(Note: General Votel appears via teleconference from Afghanistan.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Well, good morning, and welcome.
Good afternoon to General Votel. Let me just make sure that you can hear me okay, General. This is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon.
GEN. VOTEL: Yes, I can hear you fine, Bryan.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, very good. Like I said, thank you for joining us.
I think most of you know Brigadier General Joseph Votel. He is the deputy commanding general for operations of the 82nd Airborne Division and Combined -- Task Force-82. He's been in the country since January, where his forces are responsible for operations in NATO's Regional Command East, as well as overall responsibility for Operation Enduring Freedom operations in Afghanistan. You'll recall that General Votel last gave us an update in June, and this is actually his third time in doing this.
So he is prepared to give you another review of the security and reconstruction and development operations in Afghanistan. He is speaking from Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul. And with that, I will turn it over to General Votel to get us started.
GEN. VOTEL: Okay. Thanks, Bryan, and good morning to you all from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.
In conjunction with our Afghan hosts and our NATO ISAF partners here in Afghanistan, Combined Joint Task Force-82 continues to pursue a comprehensive strategy to build Afghan national security capacity that will enable development and governance. We are doing this through a full spectrum -- through full-spectrum operations that isolate the insurgents from the people, disrupt their support networks, limit their freedom of movement and highlight the emptiness of the insurgent vision. Insurgents in our area have only the options of reconciliation, fleeing or remaining to be killed or captured.
We believe this strategy is working.
We are increasing the connection between the Afghan people and their government, building trust in Afghan institutions and solidifying support for the government. This morning, I'd like to share with you a few pictures of tangible examples of what Afghan security forces and the government of Afghanistan, along with their international partners and U.S. partners, are offering to the people of Afghanistan.
First picture, please.
The Afghan national security forces remain the centerpiece of our comprehensive strategy. They're constantly improving their capacity to plan and conduct operations. This particular picture shows the Afghan army commandos preparing and executing an operation against insurgents who recently targeted U.S. forces with an improvised explosive device, killing one and wounding two of our soldiers. With two commando battalions operational and a third ready to join the force at the end of the month, these units provide a significantly improved operational capability for the nearly 47,000-soldier strong Afghan army.
In operations to target insurgent leaders in our area over the last month and a half, the Afghan national security forces, army and police, were responsible for successfully accomplishing about 50 percent of these operations. Last month, incidents along the border were 41 percent lower compared to December 2006 and nearly 50 percent below the 12-month average.
In December, we initiated a program for focused district development of police units. This program will allow for the professional training of officers and police leaders, who will then be reinserted back into their districts better able to serve their people. Since July of 2007, when I last had a chance to talk to you, we assessed that security has improved in 73 of our districts within our area of responsibility.
Next picture, please.
The contributions of our NATO ISAF partners are significant. In addition to Provincial Reconstruction Teams from New Zealand and Turkey and soon from the Czech Republic, as well as medical resources from Egypt and the Republic of Korea, we are ably served by an 1,100- soldier strong contingent from Poland. They occupy a vitally important portion of our area. The Polish battle group recently concluded a highly successful operation, partnering with the 2nd Brigade of the Afghan 203rd Army Corps and the National Police, planning and executing an operation that opened up an area which previously had limited opportunities for security, governance and development. As many of you have read in open source news, the Poles intend to increase their contribution and level of responsibility in Afghanistan, and this is greatly welcomed.
Next picture, please.
We continue to see improvements in governance as well. Recently you've read about refugees fleeing sectarian violence in the Kurram Agency of the Federal Administered Tribal Area in Pakistan for locations in Afghanistan. They are doing this because they see a more stable situation in Afghanistan. The government of Afghanistan has responded by working with international agencies and their own ministries to provide timely and effective humanitarian assistance to these displaced persons.
Next picture, please.
One of the strongest examples of good governance we see is in Khost province with Governor Jamal shown here in this picture. Where it once took months to resolve disputes, the effectiveness of this governor has reduced it to days. The tribal base culture in Regional Command East is beginning to gain confidence and trust in the government and their leaders. In our area here, where there were no centers of governance -- government in 2002, there are now a total of 78 operating district centers with 48 more under construction.
Next picture, please.
Development remains a key aspect that we are enabling to our security operations. Access to health care is showing significant progress. In a recent survey, 79 percent of the people indicated they had access to basic health care as opposed to 8 percent under the Taliban regime. Since May of this year, CJTF-82 has facilitated over 200 medical engagements between our medical -- our health care providers, Afghan health care providers and citizens out in the districts.
Next picture, please.
Progress is being made with education as well. Where few had access to schools in Afghanistan in 2001, today 97 percent of the boys and 52 percent of the girls in Regional Command East have access to schools. Of those children attending schools, 94 percent of the boys and 84 percent of the girls attend state-sponsored schools with only a very small percentage, around 2 percent, attending schools outside the country. This represents 180-degree difference from the Taliban period.
Road development remains absolutely critical for connecting the people to their centers of governance and for enabling commerce. In our area of operations, we've completed over 619 kilometers of road in 2007 with more than 1,700 kilometers under construction are planned for development.
Contrast these images demonstrating what the government of Afghanistan and the international community offer to the people of Afghanistan with what the insurgents offer:
Insurgents conducting bombing attacks, where 61 percent of the casualties from suicide bombs and 40 percent of the casualties from roadside IEDs are innocent Afghan civilians; insurgents mortgaging the future of Afghanistan.
During a recent operation, we recovered a video that showed children being trained as insurgents in a school in a neighboring country. Where the government of Afghanistan is building education centers of excellence that offer state-sponsored religious and trade education to its youth, the insurgents continue to focus on violence.
Insurgent-directed criminal acts ranging from threatening night letters to murder, designed to intimidate the population and prevent them from supporting their government.
The government of Afghanistan, supported by its international partners, offers an opportunity for self-reliance, improved security, commitment to representative government and economic viability. The insurgents offer fear and uncertainty.
While we are making steady progress, significant challenges remain here in Afghanistan. We have much work to do to develop a police force that can serve and defend their communities. This country needs a criminal justice system that supports rule of law. Corruption through the government remains a concern. We still have severe shortages in electricity. Afghanistan is still the leading producer of opium, and narcotics continue to fuel the insurgency. And unfortunately, there are still some districts where insurgents are able to intimidate the people. Good Afghan leadership will make the difference, however.
Let me close by telling you about a recent conversation between one of our U.S. battalion commanders and the chief of police in the Andar district of Ghazni province. This police chief is a former mujaheddin fighter and well-respected by his people. We assess him as a quality officer, confident in his skills and possessing of integrity and a genuine concern for the citizens he serves.
In responding to a question of whether his district was better today, he replied, "Today there are five bazaars in Andar. In June there were none. In November 8,000 trucks passed through Andar district. In May only 21 trucks transited. And recently two hotels opened in Andar district, and they've been filled to capacity every night, and the people are paying. Yes, our district is better today."
We remain confident in JTF-82 that despite the challenges, that we can prevail in this lengthy effort by maintaining international support, continuing to make steady progress, and by increasingly getting the Afghans in charge of their destiny.
I would be happy at this time to answer any of your questions.
MR. WHITMAN: All right. Let's go ahead and get started. And we'll start with Joe.
Q General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra.
I would like to ask you about the Khost province. What can you say about the local tribes' role in the fight against al Qaeda?
And on a personal view, do you believe that a concerned local citizens type, like we have in Iraq right now, can be successful in Afghanistan?
(Technical difficulties at the Pentagon.)
MR. WHITMAN: Okay, General, can you hear us now?
GEN. VOTEL: Yes, I can hear you.
MR. WHITMAN: Very good. We're sorry for that interruption. We actually got your entire presentation and had a power problem as we asked the first question. So I'm going to ask Joe to reask his question, and we'll move along.
Q Thank you, Bryan.
General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra again.
My question is about the Khost province. What can you tell us about the local tribes' role in the fight against al Qaeda?
And on a personal view, do you believe that a CLC type, concerned local citizens type, like we have now in Iraq, can be workable, successful in Afghanistan?
GEN. VOTEL: Yes, thank you very much.
Well, in Khost province, the role of the tribes of course has been very, very important in standing up and supporting their government. And so what we've tried to do with them is, in a fairly methodical manner here, really starting within the city of Khost, which really is ideally located in the center part of the province of Khost, and working out from that to each of the districts.
And as we move out into each of these districts now what are principal concern is is making contact with the tribal elders out there and connecting them with their district leadership. And so getting the buy-in, getting the cooperation of those tribal leaders is absolutely essential, because they are well-respected; they represent the cultural way of doing things here in Afghanistan. And so this use of shuras and reaching out to the tribal elders is vitally important. We think that's not only important in Khost, but it's really important in every province here in Afghanistan.
With respect to the second part of your question on whether this could be similar to what is happening in Anbar in Iraq, I think the answer is yes. I would be a little reluctant to try to compare anything here in Afghanistan to the situation in Iraq. Completely different situation. I know there appear to be some similarities there, but each of these tribes has different characteristics, have different interests, and it's incumbent upon us to -- working with our Afghan partners to really reach out to them and make them part of the solution.
In one area just north of Khost, I'll give you one example here, several months back we were having some difficulties along the border area, and when we were able to get the tribes involved from both sides of the border, they were able to resolve much more quickly what was taking us more time from a military standpoint. So we clearly recognize the importance of the tribes.
MR. WHITMAN: Al.
Q General, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America. Can you talk about Pakistan's role and also the interaction between what you do in Afghanistan and what happens in Pakistan? And I'm thinking of a few things. One, Pakistan's effectiveness in controlling the border; two, the impact of your effectiveness in perhaps pushing insurgents over to the Pakistan side; and then, three, the political and army leadership change in Pakistan and what impact that has had.
GEN. VOTEL: Well, okay, thanks for that question. Certainly, we -- I would assess our relationship, both from a U.S. standpoint and from a ISAF-NATO standpoint here in our portion of Afghanistan with the Pak military and with the Frontier Corps, to be very, very good. We meet on a regular basis through a process we call border flag meetings that allow us to link tactical commanders up at a relatively low level of the company, the battalion level, to talk about specific issues. I chair a forum that meets about every month, month and a half, where we meet with counterparts from the Afghan side and from the Pakistan side to discuss issues of mutual concern, and then at the commander of ISAF level, General McNeill's level, he'll host a tripartite commission, where he meets with his four-star counterparts from Afghanistan and Pakistan to address issues.
So I think there's a very good architecture in place. That is very strong. We have good liaison back and forth between our headquarters here and headquarters in Pakistan at a variety of different levels, and we have some very good officers who perform liaison duties there. Certainly trying to control the border area is a formidable military task from either side of the border, frankly, and so what we have tried to do is really try to improve our level of communication, our level of cooperation and our level of coordination. Over the last year we've made a significant investment in improving communications capability, for example, between the various headquarters on the Afghan side and a number of the headquarters on the Pakistan side.
That's been very useful.
And in both instances we've been able to pass information to them, and likewise, we've had incidents where the Pak military has passed information to us. That said, the border area, as you may be aware, is extremely rugged terrain. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of infiltration -- possible infiltration lanes along there, so it's -- you know, it almost becomes physically impossible to cover everything. But what we try to do is work with the Pak military to ensure that our positions are mutually supporting, that when we conduct operations on -- when the Afghans and ISAF or the U.S. conduct operations on this side of the border, we coordinate that activity with them, and they have done the same thing with us. And that has generally, I think, helped contribute to some of the decrease in insurgent activity that we've seen along the border.
MR. WHITMAN: Courtney.
Q Thanks, General. Along those same lines -- this is Courtney Kube from NBC News. You -- both -- you in the last time we had a briefing out of Afghanistan, you both mentioned these refugees moving out of the FATA area and moving into Afghanistan. It seems as if they're making the area more conducive to more operations, perhaps offensive operations by the U.S. Do you see that as being a reality, and do you see a role for offensive operations by the U.S. in that area in the near future?
GEN. VOTEL: Are you -- if I could, just for -- are you referring to U.S. operations in Pakistan?
Q Correct. In -- specifically in Pakistan and in the border region, in the FATA area.
GEN. VOTEL: Yeah, well, that's certainly a decision that's going to be made at levels above Combined Joint Task Force-82 here in Bagram. Right now we do not plan or really have any vision for operations with our forces into the FATA or into Pakistan. That's a sovereign country; that's their responsibility to deal with. And so as I mentioned in my earlier comments, what we try to do is improve our cooperation and coordination and in our communication of passing of information back and forth to ensure that we have very good situational awareness on what is happening on both sides of the border, and then we can act cooperatively and mutually.
But we don't have any particular plans for conducting operations in the FATA.
Q General, this is Andrew Gray from Reuters, if I could just ask you to expand on a couple of things you mentioned.
First of all, you talked about an improvement in security in 73 districts. Could you give us the bigger picture there, how many districts overall in you area? And how many have seen a decline or no change in security?
I'll leave it to that and then I'll follow up on another thing.
GEN. VOTEL: Yeah, sure.
Within our area, there's approximately 160 districts that we have within the 14 provinces that make up Regional Command East, the principal U.S. area where we are concentrating. So we've seen improvement in slightly, you know, nearly half of them since July. We have a process here where we are always assessing, working with our Afghan partners, assessing what progress is being made. And we have a number of measures of effectiveness that we use that run all the way from, you know, operations and how the people are perceiving their military forces to, you know, just general number of activities that occur in each of those areas. So we try to combine, you know, metrics that are both objective and subjective in helping us reach that conclusion.
As you are aware, over the last year, in the time since we've been here, since JTF-82 has been here, we've essentially doubled the amount of combat forces here. You'll recall that last February, a decision was made to add a second brigade combat team here in Afghanistan. That has had a significant impact for us. And what this allows us to do really is to get into a lot more areas where we frankly were not operating previously, and to begin to conduct operations, to begin to make assessments of what is happening.
So over the last, you know, 9 to 12 months, we've been able to get a much better assessment, across a broader area here within Regional Command East. And so I think we've started to establish a pretty good understanding of where progress is being made, where the insurgents are stronger and where we need to continue to focus our operations.
Q Follow up though: How many districts has there been a decline in security, and how many districts has it stayed the same?
GEN. VOTEL: Yeah. Within the number of -- it was in decline. What we've seen, I think, when I looked at the most recent assessments -- since July we've seen a decline in about 11 districts across our area, and then the remainder of those have generally remained about the same. So that would be approximately 70 that have generally stayed about the same in terms of our overall assessment.
Q (Off mike.)
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go to Jeff and then Jim.
Q General, Jeff Schogol, Stars and Stripes. We've heard repeatedly that the Afghan police are behind the Afghan army. How is this possible when DynCorp has been training the Afghan police all this time?
GEN. VOTEL: Well, I think, you know, a lot of our initial focus when we came in here was really on building up the army. And so that's where a concentration of the effort has been made.
I don't recall the exact amount of time that DynCorp has been in here, but -- and certainly they are -- those trainers that come from DynCorp and others there are certainly doing a wonderful job. But it is -- they -- that is a very finite and relatively small number of trainers that are trying to create a big impact.
So what we've really tried -- so you know, I think the answer to your question is that our focus was initially on the army, and we've now got the army to a level where it is moving, it is continuing to progress, it is taking the lead, and it is demonstrating some very, very good qualities that we think are going to be enduring.
And so what we've tried to do over the last year -- General Cone's headquarters, the Combined Security Transition Command, in conjunction with JTF-82 and our other ISAF partners, have really tried to switch -- not switch but really place more focus onto the police. And so, you know, we've -- we are supporting programs like I mentioned in my opening comments -- the focused district development program, which allows us to look down into a district, take those officers, take those police leaders, bring them out of there, put them into some concentrated training, so that they can develop the skills that allow them to come back down and really provide the service they need to their people.
We -- that's not all we're doing. We have -- within Regional Command East here we have -- we are using military MPs along with some of our -- some of the DynCorp trainers that are being made available to us and some others from Combined Security Transition Command. And we conduct what we call Afghan National Police immersion training, where we go out and work on the districts that haven't yet had a chance to go do their focused district development and focus in on the same program of instruction, the same skills, so that we are attacking this on a variety of different levels here to improve the proficiency of the police.
MR. WHITMAN: Jim, and I think we'll have to finish up with Barbara, probably -- (off mike).
Q Yeah. General, this is Jim Mannion from Agence France- Presse. Is the Taliban and those -- the forces associated with it -- is -- are they stronger in the FATA areas now?
Have they grown stronger? Do they have a bigger presence there, better organization? And can you stabilize Afghanistan without gaining control of that safe haven situation?
GEN. VOTEL: Well, I think -- and I'm not sure I would use the word "strong." What I would tell you we have seen with the insurgents that we face here in Regional Command East is they have adapted. We are seeing some level of cooperation between different organizations here who are united in their desires to have an effect on ISAF forces or have an effect on the legitimate forces of the government of Afghanistan. So what we do see is, we give a lot of respect to the enemy that we fight here. They adapt, they understand what -- they see what is happening, and they adjust their tactics accordingly. And so I think that is more of what we are seeing here in Regional Command East.
With regards to your -- the second part of your question there of can we stabilize things here in Afghanistan without having an impact in Pakistan, obviously there are support areas that the insurgents use on both sides of the border. So from our perspective, it's vitally important that we address the problem from both angles. We've got to address the situation here in Afghanistan that is allowing insurgents to come in and operate, to draw support from certain areas, and we've also got to continue to work with our Pakistan partners and assist them in gaining control over support areas that the insurgents may have within their -- the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. So it really is a combination of both.
I agree with you, yes, you have to address both, and that's the strategy that we have and that's why we have such a robust relationship and maintain such a strong and continuous communication with the Pakistan military and the Frontier Corps, so that we can enable that. So I agree that we have to address it from both sides of the border.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay, Barbara, as long as it's not three-part, we'll squeeze it in here.
Q Well, I want to follow up on some of that. Can you just talk much more, you know, boots-on-the-ground level, what you are seeing in terms of -- you talked about just now the groups banding together. Are you seeing warlords band together, Taliban groups band together? What are you seeing in terms of their actual organization, their communication, their ability to launch organized attacks and their interactions with al Qaeda? What are you -- you know, a few months ago, you were seeing direct attacks on U.S. fire bases. Are you still seeing that kind of activity? How organized are these people?
GEN. VOTEL: Yeah. Yeah, we've seen -- over the past several months, we've -- maybe in the times that's we've been here, we've probably seen something in excess of 10 what we would call large-scale attacks, where -- of 30 or more insurgents. In most cases, these have been devastatingly brutal to the insurgents.
They don't have the capacity to launch a large-scale attack against us with any kind of effectiveness. And the effectiveness of our surveillance systems and the position of our forces, I think, has allowed us to address those very adequately.
And so what we do see however is increasing uses of IEDs and other asymmetric-type attacks, of rockets, mortars that are designed, you know, to hit very quickly and then allow them to scatter. So I think that is more of what we are seeing in Regional Command East.
To the first part of your question there, I think, you know, we had a fairly significant impact on the leadership of insurgent groups that operate against us here in Regional Command East. And what we've seen is a number of mid-level leaders who have risen up and have taken the mantle of leadership. They are demonstrating a capability to coordinate, to some degree, among themselves, in that they share a common threat, a common enemy if you will. And so we have seen some indication where insurgent groups will come together for the common purpose of trying to attack coalition forces here or attack Afghan security forces. So I do think we see a level of some of that cooperation that is taking place.
Again I think we, you know, the first thing we try to teach all our leaders here is, you always have to respect your enemy. And so we do and we recognize that he is learning. He sees what is happening. They are not ignorant. They have been fighting here at least as long as we have, in some cases, and so they adapt on the ground. And so we should expect that that's going to occur, and adjust our tactics accordingly which, I think, we are doing pretty well.
MR. WHITMAN: We've reached the end of our time and then some.
General, I do appreciate you hanging in with us while we had our minor technical difficulty there. But before I bring it to a close, let me give you one last chance, in case you had any parting thoughts that you wanted to convey to us.
GEN. VOTEL: Yeah, thank you very much. I appreciate that, Bryan.
I appreciate all the questions here today, and we certainly appreciate the role -- the important role that the press plays in helping tell the story here. And I'd just like to take a moment here to say thank you on behalf of the soldiers, sailors, air men and Marines of Combined Joint Task Force-82 to the American people for their continuing support to our mission over here. We're very grateful for the support we get from our NATO partners and the international community that all contribute to bring stability and developments to the Afghan citizens.
The Afghan national security force and the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan deserve highest recognition from the international community for the improvements that they are bringing to their country. They are taking the lead in the fight against terrorism, and we are very confident that they will ultimately prevail in their quest to bring peace and stability to their own people here.
The troops of Regional Command East here and ISAF troops throughout our area are doing a superb job. Americans and indeed people throughout the world should be very proud of the noble mission that we have undertaken here and the sacrifices that are made -- being made on behalf of the Afghan people.
We firmly believe that the progress -- is being made here in Afghanistan, and that what the Afghan national security forces have achieved over the last year will have a lasting benefit for the people. There's still a lot of work to be done here, we recognize that; but with every project that's completed, with every mission that's finished, Afghanistan takes one step closer to the peace and stability that their citizens crave and which the enemies of peace and freedom would deny them. So we remain very, very optimistic here.
Thank you for your time today and for your continued support.
MR. WHITMAN: General, thank you for your time, and we look forward to doing this again with you soon.
GEN. VOTEL: Thank you very much, Bryan.
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