DoD News Briefing with Gen. McNeill from the Pentagon
STAFF: Good morning, and thank you for joining us. I know there are a few other events around town that are competing for your time.
But it is kind of a special privilege for us today to have General Dan McNeill, who is the commander of NATO's International Security Force. He's commanded NATO's operations in Afghanistan since February of last year. And General McNeill, of course, as many of you know, previously served in Afghanistan as commander of Operation Enduring Freedom, Combined Task Force-180, and in his present capacity commands a force of over 40,000 men and women from more -- from 35 -- more than 35 nations, actually. And I think this is his second time that he's briefed us as the ISAF commander. And he's going to give you a brief operational update in what ISAF is doing and then take some of your questions.
So again, thank you, sir, for taking the time to be here with us today.
GEN. MCNEILL: Thank you. Nice to be invited, and good morning. I don't have a lot in the way of an opening statement. I'll simply say I've been in the job a year now. I would point out that in that year's time, the force has grown by somewhere between 8(,000) and 9,000, several countries. I am reminded of when I first took the job. A lot of the headlines were NATO is going to fail at this; the alliance is going to fracture. And that would not be the case.
I'm also reminded of the headlines that said there was a resurgent Taliban, there was a coming spring offensive, and they were going to hold sway on the battlefield. And I think a retrospective look at calendar year '07 says that clearly was not the case. They did very little on the battlefield. They were very successful in staying in the press, and they continue to be, but they have done little on the battlefield.
There is progress in the three lines of effort in which the NATO mandate requires the force I command to work. There certainly has been progress in the security sector. The 25 PRTs that are part of the NATO ISAF force are one of the major forces in reconstruction, doing an excellent job there. But I concede to you that our line of effort and our line of operation Enabling Governance probably has not produced as fast a rate of progress as many of us who have a keen interest in the country would like.
And I'll just stop there and take your questions. Yes, sir?
Q General, just to follow up straight on from that remark, when you say governance progress hasn't been as fast as you would like, what hasn't happened? What needs to happen?
GEN. MCNEILL: It's a difficult problem for President Karzai. I'm often given to talking to reporters in a sports metaphor about it. My son is an avid soccer player. His favorite team growing up was that European team Manchester United, and he followed them religiously, almost. And you know the deal: Manchester United's a powerful team, and let's say they happen to be playing Arsenal today, and they were leading 2 to 1 in the -- late in the second period. The star forward goes down. Very easy for the Manchester United manager. He turns to the bench. He's got five, maybe six guys on a half- million euro contract per year. He points to one. "Get up. Get in there. If they score, you're finished. You're going to C League. If you stop them from scoring, then you likely will start next week, and maybe we can sweeten the contract."
And it'll happen.
If someone walks in and tells President Karzai, "This governor you have in this particular province or this line minister is corrupt and not working very well," President Karzai turns to the bench -- there's not a lot there. He has great amount of human resource, but human capital may be a bit in a dearth there.
Q So how do you fix that?
GEN. MCNEILL: Patience and continuing the work. You know, this is anathema to a professional soldier, but a covey of capable bureaucrats might be very helpful in governance in Afghanistan.
Q General, could you give us an update on how many more additional troops you think you need to do the job there in Afghanistan? Are the 3,200 Marines going to be sufficient? And are you concerned, as some here in the Pentagon are, that despite some pledges from Europe that they will continue, that there's still a chance that that support from some of the NATO countries could erode?
GEN. MCNEILL: Jim, you've got a lot of questions rolled up in that one. Let me try to take them one at the time.
The first is, since I arrived to take this job, I think the rhetoric has been fairly steady, both from the secretary-general of NATO, from SACEUR and even from Ray Henault, the Canadian general who heads the military committee, that NATO has not filled the force that was specified. In NATO parlance it's called a CJSOR, the combined joint statement of requirements, and that has not been filled. That rhetoric in the past few months has also been joined by a number of ministers of defense and even the U.S. Secretary of Defense. And it's fairly clear that we're not there yet.
About two weeks after I went into command I realized that filling that CJSOR, even if we got there, was still a minimalist force. Afghanistan, land mass-wise, is half again as big as Iraq, for example, if you want to get some relative bearing there. Population estimated to be perhaps as much as 3 million more than Iraq, yet we have, in trying to operate in a counterinsurgency environment, only a fraction of the force that the coalition has in Iraq. So there's no question it's an under-resourced force.
There have been contributions since I took command. I pointed out, I think, the alliance now is about 8,000-plus stronger than what it was. I think if John Craddock were here today, he'd tell you from the day he took SACEUR it's probably greater than 10,000 bigger.
So there has been growth, but we're still not where we need to be. If you use U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, for example, and applying the factors of land mass and population, you'd come to the conclusion you need a huge force, well over 400,000, when you rolled up international force with the indigenous force.
Now, having said that, the members of the alliance are going to produce only so much. I accept that.
The trick, then, is to manage the risk that's inherent in having an under-resourced international force and reaching the level of capacity at which the Afghan national security forces ought to be. I think you know well -- I think you probably heard a lot of times, both from my friend David Petraeus and a lot of other people -- that in a counterinsurgency environment the best force to use is generally taken to be indigenous security force, and of the indigenous security force, often in counterinsurgency, the best force to use is police force.
The Afghan National Army has made great progress. It does very well in developing its capacity under the U.S.-led coalition called CSTC-A, which is responsible for training and equipping. The police are a bit behind. I would judge, in terms of development, they might be as much as 18 months behind the Afghan National Army, and there's no news there. But there is some good news associated with it. Some time late last spring, early part of the summer I think the international community came to the realization, and there has been almost a galvanizing interest amongst the internationals to get behind the police. There certainly has been the largess of the U.S. Congress in pushing money to help to develop the police. And with some initiatives, most notable being the focused district development, I see that by the end of the summer we might see a considerably fast rate of progress in the police; yet we will still be short the force to wage this.
The Marines coming, I would point out, will be value added in the south. It's not the cavalry coming. I have asked for a little bit of an additional force for a finite period of time. There's a basic military adage that says reinforce where you're having some success. We clearly had success on the battlefield in the south in calendar year 2007. We are looking to have more success in 2008.
As to what some of the other international players are doing, I think the Poles are committed to increasing their force by summertime not only in numbers of people, but in helicopters. I think there's some chance that a couple of the forces in the south, the British probably included, might increase their force. I think there will be some announcements for various ministers at Vilnius that they're going to increase. Will it be by the huge numbers that probably would befitting the correct application of doctrine for counterinsurgency? Not likely that much. But will it be helpful? It will be most helpful. Will it help close that gap that creates the risk between Afghan national security forces reaching their greatest capacity and an under resourced international force? Yeah, it's helpful to close any gap, but it will not completely close it.
Q Could you put a number on how many more forces you need in the short term to maintain even a minimalist force?
GEN. MCNEILL: I've said before that when I first got there after two weeks I felt we needed at least four maneuver battalions. Since that time the British have upgunned (sic) with additional battle groups. We're in the range of three right now, in terms of maneuver forces, to produce that level of minimalist force that was prescribed by the CJSOR, but there's some other things that we're also short: air transport platforms, helicopters and fixed-wing, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance platforms as well. And I think both of those have been clearly stated in open sources over the past year by the secretary-general and John Craddock.
Q But if you've got your minimalist force, what would -- what if you didn't have to worry about the concerns of -- kind of reality of what resources are out there? If you were to design your own, you know, way ahead in Afghanistan without any constraints, what would you want to see? I know you said 400,000 including indigenous --
GEN. MCNEILL: Well over 400,000.
Q Well over 400,000. What would you need to see in terms of our forces?
GEN. MCNEILL: I'm not sure that we need that number, although that's what U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine would prescribe on the basis of geography and population. I spend a lot of time these days working on where do events occur and why do they particularly occur in those regions. Last year we mostly focused on the 34 provinces. We went back at the end of the year and reviewed everything that occurred, all the events that were reported by ISAF forces, OEF forces, the Afghan security forces, U.N., EU and anybody else who reports some significant event.
And we began to analyze that in terms not of the 34 provinces but the 364, if you're taking the Afghan government standard or if you're using the U.N. standard, the 390-plus districts. And the facts were certainly intuitive.
We all knew, it's the first time we had some empirical data of all the events that occurred in calendar year 2007, 70-to-71 percent occurred in 10 percent of the districts. We took the top 40. And so when you consider that, then go back to that underpinning of counterinsurgency doctrine, typically the best force to use is an indigenous security force. And of the indigenous security forces, the police are best to use.
So I'd say we're at a juncture right now that it's not about huge numbers of international forces, nor taking the Afghan national army beyond the 80,000, I think, is the agreed-to level right now. But it's about getting effective police out where they need to be. And so I'd be reluctant to say I need this many tens of thousands. What I think we need is, more than huge numbers of international force, is effective capacity in the Afghan national army and in the Afghan national police.
Q Sir, how do you explain that not enough police trainers have been sent. And those that have been sent, how would you assess their ability from the different countries? Which countries have stepped up and sent those police trainers? And what are the weaknesses that you're seeing in the training?
GEN. MCNEILL: I think the fact that there are not the requisite number of police mentors there is a function of the members of the alliance thinking they're doing about all they can do with their human resource. We clearly need more police mentors. I think you know that part of the Marine contingent that will come this spring will satisfy some part of that. I think you know that the EU, last spring and early part of this summer, decided that they need to play a bigger role. I think there are other nations beginning to see it.
What that will mean over the long haul, in terms of numbers, I'm less certain. But there is no question of this dimension. The Afghan police, just like the Afghan national army, perform considerably better when they have an effective Western embed, and I offer my conclusions as to why that is so.
If an Afghan is advancing, is going forward against the insurgent, they like to know that if they get shot, there is a high probability that they will be medically evacuated, maybe even by air. They will get to a medical facility, indigenous or international, and they're likely to survive that. They also appreciate the fact that if they have a Western embed and they get in an intense fight, they're likely to hear an attack helicopter, back over the next terrain feature, coming their way, or they will see a fast move.
They also know, if there's a protracted fight over several days, and they begin to run low on ammunition, they're likely to hear a Chinook or some other cargo helicopter coming forward. They are not afraid to engage the insurgent, to engage the enemies of their country, and they have a culture of fighting. And there's no news there to anybody who has studied the Afghan history. But on the modern battlefield, they like to know they're back-end supported by the right sort of things.
So if there's no other reason out there, that's a good reason to have the Western embeds.
They make them more professional. They make them more efficient, as fighters.
Q General, in your opening statement you talked about how the headlines were predicting a resurgent Taliban. You said that clearly was not the case. You don't believe the insurgency is growing? Is that true?
GEN. MCNEILL: I think that it's probably stayed about the same as what it was. I think the difference is, you have a far larger force on the battlefield in 2007 than you've ever had from the international community in Afghanistan. They stuck their noses in dark holes that -- in which noses that were international have not been stuck before.
We had a basic operational concept which was -- it's sort of metaphoric: get out of the wire, stay outside of the wire, advance against the enemy. We exposed ourselves to a lot more things than the force has exposed themselves to in times past. And that, more than anything, created the increased levels of violence that are soft often referred to in the news, and that people failed to realize what caused those. It wasn't a resurgent Taliban. If the Taliban was resurging strong, then why did they not accomplish the things in 2007 they said in late 2000 they would (seek ?) to accomplish -- take Kandahar, do this, do that. It simply didn't occur. The offensive that occurred in spring was the international force offensive, and I expect that to be the same case this year.
Q So it's not growing?
GEN. MCNEILL: I think the numbers -- if you're going to a point of numbers, how many are there, I don't think that's relevant to -- I can tell you that there were a bunch of them killed last year, but it's simply not relevant. More relevant numbers in what happened last year were the number of low- to mid- to high-level leaders who were killed or captured. That number is significant. Many of those were jihadists who cut their teeth fighting the Soviets. They were good at their skills. They're no longer on the battlefield. That'll be very helpful.
Q But Admiral Mullen is going to be at the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning. In his prepared statement he talks about a growing insurgency in Afghanistan.
GEN. MCNEILL: Perhaps he is considering the region and --
Q No – he’s talking about Afghanistan.
GEN. MCNEILL: Then I -- Admiral Mullen has his view. I've got mine, too. Yeah.
Q Can I just press you very slightly on that and ask you just to follow up on a couple things? If you say it's not growing, do you believe, then, that they are not in a recruiting effort across Afghanistan in some of these remote towns and villages? Because after -- I genuinely don't understand, because after six years, certainly you have either captured or killed or done something with the original universe of so-called Taliban or insurgents. And now, you know, where have -- are they not recruiting? I mean, it just -- it's hard to understand what you're saying.
And I wanted to follow up also and ask you your view about -- you know, there's been some discussion about -- are the NATO allies capable of doing the kind of counterinsurgency work that everyone feels needs to be done.
GEN. MCNEILL: Okay. Let's start with the first question first. And I -- yes, I believe they probably are recruiting. They'll have to recruit if they want to keep the same level of force that they went into 2007 with, because a considerable number of them were killed.
And if indeed their aim continues to be the same, which is they are adamantly opposed to a government inside of Afghanistan that is one of self-determination, that they want to go back to what they had, yes, they're going to recruit and try to build a force that is sufficient to achieve their aims.
My point is, they didn't achieve any aims in 2007, other than to stay in the newspapers.
They did that very well. And I don't see that that will change this year.
So I'm not sure that trying to say, "They have this number, and they will recruit to add this many more," is relevant. If just outside of the reach of the international force, in sanctuaries in neighboring countries, you do get growth, which is entirely possible, okay, I will concede to you on that, that you might make an argument that it is growing. But it appears, at least in the case of one of the neighbors, they are now taking on within their own boundaries the fact that they have an insurgency, something that was not acknowledged very well previous. So I just stand by to say I don't see, as some people see, that the numbers are greatly growing and this thing is spreading.
Now going back to your question about counterinsurgency, it is probably an incontrovertible truth that if you pull a huge alliance together, that the going-in position of different nationalities of that alliance, or at least their military forces, is somewhat different. And how they go about training for the operation in which they go could be considerably different. And indeed I see that, and see it often. There are differences in how the forces of the alliance prepare themselves to go in to conduct operations in what is clearly a counterinsurgency environment.
There are political dimensions in certain members of that alliance that probably are less accepting of saying that we're in a counterinsurgent. They view it as something completely different. I can assure you that those nations in the east and the south make no mistake, and the forces down there, for sure, know they are in a counterinsurgency environment.
Q If I could just very quickly follow up, this whole discussion has been about a minimalist force and an economy of force effort. For U.S. troops alone, what is it -- what do you say to U.S. troops, to U.S. military families? That they're in a fight that is acknowledged to be a minimalist effort and an economy of force effort? That you are putting them in a fight where you say you don't have enough?
GEN. MCNEILL: 2005, at the request of NATO, I think the U.S. agreed that NATO would take on the mandate over time, in a phased sort of way, of security that reached throughout the country.
I will say in response to your question, Barbara, that the U.S. forces that are on the ground there lack nothing in the way of training and equipping to do their mission there. I will also say that it's generally accepted amongst many members of the alliance that the most effective counterinsurgency operations that are presently occurring in Afghanistan are occurring in the U.S. sector. That's not a derisive comment about anybody or anything, certainly not members of the alliance. It's just that clearly the U.S. has put the effort into making this piece of it right and the counterinsurgency there -- the term used by many NATO allies is, we got to be more comprehensive. I cannot imagine it being any more comprehensive than it is in the U.S. sector.
Very skilled commanders there, one who was there most recently, Mick Nicholson, probably as good a youngster as we've got in the United States army. And the skills with which he could engage with local leadership in districts and provinces, fight to clear certain areas of the insurgent, and then metaphorically build roads behind him as he's moving forward -- absolutely amazing.
So I think my response to your question that could be delivered to family, friends and all those who care about any American in Afghanistan is that they are well-trained and well-equipped and probably more so in a better way than anybody else in the alliance. And they are getting the job done.
Q General, we've heard that before, that in the east things are going very well; in the south, not going so well.
GEN. MCNEILL: They're progressing in the south.
Q Well, what explains the difference? What are they not doing in the south that they're doing in the east that is, you know, possibly, you know, allowing the situation to fester?
GEN. MCNEILL: A very good question, and here is something I've said several times before, and I've said it to a lot of international visitors. Here's the difference I see. First thing, 15-month tour lengths. I do not advocate that on a continuous basis for the United States Army. I just don't think we can sustain that for the long haul. For the short term, we probably can.
What does 15 months mean? The soldier, the American soldier and his leadership in the east in 15 months develop a relationship with the terrain, with the indigenous people and their leadership, and with the enemy. And they have sufficient time to exploit that relationship to their advantage. Secondly, U.S. Congress well endows the commanders in the U.S. sector with reconstruction money, bureaucratically unencumbered, more or less, so that they can apply those monies in a pure and comprehensive way in counterinsurgency operations, and they can see to immediate and genuine needs, not just once.
And then there is a great depth of experience amongst the Americans who are in the eastern sector right now. I'll give you just two examples. Martin Schweitzer, commanding 4th Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, on his second tour there. First tour was as a battalion commander, same battlespace when I was the CJTF-180 commander. Players remain pretty much the same. He has established relationships with the various governors, and he exploits them to the fullest.
Chip Preysler commands the 173rd, back fundamentally in the same battlespace where he served a tour about a year and a half to 20 months ago. There are some benefits accrued in this sort of rotation back and forth through. I'm not trying to self-aggrandize my own self, because I'm not worthy of that, but I -- it was easy for me to step into this job. All the players are the same -- different positions, but they're all the same, and their personas had not changed a whole lot. There's some value in that.
Q How does that compare in the south?
GEN. MCNEILL: Well --
Q (Off mike) -- the availability of money --
GEN. MCNEILL: Most of the other forces are typically on a six- month tour length. They probably are not as well-endowed by their governments as U.S. soldiers are. Some of them don't have the same level of predeployment training. The U.S. force that comes in -- you know, having been the commander of the U.S. Army's force generation headquarters, having some responsibility for NTC and JRTC in my previous job, I know the level to which we go to replicate battlefields, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, before we send the unit into either of those locations. It pays off greatly, especially when you consider this is a counterinsurgency, and the will of the people is so important.
Q Has any thought been given to giving the Americans the command in the south?
GEN. MCNEILL: I -- that would be a policy decision, and I'm not a policymaker. I suspect there are some in the U.S. who are thinking along those lines.
STAFF: There's time for about one more --
Q General, can you talk about -- the command and control structure that's been described here is very complicated and how -- just from where you sit, how that hamstrings you, if it does?
And also, I just wondered if you could talk about the impact that the destabilization in Pakistan may be having on your operations.
GEN. MCNEILL: Every -- there seems to be a lot of dialogue back in the U.S. about what some call a convoluted or even complex command and control system. It's not to me. There's some advantage to having a U.S. commander in this billet when you consider the contributions the U.S. is making in this command. And I can assure you that it doesn't matter, U.S. force there, whether they're under a NATO flag or the OEF flag. Just believe me, they're very responsive to me, very responsive. I have not had any issues in which our U.S. force there, whether under OEF or NATO, didn't do exactly what I said -- I want you to do this or don't do this. It is a non-issue for me. It just seems to trouble people back here, and for the life of me I can't understand why.
It troubled I think a few Europeans when I first came in, and I think a lot of the websites said "Bomber" McNeill and that kind of jazz. Okay, I got it. But I also knew something about counterinsurgency operations, and I stand by what I've done over the last year. I think even the Europeans are much more settled with that now and are not troubled by the lash-up (sic). And I also want to point out that U.S. Special Forces under the OEF flag have been incredibly supporting and helpful to their allies under the NATO flag in operations, especially in the south, by doing things that we're framing for better operations or something -- our European allies. It's just worked fairly well.
And the second part of that was?
Q (Off mike) -- Pakistan on -- (off mike).
GEN. MCNEILL: Anyone who does not consider Afghanistan in a regional context is going to get it wrong, and long-term security and stability within Afghanistan will be in a large part dependent on the help and the support of the neighbors. And I would point out a statement made when we were in a tripartite meeting. It's the only NATO mandate that goes beyond the borders of Afghanistan; and its frequent meetings between myself, the chief of defense in Afghanistan, the now chief of staff of the Pakistani army, and both chief of defense of Afghanistan, chief of staff of Pakistani army agreed that neither of us could possibly wish anything on our neighbor that we wouldn't want on ourselves. That's how intertwined it happens to be. I thought that was a profound statement on both of their parts.
Q And one quick --
Q Are you seeing any drain of the extremists or others who may be crossing into Afghanistan who are now -- their attention is now drawn across -- (off mike). Are you seeing any evidence of that at all?
GEN. MCNEILL: I think Dave Rodriguez was before you about a week or two ago, and I'll offer his view, then I'll offer my view. Dave has the empirical data that support that the contacts at the border with Pakistan are dramatically down, perhaps as low as they've been since the early part of 2006. His view is largely predicated on the insurgents in the tribal areas are focused more towards Islamabad than they are Kabul. My view is different. I think they're down because you go back to December 2006, the force there is twice the size it was; the tour length had been extended. And I already mentioned what I -- the value I thought that that added.
And I've insisted throughout the ISAF force and especially in the U.S. sector that you maintain as high an operational pace as your force can possibly stand. And I don't know if he uttered it, but I think he should have, in January. The aggregate number of his operations were higher than they were in August, which is prime fighting season month. I think that contributes more to what may be going on the side of the border -- all of those factors.
Q And if you could, how would you explain the recent spike in violence, particularly suicide bombings? And do you fear, as some do, that the coalition effort, counterinsurgency effort, is sliding backwards in Afghanistan?
GEN. MCNEILL: Last one first: No, I don't think it's sliding back. There is constant rhetoric in the newspapers about who's going to stand with the alliance and who is not, and that is somewhat anxiety-producing for me. But to go back to one of the things I said up front, the alliance is better than 8,000, stronger than when I took it over. Several countries --
Q How do you account for the violence, though, the increase in violence? Does that mean that the effort there is sliding backwards?
GEN. MCNEILL: Those who use the increased levels of violence to try to make a case or an argument are generally going to get it wrong, unless they understand what's causing those increased levels of violence. We've had a basic operational concept: Get out of the wire; stay outside of the wire. We've got a bigger force. It's going to be exposed to more things.
Those level of violence for example includes improvised explosive devices. If you want the number of improvised explosive devices to go dramatically down, there's an easy solution: Everybody get back inside of the wire and stay there. You're never going to drive over one if you do that.
That's absurd. I mean, you wouldn't want that. You've got to be out amongst the people. You've got to be trying to separate this insurgent from the people, and that means advance against the enemy to do it.
The suicide bombing: We made predictions as soon as we got started on our offensive last spring. This boy can't stand toe to toe with us on the battlefield. He is likely too move more strongly into asymmetric types of attacks. We expect to see more IEDs. We expect to see more suicide bombers.
That came to pass. What does not hit the news is the success that the international force, OEF forces and the Afghans working together, have had in trying to mitigate the suicide bomber. And I don't want you to home into these exact numbers because I didn't bring the sheet with me. But I want to say that the director of national security in Afghanistan told me several weeks ago that they had measured somewhere in the range of 150 to 100 suicide bombers in calendar year 2007.
If you look at the U.N. report that Tom Koenigs uttered last fall, you realize that in many cases, they were not successful in anything except blowing themselves up. But the piece that gets lost in all that, as people talk about it, there's about 50 that were caught and somehow precluded from setting off their explosives. And I expect to do even better this year as we have better exchanges of intel and working harder at it.
It will not cause the insurgent to back away from the suicide bombing. It's something easy for him to do. It's cheap. They don't put a high premium on life.
The Afghans amongst themselves can be a very trusting people. Sometimes these suicide bombers can get in the middle of them. The deputy governor of Helmand, Haji Pir Mohammad, killed the other day inside of a mosque praying. That's so counterintuitive to the culture of Afghanistan. And if they are willing to do that, yes, they're going to continue to make splashes with suicide bombers.
But senior Afghan leadership has said to me the most amazing thing.
It is not having the effect on the people that the insurgent thinks he is having on the people.
It is a sad, sad thing for me to see the photograph of the aftermath, and I wish I had these photographs today to show you one that occurred last summer in Uruzgan. The insurgent apparently intended to go after an Afghan security patrol, but just by coincidence a Dutch security force happened to move into the market square about the same time, so he went after them; in the process of doing so, killed more than a dozen children, and they were all evacuated to a U.S. Special Forces base nearby and treated.
It is a very sad thing to see a child of about 11 or 12 years old with a ball bearing from that suicide vest buried in his forehead, shot through his biceps and his arms. Everything was ball bearings. And this -- it does not seem to be anything that bothers the insurgent, because he continues to do that. So I expect that if it doesn't bother him morally, he will continue to do it. It's easy.
Q The recent polls show that support for the Taliban has actually increased in the southwest, triple what it was three years ago.
GEN. MCNEILL: In the southwest? Give me a province.
Q This is according to Admiral Mullen. He said this in December, before the HASC. He says, "According to a recent poll, 23 percent living in the southwest say people in their area support the Taliban, triple what it was three years ago." Are you familiar with that?
GEN. MCNEILL: Two provinces in the southwest are Nimroz, where there is no ISAF presence, no OEF presence, no ANA presence. I would find it curious if somebody could draw that conclusion where you don't have a good international source providing it. If he's meaning Helmand, no, I don't think that's -- I disagree with that. And if there were that many people opposed to the international presence and favoring the Taliban presence, how were we easily -- how were we so easily able to move in and retake Sangin District last year and late last year Musa Qal'eh? I mean, it just doesn't track.
Q Have you seen any more running in weapons?
STAFF: We need to wrap this up, so --
GEN. MCNEILL: A good question that Barbara’s offering here. I -- it was a spectacular find on the 5th of September of last year. I didn't hold back. I've been fairly open about that in the press. High-side (sic) IEDs, a wonderful international operation that started with U.S. high side intelligence that detected this convoy forming, monitored and moving inside of Iran by U.S. high side intelligence capabilities, crosses the border in Afghanistan, picked up by an Italian Predator, monitored in its movements, seeing it go into an area. It loitered there. It departs the other area, still monitored by another international intelligence source and eventually allowed British special operations forces to pounce on it.
Q This is the operation --
GEN. MCNEILL: I was going to answer your question, but I got to set the conditions to answer your question, Barbara. And so obviously that got my attention, because we've had IEDs used against us, certainly not the number that had been used in Iraq, and in some cases not the technology that's been used in Iraq, but I am sensitive to increased numbers and increased technologies. So I've been watching this very closely.
Immediately following that, there were a lot -- there were a number of countries who spoke out about this to open sources in the press. I would presume that sub rosa (Latin phrase) they were talking to the Iranians very quietly. This is not a good thing. And I'm still looking, and they could be getting by me. I just haven't seen the numbers since that time that we were seeing before then.
Q So it's EFPs?
GEN. MCNEILL: High site IEDs.
Q But the one you just described was the one you spoke about publicly and --
GEN. MCNEILL: Check. And there's no question it geographically originated in Iran. But if the question is, did the Iranian government have anything to do with it, I have no proof of that.
I will say this, because I've said it before. I do not see how it's possible that it could have originated in Iran, crossed into Afghanistan without at least knowledge of the Iranian military, likely the Qods Force. They have a lot of forces along the border with Afghanistan, mostly to interdict the dope, because they've got a problem with the opium on the streets of Tehran, as I understand it.
Q Do you think that southern ratline has been shut down?
GEN. MCNEILL: I don't have any forces in Nimroz province. The Afghan National Army has no forces in Nimroz province. And there is not a whole lot of active police down there. But I do have some capability to watch it, and I watch it as closely as I possibly can.
Q Could you explain what a high-side IED is?
GEN. MCNEILL: EFP. Okay.
Q Okay. (Laughter.)
Q General, in poppy production -- (off mike) -- that this year's crop is going to be the same as last year's -- (off mike) --
GEN. MCNEILL: I said last fall there's no news there. They got -- they had the best moisture they've had in 50-some years last year. It's going to be at least as good this year, according to the meteorologists, if not better. If I understand the -- (inaudible) -- poppy, it requires water only once in every five days. Yup, it's going to be explosive in its growth.
Q Isn't poppy production the weakest link in the strategy, the counterinsurgency strategy? I think you and others have said that it's funding the Taliban insurgents -- (off mike) -- 40 percent -- (off mike) --
GEN. MCNEILL: I think I've said 20 to 40 percent. Have no empirical data to support it, but I'm confident of my statement. When I uttered that to my colleagues in the U.N., they said lowball figures. It's probably higher, 60 percent or better. I just don't have empirical data to support that. But I have no problem stating to you that I'm certain that 20 to 40 percent of the fiscal resource in the insurgent comes from poppy. It is a terrible scourge on that country. And I've not -- it's not always good for a professional soldier to take a moral stand, but I'm almost at the point of a moral stand. I mean, it's poisoning the children, literally and figuratively, of the country.
But I've had the boys make me a character (sic) now -- and I should have had this slide today -- it's a -- I'm not real IT-smart, and so somebody had to do this for me, but it's how I see a poppy field. If you just take a picture of a poppy field, it's beautiful flowers. There's bulbs popping up there. And what they did was arrange the slide so it builds, and what shoots up in the place of poppy plants are Kalashnikovs, PKs, RPGs. That's what I see when I see a poppy field.
The Afghans have to take this on. They need international help to do it, but this is a defining characteristic of their country right now, and it's negative in every dimension.
Q It will also have a significant degradation or financial impact on the Taliban, would it not? (Off mike) -- poppy production.
GEN. MCNEILL: Could.
Q (Off mike) -- there's been such talk about NATO not getting -- (off mike) --
GEN. MCNEILL: The NATO mandate allows me some leeway, and I'm going to, as the secretary-general told me, take that as far as you can. And I indeed -- I intend to do so. We've already started.
Q (Off mike.)
GEN. MCNEILL: Well, it's -- where there's a clear nexus between the insurgent and the growth of poppy, I can attack that just like it was an insurgent.
Q So is that going to be a new strategy on your part?
GEN. MCNEILL: It had -- it's fundamentally not a change. I think I was allowed to do that under the NATO mandate before.
Q Have you been successful at it at all?
GEN. MCNEILL: We've had one or two thus far this year that look like they're going to work. And they did work. And so we expect to do some more.
Q Couldn’t this backfire in terms of counterinsurgency? Because those who are dependent on that --
GEN. MCNEILL: That -- indeed that is the debate. And the debate is, when you go out and cut down a poppy plant, have you created a new insurgent?
I am not desirous of the force I have responsibility for of being an eradication force. We're neither trained, manned nor equipped, and it has little to do with the debate as if you cut down a poppy plant, you've created a new insurgent.
It's, again, that character I said. What I see popping up are not plants, but PKs, AKs, RPGs. That's really what I want to do there.
I had another picture that was given to me by an Afghan out in Faryab province that was taken last spring, and I'll describe it to you. Three pictures. The first one is a man who's probably 25 to 28; two boys, one five to six, one six to seven. They were in a poppy field. And then two more pictures, one of each of the boys. In all pictures they've all got their scrape spoon, and in the other two pictures these boys are scraping residue off of bulbs.
And I'm no paragon of virtue, but I remember what my father did with me when I was about that age. He taught me to fish, cane pole, cork and other forms, and by the time I was a teenager I was a pretty fisher, pretty good bass fisherman. I'm a pretty good fly fisherman today. He also taught me how to use hand tools, and by the time I was a teenager I could build a piece of furniture -- not Henredon quality, but something that my wife can use out in the yard or something like that.
What do you think those kids will be doing by the time they're teenagers? And I'm still a good fly fisherman; I'm still good with hand tools today. They won't reach my age, by the way. I'm 61, and the median age for an Afghan male now is about 44-45. But by the time they're teenagers, what are they going to be doing? Now that to me is inherently wrong with what we're -- we have to do more to compel the Afghans to get serious about this stuff.
Q (Off mike) -- more forces -- (off mike)?
GEN. MCNEILL: Yes.
STAFF: All right. Thank you.
GEN. MCNEILL: Thank you.
(C) COPYRIGHT 2008, FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC., 1000 VERMONT AVE.
NW; 5TH FLOOR; WASHINGTON, DC - 20005, USA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. ANY REPRODUCTION, REDISTRIBUTION OR RETRANSMISSION IS EXPRESSLY PROHIBITED. UNAUTHORIZED REPRODUCTION, REDISTRIBUTION OR RETRANSMISSION CONSTITUTES A MISAPPROPRIATION UNDER APPLICABLE UNFAIR COMPETITION LAW, AND FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC. RESERVES THE RIGHT TO PURSUE ALL REMEDIES AVAILABLE TO IT IN RESPECT TO SUCH MISAPPROPRIATION. FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC. IS A PRIVATE FIRM AND IS NOT AFFILIATED WITH THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. NO COPYRIGHT IS CLAIMED AS TO ANY PART OF THE ORIGINAL WORK PREPARED BY A UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT OFFICER OR EMPLOYEE AS PART OF THAT PERSON'S OFFICIAL DUTIES.
FOR INFORMATION ON SUBSCRIBING TO FNS, PLEASE CALL JACK GRAEME