BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Well, good morning. Welcome. Good afternoon in Iraq. Let me make sure that Colonel McCaffrey can hear me okay.
This is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. How's our audio?
COL. MCCAFFREY: Bryan, I hear you just fine.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you for being with us this afternoon and for giving us an opportunity to hear from you and what the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division, Multinational Division-Baghdad, is doing.
This is Colonel Todd McCaffrey. He is the commander. He has been in Iraq since December of 2007. And I think the last time he had an opportunity to brief us, in this format, was back in September of '08.
So he's at Camp Taji. He's been there now for some time and is willing to share and give us an update, in terms of what's been going on in his area of responsibility.
So let me turn it over to Colonel McCaffrey. And then he'll take your questions after he gives you an update.
COL. MCCAFFREY: Okay, Bryan. Thank you.
Good morning. I appreciate the opportunity today to comment on the situation, as we see it, in our area of operations, and discuss some of the progress we've seen, over nearly 14 months, and then to answer your questions.
Our brigade operates on the northwest side of Baghdad, from the town of Tarmiya in the north, along the Tigris River, and then stretching southwest to Abu Ghraib on Baghdad's west side. The area, while of mixed sectarian background, is principally Sunni and it's generally rural.
Over the last 14 months, we've seen a remarkable drop in violence, and a corresponding development of economic growth and Iraqi security force capabilities. And as you all are very much aware, we find ourselves poised on historic provincial elections later this week. In my mind, being here to watch the Iraqis conduct these elections is a perfect conclusion to this tour, and marks an important milestone on this nation's continuing development in democracy and freedom for its people.
While the upcoming elections are a culmination of our tour, there has been much progress that's brought us to this point. And I'd like to comment on a couple of major changes we've seen over the last several months and our continuing priorities as we look toward passing our area off to another coalition force element next month.
When I last conducted one of these press conferences, I reported that insurgent activity was down nearly 500 percent from a comparable point a year earlier. Since that time in September, we've watched a further 50 percent decline in insurgent activity in northwest Baghdad. It's now very common to go for days without a single violent act in our area. And when attacks do occur, they tend to be isolated, ineffective and focused on the Iraqi security forces, who operate independently and provide the day-to-day security across the region.
Sunni insurgent groups have been pushed out of the towns and villages across our area, and are forced to find fleeting refuge deep in rural areas where it is increasingly difficult for them to plan and stage attacks. And while Shi'a insurgents were never a major issue here, the limited Shi'a extremist activity we saw eight to nine months ago is essentially eliminated.
While the insurgency here is not completely defeated, it's now only capable of conducting localized criminal activity that's increasingly within the capability of the local Iraqi security forces or institutions to handle. Sons of Iraq in our area, numbering over 11,000 across the brigade's operate area, were successfully transferred to Iraqi army control in October. The Iraqi army just completed their third successive and successful independent pay operation for these men, who remain an important component of local security in and around their towns and villages. We're beginning to see the transfer of some of these men to the Iraqi police and other ministerial positions, a transition that will need to continue over the coming months.
After nearly 14 months of service here, we're excited to have a front-row seat on the coming elections. And as one who served here during the January 2005 elections, I'm amazed at what I've seen during this election season.
Candidate posters seem to be everywhere, and there's a palatable excitement in the air. The Iraqi security forces are well prepared, they're well rehearsed, and I believe they have a very solid handle on election security. This is, without question, an Iraqi-led event, and we're honored to be able to see the Democratic process up close and personal.
During our period of service here, we've focused on assisting the Iraqis in securing their population from insurgent threats, assisting them to improve local governmental capacity and improving the capabilities of the security forces. There's no doubt we've made progress across each of these areas.
And as we leave here, we can look back and view the acceleration of progress we've seen that's now culminated in a remarkable month. From the successful implementation of the security agreement on January 1st to the elections we will see in a few days, I'll leave Iraq very optimistic about what we've seen, what we've been able to contribute and the direction in which this nation is headed.
I appreciate the opportunity to make some opening comments, and I look forward to your questions.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you for that update, Colonel. And we do have plenty of questions here, I think, so let's go ahead and get started.
Bryan, we'll let you have the first one.
Q Thanks for joining us, Colonel. Bryan Bender with the Boston Globe. You talked about economic growth in your area of operations. Can you talk more specifically? What are you seeing? How is it different? Is it sustained?
COL. MCCAFFREY: Bryan, what I would tell you, in our area -- the area we're operating in is very, very rural, and agriculture is really the keystone of the economic backbone here. We've seen a remarkable increase in agricultural produce coming out of the fields here. And that's tied to the improvement in the water resources that we've -- that have been operated in the area: much greater irrigation than we had a year ago, and that's led to a remarkable growth in agricultural development. That leads to improved markets and just to a generally improved economic situation. So we see mainly agricultural issues as the economic driver across the northwest belt of Baghdad.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead.
Q Colonel, it's Andrew Gray from Reuters here. You said you go -- can go several days without a single security incident. Bearing that in mind, do you expect to be replaced by a unit of equivalent size when you move out? I mean, how much coalition presence is really required in your area, going forward?
COL. MCCAFFREY: You know, Andrew, what we normally do now, of course, as you're well aware, with the security agreement, we operate in partnership with the Iraqis. So every day that we conduct operations is in coordination and in partnership with the Iraqis. So we operate daily with the Iraqis and are more and more in a supporting role to their operations.
Q To follow up, do you think you still need a brigade-sized unit to do that going forward?
COL. MCCAFFREY: Well, you know, I don't know if -- you know, you could make the question how big an organization is based on the boundaries -- where we're at, the size of the force we have has been effective for what we're doing. I think, in the short term, that's probably what we'll continue to see. But over time, I'm sure, as you all well know, we'll see changes in that as the Iraqis continue to operate more and more independently. But they're certainly in the lead here; there is no question about that. And I coordinate daily with three different Iraqi brigade commanders in our area who are increasingly independent and able to conduct their own operations.
MR. WHITMAN: Jeff, go ahead.
Q Colonel, can you talk about what the potential is for violence in the run-up to, in the aftermath of these elections?
COL. MCCAFFREY: Well, I think the potential is always there for violence. We have not seen a significant increase in violence from the norm, and I think partly for the reason that is of course there is a remarkable Iraqi security force presence on the streets. They are, as I mentioned up front, very well rehearsed and very much in the lead for security.
I'm quite confident that's going to continue through the elections, and I'm very optimistic. I watched elections here in January of '05, and there is a significant change in the character of the Iraqi security forces, both the army and the police, and the cooperation that they're operating with one another. And so I'm very, very optimistic as we make the run-up to the elections.
And then I would -- you know, forecasting across our area, and knowing the brigades we operate, I would imagine we'll see a similar security environment after the elections as well. So it's a very -- it's a positive step here and one I'm -- I sleep quite soundly at night knowing how the Iraqis are operating here.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, Joe.
Q Colonel, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. What do you mean when you say that the insurgency is not completely defeated? What do you mean by that? Do you have -- and do you have any concern, any worries that this insurgency -- I mean the Sunni insurgency -- may increase its activities in the near future?
COL. MCCAFFREY: Well, I think what I mean by that is that, you know, we still have some violent activities that occur, but it is a much, much lower rate than we saw even six months ago. And as I mentioned up front, you know, where the population centers are, we are seeing fewer and fewer acts. And so those elements, at least in our area, that continue to operate are increasingly having to move further out into deeper rural areas to be able to continue to operate. That forces them, if they want to attack the population, to have to come in closer. That exposes them more, and the Iraqi security forces are very capable of interdicting them on the way.
And so, you know, I think this will continue for some time in our area, but it's very, very much within the capability of the Iraqis to handle increasingly on a day-to-day basis. So that's what I meant as I mentioned that the -- while there's still a -- I think the insurgency still continues here, it's at a much, much reduced rate than we saw even six months ago.
MR. WHITMAN: Jim?
Q Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse. What do you foresee successful elections will do for your area? How will things -- how will that change things?
COL. MCCAFFREY: You know, that's a good question. I'll tell you, our area, as I mentioned, is very Sunni, and the most significant change that I've seen, having been -- I was in Mosul in 2005, and now being here during these elections, is the excitement amongst the Sunni community, who are going to, I believe, participate in our area in large numbers. And so that is a significant step forward, particularly for the Sunni population of this area, who did not participate the last time. And they are excited about their votes and their voice that they'll see -- that will be heard in these provincial elections. So I think that's the most significant issue we'll see in our area.
Q I mean, do you expect to see, you know, changes in the way things are run, concrete changes in the way people's, you know, daily lives go?
COL. MCCAFFREY: You know, I'm not a politician, so I'm not sure how that will work over time. I imagine that the people will be satisfied with their elected leaders, and that will bring about a change in their attitude and at least their belief that they have a voice, which they may not feel in all cases they have right now. So I'm optimistic that that will be a change.
But what people on the street see as change all the time is the fact that markets are increasingly stocked with goods, they can move around much more freely than they could months ago, and their security forces are the ones on the street and they recognize very, very clearly that the Iraqi security forces have the lead here and that they are in control.
MR. WHITMAN: Al.
Q Colonel, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America. You've mentioned several times the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. Can you provide us with some details as to what they're able to do now that they were not able to do six months or a year ago?
COL. MCCAFFREY: Sure. Absolutely. For example, in my area, we have three different Iraqi brigades that we partner with. What I see now at the Iraqi battalion and brigade levels is a much increased capability of planning and conducting operations independently. It is now routine for the Iraqi brigade commanders that I partner with to develop their own plans for operations, issue their orders to their battalions, and then expect and demand that those orders are carried out and those operations are executed. Increasingly, they do it independently, and they come to me on a much more reduced basis for specific help with certain enablers that they may not have yet.
But this is very much where six months ago, I might have been leading in certain areas and coming to them and asking them to participate with me, it is now routine, where they're planning and they're approaching me for the things they would like from me, to assist them with their planning and their operations. So that's the most significant change that I've seen, in the last six months, with the Iraqi security forces.
Q So if I can follow up, to go back to Andrew's question then, if the elections go smoothly, as you expect, and if it results in a greater public satisfaction with their living situation, as you hope, then doesn't that pretty clearly indicate that a month or two from now, you won't need nearly as many U.S. troops in that area as you have now?
COL. MCCAFFREY: I'm not sure I could put a timeline at all on, you know, whether a month or two is the right time. I would tell you very clearly over time, you'll need fewer troops here in our area. And the Iraqis will continue to do what they're doing more independently. So undoubtedly over time, there will be a requirement for fewer coalition forces.
We still provide, in partnership with them, some critical enablers that they have not yet completely been able to field within their brigades. And we share routinely intelligence. And we share training capability. And more and more what I find my units doing, with the Iraqis, is stepping into the role of trainers and facilitators, on that side, as opposed to leading on combat operations.
MR. WHITMAN: Bryan, go ahead.
Q Colonel, Bryan Bender at the Boston Globe again.
You talked about these three Iraqi brigades that you work with. Talk if you can about the Iraqi police forces in your area. We hear a lot about security forces. But that tends to be the Iraqi army.
Is there a similar maturation that you see at the more sort of local, municipal police level?
COL. MCCAFFREY: It's similar. The police are improving and growing. And we spend a lot of our time also trying to facilitate the partnership between the police and the Iraqi army.
The police, as you know, are still growing in this area. And they are one of the outlets. As we watch the Sons of Iraq transition, many of them are transitioning to become Iraqi police. And so in our area and particularly in these rural areas, the police are a little less mature than the Iraqi army is. But they're catching up very quickly.
The one thing that's quite good in our area is, the leadership in the police is much improved from where it was a number of months ago.
So what we're trying to do now is catch the training level up of the local policemen, where the leadership has now significantly improved where it was some time ago.
MR. WHITMAN: Luis?
Q Colonel, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. The question is, I believe you've been there for 15 months; what was the tipping point in your -- in that period, in your tour of duty? What was it that just shifted the balance towards -- away from the violence?
COL. MCCAFFREY: Well, I'm not sure I'd identify a specific tipping point that shifted violence. We've watched that kind of degrade over time.
What I think -- two milestones that I would point out in my -- it's been 14 months since I've been here. Number one was the transition of the Sons of Iraq to the Iraqi security forces on the 1st of October. That provided the Iraqi army a significant leverage point with these -- with the SOIs that they now controlled, and the SOIs turned to the Iraqi army for guidance.
And the second piece has been a recent one. I would tell you that the security agreement implementation on January 1st in our area was -- has just been phenomenal. The Iraqi security forces have embraced that, and we have embraced it as well. And it is a very positive step forward in our area, because it's -- the Iraqis now realize that they are, in fact, in charge, and they're taking charge. So it's -- I think those two events are the ones that I look back on over 14 months and categorize as probably the two significant ones we've seen here since we've been in country.
Q If I could follow up: You say -- you mentioned that the SOFA has kind of brought up the mood there; so much so that they're anticipating an even earlier withdrawal, do you think?
COL. MCCAFFREY: That's -- you know, I really couldn't comment. I -- again, my -- I could say my withdrawal's in the next 30 days. So I know when I'm heading out of here.
But I think the -- what the security agreement has done here, obviously, is the requirement for a warrant of arrest, a requirement for combined operations with the Iraqis. It has been a significant step forward. And the Iraqi forces in the area have embraced that completely. And it is a positive step, and, frankly, it's one that my soldiers have embraced as well, and we're very glad to see the Iraqis grab onto that so firmly and take charge. It is a positive step forward.
MR. WHITMAN: Let's go to Jeff and then Jim.
Q Colonel, Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes again. Since the Status of Forces Agreement went into effect, have you had to transfer detainees to the Iraqis? And if so, could you talk about how that process has gone?
COL. MCCAFFREY: At my level, at the brigade level, what the impact of that was, I no longer -- I no longer hold detainees for the security units. So we have no detainees. I have no holding facilities in the brigade area. They go immediately into Iraqi security force custody. So for me, it was not a function of transfer, as much as it was a function of I no longer hold detainees.
When we conduct an operation in coordination and partnership with the Iraqis, if detainees are taken under warrants, they go immediately into Iraqi custody. And that is a change. And frankly, that's one that on the street is embraced by the local population as well, because they recognize that there is a warrant issue involved here and it is an application of the rule of law. So that's been positive and one we've -- that frankly, as a brigade commander, I've been very pleased to see.
Q Jim Mannion again from AFP. After these elections, with Sunnis more directly in control of the province, might tensions with the central government increase? Or would you expect whatever tensions exist now to lessen?
COL. MCCAFFREY: Well, again, I'm not sure I could forecast for the central government. These provincial elections for us, I think, in some respect, have more of a local flare here. Actually, I don't see tensions increasing at all in our area. Matter of fact, from the Sunni perspective in our area, what I would -- what I see as I look at the candidates and I talk to the local leaders, particularly the sheikhs, they're very positive with the fact that now they have a voice in the candidates that will be representing them in the province. And I think that's a positive step. So I would actually imagine it will have a positive step toward a cooperation and faith in the central government, as opposed to the opposite direction.
Q Colonel, it's Andrew Gray from Reuters again. Can you explain a little bit more about the enablers, about the things you still need to provide to the Iraqi security forces? What are the things they still can't do themselves? And any guess on how long it will take for them to develop those capabilities?
COL. MCCAFFREY: Well, Andrew, much of our work with the enablers is not so much a function of providing, as much as a function of training them. They have in many cases enablers in their army.
Engineers are a good example. The Iraqis have a significant amount of engineers. We work with them regularly on route clearance operation, for example, to keep the routes free and clear from explosives and other hazards. We also work with them with intelligence, by sharing intelligence with the Iraqis, as they continue to develop more robust intelligence systems.
And we still provide -- as you know, not from me, but we clearly provide a significant -- a portion of the air cover and the air support that they need at the moment as they develop that within their own air force. So it's those kind of enablers that we're assisting.
And at the unit level, really what we're doing is training them more and more, all the way from small unit-type skills and then helping to advise their commanders as they plan and conduct operations.
MR. WHITMAN: Al?
Q Yeah, Colonel, it's Al Pessin. Just to follow up on that, I don't think you mentioned supply and logistics, which is what we had been hearing all along was one of the major lacking factors for the Iraqis. Are you doing that for them, or are they starting to do that themselves?
COL. MCCAFFREY: You know, especially at the brigade level, the Iraqi brigades are pretty self-sufficient. I think the logistics piece, in a broader sense, really higher than the brigade level, is really where they've had challenges. And we work with logistics battalions to help them do that.
I'll be honest. The logistics battalions that we've worked with have had phenomenal development, and I think they're working to integrate them in a broader scale. But at the brigade level, where they're out there in the field and living in joint security stations and on checkpoints, they seem to be supplying their soldiers with food, water, fuel, ammunition, as required, those things, quite capably in our area. So at the tactical level, the logistics seem to be working pretty well where I am across the brigades that we operate with.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay. Well --
Q Can I --
MR. WHITMAN: Would you like to --
Q Yeah, certainly. One more, if no one else has one. Maybe I missed this somewhere along the way, but one of the other problems had been getting the pay to the Iraqi soldiers and they would have to travel across the country to deliver the cash back home. Has that problem been solved, or do you still deal with that?
COL. MCCAFFREY: You know, it's interesting. We have -- I have no problem with Iraqi pay at all. They -- the Iraqi army pays their men on time. And they do take leave, as you know, and really what you're referring to is the process where the Iraqi soldier receives his pay and then he'll take time off to go home, to wherever his home is, to pay his bills. They still pay in cash, in most cases.
I have not had -- in 14 months -- had a pay problem of note with the Iraqi army. And probably the most positive, what the Iraqi army's done very, very well since October, is assimilate the Sons of Iraq into the payroll program as well. And now they conduct those pay operations monthly, independently from us, and so they have figured that one out and been -- done it very, very well, from what I've seen.
Q -- these trips, does that affect the unit readiness or the percentage of the listed soldiers that are actually available for operations?
COL. MCCAFFREY: I'm sorry, I didn't catch the first part of your question.
Q When they take their trips to deliver the cash every month, how does that affect unit readiness and the percentage of soldiers that are actually available for operations?
COL. MCCAFFREY: You know, the Iraqi commanders manage that on their own, and they do it well. They have a -- there's a percentage the -- of the unit -- I'm not even sure exactly what it is -- that's headed out on leave at a particular time to pay their families as they can -- pay operations. And it's spread through the month, and they continue to do their operations, and they manage that very, very well in the way they do it. It's different than we would do it, but it works for them and it's very effective. So it's really just -- it's not an issue, from what I've seen over the time I've been here, which is a significant change from what I saw when I was here in 2005. So that's a step -- significant step forward.
MR. WHITMAN: All right, Colonel. We have just about reached the end of our time and, I think, the end of our questions here in the briefing room. Just want to thank you for participating in this format. Given the length of time that you've been in country, I suspect we won't get another opportunity, from Iraq, at least, to hear from you. And -- but before I bring it to a close, let me just turn it back to you to see if you have any closing thoughts that you'd like to make.
COL. MCCAFFREY: Well, I appreciate it. And I thank you all for the opportunity to answer some of your questions and discuss our work here in Iraq. You know, it's been our brigade's privilege to serve alongside an increasingly professional, independent Iraqi security force. We've been able to witness great change over the last 14 months, and perhaps none greater than what we've seen this month and what we'll see in a few days. We've valued our opportunity to participate in our nation's call, and we're proud of what we've accomplished here in cooperation with and coordination with a great interagency team and partner units.
American soldiers, alongside dedicated, brave civilian partners, continue to demonstrate the highest ideals of service. Our families and our nation have been incredibly supportive of our work, and we are forever grateful for their love and support.
I appreciate the opportunity to talk with all of you today, and I look forward to doing the next one of these in your time zone instead of the one here. So thanks very much, and have a great day.
MR. WHITMAN: You're always welcoming in our briefing room when you're back in the United States.
So thanks very much. And we wish you a safe and speedy redeployment.
COL. MCCAFFREY: Thanks very much. I appreciate it. Have a good day.
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