(Note: General Livingston appears via teleconference from Afghanistan.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Some of your colleagues must be tired from the long week. (Laughter.) But we're going to go ahead and get started, and I'm sure some of them will continue to join us as we get started here.
First of all, let me just make sure that General Livingston can hear us all right. General Livingston, Bryan Whitman from the Pentagon. Can you hear me?
GEN. LIVINGSTON: Yes, I sure can, Bryan. Thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you for joining us this afternoon, and good morning to the press corps here. Today we will be hearing from U.S. Army Brigadier General Robert E. Livingston. He is the commander of Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix. This will be, unfortunately for us, the last time that General Livingston will be able to join us in this forum.
Task Force Phoenix is responsible for the training and equipping of Afghan national security forces throughout the country. Brigadier General Livingston is a mobilized National Guardsman himself, from South Carolina, and he assumed command of Task Force Phoenix in May of last year.
He's familiar with this format. He's going to give you a brief overview and then going to take some of your questions.
Q (Off mike.)
GEN. LIVINGSTON: Are we ready?
MR. WHITMAN: Yes, go ahead.
STAFF: (Off mike.)
GEN. LIVINGSTON: Okay. This is General Bob Livingston. It certainly is a pleasure to be with y'all here today, and good morning to you. It's evening here over in Kabul.
I want to update you a little bit on what's been going on with the Afghan national security forces since we last spoke about six months ago. When we last spoke, we were in the process of deploying police mentor teams out to the districts.
We have been mentoring the army for about six years, but we had just started mentoring the police in the June-July time frame. During that period of time, the losses that the police were sustaining dropped by over sevenfold, and we started holding district centers throughout the country, especially in the contested areas. We went into the winter with the district centers being held and the police being very successful in their combat operations, and then we started focusing on long-term training.
We have two initiatives going on right now with the police. The first one is focused district development. That is where we will take an entire district out, retrain the district and then reinsert it. While that district is out of commission and being retrained, we're using the specially trained police called ANCOP, Afghan National Civil Order Police, to replace the police. We can do about eight districts at a time. It's about a four-year program to completely go through and achieve centers of excellence with all of the districts.
At the same time, we're doing what we call our training surge, where we created 15 small training centers throughout the country and we try to achieve -- or we do achieve FDD-type effects in districts by individual training of policemen, and that will include the border police in these mini-training centers and intense mentoring in the training centers.
So both of these programs are ongoing. We will have about 24 districts doing(sic) as we move into the spring, and we're continuing to accelerate that program. So it's going very well and we're seeing good results; just went through the first complete cycle and we're halfway through the second cycle, and we have stood up all of the training centers.
While we continue the improvement with the police, we've actually accelerated the growth of the Afghan army. We've almost doubled the size of the Afghan army number of soldiers from about 26,000 to close to 50,000. We have increased the structure of the army by three brigades, three out of 10 brigades, so increased the structure about 30 percent.
But the exciting part about it is that the AWOL rate in the army has gone from 18 percent down to less than 8 percent. The present- for-duty has gone from about 55 percent to over 85 percent and is continuing to climb. We have really reinforced the NCO corps. Now noncommissioned officers are manned at over 80 percent of their task-skills(sic), when before they were about 25 percent. So it's -- we've added over 7,000 NCOs in the last year.
The army is starting to take the lead in the fight, in fact is -- in many cases, they are leading coalition forces in the fight. Last year this time, we had maybe about 20 elements that were able to take the lead in operations. Now we have over 50 elements – Kandak (battalion) sizes or larger. And the -- we actually have two elements, a corps headquarters and a kandak, that have the capability of conducting independent operations. So the -- and we expect to see that progress continue into the summer. We have about 15 kandaks now on the verge of being validated as independent operators. And this validation is done with the same standards as we use within the U.S. Army, and the fact is, the validation team is actually trained at our national training center.
So the Afghan army and Afghan police are well-positioned as we move into the spring and summer operations. We are doing very well in the districts. The districts that we tackle with focused district development were some of our most difficult districts, so we're expecting to see some great results, and we're already seeing good results as we go into the spring and the summer.
I will now take your questions.
MR. WHITMAN: Who would like to start?
Q General, Paul Krawzak, Copley News Service. I'm wondering if you have any of the Marines from Twentynine Palms who were coming in or came in to help train the police. Do you have any of those Marines working with you?
GEN. LIVINGSTON: Yes, we do. In fact, that's one of the exciting things that's going to be happening this summer. We currently have about 7,500 people from 22 different nations that contribute to Task Force Phoenix. So we're getting the 2/7 Marines, which is an entire battalion, and they will be focusing on training the police in the southwest regions of Afghanistan.
So that will bring a tremendous support to our current efforts.
Q To follow up, have they arrived yet and started working?
GEN. LIVINGSTON: They have not arrived. We've been conducting planning operations with them and building the facilities for the Marines. We expect them momentarily.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay, Courtney.
Q Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. I'm not sure if you're aware of a story -- it came out in The New York Times yesterday -- about a U.S. company that allegedly supplied Chinese-made ammunition for Afghan national security forces. Ammunition was -- is allegedly old and insufficient, and there's all kinds of allegations. Can you update us on that from your side? Do you have any idea if any of this ammunition made it to the Afghan security forces? Was it used? Were there any problems, safety issues?
GEN. LIVINGSTON: I'm familiar with the story, and fact is, I read it this morning. From the operational standpoint, we're concerned with two major issues. One is, of course, safety. And then the other is the performance of ammunition. We have had several discussions over my tenure as commander about different ammunition and we have had no systematic problems with ammunition in either performance or in safety. We really don't get involved in the procurement of ammo, but the ammo that we're getting is working the way that we need it to work.
Q Have you had any other problems of equipment or anything that's been supplied to you for the Afghan security forces that has been insufficient or any other problems with it, from your perspective?
GEN. LIVINGSTON: The equipment that we've been getting has been the standard that we've needed to be able to operate in an effective and safe manner. Fact is, we are in the process of converting several of the Afghan army units into NATO-type equipment, M16A2 rifles. So that is a very exciting transition that we're going through now. And it is a good thing for the Afghans.
But the Warsaw Pact equipment that we got in the past has been of good quality.
Q Good morning, General. Dawn Jones, Talk Radio News Service. To what specific element of the training -- what sort of different approach were you taking that's contributing to the lessening in how many people are going AWOL?
GEN. LIVINGSTON: We have addressed this through the Afghan chain of command, and that has been the case in many of their programs. It's -- we have -- through the mentoring process, both at the high level and at the intermediate level, we have emphasized the need to continue to grow the army into an effective fighting element. And the leaders have realized that treatment of soldiers, training of soldiers, leads to a more effective army, just like we find in our own Army.
So the biggest difference that we've been pursuing has been using the Afghan chain of command to effect personnel decisions and to effect logistical decisions. And so we're seeing a great development in that area.
There's never been a question about whether the Afghan army can fight. It is always can they sustain themselves first with personnel and munitions. And they're learning to do that now.
MR. WHITMAN: Donna?
Q Sir, it's Donna Miles from the American Forces Press Service. Can you describe a little bit this Afghan civil order police force, what they are, and how they're coming to the fray, what roles they are playing?
GEN. LIVINGSTON: Okay. The national -- the Afghan National Civil Order Police is kind of like a national SWAT unit. They are used for special projects and to respond to special situations throughout the country. They are divided into kandak-sized units, and they deploy at the request of the Ministry of Interior.
Because we had the specialty-trained units that can basically do multipurpose tasks, we decided to use them -- in fact, if the Afghans decided to use them -- this is a Afghan Ministry of Interior-driven program -- decided to use them to relieve certain districts so that those districts could be withdrawn off the -- out of being in contact and trained as a unit rather than trained individually. So we took a multipurpose, specialty-trained unit -- highly trained unit and used them for this particular purpose.
Q Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News again. I'm just curious. There's an upcoming NATO summit in Bucharest in a few days. A lot of the focus will be on troop levels in Afghanistan, NATO allies providing more forces there. From your perspective, based on your knowledge of the Afghan security forces and then having been in the country for almost a year now, do you think that there is a -- there's still a great need for more trainers in Afghanistan? More combat forces? I mean, what's your sense of the overall need in the country right now for more forces?
GEN. LIVINGSTON: I can especially address this question from the trainer's standpoint. Task Force Phoenix is currently about 53 percent strength of what we have documented our need for trainers. So we certainly need more international participation. Currently about 35 percent of our army trainers are trainers from other countries other than the U.S., and the majority of our police trainers are U.S. trainers, although we do have some significant help from the Canadians and British down south. So we need trainers both from the army perspective and from the police perspective on the order of around 2,500 to 3,000 soldiers. Now, the Marines coming in for the summer and the fall will help us significantly, but we need a follow-up to that.
Q Is that 2,500 to 3,000 above the Marines coming in, or are you counting in those 3,2(00) -- 3,300 Marines? Because they're not all going to be trainers.
GEN. LIVINGSTON: Only about a thousand of the Marines will be trainers. The rest will be combat forces that will be primarily located in the south. So when I say that, we're about 3,500 short, total. So if we include the thousand Marines, we'd need probably another 2,500 either from other nations or further support from the United States.
Q To follow up on that, General, the Marine trainers who you will be using, you said they'll be in the southwestern part of the country. Can you get a little bit more specific about what part of Afghanistan that will be? And when do you expect them to arrive?
GEN. LIVINGSTON: Okay. We expect the Marines to arrive within the next month. And basically, they will be operating in the Helmand, Nimroz and Farah areas, those provinces.
MR. WHITMAN: Lisa. I'm sorry.
Q Sir, this is Lisa Burgess with Stars and Stripes. Can you explain how this dearth of trainers is affecting your operations and what you could do if you had a full complement of trainers?
GEN. LIVINGSTON: The primary effect has been with the police training effort. We only have about a third of the police trainers that we need to have. We've been able to cover most of the army units with reduced-size training teams, but the police effort is not moving as fast as we would like it to, because of the shortage of trainers. We have 395 districts. We can cover about a third of those at this time.
Q General, one of your challenges has been --
GEN. LIVINGSTON: And I would follow up on -- let me follow up on that, just a second. I cannot specifically say this has put us behind in number of years, because the effects that we have achieved with the Focused District Development and the training surge has been pretty astounding. But if we had the additional resources, it's just -- we would achieve even greater results in a shorter amount of time. So I don't want you to think that we're not achieving results. It's just we would like to achieve them much faster.
Please go ahead with your question.
Q Thank you, General. One of your challenges in the past has been to teach the army how to properly maintain equipment. I'm wondering how that's going, and also how the -- what the logistics situation is with the army.
GEN. LIVINGSTON: As you mentioned, the army logistical system in the past has been quite a challenge because most of the system is still manual. It is still a challenge, especially because of the literacy rate within Afghanistan. However, we have made great progress.
We no longer short-circuit that system with coalition forces providing ammunition and fuel to the Afghans; we actually use their system. So the Afghans and their chain of command are making adjustment and putting literate people in the logistical chain. They understand now that your key warriors do not just go into the fight, but they also need to be in that logistical piece. So that the Afghans have made tremendous progress. They are supporting themselves at this point, though. We're no longer supporting them.
MR. WHITMAN: Courtney.
Q Hi, General. It's Courtney again. Colonel Schweitzer briefed us earlier this week from Afghanistan, and he said that the biggest threat facing the country right now is corruption in the government, even larger than the security problems. I'm wondering if you see any instances of corruption in the Afghan army, the Afghan police, that concern you, or what the level is from your vantage point.
GEN. LIVINGSTON: I think Colonel Schweitzer is hitting it dead on. We're doing very well as far as the security situation is concerned and we're on track to make great improvement. Corruption in the Afghan society is a means of survival. Some people use it to get ahead. Some people use it to prepare for the next hard times. So one of the big emphases that we've had to make is to remove the need for corruption and the perception that people need to be corrupt in order to survive 10 years from now.
We've done that. We've instituted better pay systems. A lot of the soldiers, both on the army and police side, are being paid through electronic funds transfer. We've instituted an Afghan National Security Force ID card. So we've eliminated a lot of methods of corruption and a lot of need for corruption.
From the army's standpoint, corruption is being pursued very strongly by the chain of command, and it is being purged as rapidly as, I think, possible. From the police standpoint, we have some challenges, but in working with the Ministry of Interior and the senor leaders of the police, we have seen a tremendous amount of progress that has occurred over the last six months and had several -- or many police chiefs that have been relieved because of corruption. And they continue to work through the specific problems, which is necessary to address corruption. So we've removed the need for corruption. We've done that through systems. Now we're attacking specific areas of corruption. And there are still some challenges there and we have to work through those challenges with the Afghans taking the lead in that.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, very good.
General, we are a little light on the crowd today. I apologize for that. It's not that there isn't interest; it's just been a tough week around here, and some of our press corps are not in today and are distracted on some other things, too.
But before I bring this to a close, I would -- I'd like to turn it back to you, and first thank you for giving us your time over the duration of your tour there and for bringing some insight back here to us, which is always important to hear from folks on the ground that are making these things happen. So we appreciate everything that you've done to help us better understand it, and I'd like to turn it back to you, in case you have any final thoughts that you'd like to give us.
GEN. LIVINGSTON: Absolutely. First off, I'd like to thank the members of the press corps for their interest and taking time in their very busy day to have this discussion.
I am very encouraged with the progress of the Afghan national security forces. I think we're going to see a different summer than we saw last summer. I think last summer we saw the Taliban try to conduct a -- almost a conventional offensive. We were able to stabilize the police, and that offensive basically got crushed before the year was out. And now we bring forth a vastly improved Afghan army, double the size that it was, and we bring forth a Afghan police that is steadily improving. So it's going to be difficult for the Taliban to get traction this summer, and it will be very interesting to see the progress that is made, also with the 2/7 Marines coming in.
I'd like to thank the people of the United States for their great support, especially our home state of South Carolina for their support, and all the families. We're taking good care of your people, and we hope that they'll be home soon.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you again, General, and we wish you a safe and speedy redeployment.
GEN. LIVINGSTON: Thank you so much. Goodbye. END.
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