DoD News Briefing with Col. Spellmon From Afghanistan
(Note: The colonel appears via teleconference from Afghanistan.)
COL. GARY KECK (director, Department of Defense Press Office): Well, good morning, everyone. It is 10:00 in Washington, D.C., and it's my privilege to moderate the briefing today. We have with us Colonel Scott Spellmon, who is the commander of Task Force Warrior. And he and the men and women of Task Force Warrior are responsible for improving provincial- and district-level Afghan government capacity in the northern area of Regional Command East, north and west of Kabul.
Colonel Spellmon has been commanding his unit in Afghanistan since June of last year, and this is his first briefing to the Pentagon press corps.
He is coming to us from Bagram Airfield in the Parvan province, and with that, I'm going to turn it over to Colonel Spellmon to give us his opening comments. So over to you, Scott.
COL. SPELLMON: Great. Thanks, Gary. And good morning, everyone. Again, my name is Colonel Scott Spellmon. I'm the commander for Task Force Warrior. My brigade headquarters, the lst Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, is from Fort Polk -- (audio break) -- told you, we deployed to Afghanistan in June of last year.
What I'd like to do this morning is talk to you a little bit about my brigade, how we're organized, walk you through the region where we are operating today in Afghanistan and talk a little bit about the types of missions that we're conducting, and then I'll be happy to take your questions.
Let me begin by saying that my area of responsibility includes the northern four provinces of Regional Command-East, and those are the provinces of Bamyan, Parvan, Panjshir and Kapisa, where we have a total estimated population of about 1.4 million Afghans. Now, this region is important to Afghanistan both historically and today for a number of reasons and I'll attempt to highlight those as we go through the briefing this morning.
The terrain in this area is incredibly challenging. Our soldiers operate from elevations of 4,500 feet above sea level here at Bagram all the way up to 11,000 feet throughout much of Bamyan and northern Parvan. The roads and infrastructure throughout the region are generally poor. (Audio break.)
Now, in addition to our brigade headquarters from Fort Polk, Task Force Warrior is also comprised of over 3,500 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. And we are very much a combined task force, as we have representation from several of our international partners. We are very proud to serve with the French, the 27th Mountain Infantry Battalion, the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team. And we also have a medical team from Singapore.
In addition to our international partners, we also have several U.S. battalions and separate companies that operate across the four provinces, including two U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams, an Agribusiness Development team, a Navy team from the state of Nebraska and a human terrain team.
In all of our operations, we partner with the Afghan National Police and the 3rd Brigade of the 201st Afghan National Corps, our ANA partners.
Broadly speaking, the purpose of our combined operations are to secure the population in these four -- (audio break). Now, to accomplish this with our international partners, we are conducting a counterinsurgency campaign across -- (audio break) -- information and security. And we are seeing success on each one of these.
I'd just like to give you a few brief examples, and I'll begin with security. I would tell you -- I would classify the bulk of my area of responsibility as a semi-permissive environment. And what I mean by that is if you look at the 30 districts that make up these four provinces, we have security challenges in about seven of those districts, and those challenges come from primarily Taliban and Hezb- i-Islami, Islamic party based insurgent groups.
We have worked very hard over the past several months with our international partners to disrupt these organizations and their leadership in an effort to separate them from the Afghan people. As my boss -- my commander, Major General Schloesser, has highlighted on a number of educations, we are -- (audio break) -- campaign where we are aggressively staying on the offensive to put pressure on the enemy's support areas to prevent his ability to regroup over the winter months.
Now, since there is relatively good security across much of this region, we have been very diligent in working with the provincial governors and their staffs to bring more development opportunities to the Afghan people. The economy across these four provinces is primarily agricultural based and our development objectives to support this economy has been on the construction of roads. We know that with more and better roads that the Afghan farmers will have access to larger markets and he will also have access to the local government and the services that they provide to support their livelihoods.
Now, in addition to road construction, our provincial reconstruction teams and our agribusiness development team have been working hand in hand with each of the provincial agricultural directors to explore new techniques -- (audio break) -- irrigation, soil fertilization, crop-rotation strategies and crop storage, with the end objective of increasing yields during future harvest seasons. And we are excited about the early potential that we (are/were ?) seeing in each of these programs.
And then finally, I will tell you that we have a very strong relationship with each of the provincial governors and their staffs. We meet with them regularly to ensure that we understand their priorities and their perspectives on the issues. I will tell you that it's been a privilege and an honor to work with Governor Sarabi in Bamian and Governor Bahluol in Panjshir. Both of them are tireless public servants that are working very, very aggressively to meet the needs of the people. Governor Abubaker and Governor Taqwa have been equally strong partners with us as we work to address the security and development challenges in both Kapisa and Parvan.
Now, I'll share with you that our partnership, our strong partnership with the provincial governors and their staffs, proved successful during the voter-registration period that we -- (audio break) -- last fall, which was held in these four provinces without a single security-related incident. And we and our Afghan partners are incredibly proud of that accomplishment.
And with that as a brief introduction to Task Force Warrior, our region and our mission, I'll be happy to take your questions.
COL. KECK: Well, thank you, Scott.
As you can tell, there's a little bit of a weather problem over there; they're having quite a storm. So we might lose audio temporarily. We have a phone backup in case we totally lose it. So if you need Colonel Spellmon to repeat a -- an answer because we didn't get it, just let him know -- if he could just say that again because he dropped off for a second. And we'll see how we get through things here.
So let's start off with Courtney.
Q Hi, Colonel. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. Your audio was going in and out, as Colonel Keck was just saying, a little bit when you were talking about your mission there. But it sounds as if you partner pretty much with the Afghan security forces in your area. I'm wondering if you can just give us a good sense of their strengths, of numbers of Afghan police and army that you have in the area, their ability to operate on their own, their ability to logistically support themselves -- sort of an overall look at the ANSF in your area.
DOD-SPELLMON- The Afghan army work with us day in and day out in Kapisa, and they work with our French infantry battalion in everything that they do.
As far as their capabilities -- (audio break) -- any other unit in the military service. It really depends on the leadership, and it varies. There's not one answer. It depends on the actual capabilities of each individual unit.
I will tell you that we've worked with Afghan kandaks that were completely capable of conducting independent operations with minimal support from the coalition. We've also worked with other Afghan battalions that might have needed a little bit of additional assistance, whether in terms of fires or command and control. So it varies.
I will tell you, the important part is, though, that when we are out in and among the population, we work to put the Afghans in front in everything that we do -- their thought, their practice, and their leadership -- in all of our security missions.
Q And Colonel, and so it sort of leads to the question of at what point do you think the Afghan security forces in your area will be able to handle the mission on their own without any U.S. presence or French presence there to assist them?
COL. SPELLMON: Well, I will tell you, in two of our provinces they are already doing that. I mentioned Panjshir, but I also mentioned Bamian. The only coalition forces that we have in both of those provinces is our Provincial Reconstruction Team. In fact, in Panjshir, the Provincial Reconstruction Team does not even have an embedded security force. It is all taken care of by the local security forces there. And the governor takes personal ownership of the security of that team while they are out working with his staff and working on improving infrastructure. It is much the same in Bamian.
COL. KECK: Let's go to Jeff.
Q Hi, Colonel. Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes. On the Pakistani side of the border, the bad guys are targeting roads and infrastructure. Are you seeing the same thing in your AO?
COL. SPELLMON: (Audio break) -- infrastructure attack since I've been here for the past seven-and-a-half months, and it occurred the last three weeks.
It was a largely ineffective attack, where an insurgent tried to target the abutment of a bridge project that we were working on.
I will tell you, the reaction of the local people was very telling. They have assured us. They have spoken not only with the coalition forces but also with the contractor that is under our hire and assured us that this type of attack will not happen again.
As I mentioned in my opening, we are doing a lot of development work in all four of these provinces. And when I first met with the governors when I arrived last June, I asked each of them what were their priorities. And without exception, all of them shared with me roads.
They wanted to increase their ability for economic development and economic opportunity, for the people, but also connect the people to the government. And we have not had attacks on infrastructure, just the one within the past three weeks.
Q Hi, Colonel. This is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. How do you see -- (inaudible) -- local support from the local population in your area of responsibility? And regarding the tribal leaders, do you see any cooperation from them?
COL. SPELLMON: We do. We have a lot of cooperation and a lot of support from those local communities. Let me just talk specifically about Kapisa and some of the accomplishments of French troop battalion operating there.
You know, over the past six months, they have put 700 soldiers out into the field, out into the valleys. And they're working in villages and communities where previously we did not have the forces to operate.
Their security operations have enabled the kill or capture of 22 Taliban leaders over that time frame. And when you go and talk to the elders and the individuals -- (audio break) -- takes one of those insurgent leaders away, the people are incredibly thankful. And the common theme that we hear is, thank you; the thugs are gone; we are ready to move forward in our community.
So that is the general reaction that we do receive, because they know. The people understand that with improved security around their homes that more development opportunities will come. And we're showing that each and every day.
In eastern Kapisa today, where I mentioned the 22 Taliban leaders have been killed or captured, we have already begun -- we've already initiated a major highway project we are calling the Kabul Bypass, which will go from southern Kapisa all the way up to the provincial capital in Mahmud Raqi, and it will connect -- basically, all the economic traffic that currently comes in from the east today that has to navigate to Kabul to go north, will have the potential to go through Kapisa on its way up to the Salang Highway and, of course, the Salang Pass.
So again -- (audio break) -- security, we know that there will be more economic opportunity and the development potential for the people that live there.
COL. KECK: David?
Q Colonel, David Morgan with Reuters. Can you elaborate a little bit about the ethnic backgrounds of the Afghan population in your AOR? And also, how great a challenge do security problems pose to development in the seven districts where security is an issue?
COL. SPELLMON: That's a good question. Let me walk you through my area of responsibility from west to east, starting in Bamian. The ethnic makeup of Bamian is primarily Hazaras, with a small Tajik pocket in the northeast corner of that province. As you come further to the east, in Parvin, western Parvin, again primarily a Hazara population. (Audio break) -- the eastern districts, again Tajik.
In the northeast of my region, in Panjshir, very much a homogenous ethnic makeup of that population, primarily Tajik. And then finally, in Kapisa there's a difference. The western districts of Kapisa are primarily Tajik, and as you get into the eastern three districts of Tagab, Alasay and Nijrab, it's primarily a Pashtun population. And I will say on the far east of my area of responsibility, in eastern Alasay district, we have a small segment of Pashai.
Q And so where are these seven districts where security is a problem? And how much of a challenge do those problems pose to development in those areas?
COL. SPELLMON: Well, the -- (audio break) -- Kapisa, primarily the Tagab Valley, where I mentioned earlier where we have made significant strides, but also the Alasay Valley and also the southern Nijrab district.
And bombing is primarily in the northeast, in the Kahmard, in the Shibar districts, and then in Parvan -- primarily in central Parvan, in the Ghorband district.
As far as the development challenges, we work very hard to not initiate any major development projects until we are sure that we have enough security in place and enough support from the local population that will allow us to move forward, whether it's a school or it's a road. If there is still security work that needs to be done, more destruction operations in this district, certainly we will continue to do our offensive operations against those insurgent networks, but invest our development dollars elsewhere, where we know it's in a secure environment.
COL. KECK: David?
Q Colonel, it's David Wood from The Baltimore Sun, with a question about the provincial and district governments that you're working with. The latest DOD report identified corruption and a shortage of human capital, as it were, that's hampering operations of government at all levels. Could you talk about corruption and lack of human capital in governments in -- that you're working with?
COL. SPELLMON: I can. Over the past seven and a half months, I have a seen a number of allegations of corruption in the provincial governments. However, I have yet to see any evidence, as have the governors -- any evidence that would substantiate any of those claims.
The allegations that we do see leveled from -- in this region have primarily been from political opponents of those in office. So again, I have not seen the corruption as reported. The -- (audio break) -- against their staff -- it's an allegation against their staff or a district sub-governor, they have been very aggressive in investigating those claims.
With regards to human capital, yes, it has been a challenge. In many of the districts and in some of the provinces, there are certain line directors that certainly we would like to see have more of a technical background. For example, the directorate of public works in a couple of our provinces, where we work a lot of our road projects and infrastructure -- you know, we would like that individual have -- bit of a -- more of a technical or civil engineering background.
Now, not to say that we do not continue to work with these individuals -- we do. During this part of the winter campaign, we're not out laying concrete or asphalt, and so we're using the engineers on our Provincial Reconstruction Teams and our battalion and brigade staff to work side by side with those individuals so that we can increase the capacity that they have to perform their job.
Q Colonel, Bryan Bender with the Boston Globe. Thanks for spending time with us. Talk about, to the extent you can, what you would do in your area of operations if you had additional American forces. It's obviously no secret that more troops are likely on the way. Walk us through a couple of things from the security standpoint, but perhaps also the reconstruction area. You know, what would be your objectives for some additional manpower?
COL. SPELLMON: Yeah, for any additional capabilities that would come to us, I would not change the campaign plan that we are currently conducting. I mentioned the four lines of effort that we are currently implementing our plan on, and it is working. Any additional capabilities that would be brought to our task force, we would conduct this campaign in more areas, in more valleys, in more villages and it would allow us to bring the positive effects of improved security -- (audio break) – and improved development much more quickly to the Afghan people.
COL. KECK: Justin?
Q Colonel, it's Justin Fishel with Fox News. You mentioned one security incident within the past three weeks in your area in terms of infrastructure. Are you worried about an increase in attacks in your region at all? And are you able to give me a broader assessment of the -- of the supply routes, really, is what I'm interested in -- the security along the supply routes, a broader assessment in the country there?
COL. SPELLMON: Well, as far as security along the supply routes, I can really only speak to those that are in my region. As many of you know, these four provinces have been known throughout history as the northern gate to Kabul, and that is because the major arteries that come north out of the capital and connect Kabul to the -- (audio break) -- in Mazar-e Sharif and Afghanistan's northern neighbors, those highways, those arteries all run through central Parvan, Bamyan and Kapisa.
We have not had attacks on those lines of communication. I will tell you, yes, we are always concerned about the potential for attacks that always exists, but we are very aggressive in our security operations with the forces that we do have to protect those highways.
Q Colonel, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. In the four provinces that you mentioned, Khazars and Tajiks are minority populations. But you said that some of the districts in those provinces are security problems. Given that the insurgency is portrayed as a (Pashtun ?) insurgency, are these Pashtun pockets in those provinces? Or are these Khazar and Tajik insurgencies?
COL. SPELLMON: No, it's not (always ?) -- (audio break) -- to the Pashtun minority in these provinces. For example, in northeast Bamian, some of the security challenges that we are having right now are in a Tajik pocket, but we primarily think that this is criminal activity. In Bamian, in that part of the province, there are a lot of coal mines, and we think some -- a lot of landowner disputes in that region, as this -- these mines continue to be developed, on who should benefit from the profits. So we think some of the violence that has occurred at a low level over the past several months is really related to, more, criminal activity than any insurgent-based organization.
Q And in Kapisa, when the French moved in, there was a big large-scale incident where there was a large coordinated attack against them. They suffered heavy casualties. Was that a result of a large infusion of Pashtuns into -- from across the border? I mean, I know you're pretty inland from the border regions themselves, but, I mean, are you seeing significant ratlines from those regions into Kapisa province?
COL. SPELLMON: Sir, I think the incident that you're referring to actually did not happen in Kapisa. Where the French suffered several casualties, that was actually in the Kabul province, in the Uzbin valley, just south of our border. And to be frank, I can't speak to the details of the planning or the conduct of that mission.
Q What about the ratlines going into Kapisa? I mean, do they extend from the Pakistan border to your AOR?
COL. SPELLMON: They do. There are a number of movement corridors that the insurgents use as they come across the Pakistan border through the province of Laghman down into the Kabul district, and then also into Kapisa.
There are a number of mountain passes that are used, in the summertime -- (audio break) -- between these provinces.
Q Sir, it's Gordon Lubold from the Christian Science Monitor. I wonder if we could go back to the ANA for a bit, three kind of quick questions.
One is, how many ANA do you have in your area again total? How many do you think you could have or should have ideally? And what are the biggest challenges to resourcing them better? They need more training, more material, more trucks, guns, whatever.
COL. SPELLMON: Sir, to answer your question, I think, it really depends on the unit. Some of the -- as a generalization, the ANA is very proficient at platoon and company-level tasks, collective battle drills.
Where I began to see some challenges really occurs at the battalion staff level, in a few of the battalions, where they had -- (audio break) -- planning and conducting offensive operations.
You know, we have Marine Corps embedded training teams that work, with those staff officers and those commanders, to improve their skills. And frankly they're out in the field with those forces, each and every day.
Q So do you have a sense of what the total number is you have and what you would like to have, if you were king for a day?
COL. SPELLMON: Actually I mentioned in my opening statement, we have two battalions, kandaks that operate with us in Kapisa. And those force levels vary over time, as the ANA brigade commander adjusts his forces, just like we do, to meet the most present threat.
As I said earlier, any additional capabilities that would come to us, in Task Force Warrior; what I would do with them is, I would apply them into areas where we are not currently operating -- (audio break) -- deeper into the valleys, in additional communities, to achieve those positive effects, not only from the security perspective but also with the positive effects that we're seeing, with increased development into those more remote regions.
COL. KECK: Time for one more maybe.
Q Dan De Luce, AFP. Could you just -- and I'm sorry, I missed the very beginning. Can you just give me a sense of the experience with voter registration? And not just in terms of security, but how the local government authorities handled it and so on.
COL. SPELLMON: Well, I will tell you that it was conducted very professionally. I did mention in my opening statement, from a security perspective it was conducted in all four provinces without a single incident.
We estimated that we had roughly 500,000 potential registrants -- (audio break) -- the voter registration period in the fall. We had roughly 200,000 that came out to get their national identity card. Now, what we don't know is how many of the remaining 300,000 that already had a valid registration from the previous period in 2005.
Again, very good coordination that we had throughout, both with our PRTs and our battalions in the field, working with the election commission and the provincial governors and their staffs. And again, I think it was a very positive experience.
The feedback, the general atmospherics that we received from all of the provinces is that the people feel that they have an increased stake in their future. They know that the election is coming forward, and that they have a vote for the future of their country. So overall, a very, very positive feedback from throughout the population in all four provinces.
COL. KECK: Quickly, go ahead, Jeff.
Q Colonel, Jeff with Stars and Stripes again. I'm going to throw a "Hail Mary." Can you talk of how your operation -- (audio break) -- affected if the U.S. air base at Manas closes down?
COL. SPELLMON: Frankly, I cannot. I can tell you that today, as we conduct our operations, I have had no logistical constraints whatsoever. We have had all the fuel, all the people, all the supplies that we need to accomplish the mission that we've been given.
COL. KECK: Okay. Well, we have come to the end of our time. And as traditional, Scott, we'd like to turn it back over to you for any final comments or observations you'd like to give us.
COL. SPELLMON: Well, briefly, I would just like to share a story with you of thanks and appreciation from the Afghan people. In November, I had the opportunity to attend a large security shura with Governor Abobaker, where he brought in 350 district officials, security officials and elders from throughout the province.
After that meeting, he asked me to come back to his office to meet with a select group -- (audio break) -- elders and his district subgovernors. And the governor shared with me that the gentlemen at the table had something that they wanted to tell me.
And each in turn went around the table and thanked us, thanked the coalition for the improved security that they are seeing throughout the region, the improved development, the road construction, the schools that are being built and the clinics that are being constructed. And they asked me to extend their appreciation to the American people back home for all that we are doing on their behalf. So I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to extend that thank-you and appreciation for everyone back home.
I would like to thank everyone this morning for listening in. And you've given us a chance to talk about our operations here in northern RC East. And I would just ask that you keep all of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in your thoughts and prayers as we continue on with this very important work.
COL. KECK: Well, thank you, Colonel Spellmon. And we hope to hear from you again in the future. It's been very enlightening.
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