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DoD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Cone from Afghanistan

Presenters: Commanding General, Combined Security Transition Command, Maj. Gen. Robert Cone
November 12, 2008
            BRYAN WHITMAN (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): For those of you here that might not be familiar with General Cone, this is Major General Robert Cone, who is the commanding general of Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, who's speaking to us today from Camp Eagers -- Eggers, excuse me, in Kabul, and has agreed to take some time to not only give us an overview but also take some of your questions. 
            He is responsible for the ongoing security, mentoring and training operations in Afghanistan. And we welcome him back, as this is his third time, I think, that he's given us his time to update us and take our questions. 
            So General Cone, with that, let me turn it over to you and let you give us an overview before we get into some questions here. 
            GEN. CONE: Sure - thanks, Bryan. I'm Major General Bob Cone, commanding general of the Combined Security Transition Command- Afghanistan. Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to you today. 
            I think it's likely that you have probably seen an increase in awareness on the importance of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police in winning the war in Afghanistan. There is no doubt that both the ANA and ANP are fully engaged and leading the fight there in Afghanistan.   
            The ANA are leading about 60 percent of the operations they participate in and have proven themselves as an effective fighting force. The ANA is also in the midst of expanding from their current strength of 68,000 to an end strength of about 134,000. Last year, we trained and added some 26,000 soldiers to the Afghan National Army. This year, we plan to expand the ANA by an additional 28,000. 
            This expansion is much more than raw numbers, though. The Afghan National Army is undergoing at the same time a significant force modernization effort. We are already well into the fielding the force with NATO weapons and also have begun fielding up-armored humvees. 
            Let me switch quickly to the Afghan National Police. The Afghan National Police, as many of you know, lags behind the Afghan National Army. While we have been training the Afghan army for about five years, we recently picked up the ANA (sic) training mission just about a year ago. Since the -- since then, however, we have invested considerable resources into the police training program. We can report to you today that we have trained over 22,000 police in the last year. That's over a quarter of the total police force. 
            Our cornerstone program for police reformation is Focused District Development. 
            In addition, and as part of the larger effort to reform the Afghan National Police, we have initiated another program to reform the Afghan Border Police. The program is modeled after the successful Focused District Development program. Over the winter, we will train and equip 52 companies at the cost of some $70 million. All in all, we have made positive strides in fielding professional security forces that are competent, diverse and capable of providing security throughout Afghanistan. 
            We have a long way to go, though. This effort requires sustained support not just from the United States but from the international community. This is especially true for the police reformation, where I am short some 2,300 police trainers and mentors. 
            Thank you. And at this time I'll take your questions. 
            MR. WHITMAN: All right. Let's go ahead and get started. We'll go with Gordon first. 
            Q     General, Gordon Lubold with the Christian Science Monitor. I was curious if you could talk a little bit more about the district -- FDD. I think you said that there would be a goal of getting 58 districts kind of revetted under the program by the end of the year. And I'm sorry if you said it, I may have missed it, but how would be affected at all by maybe focusing on the expansion of the ANA? Can you meet both kind of requirements at the same time? 
            GEN. CONE: Yes, the FDD program has made good strides and is overall on track. I think we've learned some lessons on the best way to develop and train this focused program. Right now we are on the 42nd district and should be on track to complete 52 districts by the end of this year. We have another round that's about to begin here in another month or so. 
            Overall, we're pleased with the progress in terms of police reform. We find that the police perform well when they return to the districts. There are corrosive factors that were there before they left, attempts to get them back into corruption, and certainly they have gone back in some high security risk areas. But overall, seven of those districts today we can record are capable of operating on their own, and the remainder of the districts are in some form of additional mentoring.   
            And I think that's really important is that we have these police mentor teams that stay and live with the police in the districts to perhaps keep them -- in terms of -- keep them from returning to some of their previous behavior, but more importantly keep them tied into the logistics system, the pay system, weapons accountability, et cetera, make sure they're performing as a competent police force.   
            The idea of additional Afghan army forces is -- will not significantly affect the rate of development that we have for the police forces. Those are -- will be separate resources, and we're working very hard right now to try and get the international community, specifically the NATO nations that own ground, to assist us in providing police mentor teams. That's -- that certainly makes sense, and I can happily report, for instance, that the Germans, the Canadians, the Brits and the Dutch right now have some form of participation in the focused district development program or are looking for an expansion of their commitments. 
            Q     (Inaudible) -- trainers as part of this whole review of strategy there in the next year. To what degree could you turn up the -- or accelerate the FDD process? 
            GEN. CONE: Well, I think that -- that's a very good point, and certainly that is what is driving most of the international interest that we're seeing today. We think -- we would like to almost double the number of districts that we can do in a year, and I think that would accelerate the program appropriately. The comments have been favorable about FDD,   but frankly, a lot of the comments are, well, it's just taking too long. And our response to that is then, fine, help us out with additional training teams, and then we can accelerate the program. 
            Q     General Cone, Kevin Mooney, CNS News. You mentioned the border police. Can you tell us where you expect the border police to be concentrated, how big they are at this point and what are some of challenges you might anticipate they might have over the next couple of months? 
            GEN. CONE: The border police right now are at about 11,000 of their 18,000 border forces that are authorized. And really, more important probably than numbers is the quality of those police forces in regard to their training and equipping. Border police is a tough mission here in Afghanistan because of the remoteness and the isolation that they face, and therefore, you could see the recruiting problem. 
            However, we are focusing our efforts in the RC East area, where it's adjacent to the 101st and Pakistan, in that border region. And what the plan is, over the course of the winter, is to rebuild some 52 border companies.   
            And the 101st has done a great job helping us recruit policemen. As a matter of fact, on the 26th of October, we flew about 17 of those border companies back to police training centers, where we will completely retool them in regard to leadership training, border police training and then some corrective skills training. We'll also reequip them. 
            At that same time, we have ongoing projects to better -- to improve -- excuse me, to improve their facilities on the border. We'll do three iterations of that over the course of the winter and by June should have a fundamentally restructured border police force. That's a pilot program. And if, in fact, that shows promise, we are considering expanding that program next to the RC South area to help improve the border region there. Again, it's a pilot program. It's funded by about 70 million U.S. dollars. And again, it's a joint venture between CSTC-A and the 101st Airborne. 
            MR. WHITMAN: Okay. Let's go ahead and -- Tom. 
            Q     General, it's Tom Bowman with NPR. There's a lot of talk here in all the reviews going on of Afghanistan about accelerating the training of the Afghan security forces. And when I was over there, they said it will take five years to double the size of the Afghan army to 134,000. And I'm wondering, can you accelerate that number? Can you shave off some of that time? And to do that, how many more trainers would you need? Have you estimated that? 
            GEN. CONE: Yes, we have. I would say that we are working on a number of options that would accelerate the development of the army far faster. I think right now the current plan would complete the army by the third quarter of 2013. And again, we're working on a plan that essentially would shave seven quarters off of that and deliver the 134k army by 2011. The key point would be a lot of the light infantry capabilities needed in the current fight would be delivered a lot sooner. 
            In fact, our challenge in the near term would be really three things that I think when you deal with the rapid acceleration of a force like this -- the first is sort -- is the dearth of human capital. 
            And I just had a very excellent conversation with the minister of defense today, talking about the need to accelerate officer and non- commissioned officer training programs. And again, that's really where we have -- because of the generational loss that has occurred here through years of war, and we really have to focus our energies. 
            The second complicating factor we have here is certainly the long lead time in terms of the purchase of equipment and the buildout of facilities. Here in Afghanistan, because it is such an austere environment, just to expand training facilities, what we would need are -- certain -- you have to scratch something literally out of the desert to -- to build a training center for the Afghans that can support the kind of quality of life that's necessary to do training in the army. 
            And then the last point I would make is that all of this has to be done in an accountable manner. And one of the problems you have here with corruption across this country is that you have to closely watch all of the things that you do. So you can't go too quickly or you'll create an environment that might be conducive to a loss of control and accountability. So we have to watch all of that very quickly. 
            The request in regard to the number of additional trainers that we will need will be about 60 additional training teams. And there are about 12 to 16 trainers depending upon what their purpose is, whether it be -- for instance, logistics is a smaller team; infantry battalion mentors are a slightly larger team.   
            So that would be the rough order of magnitude, is about 60 additional training teams that would be required.   
            Q     Have you put that request in, or is that something you're just considering? 
            GEN. CONE: The Afghans, I will tell you, are -- are moving out. I can tell you that we've already started in -- intake. We normally recruit about 2,000 Afghan recruits a month, and this month nearly 3,950 entered the training centers. And so we are -- the Afghans, within their capability and within their program, are going to aggressively move as fast as possible.   
            And when I say we can grow 28,000 in a year and bring eight battalions online sooner than was projected, I think if we, in fact, can meet those three constraints that I talked about, we could, in fact, go faster. And what we're looking at right now is getting the budgetary resources to have that -- that sort of flexibility. 
            Q     Again, have you requested those 60 additional teams? 
            GEN. CONE:  Yes. They are a part of the current requests for forces that are working both through NATO and through the U.S. channel. 
            MR. WHITMAN: Daphne.   
            Q     This Daphne Benoit with Agence France-Presse. Good morning.   
            Given the resistance of NATO allies to contribute more, in Afghanistan, but also given the context of the financial crisis, are you concerned that you might experience a financial shortage, at some point, to fund your training programs? And can you remind us of the estimated cost of that program, please?   
            GEN. CONE: Actually I think everyone is aware of the financial crises and issues that are working currently both in the United States and around the world. But I think from our perspective, what we focus on, our request to the U.S. government, through the U.S. Congress, through the Department of Defense, and I'm relatively certain that they will make assessments, in regard to what is financially feasible. So our job is to really focus on the military dimensions of this and to allow others to make those kinds of assessments.   
            Q     General, it's Luis Martinez at ABC News.   
            A question about growing the size of the ANA, to 134,000, some people, including Secretary Gates, have hinted that maybe it might be worth expanding that even further, beyond that size.   
            If that's the case, I mean, what size do you envision being the most appropriate? And what's the newer timeline for getting to that eventual larger size?   
            GEN. CONE: That's a very good question. And I think that everybody understands that we could look at various counterinsurgency models that would indicate a country that is probably a third again larger than Iraq, 5 to 6 million more people, certainly some very complex terrain and a border that has proven very problematic, that you could take any number of counterinsurgency theories, based on whether it would be threat-based or population-based, and derive a significantly larger number than 134K.   
            But you have to also balance that against the fact that you're dealing with the fourth or fifth poorest country in the world. And in reality, they are not capable right now of even funding the 80K army and 82K police force that has been built for them.   
            So I think we have to look at -- in terms of what is needed and what is affordable and derive the best solution possible.   
            The other point I would make is that, again, we do have significant constraints here. This is a country that has suffered through years of war, significant problems with infrastructure, and we have to realize that in order to build things in an accountable manner, the question is: How can we go? And I think all of us are relatively pleased with what the Afghans have performed in this last year, and I would think that if they perform well in the next year that we would constantly reassess. But right now, I would think that's about as fast as we can go in a responsible manner given the constraints that we have and I think we'll reassess, again, as the security situation on the ground changes and the assumptions we make about Afghan development become clearer. 
            Q     Hi General, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News. Can you talk a little about the retention rate that you're seeing among the Afghan security forces? I was just struck by the fact that you said you recruited more than 3,500 this month. It's getting to be winter, presumably there were possibly farmers that were coming in that need jobs over the winter. 
            Do you see a loss, a major loss of recruits once it starts to warm up in Afghanistan? 
            GEN. CONE: In fact, what the target rate is is that 65 percent of Afghan soldiers who are eligible each year and most are on a three- year retention or recruitment contract, we look to recruit about 65 percent of those back in the force. Right now, we are recruiting -- it's right at about 60 percent are returning to the force. It's, of course, better in areas where, quite frankly, the fighting isn't as high and it tends to go down to about 59 percent or so where there's high op tempo and continued fighting. 
            But overall, if you look at a modern Western army, to say that 59 percent of those eligible are re-enlisting, that is actually a pretty good figure. 
            Another figure that has been -- that the Afghans have had troubled with historically has been on AWOL rate, absent without leave. And there are a lot of factors in regard to family and culture that make taking care of family emergencies a top priority.   
            We actually have a very low desertion rate, meaning that they leave and don't come back. Oftentimes, they go AWOL and it's usually related to transportation problems in returning and that has been under 10 percent and it ran for a good number of months at 5 (percent) to 7 percent and then we had a slight peak as we went into Ramadan and Eid and many of them had problems returning. But overall, these are encouraging figures in terms of the growth of the ANA. 
            Q     Sir, it's Gordon Lubel again from The Monitor. I've heard people who do training over there talk -- kind of wonder aloud about the issue of police versus army. Given the kind of raw security situation in some parts of Afghanistan, they wonder if it wouldn't be better to train the army and the police kind of as one force and not kind of have this distinction between it at least for now. 
            Have you thought about that at all? And would that be kind of a force multiplier effect for you in terms of growing the army? 
            GEN. CONE: Well, that's a good question and I think it's at the heart of a discussion about the role of police in counterinsurgency. QAnd I think everyone in Afghanistan agrees that in the long-term what Afghanistan needs is a police force that is well-linked to the rule of law, can prosecute crimes, domestic violence, those kinds of things and basically gather evidence and make prosecutions and contribute to the rule of law. But I also think that the Afghan people believe that the police, in many ways, are the first line of defense in a counterinsurgency, and that would require as you specify, more paramilitary-type skills. 
            The way we deal with that in Afghanistan is that, of course, this is a large and diverse country. There are actually areas in this country that are fairly permissive, all agreeing on the common goal, we have police training programs, for instance, in the north of the country that are really focused on rule of law type tasks, but in the other part of the country, we have adopted a program called Focus District Development that really makes an assessment of what the training needs are, and as you say, in many cases -- in fact, with most cases in the south and in the east of this country -- the requirements are for paramilitary skills, exactly the same kind of military training that the soldiers get. 
            And so we tailor the programs specifically for those requirements. And again, that is not without criticism. There are some nations that don't believe that police should have that role. It is the U.S. position that we will have police that are fit for purpose, in other words, training police as though they were your son. 
            Q     General, Tom Bowman again with NPR. 
            As you know, there's a lot of talk about working more closely with the tribes over in Afghanistan. The word you keep hearing is empowering the tribes. Some say you should follow the model of Iraq, create maybe a Sons of Iraq-style program, sort of armed community watch kind of thing. Is that a good model, do you think, for Afghanistan? 
            GEN. CONE: I think there are a number of good ideas that come out of the experience in Iraq that we put to use here on a regular basis. I think that there is willingness today among senior Afghan government officials to engage in some form of -- actually the term they prefer to use is community engagement. And I think the point that I would make is there's some 425 tribes here in Afghanistan and oftentimes a single tribe might be on one side of a valley and another tribe on the other side. So you need to be careful about which tribe you engage because they may have traditional hostile rivalries, etcetera. 
            The notion the Afghan government is talking about today really focuses on community engagement that would take sort of an accumulation of the multitude of tribes that might be in an area and use a shura to provide additional members to assist in security. Typically the area they talk most about is in regard to highway security, the emerging requirement that we have there. So I think we're looking very carefully at the experience in Iraq, looking for lessons learned, but certainly doing it with a real sensitivity to the unique situation that we find on the ground here in Afghanistan, and trying to find the right mix. And I could tell you that the Afghan government, the ISAF leadership and CSTC-A are all involved in those discussions and I think we'll be fairly soon trying to work through some of those in meeting with some local tribal elders to further explore what is the right variant of that program for Afghanistan. 
            Q     And when is a decision expected on that, a month, two, three months? 
            GEN. CONE: We certainly hope it is fairly soon, but sometimes things can take longer in terms of the devil being in the details and working this out and getting the right arrangement. I think once we get -- we figure out exactly what we want it will move very quickly from there. And I know that General McKiernan and ISAF are working on ensuring the resources are available to rapidly execute once we come to complete agreement on this proposal. 
            MR. WHITMAN: General, we'll take one last one and let you go. Luis, why don't you go ahead? 
            Q     A question about the meetings and request for forces right now, for training and for combat troops. Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen have said that it might be necessary to combine the mission -- whatever forces are sent over there, so that they'd take both a training and a combat role. What are the advantages to that and what are the potential drawbacks? Is it preferable to have a dedicated training force around? 
            GEN. CONE: I think, you know, you can look at our experience in Iraq, how has it evolved over time in terms of what the needs are. Every force is different in terms of what its requirements are. I would argue that perhaps a dual-purpose force for some of the more mature Afghan units that are capable of independent operations and sustaining their capabilities might be part of the solution. 
            On the other hand, you know, we could argue that a new unit, right out of basic training, might need some more focused type of attention. Our request for forces, again, sort of took that into account in regard to understanding, for instance, in the police mission. That is very much geographically tied to ground and it's a good match for perhaps brigades working with police mentoring. 
            But it is sort of a complex matrix of requirements that we have and we're basically trying to get the best fit between what the Afghan requirements are as learning, adaptive organizations, and then what is available in terms of resources for the training. So we're working through that and there are many different combinations to the overall solution, not the least of which of course is the NATO commitment. And NATO is still very much committed to the mission of training Afghan army, currently providing operational maneuver liaison teams, to Afghan units that are in their battle space. And again, we see a growing commitment on a bilateral basis of other NATO member states providing police training teams under the focused district development model. 
            MR. WHITMAN: Well General, on behalf of everybody in the room here we want to thank you again for taking some time this afternoon, this evening, to give us an update in terms of how the training is going and what some of the prospects are for the future of the training there. But before I bring it to a close, why don't I give you one last chance, in case there's something that we've missed or something that the conversation has stimulated that you'd like to pass on to us, before we bring it to an end? 
            GEN. CONE: No, I would just add that the Afghans, we feel, have made some pretty good progress here in the last year. Armies aren't measured entirely by numbers, numbers of weapons and numbers of people, it really comes down to their contribution to the fight. The Afghans are a warrior nation. It's a warrior culture. And the trick for us here is to harness that capability. 
            They very much want to defend their country and so it is up to us to really work with them in an organized fashion and be able to bring forward that capability as rapidly as we can. And as I say, nobody wants to do this faster and to gain responsibility for the defense of their country, than the ministry of defense, the ministry of interior and the people of Afghanistan. 
            Thank you very much. 
            MR. WHITMAN: Thank you.

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