DoD News Briefing with Col. Schweitzer and Sgt. Maj. Flowers from the Pentagon Briefing Room, Arlington, Va.
(Note: The colonel and sergeant major appear via satellite from Afghanistan.)
JAMES TURNER (deputy director, Pentagon Press Office): Okay. Good morning. This is Jim Turner in the Pentagon briefing room. Can you hear me, gentlemen?
COL. SCHWEITZER: I got you, Jim.
MR. TURNER: Great. All right. Good morning. Our briefers today are Colonel Martin Schweitzer -- he's the commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division -- and his brigade sergeant major, Command Sergeant Major Richard R. Flowers. This command team and their task force are responsible for operations in southeastern part of Regional Command East. Colonel Schweitzer and Command Sergeant Major Flowers have been running their task force in Afghanistan since last January.
This is Colonel Schweitzer's fourth and final briefing with the Pentagon press corps, and as he and Command Sergeant Major Flowers will be returning home shortly, after a long tour of duty. They are speaking to us today from Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province. And as is our custom, they'll start with some opening remarks and then take your questions.
And with that, gentlemen, I'll turn it over to you.
COL. SCHWEITZER: Okay. Good morning. Thank you very much.
Today I have with me Sergeant Major Flowers, who is, as you guys noted, the 4th Brigade Command Team sergeant major for the 82nd Airborne Division, and my right-hand man for everything that we do here in Combined Task Force Fury.
This is our fourth and final press conference to the Pentagon press corps, and we wanted to take a look at the progress in security, development and governance achieved by our Afghan leaders over the last couple of years, and not just during our 15-month tenure.
I'd like to highlight the incredible foundation that was provided to us by the 10th Mountain Division, which has enabled us to continue to support the development of leaders across all lines of operations. Simply stated, the capacity and capabilities that have been achieved over the last 30 months by the Afghan people is nothing short of phenomenal.
I want to emphasize, this is not what the 82nd or the 10th has achieved, but it's what the Afghan leaders and their people have achieved during this time span. What I'd like to do is review a few indicators of progress with you today, and then I'll turn it over to Command Sergeant Major Flowers, and he'll provide you some thoughts on the ANSF development. And then we'll take any and all questions that you guys may have.
First, with respect to the security line of operation, when we look back to 2004 and 2005, we start with the ANA. And where were they then? Well, it was a developing organization that was troubled, that was not able to conduct any independent operations, but still was -- they started the foundation of the development of it. Whatever operations did occur in this area were coalition-led operations, and they were enemy-focused. The ANP was not existent and the AVP was not existent.
Now fast-forward three years later, or a little over three years later, and what do you got? The ANA is the most respected institution on the ground, certainly in RC East and, I believe, throughout Afghanistan. Instead of coalition-led operations, about 99 percent of all operations in RC East, particularly RC Southeast, are Afghan-led operations where the enemy is an obstacle to the objective, not the objective anymore. And the objective is now getting the people to look to their government and then ensuring that the government properly provides for their people.
And then the ANP, it's developing. Look, I had the opportunity to be here in 2002, when they didn't have the ANP. And now we look back, where we are today; I think the worst days of the ANP development are behind us. We still have some challenging days in front of us, but we're now seeing emerging leaders come alive and hold their formations accountable so they can protect and serve their communities.
On the development lines, just to highlight a few things, again looking at 2004, 2005. The Government of Afghanistan was neither fully ready or engaged in the development process at the level that it needed to be. Infrastructure projects were not synchronized efforts which were not fully resourced, and that ultimately led to the development of some failed icons by the eyes of the community of the Afghan people. There were limited to none -- no government-sourced schools in 2004, and then about 10 percent of the population had access to basic health care. That was, again, 2004, 2005.
Fast-forward to today. The six provinces that we work with, all the governors prioritize the projects to provide economic development for their communities. What makes this most noteworthy is, simply stated, this is an Afghan solution to Afghan problems, and we're helping orchestrate those effects. Afghans are now in the lead in that process of identifying where these projects need to go, and DOS, USAID and the military, we're working a lot closer together as a combined team to create those effects in the operational environment.
With respect to schools, you know, there were -- I'll just -- you know, I'll give you what I'm -- we're tracking. About 6 million Afghan kids are in school today in RC East, and then you neck that down to Khost province as an example. In 2004, about 38,000 young boys were in school. They weren't government-sponsored schools. Today you've got 160,000 kids in school, all of them government-sponsored, of which 40,000 are young girls. Now, that's a significant step forward when you're really looking at three years of government institution development and creating effects in the operational environment.
And then finally, as an indicator of development, you look at the access to health care: 10 percent in 2004, about 75 to 78 percent today that the average Afghan has access to basic health care needs.
And then you look at the governance line of operation. 2004, 2005, not all the provincial governors were seated; 34 of them, about 16, 17 were seated at the end of 2004, the start of 2005. About 50 percent of 364 district governors were actually seated and going to work. And then less than -- just in our six provinces, which is made up of 86 districts, of which 78 are official, less than 15 percent of those districts in our six provinces supported the Afghan government. Fast-forward three years later, and where are we at? All 34 provinces have seated governors that are getting after it. Now, all 364 district governors are seated and working. IDLG, which is the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, which is a -- it's an institution underneath the president, newly formed, is having incredible success as the functioning arm of the government which serves as the mechanism to replace ineffective Afghan leadership in a transparent way. And then finally, in our six districts, we -- we're assessing that 72 of those 86 districts are in support of their government. Now, that doesn't mean that they're free of security threats. It just means that the people are picking their government over the threat challenges.
So in summary, I'm pretty optimistic what's going on here. I had the unique opportunity to be here in 2002, and I'm here again five years later, and I'm seeing some significant progress. You look at the institutional development; it's been phenomenal. You look at the human capital growth. I mean, I can remember back five years ago where the common theme was that you didn't have the human capacity to stand up these institutions to be able to provide for their people.
Now, I'm not going to portray that it's working perfectly, but I'm looking at it where we are today, really five years from when I was here last, but three and a half years from when their institutions started to get developed. And they're fully manned. They're getting after it. Some of them are troubled, some of them are working really well. But overall, I'm incredible optimistic on what the possibility here is in Afghanistan.
SGT. MAJ. FLOWERS: Sir, thank you for the opportunity.
First, I'd like to highlight some of the development of the all-volunteer Afghanistan national security forces. Last January our staff, the Fort Polk instructors, came down and put them through a CPX, a computer exercise, where the Afghanistan forces from the corps staff completed it and did successful (sic). They improved their skills, and also got after it and learned some new tricks that they can move forward with.
The NCO role -- about two years ago, the NCO role was almost nonexistent. The NCOs were doing other duties besides being noncommissioned officers. Today there are over 900 NCOs in the corps, and they're getting after it. They're understanding how to train their soldiers, respect the people of Afghanistan, and also continue driving on with what's needed to improve Afghanistan.
The ANP, as my brigade commander put out to you, they're getting better every day, and their skill sets are also improving.
The development of direct and indirect fire techniques and the logistical training is something that the Afghanistan's -- the Afghani security forces are getting better on. They have done a lot of resupplies and also did a medevac operation for their own forces out here. That's getting better, and they continue to take more lead in conducting that for their own forces.
Development of the leadership program -- back about six months ago I was privy to go to Kabul to go to the noncommissioned officers senior conference. This was done with officers and NCOs from the Afghanistan national security forces, and also some of our coalition partners were there.
I was amazed by the Afghanistan security leadership that took charge, gave out instructions and information, and it planned strategies on how they're accomplished and make their Afghanistan country a little better.
With these things continuing to happen, they're finding ways that they can be respected not only by their elected officials, by their countrymen and also the security elements that are out here.
Thank you, sir.
COL. SCHWEITZER: Thanks.
MR. TURNER: So with that, let's get on to some questions.
Q Colonel, this is Andrew Gray from Reuters. You've obviously had a lot of experience in Afghanistan, in your previous tour and in this one. One theme that comes up a lot is the coordination of aid efforts. In all your time in Afghanistan, how good is the coordination of the different agencies and bodies providing aid? And how could it be improved?
COL. SCHWEITZER: Yeah. I think that's a great question. These are one of those stories that -- we've made great progress with coordinating with all the aid agencies, but there's a lot more to be done.
We run a series -- at every level, whether it's the CJTF level, which is the division two-star command above me; at the brigade level, at the battalion level, with our Provincial Reconstruction Teams, there are weekly meetings with all of the UNAMA players, the aid organizations, to help us get a unity of effort in each of the provinces that we're working.
There's oftentimes where we find some areas where we just disagree on. That creates a bit of a gap to create an effect. But fortunately we've found more times where we're able to find that common ground, where we can get a unity of effort, so we can create a positive effect for the Afghan people.
We clearly understand that after the military contribution is no longer required, the NGOs and the aid organizations will be left here.
And we don't find it beneficial at all for us to have the communities look to us for the answer. We try to get them to look to the Afghan security forces, the Afghan government, the aid organizations that'll stay here well beyond our tenure. And so it's that understanding and that coordination that occurs weekly that I think has caused a -- it's resulted in a closer relationship with all the organizations out there.
Q Colonel, it's Lolita Baldor with the Associated Press. Can you talk to us a little bit about the level of violence that you're seeing there, the insurgent activity, compare it a little bit to around this time last year, and whether you're seeing any signs of a spring offensive?
COL. SCHWEITZER: Yeah, let me just -- and I said this last year as well. I've tracked Afghanistan for the last five years. There is no spring offensive. What you've got is that the weather warms so the IED attacks do increase, and that will go for about four to six weeks until they're either removed from the operational environment or, in the case that we're seeing right now, the community is stopping a lot of these activities from occurring.
The threat is not organized. It's not manned, it's not equipped that it can conduct a spring offensive. However, it does have two methods of maneuver that they constantly rely on, which is the IED and the suicide bomber. When you look back at the direct-fire attacks, though, over the last five years, there's been a significant downward trend in their ability to generate direct-fire maneuver formations to take on the Afghan National Army or coalition forces.
I'll highlight an issue with the Afghan National Army: They have not lost a contact in RC East since April of '07, not one. And that's because their competency and core skill sets are growing. The ANP, just the other day, stopped two suicide bombers from coming into some of the district centers that they secure and that they protect so you can have governance down there.
But I think another way to look at this piece, is since we've decided -- we've identified that the people are the center of gravity, not the enemy. Now go back to that comment that I said. The enemy is an obstacle to the objective. And if that's the case, and if we're measuring progress based upon people's access to their governance, what's the effect of these enemy activities? Well, let me just give you some data points. This time last year, we had about 25 districts that were in support of their government of the 86 in the provinces that we work. Today because of good Afghan governance, we're at 72 of 86. So even though there is a slight -- an increase in some IED activity, the effectiveness of that has gone way down. It's no longer causing that oppression that's precluded the people from accessing their government. They're just not accepting it anymore.
So, you know, I go back to that comment. I'm pretty optimistic. Now, again, I'm not going to portray this as threat-free. It's not. The threat is out there; that's why we're here. But it's pretty amazing to see these community leaders just outright say no to the threat.
I'll give you a great example. They did have an opportunity -- the enemy -- where they got into one of the ANP district centers with a suicide bomber. And it created a problem for the formation.
The next day, the community -- not us, the community -- assembled at that district center and started rebuilding that district center, which was previously in Taliban hands, that only the Taliban could operate from. And that's in the district of Sabari in the province of Khost. They just don't take it.
So even when the enemy does have, you know, a lucky day, it doesn't stand with that community. And we were concerned that the community may, you know, be a little bit gun shy and take a knee. And in fact, they did the exact opposite.
They got out there. They started providing for their community. They're visibly showing who they support. And in this case, it's their government.
Q Colonel, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America.
Just to flesh that out a little bit, can you give us your attack statistics for the last several months, and compare that to when you first arrived?
COL. SCHWEITZER: Yeah, I mean, overall, I don't have the exact numbers with me today but I get briefed on this all the time.
The bottom line is really a tenfold decrease in direct fire attacks from this time last year, although there's about a 15 percent increase in the IEDs. And those are predominantly in Eastern Paktika and a two-kilometer box in one of the provinces in Khost. And that's really where the density of increase has happened with IEDs.
But the direct fire attacks – The indicator of (audio break) – that create negative effects within a population, has been a significant decrease.
Q If I could just follow up, you paint a -- oh, he's talking.
COL. SCHWEITZER: Let me just finish this.
When we do an IED find, we still consider that a negative activity. But we still measure it against the effects. And so when I'm telling you that there's been a 12-or-15 percent increase in IEDs, that doesn't mean that those are the ones that went boom. That just means that a combination of those that actually exploded, those that we identified, those that we detonated with the assets from JIEDDO that we have that work on behalf of us. You know, it's the whole comprehensive picture.
What's also not added into that is the significant increase in turn-ins.
When we were here this time last year, 20 percent IED finds we found from the community. It's the complete inverse today. It's about 78 percent now come from the community and 22 percent are coming through either our techniques or the ones that actually go boom.
And so when you look at this, or if you listen to the presentation I'm giving you, it sounds like, boy, freedom's breaking out. No, I'm not saying that at all. What I'm saying is, the community is voting, that the community is in support of its government, that the communities are tired of the threat. And the best statistic that will prove that are any of the polls, whether it's BBC, ABC, whomever, it's always between 92 and 94 percent of the Afghan population do not accept the Taliban oppression.
MR. TURNER: Jeff.
Q Colonel, quick clarification. Did you say IED attacks are up 50 percent, 5-0, or 15, 1-5?
COL. SCHWEITZER: One five, thanks. One five percent up from this time last year in our six provinces.
Q And if I could follow up, IED attacks are up, direct fire is down. Is this a sign that the enemy is moving to a more effective tactic?
COL. SCHWEITZER: No, it's a sign that the enemy's not able to operate in any kind of formation anymore. It's a sign that they know that they are not organized, that they don't have this growing Taliban population that we often read about. But on the ground it's very clear what's happening. They can't do it, or they would. They would absolutely maneuver and take out district centers if they could, but they can't.
Let's look at the effectiveness of the suicide bombers or the IEDs. You would think if they were successful, you would have less district centers. This time last year we had 21 district centers in place. Today we have 52, with 32 more being scheduled to be built. And when I say "we," that's done through the Afghans. They're going up. And as the district center gets built, they're resourced with the district governor, who moves into that compound; they've got the ANP that are now moving into those compounds. So it becomes a center of governance and security for a district. It becomes an icon of success for that community. So any indicator we look at, and we try to look at this pretty critically, so I'm not giving you a Pollyanna answer. What we keep finding over and over again is that the Afghan people, when governance is good, pick their government every time. And they man these formations.
Another indicator is AWOL. AWOL, last year, this time, was about 22 percent. It's down to less than 10 percent in the Afghan national army today. That's a significant reduction. I don't have the statistics for the police. But I know that the police, you know, the recruiting drive: pretty successful in the six provinces that we're working.
The best example is, there's a district called Zurmat in Paktia. There were 18 police there in October of '07. Today, there's 138 policemen who've been retrained after an eight-week academy up there under CSTC-A, which is Combined Security Training Command-Afghanistan. That's done an incredible job helping develop the ANP capability.
Q To follow up again, if the Taliban know that they're going to get annihilated in direct engagements, wouldn't it make sense for them to adopt more IEDs? Isn't that a change in tactics?
COL. SCHWEITZER: Okay. Yeah, it's a change in tactics. But you know, I guess, the implication that I'm getting from you is this is an effective change in tactics. What I'm trying to -- I agree. It is a change in tactics.
It's not an effective change in tactics. It's not creating -- it's not reducing the access of people to their government. In fact, the opposite is happening.
Now, I think it's a fair characterization though to say, well, if it wasn't happening, would you even have more access? Well, yeah, absolutely. But as we look at progress on the Afghan watch, not a Western watch, and we look at these district centers, what they're creating in these communities, and you've got 72 of 86 communities that are now choosing their government, look, that's progress.
(Cross talk) -- IEDs and suicide bombers and the other things. Because they don't have the ability to create the physical oppression that they used to be able to do in RC East.
MR. TURNER: Courtney.
Q Hi, Colonel. This is Courtney Kube from NBC news. You mentioned that this enemy is not organized, not manned and not equipped. Can you give us an idea of who specifically this enemy is? Are they foreign fighters? Are these hired criminals that you're seeing? Do you have any idea about sort of a demographic of who these attacks are being carried out by?
COL. SCHWEITZER: Sure. You've got a Taliban component. You've got -- which has got a significant number of, you know, Afghans that are inside that Taliban formation. You've got an al Qaeda component that is predominantly foreign fighter. You've got this guy named Haqqani and his network. He's a little bit more than a hoodlum, but he's out there. And then you've got Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who's a flat criminal. But he's also pretty -- was influential in the area, because he was an ex-fighter against the Russians -- the Soviet Union -- but today he's chosen to be on the side against the government.
And then you've got the fifth criminal that's out there, and that's the corruption within the government. And fortunately, we're pretty confident as each day progresses, that corruption's reduced.
But that's what you've got out there: a Taliban component, an al Qaeda component, which is predominantly foreign fighters, and then you've got Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which are home-grown Afghans.
Q So what events are you seeing as the most the threatening to your area?
COL. SCHWEITZER: Corruption. Look, the Afghan National Army -- and I'll just take you back to this -- they have not lost a contact since April. So they have proven that they are able to buffer the threat, at a minimum, to keep them at bay, enabling the government to get down there to the people.
The problem, though, is when you have a corrupt official or a corrupt security force guy and what that does to the community. You see, we found out not surprisingly that the Afghans don't like expectation mismanagement. And so when that white space is created by the separation of the enemy from the population, when the government provides for the people in a manner with integrity as determined by the Afghan community, it's phenomenal and very encouraging to see how that community -- how quickly it turns. But the converse is also true. When that intervention comes in and it's not with integrity, when there's the perception or actual corruption, it creates the exact opposite effect and turns them back towards an alternate vision, which, you know, then takes a lot of time to redevelop, rebuild. So that's what keeps me up at night.
The good news is, I think, that the Afghan government is holding folks accountable. I know the Afghan national security folks are holding folks accountable. And they are in the process of ridding the corruption from those formations.
MR. TURNER: Okay, we have time for one more question. Luis?
Q Colonel, it's Luis Martinez of ABC News. With the compartmentalization of the fight in Afghanistan, with things going on a positive track in your sector, what are the impacts of the fight in Kandahar and in Helmand province? Is there a -- not only just militarily, but also on the corruption that you're trying to fight in RC East.
COL. SCHWEITZER: Look, that's a great question, and there's -- it's a complex question and it's not a smooth answer. First, I'm pretty convinced that the force mixture down there is about right; but, you know, we could always use more. I think the real issue is, is how we -- the rotation cycle that those forces in the south are and the relationship-building that's so important in the counterinsurgency environment to really apply an insurgency strategy. General Mackay, the Task Force Helmand commander, gets it. He understands counterinsurgencies from the U.K., a very comprehensive approach to the problem down there.
But it's -- if you don't have good governance lined up behind the separation, if you don't have all of the other economic development pieces aligned behind it, then it's hard to really apply the strategy to create the same effects, or -- let me rephrase that -- to create the effects on the pace that we're currently creating here in RC East.
Having said that, how does that threat situation affect what we're doing here in RC East? Well, it's -- you know, it's obviously not a positive outcome. The good news is, the RC South operations throughout the summer and into the winter really kept the enemy or the threat off its game and prevented them from creating sanctuaries back into places like Musa Qal'eh, which they have previously been able to operate with relative impunity, which they no longer can. And that's because the Afghan government aligned good governance behind the security forces and a stay-behind security force package to create a smaller effect down there in RC South.
Again, I think they've got some unique challenges down there because of the density of the threat that does exist in RC South, but I'm pretty confident that as we apply the counterinsurgency strategy consistently and over time, by developing relationships that -- it's got to be done in four to -- done longer than in four-to-six-month pops -- the same effects will be achieved.
MR. TURNER: All right. Well, thank you for that update. And with that, would you care to make any closing statements?
COL. SCHWEITZER: Yeah. Look, as we prepare to return to Fort Bragg, I'd first like to thank all the Afghans that we've worked with here. I can tell -- I know I can speak for every one of my soldiers when I tell you that it has been an honor to work side by side with most of these folks. They are God-fearing. They're getting after it. They're trying to provide a better way for their families and their communities, and they're doing it in the face of an enemy who did oppress them since 1994. And it's pretty motivating to see when they choose their freedom and their government over the threat. And they're doing that daily.
I'd also like to thank our NATO partners. First, the Polish battle group, whose performance has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Our Turkish provincial reconstruction team, that we work in coordination with, that works out of Wardak, has made a great impact. And we just received a Czech Republic PRT into the Lowgar province. That's going to be actually OPCON, operationally under our control, to create effects linking government to the people in the Lowgar province.
I'd like to also thank, as I always do, the counter-IED task force, JIEDDO, whose actions every day save American lives and coalition lives and Afghan lives. Because we've now extended that program out to their instruction. And it has been pretty significant with the positive impacts it's had on our formation.
I'd like to thank the human terrain teams. These are a group of social scientists, and that community helps us out here understand and properly maneuver within the Afghan community. So we can reduce civilian casualties. We reduce the friction. We have a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the human terrain that we're operating within.
And finally thanks to our families and friends of the 4th Brigade Combat Team and Task Force Fury. They have stood by us, supported us. And we thank them profusely with all our hearts.
So thank you very much.
MR. TURNER: Thank you for the briefing, and have a very safe trip home.
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