- to send a "Thank you" out to the American people for the support they are providing our service members and for their continued support of our mission here. We're very grateful for all the support we get from the United States, from our NATO partners, as well as the international community, in bringing stability and development to the Afghan population here. 
 
            The Afghan national security forces deserve a special recognition from the international community for the improvements that they are making and the progress that they are bringing to their own country. They are taking the lead in the fight against terrorism, and they will ultimately prevail in their quest to bring peace and stability to their people. We feel very honored to be serving alongside them.   
 
            And I will tell you that our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are doing a spectacular job here. Every American there should be very, very proud of what they're doing here in Afghanistan and of the sacrifices that are being made every day to bring freedom to the Afghan republic. 
 
            I firmly believe that the progress -- I firmly believe that we're winning here and that we're making progress, as exemplified over the last several months, and that we're going to bring a lasting benefit to the people of Afghanistan.   
 
            As I mentioned, there's still a lot of work to do here, but with every project we complete, with every mission we finish, we are one step closer to bringing freedom and stability that -- the freedom and stability that the people of Afghanistan crave and the enemies of peace and freedom would deny them. 
 
            Thank you again for your time today and for your continued support and interest in our mission. Thank you very much. 
 
            Q     Thank you. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Thank you, General.
 
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