BRYAN WHITMAN (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense For Public Affairs): Well, good morning and welcome. Today our briefer is Colonel Chip Preysler, commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. You may recall, he started one with us a couple of weeks ago, a few weeks ago, and we didn't let him get a word out, so -- when we had technical difficulties. So hopefully today the technology will stay with us.
As I said, he is the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which is based out of Vicenza, Italy. And he and his unit are currently deployed in eastern Afghanistan along the Afghanistan- Pakistan border. He took command in June of 2006, but Colonel Preysler knows the area well. This is his third tour to Afghanistan; his first deployment to Afghanistan was with the 101st Airborne. He was also the CJ3 for Combined Task Force-76 prior to taking command of the 173rd Airborne.
He's at Jalalabad today, and as usual, he's going to give us some opening remarks, an overview of what his unit's been doing, and then he's going to take some of your questions.
So with that, Chip, let me turn it over to you.
COL. PREYSLER: Thanks, Bryan, and I appreciate you guys letting me rehearse a couple weeks ago. Hopefully I can get this right today.
Good morning from Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. On behalf of all those serving in Task Force Bayonet and our partners in the Afghan National Security Forces, I'd like to thank you for the opportunity to speak today.
Task Force Bayonet is built around the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team based in Italy and Germany. The 173rd is an organization with a vast amount of experience, having deployed previously to both Iraq and more recently Afghanistan. Rounding out the task force are elements of the Arizona National Guard, individual augmentees from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and all areas of Reserve and National Guard forces.
I want to give you a quick overview of the operations we conduct in AO Bayonet. We've been on the ground now for over four months. Since assuming responsibility for this area in June, Task Force Bayonet has seen great progress in all aspects of the lines of operation we follow. Our overall objective doing our tour is to increase security and stability for the Afghan people in our area of operation.
In order to accomplish that, we have focused our efforts in two primary areas, the first being increasing the capacity and capability of our partners in the Afghan national security forces. That includes the army, the police and the border police.
Additionally, we are working to improve economic development in our sector through financing and constructing of roads, which allow us to connect the farmers and merchants to markets.
We have developed partnerships with the Afghan national security forces at every level across our area of operation, and they display marked progress daily. We conduct combined planning and execution of operations with these forces as they continue to build their capacity. Afghan national security forces increasingly take the lead during planning and operations as they become more capable of sustaining security and force development.
Much of this can be attributed to the establishment of district and provincial coordination centers, which allow all of the security forces and the government agencies, to include the U.S. forces, across the province to share information and coordinate their efforts. To date we've established two provincial coordination centers and five district coordination centers, with the construction of another provincial coordination center under way and plans for more district coordination centers in the future.
Progress in the road network is a key piece to our overall development plan for this sector. With the increased road network, the government is gaining access to areas in the province and districts never before accessible. The improved road network is also increasing security in the area, now that Afghan security national security forces are able to patrol areas of the country that they had never been able to reach before.
The improvement of road networks has increased security, access of government and shortened the time it takes farmers and merchants to reach markets, improving the daily lives of the Afghan people.
At this time, I'd be happy to take any questions.
MR. WHITMAN: All right. We'll get started here with Kristin.
Q Sir, it's Kristin Roberts with Reuters. I'm hoping you can give us an idea of the levels of violence you're seeing now, compared with perhaps when you began there on your latest tour in Afghanistan. We've heard over the past couple months that attacks on -- you know, a variety of different types of attacks have been on the increase, notably suicide attacks. Are you experiencing that? And can you give us some idea there?
COL. PREYSLER: Yeah. Good question. We came in during a tough period in June when, of course, the harvest is in and the fighting season, because of weather, is definitely permissive.
It's hard to compare from year to year specifically in our area, because we've never had this much force in this particular area of operation. Previously there'd only been a battalion in this area. Now, there's an entire brigade, as well as Afghan national security forces that have definitely increased their force size.
So it's kind of hard to make comparisons from year to year. We have certainly experienced quite a lot of combat in certain particular areas of our area of operation. So I'll leave it at that. Hopefully that answered your question.
Q Can you tell me if, since June, you've seen an increase in suicide attacks particularly?
COL. PREYSLER: Yes, there has been an increase in suicide attacks across the country. Again, drawing back from my first tour, there was very few if any suicide attacks. We have experienced a couple here in our area of operations -- thankfully no one seriously injured from our perspective. Obviously it's a pretty despicable way to -- for the enemy to attack, as it is random and indiscriminate, and hurts a lot of Afghan people. And so we obviously try to prevent that as best we can and play that against the enemy as he tries to use that tactic.
Q Colonel, Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes.
I understand that in the 173rd's last combat tour to Afghanistan, it suffered a total of 18 fatalities: 17 from the 173rd and one from SETAF. So far this year, in the last four months, I understand the unit has suffered 16 fatalities. Please let me know if that figure is incorrect. Does that mean Afghanistan has become a more dangerous place for soldiers since your last tour?
COL. PREYSLER: No, I believe those numbers are accurate. I would not make that assessment, that things are more dangerous just because of certain casualty comparisons from one year to another. Remember, the brigade was stationed down in a different area last tour. In this tour, we're in pretty rugged terrain, where it's very difficult to operate and maneuver given the elevations.
We fight sometimes at 12(,000) and 14,000 feet. And again, it's very tough fighting out here in N2KL, as we call our area.
Q Well, if I could follow up, what other factors contribute to the fact that the unit has suffered almost as many fatalities in four months as it did during its entire 12-month tour last time?
COL. PREYSLER: Well, one thing, our brigade, of course, has grown in size as we are now a transformed brigade with much greater capability. Second, we're in an area where there hasn't been a lot of coalition force presence prior to our arrival. Our predecessors had just relocated up here when we replaced them and assumed responsibility for this area. There's traditional sanctuaries up here in our area that have never been contested before by coalition or Afghan forces in any meaningful or sustained way.
So I think this contributes to the overall casualties that you see. Obviously, we're out there every day, much more dispersed across the area. We stay with the people. We don't go back and forth between our forward operating bases as we had in the past. So we're out in smaller elements amongst the people, dispersed across a wide area in very rugged terrain before never really contested by coalition or Afghan forces.
MR. WHITMAN: Al.
Q Colonel, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America. Can you tell us about the impact of the recent Pakistani operation on their side of the border? How much coordination was there with your forces? Did you see bad guys trying to flee across the border? Did you do a parallel operation of any sort? Tell us about that.
COL. PREYSLER: Well, most of the Pakistani operations were a little bit further south than my area of operation, so I can't really comment with great accuracy on their operation. Obviously, we're happy to see them supporting the global war on terrorism, and of course, they're doing a tremendous job over there.
In our area, of course, we focus on coordination, cooperation and communications. And we have routine meeting with all the Pakistani forces along the border, the shared border. We certainly let the Afghan border police officials take lead in any type of meetings that are coordinated for.
So we're developing a pretty good relationship across the border in my area. I don't think the Pakistani military operations have been that significant across the border from where we sit right now.
Q And is there a cross-border insurgency problem in that area? Do they need to have more significant operations, or is that not a problem up there?
COL. PREYSLER: No, we definitely have some border -- cross- border problems. The enemy has the ability to come across obviously very rugged terrain. Most of our efforts have been along the populated areas which run along the eight -- Asadabad Valley in the Jalalabad area. We don't have the same type of border fight that the 82nd brigade has just south of us. Ours is a little bit different fight, mainly because of the terrain. It is extremely rugged; there are very few roads that lead in. You can cross the mountains in just about any place you want. So our focus has been more about the people, separating the insurgents from the people than fighting a classic border security fight.
Q Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse. Some commanders in Iraq have suggested that as al Qaeda in Iraq is being reduced there, that they may -- that al Qaeda may shift its efforts to Afghanistan. Are you seeing any evidence of that?
COL. PREYSLER: I don't see any direct evidence. Obviously, I'm convinced that there is al Qaeda influence in the fight over here. I don't have any direct correlation or evidence to give, but we do see an al Qaeda influence in the various groups that we have to fight over here.
Q Could you elaborate on that; what influence you see, how you see that influence manifested?
COL. PREYSLER: Well, we see a lot of times better led and trained forces that we know they're getting some training, some equipping, financing from various sources. And that's pretty much the -- what we think is al Qaeda influence on the local Afghan Taliban fighters.
Q Do you --
MR. WHITMAN: Okay, go ahead.
Q Do you think that al Qaeda operatives are training Afghan fighters in Pakistan or inside Afghanistan? And do you see tactics that are similar to those used in Iraq?
COL. PREYSLER: I do believe that there is training going on on both sides of the border, and I do believe that we can make some comparisons on the tactics used in Iraq that we see over here. Of course they need to be somewhat modified in that, again, we are in very rugged and restrictive terrain. But, yes, I definitely see some correlation there.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead.
Q Hey, Colonel. This Courtney Kube from NBC News. We had a briefing from Lieutenant General Ham yesterday on the Joint Staff, and he mentioned that the Afghan Police are not as effective as they need to be. Do you foresee -- I mean, you mentioned that their -- the Afghan Police and the border patrol are the ones who are in charge of the border area with Pakistan in your area; do you foresee a time where the American forces will come in and backfill them or help with that mission?
COL. PREYSLER: Yeah, we are training all three of those forces simultaneously, and this is kind of how it lays out. Obviously we started with the army several years back, and we had the embedded training teams that would partner up with the Afghan Army. And we saw tremendous growth and development very -- (audio break) -- I first was here right after 9/11 to now, I see a tremendous growth in the army. And it is certainly a well-respected organization here in Afghanistan.
We had not really partnered with the Afghan Border Police until recently, and now we're doing that. So we have -- (audio break) -- there as well as all our maneuvering units are partnering up with whatever Afghan Border Police are in their area. So I'm -- (audio break) -- that that force will grow very quickly, and we're putting a lot of emphasis on them right now, building very strong positions for them, training them, equipping them and helping them recruit to build their capacity and capability.
The Afghan Police is a little bit more challenging in that the police are dispersed across several towns and villages that make it difficult for us to -- (audio break) -- and constant contact to conduct training and joint patrols. So we're having to -- we've gone to a team concept, where our police mentor teams go out and focus their efforts, training, administration, all the different facets of law enforcement on particular districts in order to make progress. And we don't have the same daily contact we do with the army and now the border police as we do with the Afghan Police, and I think that's where you see the difference.
However, we are making progress as we focus on certain districts to bring them up to a much higher capability and capacity. I think it's just going to be a lot slower because of that organization.
Q But -- so, Colonel, specific to the police that are in charge of the border mission, are you confident that they're effective enough, that they're a strong enough force to patrol the border effectively in your area?
COL. PREYSLER: Well, right now they are not an effective force that can actually interdict large areas of the border. One, it's a challenge probably beyond even the coalition's capability to close. Again, you have to see the terrain to understand, when you're talking about passes at 10(,000), 12,000 feet, very rugged terrain all the way around our sector. So obviously we have to be very smart about picking the right pieces of terrain to interdict illicit traffic, insurgent traffic.
And again, the Afghan border police is really growing its force right now as we've increased our class sizes for the Afghan border police training. And we're growing the force right now, as well as training it and building stronger and more effective positions. So it's going to take some more time before we can make them more effective.
MR. WHITMAN: Sure.
Q Just to follow -- it's Kristin Roberts with Reuters again. I'd like to follow on Courtney's question. Is this issue about training really a manpower issue? Do you not have enough trainers there to deal with -- to train the entire Afghan police force in your area?
COL. PREYSLER: Well, with the Afghan border police, I say that we've probably fixed the problem as we have closely partnered some of my maneuver forces with the Afghan border police. And we take that on in true partnership, as one of our focal points in our mission is to make those Afghan forces more capable. It's not about us going out and fighting. It's really about them getting -- taking the lead with greater capacity and deciding how they're going to operate and with us in support. So we have definitely shifted to that way of operating.
So I think we have a good training base right now for the Afghan border police per se. We certainly have it with the Afghan army, and we get support from our embedded trainers that come out of CSTC-A Alpha.
And right now the issue is probably getting the police more mentorship and more police training teams out in our provinces and districts. I think we're still short on those, and we need some additional help getting the police mentored and trained.
Overall, we are building capacity with the Afghan Border Police by increasing their numbers, and I think that's going to have a tremendous impact. And it's just going to take time to recruit, equip and get these forces trained and in position.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go to Luis, and then we'll go to you, Mike.
Q Colonel, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. Can I ask you what kind of aviation assets you have in your sector and whether you think it's an adequate amount? You talked about lots of daily contact with some of these police forces; would having additional aviation assets enable you to do that? Would additional aviation assets help you in border protection? And have you made a request for additional aviation?
COL. PREYSLER: Hey, I'll always take more helicopters. Again, it's a very difficult terrain, very few roads, so helicopters are absolutely critical in my area. And, yes, we are going to see, I think, some additional assets.
Right now the system is if we have a mission or a request, it goes up to division and gets filled just like normal. So I really don't have too many problems getting aviation when we need it for missions. However, there is a lot of flying around in our area because of the remoteness of the terrain. I don't necessarily think that's going to help the police problem; it would just help with logistics operations, shifting people around the battlefield for all -- a host of reasons that you can imagine. So the helicopter is extremely important to us up here in our area, mostly because of the remoteness and the terrain.
MR. WHITMAN: Mike.
Q Colonel, it's Mike Mount with CNN. I don't want to belabor the border police topic here, but I guess I will. (Laughter.) You were saying that the -- right now that the force is not an effective force for the border and it's tough to seal up a lot of this rugged area; how much of the foreign fighter force coming in from Pakistan are you seeing because of that, and what kind of problems is that causing? And how are you trying to, you know, combat that and backfill that, just kind of going back to the question from Courtney earlier.
COL. PREYSLER: Yeah. Obviously, there's over -- I want to say 470 kilometers worth of border in my area. And I think at the highest point, it's well over 14,000 feet, and we're pretty much ringed by mountains. But one major pass we call on the Pakistani side is the Khyber Pass, which is one of the main thoroughfares for traffic directly into Kabul.
So it is an area that is strategic and operationally important.
In order to secure -- you really can't secure that much border with that type of ruggedness. But there are critical choke points that you can place significant and large forces of the Afghan border police to prevent somebody from driving into Afghanistan without being checked or searched or checking on their papers. And so we have done extensive reconnaissance and have identified several of these locations, again, picked primarily by the Afghan border brigade commander, who knows the terrain pretty well and knows exactly where his forces need to be to interdict.
It's not only interdicting insurgency -- insurgents coming across, but it's also to deal with the counternarcotics problem and smuggling and illicit traffic. So it's, I think, part of any country is to secure its borders, and we just have to continue to build and grow this Afghan border police force, which right now is in a rebuilding year. And we're putting a lot of emphasis in -- as I said, I've put a lot of force from Task Force Bayonet behind this problem, and I think we're getting after it.
MR. WHITMAN: Chip, this is Bryan. I'm sure that was brilliant answer. (Laughter.) We got about the last minute of it, unfortunately. So let me go back to Mike and see if we've addressed it or if you'd like to re-attack, Mike. (Laughter.)
Q Colonel, if you actually wouldn't mind kind of repeating the start of that answer, I think we've caught the gist of the rest of it there, but in case you happened to say you caught bin Laden and the whole thing, too, we'd like to -- (laughter).
COL. PREYSLER: (Laughs.) That was the best answer I had all day, too.
No, I was just saying that it is very difficult to secure 470 kilometers' worth of border. I think most countries, including our own, have to struggle with the border problem. We have elevations up to 14,000 feet, as I've already discussed, and what we -- what our strategy is, is to do extensive reconnaissance of the border, find the crossing points that are habitually used and then put strong Afghan border police presence there to interdict -- and again, it's not just the insurgency, but it's also the illicit traffic that goes back and forth.
And so we have spotted those positions, identified those positions, and are currently building stronger positions there, as well as recruiting Afghan border police to fill those ranks and then, of course, train them and support them as they accomplish their mission. And so that's the overall strategy, is to look at the positions where insurgents habitually have come across and put border checkpoints there that can be appropriately manned by the Afghan border police, and with our support and our training, of course.
MR. WHITMAN: We probably have time for one more. Fred, you didn't get a chance. Go ahead.
Q Sir, this is Fred Baker with American Forces Press Service.
I was wondering if you could quantify the road network a little bit more in terms of miles and areas that it would connect. And are these Army engineers that are building this? And does this create an additional security concern by creating this road network with the enemy then using it against you?
COL. PREYSLER: That's a great question, and thanks for asking that one. The roads are absolutely critical because of, again, the difficult, rugged terrain, the lack of infrastructure that has always been here. We've built over 400 -- or started building over 400 kilometers' worth of roads, so roads to us are key developmental projects. They're enablers for the rest of the infrastructure and economic development. You've got to have the roads to connect the people, to get the markets going, as well as to increase the security.
So we see it in a favorable light in that we're allowing the people to get connected to the government, we're allowing the government security forces to expand their security bubble and reach out to all these places that have never been accessible to their forces, and we're seeing huge dividends where the insurgents are no longer able to operate freely in those areas.
Will the insurgents use the roads? Of course they will, and that is, again, part of how we build our security infrastructure in that we have to have good checkpoints to interdict the enemy using the roads if he chooses. If he chooses to walk across the top of the Himalayas, that's okay, because that's a long, hard walk.
So we've got plans, as we build the roads, open up markets, open up opportunities for the Afghan populations that have been isolated, to also make sure that the Afghan Security Force capacity is built along with those roads to protect the lines of operation and protect the various centers of commerce that we're trying to develop.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, Colonel Preysler, we have reached the end of the allocated time for this, and we appreciate you hanging in there, even with some of the technical difficulties that we had back here. I appreciate your time. And before I close it, though, let me turn it back to you in case you have any closing remarks you'd like to make to us.
COL. PREYSLER: Not really. All I would like to do is thank all the soldiers and the families in the 173rd and Task Force Bayonet for their hard work every day and their daily sacrifice. And again, thank you for putting our story out there in the press.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thanks again. And with only four months in country this time, we hope to have you back in this format many more times.
COL. PREYSLER: Okay, Bryan, thanks. I'll be expecting my grade later. (Laughter.)
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