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DoD News Briefing with Colonel Johnson at the Pentagon Briefing room via Teleconference from Afghanistan

Presenters: Commander, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division Army Colonel John P. Johnson
March 06, 2009
             STAFF: It is 9:00, and we welcome you to the Pentagon Briefing Room, and appreciate and welcome today Colonel Pete Johnson, who is the commander of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, the Mighty Screaming Eagles. And he and his men and women of Task Force Currahee are responsible for security and stability operations in the central eastern area of Afghanistan, along the Pakistan border. 
             Colonel Johnson has been commanding his unit in Afghanistan since April of last year, and this will be his final briefing with us before the -- Task Force Currahee rotates back to the United States later this month. He is talking to us from Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province.  
             And with that -- let me make sure Colonel Johnson can hear me okay.   
             Pete, can you hear me all right? 
             COL. JOHNSON: I sure can, sir. 
             STAFF: Great. All right. Well, then, as is traditional, we will turn it over to Colonel Johnson for some opening comments, and then we'll go into Q and A. So let's go over to Colonel Johnson. Go ahead. 
             COL. JOHNSON: Good morning. I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you today. My last press conference was back in November, and now that we are in our final month of a year-long deployment, I wanted to update you on the current situation, offer some perspective on our efforts here in Afghanistan and give a sense of the way ahead. 
             Our task force is principally formed around the Currahee brigade, which is the 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division. Over the past 12 months, our task organization and our area of responsibility have changed dramatically.  
             For the first seven months, we were responsible for six provinces: Ghazni, Wardak, Lowgar, Paktia, Paktika, and Khost. In November, we transitioned responsibility for Ghazni to a Polish task force. And then just last month we transitioned responsibility for Logar and Wardak to an incoming infantry brigade combat team from the 10th Mountain Division.   
             These transitions have allowed us to better focus our energy and our resources, and our current task organization includes three provincial reconstruction teams, two agribusiness development teams from the Indiana and Tennessee National Guard, a human terrain team, law-enforcement professionals, electronic-warfare officers as well as joint tactical air control elements from the United States Air Force in a direct support aviation battalion. We also team with special operations forces, a joint service counter-IED organization and mentors from CSTC-A to accomplish our mission. 
             The U.S. interagency is a solid partner in everything we do. I have advisers from the Department of State, USAID and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on my brigade staff. These organizations are also very well represented on each of our provincial reconstruction teams. We also partner with Afghan National Security Forces as we jointly work to secure the population, namely the Afghan National Army 203rd Thunder Corps, the Afghan Border Police 2nd Zone, and the 501st Regional Afghan National Police. 
             Each of these forces is at varying degrees of capacity and capability, but they're all gradually improving. Leading the way is the ANA 203rd Corps, which over this past year has developed the capacity to plan and conduct simultaneous near-independent brigade- level operations.   
             Our area of operations now comprises Paktia, Paktika and Khost, about the size of Maryland. It's dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group, with small pockets of Tajik. It shares 550 kilometers of borders with Pakistan and is very much a contested area, with many of the insurgent and terrorist groups headquartered across the border in the Pakistani tribal areas. The terrain is severe and very restrictive in areas, with mountain ranges at 10(,000) to 12,000 feet in elevation. And our average elevation is around 7,700 feet. 
             I'm currently at the lowest point, around 3,500 feet, here in the province of Khost. The province of Khost, where I have my headquarters, is virtually disconnected from the rest of Afghanistan due to the surrounding mountain ranges, yet there is relatively open access to Pakistan. Currently, there are only a few dirt mountain roads that allow access. 
             Our flagship development effort is the construction of the Khost- to-Gardez, or K-G, road, a 101-kilometer road through the mountains which will connect this province of Khost to the interior of Afghanistan, opening up market lines between centers of commerce and allowing the government of Afghanistan to bring much-needed services and security to a very important population. This USAID project will also potentially offer an alternative port of entry to the Khyber Pass, as it can reduce the travel from Kabul to Karachi by over 400 kilometers. 
             This ambitious road project is very much contested by the enemies of Afghanistan, who see it as a major threat as we compete for influence with the local population. It's a stated objective by the Haqqani network, our major foe here, to not let this road be built. The Haqqani family is from the Pashtun Zadran tribe, which dominates this mountainous region. 
             Back in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, these same tribes prevented the construction of a similar road and also stopped two Army divisions from entering Khost through these passes. Bottom line, the road is being built with the support of the tribes. We continue to work closely in support of the Afghan government to ensure all the needs of the people are addressed. 
             Just this past week, the Afghan government hosted a gathering of tribal and government officials numbering over a thousand people to discuss the benefits of the road and to inspire support. These kinds of engagements go a long way to connecting the Afghan government with the people. 
             Now I'd like to provide some perspective on the enemies of Afghanistan. It is certainly a complex enemy, from a multitude of ideological Taliban groups to power-politic groups such as the Haqqani network as well as the Gulbuddin-Hekmatyar-led HIG, all the way up to and including al Qaeda. Whether you believe this is an insurgency or a guerrilla campaign, one thing is clear: The primary means this enemy uses is terrorism. It is completely inhumane, un-Islamic, barbaric, with a total disregard for innocent civilian lives.   
             While ISAF and Afghan national security forces go to great lengths in their planning and operations to prevent civilian injuries and the loss of innocent lives, over the past year the terrorist indifference to civilian casualties has been appalling. Even though, yes, they've increased their total effort by around 20 percent this year and have increased the sense of insecurity, the sloppiness of their efforts has created five times the civilian casualties over ours. 
             When we study the nature of their attacks, they have shifted from direct attacks, which are most always soundly defeated, to wanton and indiscriminate suicide, asymmetric IED and indirect-fire attacks, which recklessly endanger the civilian population. 
             One thing I've learned is that we must improve our ability to properly communicate the true nature of this enemy to a population bombarded by a relatively effective propaganda campaign, and more importantly an intimidation campaign. 
             The other key aspect of this enemy is the almost absolute reliance on foreign fighters from Pakistan and other countries to accomplish the majority of their spectacular attacks. We do not see platoons drawn from local population to conduct major attacks. To me, this reflects a lack of willingness within the population to actively support the enemy's efforts and the importance of external support for them to achieve their goals. 
             Even with a strong propaganda and intimidation effort, this enemy was unable to prevent the population here from seeking the right to vote their conscience. They still clearly want some form of representative government, as reflected in the very successful voter registration campaign since my last press conference.   
             Over 312,000 Afghans in our area alone, in a population of 1.6 million, registered to vote. Much of the voter-eligible population had already registered for the last elections in 2004, so this number is significant. 
             Also important to note was the inability for enemies to organize to prevent this outcome. As we look forward to the upcoming year, I certainly believe it will be a tough one, because so much is at stake. The upcoming Afghan national elections are critical for both sides. 
             What threatens the enemy the most this year is the increased capability and capacity of the Afghan national security forces. The army is the backbone of this effort, and already makes a big difference. The border police is not yet viable, but through our focused border development effort where we recruit, equip, train and then partner with these forces, we'll make great gains this year by election time. The police, although manned, still lags in capability and capacity, but is being addressed in the Focused District Development Program, and to date, eight of our 43 official districts have benefited from this. 
             The other area that threatens our enemies is the steady progress we are making in improving access for services for this population, and the overall development effort. Nine hundred kilometers of roads, 41 new schools, seven clinics, 28 district centers were constructed this past year; with 900 more kilometers, 17 new schools, eight new clinics already programmed for next year. The centerpiece, K-G Road, will continue to be constructed and offer the largest gain across security, development and governance. 
             Corruption remains a real concern throughout Afghanistan. We've taken the zero-tolerance approach. When corruption is identified, action must be taken. We've seen this happen within some of our security forces. Afghan officials investigated the corruption and dealt with the issue, earning the public's respect and gratitude. This further encouraged the Afghan people to turn toward their government for assistance. 
             The border with Pakistan will continue to play a key role in this area. As I already discussed, our effort to build up the Afghan border police is essential to our success here, but so is the level of communication and coordination with our Pak mil brothers. Over this past year, I've continued to see improvement. I hosted 20 separate border flag meetings, which are coordination meetings with the adjacent Pak mil brigades held to discuss security, share intelligence and to solidify our relationships. Early on, they were U.S.-Pak mil- only events, but now I also invite the Afghan national army and the Afghan border police, which is the more important and enduring relationship we need to build. 
             Finally, we are currently in the midst of turning over our area of responsibility to the 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division out of Alaska. This is a scheduled rotation, and I'm confident that we have put in place a terrific plan to ensure an effective transition. 
             Thank you for your patience. I look forward to any questions you might have. 
             STAFF: Well, thank you much for that overview. And let's go right to questions. Luis? 
             Q      Colonel, it's Lou Martinez with ABC News. You mentioned preparations for the elections, but there's been some dispute within Afghanistan as to the proper date for the elections. I assume you're talking about preparations for the August elections. 
             But what would advancing the elections to the May time frame do for the security preparations that you just outlined? 
             COL. JOHNSON: In terms of security, I think that we're prepared to support our Afghan partners -- the Afghan army, police, as well as the border police -- in the same manner we supported voter registration back in October through December. And I'm confident that we could set the security conditions for elections. 
             But as you've heard and I believe I've heard, the Independent Election Commission has agreed that August needs to be the time for the elections. I understand the concerns. We're ready to support the Afghan government whenever they decide to conduct their elections. 
             STAFF: (Off mike.) 
             Q      General -- General?! -- Colonel, soon to be General, this is Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes. Following on this election, is it going to be a responsibility of the U.S. military to ferry around Afghan presidential candidates when they go on their campaign stops?   
             COL. JOHNSON: Not to my knowledge. The Afghan elections will be Afghan-led, much like the voter registration process. We will provide enabling support for the Afghan security forces to provide area security outside the immediate election sites. So I don't anticipate and have not been asked to support the movement of candidates for the election. 
             Q      I ask because I know the best way to get around in Afghanistan is helicopter, and I'm wondering how it's expected that these candidates, including President Karzai, are going to travel the country if not in military helicopters. 
             COL. JOHNSON: Well, they surely do travel in helicopters, and President Karzai himself travels in Afghan National Army helicopters. There is a fleet of government -- Afghan government helicopters within their army. That's certainly an option. I would think they also have options for contracted helicopter support. But right now we have not been asked nor do I anticipate supporting with our helicopters for an election effort. 
             STAFF: David? 
             Q     Colonel, this is David Morgan from Reuters. Can you elaborate a little bit about -- on the tighter geographic focus that you now have? What sort change has it made in terms of the population you're responsible for, the sorts of things that you're able to do in terms of shaping, clearing and holding territory?   
             And also, what has been the trend in attacks? Have attacks been rising over the course of the past few months or falling? And are your expectations for the next few months? 
             COL. JOHNSON: The introduction of another infantry brigade combat team, allowing us to transition Logar, Wardak and -- allowed me to consolidate our efforts, allowed me to consolidate our combat power, as well as our intellectual energy, towards just trying to understand and improve and support our Afghan partners in the three provinces we have right now -- as I said, Paktia, Paktika and Khost. 
             Now we've gone from around 4.7 million population to support to around 1.6 million. That's a significant decrease in overall population that we've got to support. 
             Also, the overall problems have reduced. When I had the area of Ghazni and Wardak, I also had to contend with a major line of communication, Highway 1, that runs between Kabul and Kandahar.   
             So really, it's allowed me to focus our efforts in a much smaller area, in an area which -- much more tightly defined and really interdependent problems. I've got the border fight. I certainly have now more a Pashtun-centric issue. When I had the Ghazni and the Wardak provinces in particular, we also had a huge Hazaran population. So it certainly simplified the problem set.   
             And as -- in terms of just looking at the terrain, the geography, it used to be the size of West Virginia and now we're roughly the size of Maryland. So all of that has helped us, I think, accomplish our mission here. 
             With respect to what the situation is in terms of the enemy effort, as I said, I think over this past year there's been about a -- you know, roughly a 20 percent increase in overall enemy activity, and over the last two months I would say compared to 2008, roughly about 30 percent.   
             So it has risen somewhat, partly, I believe, due to the really good weather that the enemy has had to be able to operate in the border regions. Normally the winters are much more severe. And quite frankly, this year has been relatively temperate. We have had snow in the upper elevations, but many of the passes that would normally be blocked just were not.   
             And also I think that as we look at the -- one of the things we try to measure is the quality of the enemy effort. Over this past year, even with a 20 percent increase, much of that increase has really been in ineffective attacks. There has been a slight qualitative increase, more with respect to indirect-fire attacks and IED attacks against our forces and a more targeted shift from attacks against coalition forces towards our Afghan national security force brothers. 
             Q      If I can follow up on that, how many soldiers do you have to look after this population of 1.6 million -- not just U.S., but Afghan and any others who are in the area? And how does that number compare with what would be prescribed by the counterinsurgency manual? 
             COL. JOHNSON: We are not quite reaching the gold standard prescribed in the manual. Right now we're at about a one to 115 ratio of security forces to population. And so we don't quite achieve the standard. But I've got roughly, you know, 5,000 coalition forces under my command to support the effort, an additional 10,000 or so Afghan National Army, another 9,000 or so police forces and then roughly 3,000 Afghan Border Police. That's essentially the security forces that we've got to conduct counterinsurgency operations to secure this population. 
             STAFF: Go to AFP. 
             Q      Can you tell us a little bit more about the border? And I'm sorry if I missed some of your opening comments. There's talk about how the police is still not up to where it needs to be compared to, for example, the Afghan National Army. What is the border situation? You just talked about the general security trends. What is specifically -- how is the border evolving? You mention the weather was -- played in the enemy's favor. 
             COL. JOHNSON: Certainly see a key to the enemy efforts here is the sanctuary that -- believe that they have to some degree in Pakistan. 
             And so as our enemies develop their plans for their campaigns, much of that occurs in Pakistan.   
             And so it's very important for us to develop the capacity, with the Afghan army and the Afghan border police, to be able to better secure the border regions.   
             Right now as I indicated, the Afghan border police just does not have that capacity. They have not been properly resourced or manned to accomplish their mission.   
             What we've done is, we've begun to engage in a special program, a focused border development program, which is an RC East program, partnered between CJTF-101 and our CSTC-A brothers, which is really a concerted campaign to first recruit the force.   
             We started at about 54 percent strength in the entire force. And since November, we've recruited enough soldiers so that we're now up to 75 percent strength. But we're not yet done.   
             Once we recruit these soldiers, we send them through a very deliberate training program at training centers in our area, in Gardez, as well as in Spin Boldak in RC South. And we equip them.   
             We equip them with not only small arms weapons. But here in the upcoming weeks, we're also going to be equipping them with heavy machine guns, so that they can properly defend their positions along the border.   
             So right now I would suggest that the border is, you know -- the effort along the border is just not where it needs to be, in terms of security. I certainly have some combat outposts along main infiltration lines.   
             We do have some static Afghan border police checkpoints. But quite frankly we've got to get the border police capable of conducting area security, offensive operations, to defeat an enemy in a largely porous border region that has very restrictive terrain. So it does not afford the luxury of remaining static.   
             Q      What kind of cooperation and information are you getting from the Pakistani side? You mentioned you have these meetings with the Pakistan military.   
             Are they able to give you some kind of advance warning about certain problem areas? Have you seen the cooperation improve? And can you give me some kind of concrete example?   
             COL. JOHNSON: Sure can.   
             We've definitely seen the collaboration improve, in the 12 months we've been here, partly because I think our increased communication that we've been having, with the border flag meetings that we conduct. And we have shared intelligence.   
             We have gotten a good sense of what the Pak mil operational framework is, along the border. They give us a sense of their patrol details. And in fact, in some areas of our border, we've actually gotten to the point where we're collaborating offensive operation, in a way to defeat specific enemy threats.   
             As an example, down in the Shkin area, we have direct tactical communication between our company commander-level forces and the Pak mil company commander-level forces, so that when a threat is identified, on either side of the border, that can quickly be referenced, through each of the operation centers. And then action can be coordinated.   
             We've had specific instances where we have provided indirect fire support to enemy formations that the Pak mil have observed and have oriented for us. Likewise, we've offered intelligence -- real-time intelligence to Pak mil for enemy forces that were egressing from Afghanistan into Pakistan which enabled Pak mil forces then to orient patrols in a position to defeat and capture them. 
             So we've got some really strong efforts, not across the entirety of the border region, but we've got a great model and some very specific hot spots along our order that what we're trying to do is essentially migrate to the rest of the border. And the border flag meeting process is intended to sort of capture those best practices and the best coordination and establish the architecture for communication so that we can collaborate at the tactical level. 
             STAFF: And we can do one more. Luis, go ahead. 
             Q      Colonel, Luis Martinez again, with ABC. You spoke earlier about the successful propaganda efforts by the insurgency in the area. Can you describe what are the tools that you use and what makes them successful? And why can't your public affairs people or IO counter them effectively, maybe? 
             COL. JOHNSON: Well, they have a variety of methods to communicate with the population. One is night letters, where they, you know, put notes on the external buildings, school buildings, government buildings, that offer clear threats. They also act in a ruthless and a barbaric manner.   
             An example: We conducted one of the first shuras, which is a local gathering of elders, for the Wazir tribe in east Paktika some months ago. It was a great step forward because the Wazir tribe, as you can tell by its name, the large majority of its tribe is actually in Waziristan, in Pakistan, but it has a sizable population in eastern Paktika. We held the first shura with them to start discussing their needs and how the Afghan government could better provide for those needs. The Afghan National Army hosted the security for the shura. The provincial governor was the keynote speaker, and the sub-governors also spoke. 
             After that shura, the Afghan National Army provided some Humanitarian Assistance to this tribe, the tribal elders, for them to take back to their families. And then several days later, this vicious enemy came in, they essentially decapitated three of the Waziri elders, and they piled up the HA that they could find, burned it and threw the bodies of the elders on top of it. It just demonstrates the viciousness, ruthlessness, the lack of humanity that they can use to intimidate a population.  
             This is a country that very much is run, in large sense, by the rumors that are generated through the population. And acts like that get around to the different villages, get around to the different population centers. So it's a very strong and ruthless form of intimidation that we're talking about here. They don't just make idle threats. They actually carry them out in a barbaric fashion. 
             And obviously, that's a very difficult standard to rise against. And what we see, more than not, is a population that is exhausted of this sort of conflict, exhausted of many, many decades of war. And it's not so much that they support the enemy, but they're incapable or at the village level, in many cases, afraid to stand up for what they know is, you know, the way ahead that they want for their children. 
             The voter registration I think clearly shows where they really stand in terms of wanting to preserve a right to vote for some representative system that can provide a better way ahead.   
             In terms of what we might be able to do, we certainly maximize the utility of the airwaves. Radio is very much a strong form of communication that we use. The enemy also uses it in a much lesser form. They do so, in some cases, by intimidating radio stations. They also have some mobile radio capability that they can get around to targeted populations to provide that level of transmission.   
             We use it to counter their messages. We use it -- and when I say "we" I'm really talking about the Afghans. We personally, you know, the American forces don't get on radios. Afghans do. Afghan leaders both governmental and security forces get on these radios and they talk directly to the people.   
             There's a little bit of TV, very little, mainly here in the host city center areas. They've got a little bit of broadcast capability.   
             But I think the largest weakness right now in our information engagement is sometimes we can't quite get a cohesive, strong message from the local level all the way up to the national level. And we continue to work on that; we continue to improve our own communication with our Afghan partners. But that's critical, I think, to get that message right from the village all the way up to the national level. 
             STAFF: Well, we appreciate your time, Colonel Johnson. And our time is up here. So we would like to turn it back over to you for any final comments you'd like to make or observations that you think that are important before we conclude. 
             COL. JOHNSON: Well, thank you again for attending today's press conference and for keeping the public informed about what their sons and daughters are doing in support of defending our nation's interests here in Afghanistan. Twelve months is a long time, but it's much better than 15. 
             I want to acknowledge the incredible service of our soldiers who have done their duty in keeping with the highest traditions of our Army and the sacrifice of our families, for hanging in there with us so we can do what we volunteered to do.   
             I particularly want to express my continued heartfelt sympathies to the families of our fallen and our severely wounded. 
             We understand your sacrifice, and will continue for years to come to provide whatever solace that we can. And we do so right now with our daily prayers. 
             I also want to thank the many veterans groups who have supported us during this deployment, particularly the 506th Association, who has taken a special interest in taking care of our wounded warriors and our Currahee families throughout the deployment. 
             And we also feel blessed to have been partnered with so many outstanding sister service, National Guard and interagency teammates, from PRTs to counter-IED support. 
             And finally, we thank the American people, who have given their hearts in support of our deployed servicemen and women. Your continued support is much needed, as we carry on our duty on these many deployments. 
             Again, thank you for attending today's conference. 
             STAFF: Thank you again, and we wish you the best of luck in your redeployment, and safe journey. 
             Thank you much for coming, folks.

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