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DoD News Briefing with Col. Stevens from Afghanistan

Presenters: Commander, Combined Task Force Rugged and the 36th Engineer Brigade, 82nd Division Col. Richard Stevens
February 27, 2008 12:00 PM EDT

                (Note:  Colonel Stevens appears via teleconference from Afghanistan.)

 

                COL. GARY KECK (director, Department of Defense Press Office): Well, good morning, and welcome to the DOD briefing room.  Today we have Colonel Richard Stevens, who's the commander of the Combined Task Force Rugged and the 36th Engineer Brigade.  He serves in Combined Task Force 82 and the 82nd Airborne Division.  And Colonel Stevens has been in Afghanistan for about 12 months, and his responsibilities include building infrastructure and support to RC East.  Colonel Stevens is the first time with us today.  So with that, we would like to welcome him from Bagram Airfield.  So, Colonel Stevens, we'll turn it over to you. 

 

                COL. STEVENS:  Well, thanks very much, Gary.  Appreciate that introduction.  And good morning, and let me start by just thanking you all for being here today.   

 

                This is actually my second appearance in the Pentagon briefing room, and I must tell you that the first occasion was a very positive experience.  I suspect that that was largely because the media wasn't in the room at that time.  You see, I was giving a tour of the building to some family members, and we stopped in for the obligatory photo op there at the podium. 

 

                But that said, I do appreciate your time, and I hope that I can share with you this morning some valuable insights about how our engineer task force, partnered with the Afghan national security forces and the Afghan government, is contributing to the fight here in Afghanistan. 

 

                First let me just give you a quick overview of our engineer organization, Combined Task Force Rugged.  We have just over 1,500 soldiers.  The name "Rugged" is derived from the heritage of my own headquarters, the 36th Engineer Brigade, dating back to its first combat operations in North Africa during World War II.  Today our motto is also very appropriate, given the nature of Afghanistan's very rugged terrain.

 

                And as an engineering force, we have a slightly different mission than the infantry brigade combat teams that we support, as well as the U.S. government, or private nongovernmental organizations that are engaged in the larger infrastructure reconstruction projects.

 

                Our primary task as combat engineers is to assist in building the roads, the outposts, the bases that our warfighters need to battle the counterinsurgency.

 

                Next we also play a significant role in the counter-IED fight by patrolling the roads and trails, essentially hunting the improvised explosive devices, the IEDs, and either destroying them or rendering them safe.

 

                Now to accomplish these missions, we have two subordinate engineer battalions.  In keeping with the new modular engineer force that our Army has adopted, our battalions are from different installations back in the United States.  One battalion is from Fort Lewis, Washington, and they provide the construction forces.  The other battalion is from Fort Riley, Kansas, and they provide the counter-IED and de-mining capability.

 

                I should also point out that we are considered a combined task force because we have as a part our team a contingent of Polish engineers that augment our construction mission.  And we're very proud of their contributions.

 

                And now I'd like to give you just a snapshot of some of what we've accomplished during the year that our team has been supporting Combined Joint Task Force 82.

 

                Since our arrival last March, in March of 2007, Army engineers have constructed 315 kilometers of road, nearly 200 miles, which is approximately the distance between New York City and Washington, D.C.

 

                Now that may not sound like much, but I will tell you that these roads have not been built upon the gentle, rolling land of the Garden State or Eastern Maryland.  They traverse some of the most remote, mountainous and, if I may say, rugged terrain in the world.  At the same time I recognize that we as combat engineers are not building I- 95, either.  But I can say that the impact of these roads, and in some cases just trails, in relative terms is every bit as valuable to our mission of connecting with the people.

 

                Our roads have connected 34 previously isolated villages and approximately 120,000 Afghan citizens.  And they not only allow coalition forces to reach areas that were previously inaccessible, they also provide the Afghan people better security, better access to their government, and increased opportunity for commerce.

 

                In the last year we have constructed seven new bases and outposts.  These allow the security forces to extend their presence and live among the people, which is a key tenet to the counterinsurgency operations.  We've also improved 35 outposts to a quality that allowed forces to remain in place over the harsh winter -- clearly supportive of the hold aspect associated with the clear, hold, and build strategy.

 

                Our soldiers that are conducting the counter-IED fight have traveled some 65,000 kilometers, over 40,000 miles of roads and trails, conducting 1,200 missions.  Their efforts to find and clear IEDs make the roads safer for both coalition and Afghan security forces, as well as the civilian population.

 

                Finally, in all that we do, we partner with our Afghan host.  Whether it's assisting with the training of the Afghan National Army on basic military engineering skills, such as bridging, de-mining, or the operation of construction equipment; or by conducting skilled labor workshops for the general public, to teach them basic construction skills, a trade, and therefore enhance the employability of workers who might otherwise remain unemployed and susceptible to the Taliban's influence; or our use of the Commanders Emergency Response Program to build schools and infrastructure at the local level, all of these initiatives are done with the assistance of and in close coordination with our Afghan partners.

 

                So once again, I thank you all for being here this morning.  And with those opening remarks, I'll be happy to take your questions.  Thank you. 

 

                COL. KECK:  Okay.  Go ahead, Jeff.

 

                Q     Colonel, Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes.  Regarding the IED mission.  Can you talk about what trends you've seen in the enemy's use of IEDs over the past 12 months and any notable changes?

 

                COL. STEVENS:  Yeah, Jeff.  Thank you.  That's a great question.  I frankly have seen a change in the types of IEDs that the enemy is employing against coalition forces, and more importantly, against the civilians.  What I see is a much less technologically advanced improvised explosive device.  I see a lot of homemade materials.  I see a shift to non-radio-controlled devices because of some of the advances in technology that we have been able to employ on the battlefield.  So I think that the makeup and the composition of the IEDs has become much, much more austere than what we saw previously, just even a year ago.  So in that regard, I think that the enemy is adapting based on either shortages of supplies or ease of emplacement from a standpoint of how they're emplacing the IEDs.  I hope that answers your question.

 

                Q     Could you also talk about trends in numbers of IEDs you have noted in the past 12 months?

 

                COL. STEVENS:  Yeah, sure.  There's no question that 2007 was a banner year for IED emplacements.  But I think it's important to look at why that occurred.  We had significant increases in the numbers of forces -- coalition forces, ANSF in particular, as well as, of course, U.S. and the coalition forces here in Regional Command East.  We went from one brigade combat team to two brigade combat teams.  In addition, we very aggressively implemented something that I know General McNeill has talked to you all about, and that's the function of getting outside the wire, of engaging with the people, living among the people.  And so the fact that we were out more, I think, was a contributor to the increase in the numbers of IEDs.

 

                Q     Colonel Stevens, I'm Gerry Gilmore with American Forces Press Service.  Just two quick questions:  one, what type of roads are you constructing the most?  Are you talking about asphalt, gravel, concrete?  And two, can you compare a little bit your endeavors with road building and how it's going to build up the country, to build up the economy so it'll be less of a target for insurgents?

 

                Is it kind of like the Eisenhower interstate system, where it was built as a military thoroughfare but also connected rural communities, to boost the nation's economic condition?

 

                COL. STEVENS:  Yeah, sure, Gerry.  Thank you very much for that question as well.

 

                Again, you know, the unit that I represent is comprised exclusively of combat engineers.  And so we are not engaged in the larger, bigger infrastructure improvements that are ongoing throughout the country.  Those types of projects are being conducted by nongovernmental organizations, donor nations, the United States Agency for International Development.  They're the ones that are constructing the larger infrastructure connecting some of the provincial capitals.

 

                Where we focus our efforts as combat engineers is into those hard-to-reach places.  And so many of the roads that we build are either combat trails or, in some instances, gravel roads.  But the impact that they have on a local village, in terms of connecting that local village back to a subdistrict center, back to a provincial center, is truly impressive.  But -- so our focus as military engineers is on the gravel and the combat trails.  The larger infrastructure pieces are being done by other organizations.

 

                Q     Colonel, David Morgan with Reuters.  Back on the question of patterns in IEDs, specifically in numbers, can you tell us -- can you give us some idea of the rate at which IEDs have been showing up and whether there's been any change in that?  And I also wonder, if IEDs are becoming cruder, does that mean that they're also becoming more numerous?

 

                COL. STEVENS:  Well, let me take the first part.  From a standpoint of the rate at which IEDs are being emplaced, I don't have any empirical data to address that.  I will say that the -- from a standpoint of the crudeness, whether or not that makes more available, again, I don't have any data that would address that one way or the other.

 

                I will tell you that the employment of the IEDs, from a standpoint of what it's achieving on the battlefield, is not what the Taliban or the anti-coalition militants are looking for. 

 

                Frankly the local population looks at the use of IEDs, and the fact that the IEDs often contribute to civilian casualties, it's not consistent with their culture.  It's not consistent with Islam.  It's really having the opposite effect that they are looking for.

 

                And if I missed any part of your question, if you would just repeat it, I'll try to catch up.  Over.

 

                Q     Thank you.

 

                COL. KECK:  Courtney.

 

                Q     Hi, Colonel.  This is Courtney Kube from NBC News.

 

                You told, you mentioned in Gerry's question that a lot of the roads are made of gravel.  How do you stop insurgents, terrorists, whatever from emplacing IEDs in roads that are gravel?  I mean, wouldn't it make more sense to use -- we've been reading that there's more asphalt, concrete, whatever being used, so that they can stop that, so these roads can't be -- they can't put any kind of explosive device in there.

 

                And especially it sounds as if, from one of your earlier answers, there's more pressure plates being employed.  So that would seem like the gravel would just be conducive to that.

 

                COL. STEVENS:  Yeah.  There's no question, Courtney.  Thank you.

 

                There's no question that asphalt is the preferred surface, and there are a number of asphalt roads that are being constructed throughout RC East.  And they're being constructed for that purpose specifically as counter-IED roads.

 

                Now, they obviously have that secondary effect of being able to improve trade and commerce and traffic ability, so that's all good.  What I'm talking about specifically are the roads that we as combat engineers are building.  And we are going into places where there, in many instances, have never been roads previously.

 

                And so we are that initial step that starts connecting these outer villages back to those asphalt roads, back to the ring road and then back to their government.  That's what we're really after, is connecting the people.  And so, you know, we go in, and these combat trails and gravel is better than what they had previously.

 

                Now, to get back to the idea of how do you stop IEDs from being emplaced in gravel roads, we're never going to completely defeat the IED emplacers.  What we can do is, through many different elements, disrupt their IED networks.  And we do that through the application of our route clearance packages and targeting specific areas.  We do that through very detailed intelligence gathering.  And we get out the IED emplacers, we get out the IED cells.

 

                And then the second thing is, as we can bring development and as we can connect the people to their government, then the people themselves will stand up against the IED emplacers.  And that's what's really going to win the IED fight here in Afghanistan, when the people reject it, when the people get on board, connect to their government.  They are the ones that are going to stop the IED emplacers ultimately.

 

                Thank you.

 

                Q     So if asphalt is the preferred substance or whatever, then why not use it?  Is there a particular reason you're not using it?

 

                COL. STEVENS:  You know, it's part of a staged development.  We'll go in, we'll create combat trails, we'll gravel those combat trails, and then in many instances we'll follow it up with asphalt.  But it progresses in stages.  We have a number of asphalt roads that are being built throughout Regional Command East using the Commanders Emergency Response Program  funds, and that has been very effective.

 

                And so I don't want to give the impression that we're satisfied with gravel roads.  That certainly is not the case.  The asphalt roads is long-term going to be better for development.  But at the same time, too, asphalt roads are not necessarily the panacea to the IED emplacers or to combat the IED emplacers.  It is a combined effort on the part of coalition forces as well as the population to counter the IED fight.

 

                COL. KECK:  Jeff?

 

                Q     Colonel, Jeff with Stars and Stripes again.  I know commanders have requested about 600 mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles.  Are you in any way changing the way you build combat trails and other roads in order to accommodate these larger vehicles?

 

                COL. STEVENS:  Yeah, the MRAP is going to be a tremendous value- added to our fight, especially here in Afghanistan.  Now, the roads  and trails that we are building will be able to sustain the trafficability that's needed for the MRAP.  I will also tell you, though, that the MRAP technology we have been employing here, especially with our route clearance packages, for the entire year that we've been supporting CJTF-82, and it's a great vehicle and it provides a lot of confidence for our soldiers to get out there with the IED fight.  But we are -- and speaking for my unit specifically, I'm scheduled to receive within the next few months a total of 48 MRAPs.  Those MRAPs are going to replace the up-armored humvees for both command and control as well as security for our route clearance packages, and it's going to be a great value-added.  And we're looking forward to employing that technology.

 

                Q     Follow-up.  You said you're expected to get 48 MRAPs the next few months?  Would these happen to be RG-31s? 

 

                COL. STEVENS:  The model that we're currently employing is the RG-31.  And I'd hesitate to give the exact specifics of the model that's -- the 48, of all the 48 that are coming in.  But it's that same technology; it's that same v-shaped hull.  And again, it's a proven lifesaver on the battlefield here in Afghanistan.

 

                Q     Generally, with the 48 what kind of an increase is that? Is it a 50 percent increase, a 25 percent increase in what you have now?

 

                COL. STEVENS:  Yeah.  No, that's a great question.  And again, I'm only speaking for my particular brigade, but for us it's actually a one-for-one swap of the up-armored humvees that we currently have in our force.  And so we're not increasing typically the numbers of vehicles that we are employing, but what we are doing is we are essentially upgrading to a better, more protected vehicle for our soldiers.

 

                COL. KECK:  Go ahead.

 

                Q     Can you -- this is David Morgan with Reuters, again.  Can you tell us about how much of your time and resources would be devoted to training local people for jobs and helping local communities by building schools and things like that?

 

                COL. STEVENS:  Yeah.  No, that's -- thank you, David, that's a good question.  I'll address two points.  One is the training aspect of the skilled labor workshops that we have orchestrated here over the winter months.  It's been a very successful program.  It's part of our Commanders Emergency Response Program.  It's funded through our CERP program.

 

                And we have trained 150 Afghans in basic carpentry skills, basic masonry skills.  And the great part of that program is that we track those individuals and track their employment record once they leave the training.  So once we hand them a graduation certificate, they are then able to go out and use that certificate to essentially provide a resume to local building contractors and to gain employment.  At the same time, we've turned around and we've hired some of those graduates almost immediately to begin work on some of the construction projects  that we had to support our forward-operating bases and outposts.  So it's been a very successful program.

 

                We plan to expand that program to include conducting workshops for local Afghan contractors, and those contractors can then learn the skills of how to bid on a contract.  And, of course, all of that has the secondary value of infusing money into the economy and providing jobs.  And that's what we're really after, is to provide those young, especially military-age, males with opportunities for employment.

 

                Now, you mentioned about schools.  We do use CERP dollars to build schools and, of course, education has been a big part of our overall campaign plan here in Afghanistan, with the numbers of children that are attending school.

 

                Typically what we will do is go into a community, especially where we have upcoming road construction projects, and we will dialogue with the provincial leadership.  We will coordinate those efforts, with the provincial reconstruction teams and the local government, and we will ask them what it is they need in a community.  And when the answer comes back that they'll need schools or that they need solar lights or that they need irrigation ditches, we'll be able to use the Commanders Emergency Response Program to fund those items, and then provide that resource to the local community.

 

                The key to that program is that it all gets coordinated and synchronized with the provincial development plan, that are headed by the Afghan government.  So the Afghan government has the lead from the standpoint of what it is, providing goods and services to the people, that what it is the people need.  And, of course, that adds to the credibility.  It adds to connecting the people to the government and that's really essential here in the counterinsurgency fight.

 

                Thanks, David.

 

                Q     If I could follow up, about how many of the 150 people trained have found gainful employment?  And of those, how many of them work for you?

 

                COL. STEVENS:  I can't speak to a specific number, in terms of how many have actually been given job placement.  I know that we hired between 25 and 30 almost immediately, and that they are actively engaged right now building projects.  I think that, and again we have this tracking mechanism to track their employment.  I think, after a few months, we'll have a better feel for just how many of those graduates are being employed.

 

                I also will give a plug -- there's a construction trade school that's located in Jalalabad, that you may be familiar with, that does essentially the same thing, that's funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.  I can't give you the details on that, obviously.  I know USAID can.  This program that we have had throughout the winter months,  though, has been very, very valuable, and we look to continue that and to expand it because, again, it's a key piece of the counterinsurgency fight.

 

                Q     Thank you.

 

                COL. KECK:  Courtney.

 

                Q     Hey, Colonel.  It's Courtney from NBC again.  It sounds like you have such a big job there rebuilding this infrastructure, in some cases building the infrastructure.  Do you think that you have enough combat engineers in your area to complete this mission?  And how long, in your opinion, do you think the U.S. will need -- or NATO -- will need combat engineers to build up the roads in RC East?

 

                COL. STEVENS:  Yeah, thanks, Courtney.  You know, that's a great question.  I don't know that there's any commander on the ground that wouldn't tell you that they could always use more.  And we certainly have enough work to go around for our combat engineers.  Now, one of the things that we do to augment our engineering effort is we employ a significant number of local Afghan contractors and we simply provide a certain amount of quality assurance and quality control to ensure that the projects that they build in support of our military forces are safe and usable.  And so we are able to essentially augment the combat engineering forces that we have.  Now, that said, there is that secondary benefit to hiring local Afghan contractors.  And so we're very happy to take that route.

 

                We constantly evaluate the force requirements here.  Today we do not have -- certainly I do not have any request for forces that have been submitted for additional engineers.

 

                From a standpoint of just how long we're going to be needed here, I would tell you that as long as coalition forces are present here in Afghanistan, there will be a need for combat engineer to support their ability to get out, to engage with the people, to have expanded presence, to have forward operating bases, to have outposts that are overlooking the borders.  So there's always going to be that need for responsive military engineering.  And we'll be here just as long as  long as CJTF-82 or a follow-on organization is present here in Regional Command East.

 

                Thanks for that question, Courtney.

 

                COL. KECK:  Okay, folks, we are at about the end of our allotted time, so Colonel Stevens, we would like to provide you an opportunity here at the end to give any thoughts or information that we failed to ask you about that you think is pertinent for us to hear about.  So we'll turn it over to you.

 

                COL. STEVENS:  Okay, Gary.  Well, again, thank you all very much. It was really an honor for me to be with you this morning.  I personally have great respect for what you all do.  I think that if I was to summarize, perhaps, a headline that might be worthy of an early bird op-ed piece, it might go something like this:  "Brigade commander sees progress and promise along Afghanistan's rocky trails."  Or maybe "Taliban fails where Army engineers deliver."  I'm very, very proud of the mission of our combat engineers here in Afghanistan, but that's just me.

 

                I also want to refer you all to cjtf82.com, where we often post stories that may also be an interest to you.  So cjtf82.com.  It's one of my favorite websites.

 

                And with that, let me just say that you all can be very proud of your military and the job that they are doing here in Afghanistan.  I ask you to please keep all your service men and women serving in harm's way as well as their families in your thoughts and prayers.  I do look forward to the opportunity to be with you again and to share our stories, both the good and the bad.  I hope that you have a great day, and as we say here in our brigade, stay rugged.

 

                Thank you all very much.

 

                COL. KECK:  Thank you again.  Thanks for coming, folks.

 

 

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