(Note: General Rodriguez appears via video teleconference from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS): General Rodriguez, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. How are you today?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Good. How are you doing, Bryan?
MR. WHITMAN: Welcome back to the Pentagon Briefing Room, and thank you for joining us this afternoon, this morning here. For those of you who don't know Major General David Rodriguez, he is the commander of Combined Joint Task Force-82 in Afghanistan. He and his troops are responsible for security and stability operation in NATO's Regional Command East. He is also the senior U.S. commander in country and is responsible for the ongoing counterterrorism operations. He assumed command in February of this year, and is quite familiar with this room and with many of you as his time on the Joint Staff, as you'll recall.
But it's his first opportunity as the commander to talk to you in this format in this forum here, and we do appreciate you taking the time to do that. And why don't I turn it over to you for a kind of an update and operational overview, and then we'll get into a few questions.
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Okay. Well, thank you, Bryan.
Good afternoon from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Like he said, I'm Major General Dave Rodriguez, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force-82, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk to you today about the situation in Afghanistan.
The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Afghan National Security Forces and the International Security Assistance Force along with Combined Joint Task Force-82 have been collectively working together to bring stability and security to the people of Afghanistan. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, in partnership with over 37,000 Security and Assistance Force troops from NATO and 25 provincial reconstruction teams, are helping the government of Afghanistan to extend its reach of the government to the people and developing a stable and secure environment for the country.
While the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, supported by the international community, is improving the infrastructure development here, as well as the economy, they realize that development goes hand in hand with security. And the Afghan national security forces are continuing to build their capacity and increasingly taking the lead during planning and operations.
The accomplishments and developments in security have been possible because of the efforts of the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as well as the provincial leadership and the Afghan national security forces. We're proud to be assisting the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Afghan national security forces, and our international partners as we bring development, security and stability to all the people of Afghanistan.
And I'd be happy to answer any of your question at this time. Thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you, and we'll get started here.
Al, why don't you get us started?
Q General, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America. Within the last few weeks, there had been a lot of controversy about civilian casualties as a result of U.S. and NATO airstrikes. Have you put any new procedures into place in order to try to reduce the impact on civilians of some of your operations?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: We take the civilian casualties seriously and work very, very hard in every single situation to ensue that the actions we take are required militarily to accomplish the mission and are proportional to the situation that we're involved in. And we review those continually to ensure that we are best protecting the people.
We realize that civilian casualties are a severe impact on our ability to influence the future of this country. They're so important in an insurgency.
We work very, very hard with both precision intelligence and information to ensure that we do not put civilians at risk.
The other thing we also work hard at is precision in reporting those casualties, and there's -- not always the first or second thing you read is the most accurate situation.
Q Follow-up? Yeah. Can you give us some examples where you've gotten maybe some bad reporting, bad publicity that you didn't deserve?
And also, I had asked if you put any new procedures into effect. It sounds like you haven't and you're satisfied with the procedures that you have.
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: We're satisfied with the procedures, and we always work to do them with the most precision and the best that we possibly can.
And just as an example, in one of the incidents that we've had where there were significant civilian casualties reported, there were about eight that we could confirm, and the report was about -- 50 was the maximum number reported in the paper.
So there's a significant challenge there because, of course, the enemy does not wear uniforms. So there's a significant potential for a wide range of reports in the newspapers or with the insurgent propaganda.
MR. WHITMAN: Jim, go ahead.
Q This is Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse. I wonder if you could talk about the role of al Qaeda, if any, in the fighting. And if you are seeing an al Qaeda presence, could you give us a sense of the numbers and what their role is?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yes, there's a presence of al Qaeda in this insurgency. Of course, there are several insurgency groups that we are struggling with here. One of -- the biggest one, of course, is the Taliban. Al Qaeda is -- has an effect in this theater. We see it several ways. The al Qaeda network is the one that brings most of the foreign fighters in. They have been a little bit of an increase over last year in the numbers. There's about three areas where we have challenges with foreign fighters, and we continue to target them as best we possibly can.
MR. WHITMAN: Jeff.
Q General, Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes. Can you talk about how, with all the resources available to the U.S. military, Osama bin Laden has been able to elude capture?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Well, there's rugged terrain in this part of the world, and he understands -- he's real effective at hiding in amongst population centers or in isolated parts of the countries here. And that's how he's been able to elude us finding him.
MR. WHITMAN: John.
Q Back to the question about al Qaeda. Can you try to quantify for us what -- maybe what percentage of attacks you think are coming from al Qaeda or from foreign fighters? And secondly, can you tell us what you're seeing -- what's the latest you're seeing in terms of Iranian activity in Afghanistan?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: As far as the al Qaeda activity, it's a minority of the attacks here. And they also help facilitate and move resources, to include money. And they have had several contacts where they've been like a cadre-type organization, where they've got some recruits and brought them in, where they have a couple of foreign fighters that lead a larger force in a cadre-type operation.
As far as the Iranian influence, the Iranian influence in Afghanistan has mainly been on the political front, which is a situation that both the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the country of Iran work out according to their desires as sovereign nations. And there has been some military insignificant arms, ammunition and explosives that have been moved through Iran, but there's no specific tie to the leadership of the country of Iran in that movement of arms, ammunition and equipment.
MR. WHITMAN: (Off mike.)
Q A couple of follow-ups, general. When you say Iran's involvement has been primarily political, what do you mean?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Well, they've had meetings between the -- some of the political leaders here. They've also -- they provide some economic development funds to the country of Iraq. They also provide power to them on their -- as an economic type of influence, so the normal things that partnering countries participate in.
Q Of a positive nature?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: That's for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and Iran to determine, sir.
Q Could you give us the latest on the border situation with Pakistan? You were talking about the foreign fighters are primarily al Qaeda. Are the borders with Pakistan as porous as they were before? And have there been any recent cross-border operations involving U.S. military in hot pursuit, or otherwise, into Pakistan?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: The border situation, again, right now Pakistan is executing a significant military operation over there along their western border in the federally administrative tribal areas in the northwest province -- territories. They've continued to conduct operations to improve their security in that region and on the border. We do significant coordination with the Pakistan military at multiple levels over here starting at the strategic level with the International Security Assistance Force, the Pakistani military, as well as the Afghan military. And the border region is a significant challenge because of the ruggedness of the terrain and the distance, but we are working together to reduce that flow of insurgents back and forth both ways across the border.
Q Just one more follow-up. What is the current level of cross-border attacks from Pakistan into Afghanistan?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Last month it was about double what it was a year ago the same month, the same time last year. This year (sic) it's about the same, so it's decreased a little in the past month here mainly, again, because of the Pakistani military operations being conducted at the present time.
MR. WHITMAN: Al.
Q General, it's Al Pessin again. If I could follow up on that, are you doing anything new or increased to help the Pakistanis on their side of the border, and have you worked on any plans with them to use U.S. forces on their side of the border, whether ground forces, air forces or fire, in order to help in what they're doing?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: No, we've made no plans to use any U.S. forces on their side of the border. They're a sovereign country, and they're doing a, like I said, a military operation now to help provide better security there.
As far as what we do on the border, like I said, we work at coordination meetings at every level from the tactical operational strategic level, and we have established a good medium for sharing intelligence, information and communication. And the rest of what we're -- what the United States is trying to do of course is provide them a significant amount of assistance as they ask for, as they try to extend governance in there.
And they -- of course, the U.S. has pledged $750 million and some airframes as well as some training to help support that effort. But that's done through the Pakistani government and does not -- we only monitor that because of the coordination we do with them. We don't have any direct impact on those plans.
Q Jon Karl, ABC News, again.
Can you just give us like a 30,000-foot view? How are things going? The security situation in Afghanistan -- there's been some suggestion by members of Congress that we should have more troops in Afghanistan. Do you think that that's the case? Or do you think that things are progressing in such a point that we may be able to reduce U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan in the near future? What's your overall assessment?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: The security situation here continues to improve over time. As the Afghan national security forces, which for example in the army, we've got about half trained and equipped out in the field fighting, and so as well as the police, which are a couple years behind the development of the Afghan army, which we're working hard on now. And as the chairman stated many times, what we're looking for here is some more trainers to help out with the police force.
Now without them, we're still doing training on the police. It just will help speed up that process if we got more trainers. Again, the Afghan national security forces, specifically the army, are doing very, very well and are picking up a lot of capabilities and effectiveness. And the police, like I said, a little bit behind, but they're moving forward.
Q And the second part of that was, I mean, do you see a scenario in the near future where overall force levels could come down? I mean, when do you think that would happen?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Well, I think the building of the security forces are going to take another two to three years as they continue to build their capability. And then again, the reducing of forces is dependent on many, many things: of course, the development of their capacity of governance, their development of their economy and their development of a national security system that includes cooperative efforts with the Pakistani military security forces. So that's a hard question to say right now, but I'll just tell you that the security -- all those are moving in a positive direction now. And I think time will tell when we can begin reducing forces.
MR. WHITMAN: Barbara.
Q General Rodriguez, if I could just go back and follow up on several points, you said a while ago, the number of foreign fighters coming in had increased, especially, you had seen, in three areas.
First, can you quantify the increase? Where are these people coming from? Are they Saudis mainly? Who are they?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: They're -- it's increased probably 50 to 60 percent over what it was last year, Barbara, and they come from multiple areas in the Middle East. And I think I'll leave it at that.
Q (Off mike.) You're saying -- are you saying they're mainly coming across the border from Pakistan? Is that their point of entry? And where are they focusing their operations inside Afghanistan?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yes, most of them come across the border from -- through the -- through Pakistan and the border there. And they're focusing their energies in about three places, three areas where -- up in Regional Command East, and that's what we're focusing on.
Q If I could just continue to follow up, you then said, and I lost you a little bit, that last month, attacks had doubled from where they were a year ago. I take that to mean you're talking about June '07 versus June '06, but you've seen them decrease in July?
Is this is a correlation to the increase in foreign fighters in your area? Are those attacks by mainly foreign fighters?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Again, I -- on the attacks, that was in relationship to the border. Okay? So last month they were double what they were this time last year. And again, this month they've been a little bit less, and part of that, again, is because the military operations that the Pakistani military is conducting right now, I think that's what the effect of those have been on us.
And I think it's just a result of a couple things. One is the expanding presence of the Afghan national security forces throughout the depth and breadth of the regional command here, so that that has contributed to some of the increase in contacts, as well as some expansion of the governments -- governance and Afghan national security forces up into the upper northeastern regions in the Kunar and Nuristan province, which we continue to expand into to extend the governance of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in conjunction with Afghan national security forces.
Q You talk about, though, foreign fighters, a 50 to 60 percent increase. Can you put any kind of overall number on it? Is it 10 guys? Is it 200 guys?
And let me also take the moment just to follow up. What is your latest -- you were speaking about bin Laden in quite the present tense. What is your latest information on his whereabouts, his health, and your analysis of why he is staying so much out of sight but Ayman al-Zawahiri is, you know, making video tapes around the clock these days?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: I didn't get all that question, but I'll answer the part that I did get and then you can redirect, Barbara. But anyhow, the numbers -- I'm not going to give you specific numbers, but it's somewhere between the two numbers that you talked about there as far as the ones that we've been able to understand what's going on.
And then the -- as I said, the challenges on both sides of the border and in Pakistan have all contributed to this, as well as the porosity of the border. And again, both the Pakistan military, the Afghan national security forces as well as the International Security Assistance Forces continue to improve the capacity of the border police as well as the command and control and communications that support the ability to react to those border incursions on -- going both ways in some rugged terrain.
Q My other question was, you spoke about bin Laden in quite the present tense. What is your latest assessment on -- you spoke about him in the present tense -- your latest assessment on where he is, where Zawahiri is, and why bin Laden is staying so much out of sight when Ayman al-Zawahiri is making videotapes quite often?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: I couldn't answer that question, why when – you know I said, we're still assuming that he's still around and influencing the al Qaeda network, and we continue to apply all the, you know, national resources we have to try to track him down.
MR. WHITMAN: Jim, go ahead.
Q General, it's Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse again. The foreign fighters who are coming into Afghanistan, are any of them coming -- are any of them Iraqis or people who have had experience fighting in Iraq? And also, can you describe, you know, the safe havens that al Qaeda has in Pakistan -- how extensive they are?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: As far as experience, it's -- from Iraq, we're not -- you know, we don't have any exact intelligence that says that, but you can obviously see some of the same type of tactics and techniques and procedures that, you know, are transferring between Iraq and Afghanistan.
And then I couldn't tell you about the development of the support bases in Pakistan with a lot of precision. I can just tell you some of the effects that we're seeing over here in Afghanistan.
MR. WHITMAN: Jim -- the other Jim.
Q General, can you give us a status report on the Taliban? Are they a bigger fighting force, smaller fighting force than they were a year ago? Any word on their leadership and/or their tactics? Are they conducting offensive military operations or have they pretty much dug in and relying on classic insurgencies, IEDs, suicide bombers, that kind of thing?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: You know, that's changed over time here. They've had about 20 attacks over the last six months here that had more than 30 people in them, which we kind of separate from the hit-and-run type tactics that is a classic counterinsurgency model. They have had about that many. But we've had a significant -- the International Security Assistance Force has had a significant impact on their leadership; that has disrupted their capability to conduct many of those large attacks, which are decreasing from a high probably in the May-June timeframe.
Down in Regional Command South, they've had some significant losses. They've had about 20 or so key leaders that have been either killed or captured, of course led by Mullah Dadullah Lang being killed. And they've also -- of those, 20, nine of those were captured by Pakistan in Pakistan, another indication of the contribution Pakistan makes in the global war on terror.
Q Are they -- have they decreased in their operational ability, their strength? Are they getting stronger? Are they getting weaker? Do you think you're gaining on the Taliban?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Again, I think that they've continued to bring as much as they could to the fight as they could. I think they've been severely disrupted, so right now it's probably not much different between what they were in the past years.
Was -- did they start out a little stronger this year than last year? That's -- they probably did, but where they're at now is about the same level after the significant disruption in leadership and several good operations the International Security Assistance Force have executed over the past six months.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, Jeff.
Q All right, general. Jeff with Stars and Stripes again. I'd like you to put the foreign fighters in context. About what percentage do they make up of overall insurgent forces?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: I lost you there. Could you repeat that question, please?
Q Of the bad guys you are facing, the insurgents, what percentage of those are foreign fighters?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: I think it's a small percentage, you know, still less than 5 percent, you know. And that's, as I said, just an estimate. But again, they come in and bring some leadership skills or cadre-type operation and -- but it's a small percentage.
Q If I could follow up quickly, you had mentioned the challenges in trying to find Osama bin Laden. What's unclear to me is why is it these challenges seem to be insurmountable. Yes, it's rugged terrain. Yes, he is good at blending in. But can't we counter that, find a way to find him?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Well, we haven't been successful in that yet, but I can tell you everybody's applying every resource they can to do that.
MR. WHITMAN: Donna, let's finish up with you.
Q Sir, it's Donna Miles with the American Forces Press Service. I'd like to shift for a second and get sort of a status report of the 82nd. And based on the cumulative deployments you've had, how would you say you've changed your TTPs? What have you applied? What lessons from past deployments are you applying now? How are you going about your mission differently? What are some of the cumulative impacts on your troops, and how are you overcoming the challenges of that?
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Well, the learning and the -- the learning that's gone on since the beginning of this war has been tremendous. We continue to adapt our tactics, techniques and procedures. I think the biggest change that most of the troopers will tell you from this time is that when they came back this time, there has been significant improvement in the economic development of the country. There's a lot more commerce moving out on the roads there. They have -- we have done a much improved job working with the people. As -- in the -- both the Afghan national security forces and the Afghan government, as they have developed their capacities, it's kind of both grown at the same time.
As far as the challenges of repeated deployments and the length of deployments, they continue to perform magnificently. We have a great reenlistment rate, where the soldiers know what -- the contributions they're making to their mission. They're supported by tremendous family members back there at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. And they continue to provide tremendous sacrifice and service on behalf of their nation.
MR. WHITMAN: General, we have reached the end of the time that we allocated for this. But before we bring it to a close, I thought I'd throw it back to you in case there's something you'd like to add, or something that we may have missed or something that has stimulated a thought of yours, before we close this up.
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Just one of the things that everybody asks about is, of course, all the contacts and everything else going on, but I just got to tell you that the provincial reconstruction teams are doing yeoman's work over here and making a huge difference as they work with the local governments and the local security forces, as they help develop the capacity in those government leaders and development leaders in the economy and the commerce section. So that's making a huge impact here and providing the Afghan people a huge opportunity to succeed here.
And I'd just like to say -- thank all of you. The soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines over here that are -- and the civilians -- part of this combined joint task force are doing a superb job, and I think everybody out there ought to be very, very proud of them. I believe the progress in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Afghan national security forces that they've made in the last several years here will have a lasting effect on all the people of Afghanistan.
There is still a lot of work to do, but with every project completed and every mission finished, Afghanistan's one step closer to the peace and stability the people of Afghanistan deserve and the enemies of freedom would deny them.
But thank you for your time, your questions and your support.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, general, thank you, and hopefully we can impose upon your time a short distance down the road and have you back in this room again.
GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Okay, thank you very much, Bryan.
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