DoD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Schloesser From Afghanistan
BRYAN WHITMAN (Pentagon spokesman): General, thank you for joining us this morning. I think you're well known by this crowd, but this is Major General Jeffrey Schloesser, who is the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force 101 in Afghanistan. As such, General Schloesser and his troops are responsible for security and stability operations in NATO's Regional Command East.
General Schloesser has been there in command since April of last year. And unfortunately for us, this will be his third and final time that he'll be able to join us in this forum, because he'll be transferring authority of RC East over to Major General Curtis -- I'm going to say this wrong, and I apologize in advance -- Scaparrotti of the 82nd Airborne Division tomorrow.
So General, thank you for taking the opportunity at this -- the very end of your tour to be able to give us the kind of perspective that only comes with somebody with the experience and time on the ground that you have. So let me open it up to you for a few remarks before we get into the questions, and I'm sure we'll have plenty back here.
GEN. SCHLOESSER: Thanks, Bryan. And you did pronounce General Scaparrotti's name correctly. And he's an old friend of mine, a good friend, and we look forward to the transfer of authority tomorrow, just as you said.
Well, I'd like to say a few comments about the last 15 months. It's clearly been challenging here in eastern Afghanistan, but nevertheless pretty darn rewarding, I think, for all of us in the CJTF. We really have worked very hard to execute a counterinsurgency strategy and a campaign at the regional level that's highlighting security and district-level development, as well as improvements in governance, again at that lower level, as well as honest and timely communications with a variety of different audiences.
We try to do all this with and by and through our Afghan partners. I do want to say that, and acknowledge that, we've lost 178 soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and civilians killed in action up till this afternoon, and 810 wounded, some of them grievously. There's no way we can bring them back; there's no way that we can express enough grief to their loved ones. But I do want them to know that there's not a day that goes by that we don't think about their sacrifices or the sacrifices of their families.
I'd like to share a little bit about my perspective now, after 15 months here in command in eastern Afghanistan. Let's kind of go back, if you don't mind, to the first press conference that we did in June. I think some of you recall that I was very honest and I said that, in the few months that we had been in command, we'd seen an increase in violence of 40 percent. And we thought that an awful lot of it was initiated by the insurgents. Based on that, I felt that we definitely needed an increase in troops, both in coalition and ISAF troops, as well as Afghan national security forces, and we needed more resources to help protect our troopers.
In September I told you that though the violence had leveled off somewhat, it was still higher than it was the year previous during the same period, and I noted that that had -- year prior had actually been higher than the previous year. So we'd had three years of escalating violence.
However, I also told you that we were starting to get some pretty darn good effects on the ground from the forces that we had added, and we were also pretty happy with what we thought was starting to come in. And so I talked about the French battalion in the province of Kapisa, and I also noted that we were going to, and in the following month, transfer authority in our province called Ghazni to our Polish task force.
I also spoke about our winter campaign that we had initiated in October and that we intended to do throughout the winter season. Just as you recall, it included fighting throughout the entire winter while we had the advantage over the insurgents. It also included the developmental surge -- in other words, an increase in funding and real live projects for the villagers in Afghanistan. And then finally, it also included improvements to the Afghan border police, working with our counterpart command, the Combined Security Transition Command of Afghanistan.
I told you that I thought that the way things were at that point in time, that we were facing a slow win, which I didn't think the American people nor I were satisfied with. Since those news conferences last year, I can tell you -- the American people and you -- that here in eastern Afghanistan, in RC East, that we have received additional forces, and I think most of you know that. We've received additional resources in the way of vehicles and equipment and some other assets, and some additional funding to get after the developmental issues that we wanted to do with our developmental surge.
The truth is that we've actually received a fair amount of all of that, and I think that when you add all that together and you look at what we're achieving on the ground with our Afghan partners, that we're actually making real progress at the district and the village level, and also at the provincial level.
There's no doubt in my mind there's been substantial improvement across the board with some of these resources or all of these resources, but I do want to highlight that we're nowhere near the tipping point yet, and I also will say that progress is fragile.
I'd like to touch upon some of these key elements of the shift that I've just described here. We've increased our brigades -- our brigade combat teams from two when we started 15 months ago, to five brigade task forces. I've already mentioned them, but the total numbers now go from about 17,600 troops that were available in March of last year to me, to about 22,500 currently.
I've talked about the French battalions. They're doing a great job in Kapisa. The Poles are doing fine, just fine, in Ghazni, and we're looking forward to an increase in troops as well as a couple more helicopters by them as well. The U.S. has contributed another entire brigade combat team, called Task Force Spartan. Some of you have written about that. That's in Wardak and Lowgar, an area where we had very few troops the previous year. And I also took one of those battalions, which is about 700 troopers, and we put it east of the Kunar River, right along the Pakistan border.
All of these troops, along with a -- increased size of our Afghan National Security Forces, which are now up about 32,000 in eastern Afghanistan, have had I think a very significant effect. Additionally, we've worked with, as I said, CSTC-A -- and allow me to use the acronym -- and I'm pretty darned pleased with the progress of the Afghan Border Police, using this Focused Border Development Program, which is essentially adding more training for them, six to eight weeks of paramilitary training. It gives them equipment and arms to actually fight the insurgents, and it's also increased their ranks by about 21 percent. Now, this isn't any kind of five-, 10-year program. This is a year-long program. We're more than halfway through it right now. And we started in October, and it'll be done in September.
Let me tell you about the violence levels. Unlike last year, I think we're going to be about 25 percent, as you look from January through this part -- this early portion of June -- about 25 percent level increase in violence this year over last year. Unlike last year, most of that violence I attribute to the operations that we're conducting with our Afghan partners, as well as those new forces that I've talked about. We are just -- the bottom line is, we're in areas that we were not before. We've increased forces sometimes tenfold in those areas, and it's making a heck of a difference to the insurgents, and I know eventually it will make a difference to the Afghan people in those areas.
It's clear the enemy continues to fight each and every day. Where the enemy is attacking, they are clearly aiming for softer targets, like civilians, as well as Afghan institutions, like district centers that represent governance at the lowest levels.
I've been a soldier for 33 years, and I don't get shocked anymore, but I'll tell you, I've been a little surprised by the willingness of the insurgent to attack innocent civilians and kill women and children. I think our most critical challenge right now and in the future is for us to do a better job to protect the Afghan people from their enemies, the insurgents.
Now all that said, 75 percent of the violence that happens in RC East and eastern Afghanistan occurs in 25 percent of the 158 districts that we have in our 14 provinces. And I'll just note that in some of the most violent districts, such as the Pech in Kunar, it's also one of our lowest population centers. In other words, there aren't that many people there. We have a lot of districts in eastern Afghanistan where the level of violence just does not affect the people.
We've put to good use the additional resources we received. Last year we had $485 million in the Commanders Emergency Relief Program funds; this year, 683 (million dollars). Out of that, we have built or worked with our Afghan brothers for 2,500 projects. That means over 400 schools have been built or refurbished, over 300 clinics have been built or refurbished, and we've got about 132 projects that are providing power, which is a new critical need, for all the schools and all the clinics that we have out there.
We've also worked very hard with our agricultural development teams here that represent the National Guard. These are citizen soldier farmers and agricultural business owners that are making a real difference to the farmer here in eastern Afghanistan.
All of these ventures help create jobs for local villagers, and I am convinced that has kept many a military-age male from becoming an insurgent just so that they could feed the family that they have.
Roads still remain our biggest investment, just like last year. They have a huge impact, as you know. They connect communities both to themselves, so they can have an economy.
They connect the village to the governance. And they help to increase the access to the larger cities and towns in Afghanistan.
We work our road construction very closely with USAID, as well as the Afghan government, as well as the local governments. We've spent about $300 million of all that CERP money I was talking about for about 300 road projects. And in 15 months we have paved or we are paving 2,000 kilometers of road. It's a big deal here. Because of these efforts in development, the unemployment rate in RC East is about half of what it is throughout the rest of Afghanistan.
I do want to mention something that the American people and our Congress have supplied. I told you last year that we needed some equipment. We had zero mine-resistant or MRAP vehicles last year. Now we have over 2,000 in Afghanistan, and I have over a thousand in eastern Afghanistan. And I'm going to tell you that they save our troopers' lives each and every day.
Now, because we're at the foothills of the eastern -- of the Hindu Kush, I truly do need a more nimble, smaller, lighter MRAP variant for some areas where I cannot drive this larger vehicle. And in that, I would hope to replace the Humvees that we're operating in those areas.
I believe that our campaign is a sound one. I think it fully meshes with the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. I think it's very clear we have to dismantle and defeat al Qaeda here and prevent their return. I think we have to partner very well with the Afghans, and we do that each and every day. We've got to increase the size of the security forces.
There's no doubt in my mind, and you -- the -- that have visited me here have heard me say, that we need a civilian surge. You can't expect your troopers of any of the services to be good in all those civilian things that we need to add to make Afghanistan better, including engineering, education and rule of law, just about three out of probably about 10.
I do believe, though, that we've turned the corner in eastern Afghanistan, but we've got a ways to go. There are many challenges. The first is the fact that the enemy's going to continue to try to target the civilians and also the weakest parts of the institutions of Afghanistan, and we're going to have to do a better job of protecting them. There's no doubt in my mind they're going to continue to try to target development, just as they tried to kill road-construction crews and those that built clinics and law centers.
After 15 months, I will say that the only thing I've seen the insurgency actually provide for the people is just more violence. On the other hand, the government of Afghanistan, at all the levels, whether it's district or provincial, where I work mainly, and -- as well as the national level, that they, in fact, are trying to provide a brighter and better future for the children of Afghanistan. And those of us in ISAF and our coalition partners are committed to doing that as well.
With that, I thank you for listening to me, and I'm ready for any of your questions.
MR. WHITMAN: All right, General. Very good.
And we will start with Courtney today.
Q Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News.
One of the continued problems that we've all covered here is civilian causalities in Afghanistan. Can you give us your assessment of how the Afghan view of civilian casualties, imposed by either U.S. forces, ISAF forces, has changed in your time there? In other words, has the perception grown that the coalition, ISAF, are continuing to inflict causalities, or has it gotten better or what?
GEN. SCHLOESSER: Thanks, Courtney.
Again, all I can do is talk about eastern Afghanistan. And I'll give you my reflections based upon my multiple conversations with governors and subdistrict governors, as well as the tribal elders.
I think there's a growing awareness, first and foremost, that civilians are being targeted by insurgents. We can just go back to 12, 13 and 15 May in a province called Khost, where the Haqqani Network essentially targeted the municipal building and the civilians in it and all around it, and at the end of all of that whole period of three days killed 17 civilians, Afghan civilians, and wounded over 40.
So I'd say there's a growing awareness that the insurgents are actually targeting them.
I do also clearly know that there's a growing awareness that the operations that we conduct must be conducted in a way that is as precise as we possibly can, that shows all the amount of proportionality that we possibly can and demonstrates that we know that the insurgents are trying to use women and children as shields.
So I'd say yes, there's a growing awareness, Courtney.
Q Do you feel any -- have you --
MR. WHITMAN: (Off mike.)
MR. WHITMAN: Now, Courtney.
Q This is Courtney again.
Have you felt any -- recently in the past several months, the last few months of your tour there, have you felt any kind of increase in pressure from the local governors or the local officials that you've spoken to, to stop, you know, any operations, or to pull back based on the threat of civilian casualties?
GEN. SCHLOESSER: Courtney, you know, we work so closely with our provincial governors, as well as our district sub-governors, that there is a pretty keen awareness of the difficulties in conducting operations that we do here Eastern Afghanistan. And so they are very much aware, for example, of the need to help protect ANSF forces as well as coalition and ISAF forces, as we do.
I do -- again I'll just go back and say, there's no doubt in my mind that the people of Afghanistan are concerned about civilian casualties. And I think that there's a growing awareness that we are doing everything we possibly can to prevent them. But there's also an awareness that women and children are being used as shields by the insurgents. And so they're being very careful, I think, in their villages and their districts.
Q General, this is David Wood from politicsdaily.com.
I was interested that you brought up the subject of a civilian surge. Because as I recall, commanders in Afghanistan, you and your colleagues, have been calling for this for a long time.
Could you tell us specifically what kinds of people and how many you need, and talk a little bit perhaps about your efforts, unsuccessful, I guess, to get them?
GEN. SCHLOESSER: Sure, David. That's an excellent question.
As you note, we've -- for a long time, I and my peers have been asking for and calling for civilian skill sets that we just do not have inside the military. And in some cases, I would characterize it, some of the calls have actually been fulfilled.
Now, they've been fulfilled in ways that, as I indicated before, might have been different than what we initially thought. So for an example, this country is 85 percent agricultural. Clearly Eastern Afghanistan is an agricultural area.
And our need for expertise in farming as well as, the truth is, agribusiness development -- how do you improve the value of a product here -- was in fact answered. But it was in fact answered by citizen soldiers and citizen airmen, from the Army Guard and the Air Guard, coming on in.
We went from one agricultural business team, development team, when I got here, to six. And we believe a seventh will be coming inbound soon.
So I wouldn't characterize it that nothing's been heard. There are clearly more civilians coming in and working at the embassies, by the way, but just not in the numbers; and I would say not only the U.S. embassy but also some of our coalition partner embassies. I have three Provincial Reconstruction Teams that are headed by other nations -- New Zealand, Turkey and the Czech Republic. And I find that they have a fair number of civilians inside their Provincial Reconstruction Teams. We also have more civilians now, there's no doubt, in our PRTs, than we did before, mainly though, from the State Department and USAID.
What we still need, and as I indicated before, is we need expertise in areas that we just don't have skill sets in the Army. So for an example, education. The rule of law. Right now we use military lawyers to do the very best we can, and we are making some small-level progress at the lowest levels with judges at the district level. We can build facilities for them, for an example, and we are also giving classes in their own constitutional law. But we need far more in that area.
And the third one that I'll highlight, that is very important to me, with 450 miles of border with Pakistan, is that we need more expertise in border operations. And I think there's much that we can gain from our own skill sets and capabilities there in America.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, Jim.
Q Sir, going back to the -- this is Jim Garamone with American Forces Press Service. Going back to the civilian casualties, is there the same sense of outrage when the Taliban kill people as when the coalition does?
And you also mentioned that the unemployment rate in RC East is half that of the country as a whole. What is your unemployment rate?
GEN. SCHLOESSER: Thanks. I always love two questions at once. You know, I'm over 50; I get to say I forget one? (Pause.)
Okay. The simple answer is, on the unemployment rate, the unemployment rate in eastern Afghanistan is 21 percent.
It's about double that for all of eastern Afghanistan, using the current figures.
On civilian casualties, there is clearly outrage in many corners of Afghanistan, as well as in the world, when civilians are mistakenly killed as part of ISAF operations. I do believe that you'll find that there is outrage in some areas when civilians are killed by insurgents. I don't see the level of moral outrage that I feel, to be quite frank with you, though, when the latter happens. It upsets me greatly. It -- perhaps I'm closer to it than many. But I -- frankly, the brutality of it, the deliberate targeting of it, is incredible to me, and I would have thought that the world would find it despicable.
MR. WHITMAN: We'll go to Rick.
Q General, this Rick Whittle. I write for the Dallas Morning News, and I'm also a contributor to Rotor & Wing, which I add so you'll understand the reason for my question. I wonder if you would comment on the special challenges of resupply in Afghanistan and on whether you have enough rotorcraft. Secretary Gates recently talked about commanders constantly asking for more helicopters. I wonder if you share that view.
GEN. SCHLOESSER: Well, Rick, since you also do some work for Rotor & Wing, you probably don't want to hear about my donkey battalion, do you? Quite seriously, I do have -- we do lease donkeys for some of the most difficult peaks that we have.
But to really get after your question, there's no doubt that this is the most difficult terrain that I've ever seen in 33 years, to actually walk across, operate in or to fight in, or, for that matter, to actually help the people in. Helicopters are just more than part and parcel of what we do each and every day. They are critical to almost every operation that we execute here in Afghanistan.
And our numbers have increasingly -- have just in fact increased here in eastern Afghanistan.
Fifteen months ago, I had to take one of my battalions out of our aviation brigade. And think about that as about roughly 130 rotary- wing helicopters -- or helicopters; let's just use the simple words. And one of the battalions had their supply support done in RC South.
Most recently, the 82 Airborne Division brought their combat aviation brigade, and it is down in Regional Command South, with about 130 aircraft. And that freed that battalion that I had down there to join us back up in this area, so I just added 30 more helicopters.
In our sector, while as a commander I would love to have more helicopters for combat operations and air assaults and critical resupply, we are doing far better now than we have ever been doing before. I will also add that we take full advantage of the free enterprise system, and we are employing contractors, within limits, to conduct resupply types of missions, using their aircraft, to our more secure areas. And that helps to free up our military aircraft for combat operations.
MR. WHITMAN: We may have time for one, maybe two more. Let's go to Joe.
Q Yes. General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. My question is, we have heard in the past few months about the necessity to engage with the moderate Taliban. I would like to get your assessment on that.
GEN. SCHLOESSER: Okay. I mean, that is a very good question, and I think others certainly more senior than I have noted that most counterinsurgencies are eventually solved through a period of reconciliation. I will note that that's usually a reconciliation from a position of power or strength.
Here in eastern Afghanistan, as I said, we're making progress. There are clearly some insurgent groups I think that will eventually want to reconcile in this area. At this point in time, I'm not sure that they're convinced that they're in a position of weakness, although I think they're going to see it here over the next one to two years very clearly.
So I would note, one, that it is a policy decision that is clearly above my pay grade. Two, it is something that the government of Afghanistan's going to have to take the lead in.
And what my role is, as well as the Afghan partners that I work with each and every day, is to help set the conditions, one, of strength, and then two, of -- that there is, in fact, a system here that people can take a look at and say, you know what? There is fair and free elections upcoming, and maybe I'll throw my hat in those elections rather than to continue to fight.
MR. WHITMAN: General, if I could impose on you, I know we're just about at the end of our time. If we could do one more question, though -- and we'll take it from Reuters.
Q Hi, General. David Morgan from Reuters. I -- can you say, if the violence levels are up 25 percent from the first of the year through this week, how does that compare with previous years? And if violence is up that sharply, then how can the situation be described as seeing substantial improvement and progress?
GEN. SCHLOESSER: David, I -- you know, I'm sorry. I probably wasn't very clear when I made that statement, so let me lay it out for you.
Every year since 2002, there's been an increase in violence. And if you take a look at the figures, and you take a -- do a little bit of work on why, you'll find out that for the first couple of years there, it did not increase extraordinarily significantly. But by about 2005, for a variety of reasons, both in Afghanistan as well as in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, in the North-West Frontier Province, things began to change. And so in 2006, (200)7, (200)8 -- and this year you saw at least a 20-percent-each-year -- and sometimes up to 40 percent, as I noted last year -- increase in violence.
What I was trying to highlight for you, though, is that this year what we are seeing is a lot of the violence is as a direct result of us going into areas that we had not been before. David, you've been around, and I know that you were well aware last year there were threats or there was a perception that Kabul was surrounded and that we needed something done in Wardak and Lowgar, which makes up the entire southern end of Kabul.
We've done that with over 3,000 U.S. troops, working with our Czech Republic PRT and Afghan national security forces in great quantities. It's changed dramatically. But there was a spike in violence in the March time frame as these forces came in and did operations.
It's very clear to me on the ground, when you go around or you talk to the villagers in these two provinces, that things have changed for the better, as well as when you talk to the governor.
You know, I just have to tell you that that's the way it is over here. You know, there is some violence that's going to have to be extracted, as we go into areas and remove the insurgents. But it's the kind of violence that you in fact want, because we are getting rid of the insurgents as we do it.
MR. WHITMAN: General, we have reached the end of our time. And we want to be respectful of that. Again thank you for coming to us, over the past many months, to give us your perspective and an update on your operations there.
Before I bring it to a close though, let me just throw it back to you, one more time, in case you have any final thoughts for us.
GEN. SCHLOESSER: Well, Bryan, one, thanks for listening to me. Thanks for allowing me to say a few comments up front.
You know, for all of you out there, the thing that I think I'm most proud of, and I thought you'd ask me this question, so I didn't put it in the opening comments.
The thing I think I'm most proud of, over this 15 months, is the level of partnership that we've achieved, with the Afghan national security forces, specifically the army, growing so in the border police.
Each and every day, there are soldiers from the U.S. Army, from the U.S. Marines; sailors and airmen, as you know. And they're partnering with the Afghan army. It's great to see. We're trying to do our best, at the senior level, to match it, to be quite frank.
I'll tell you what though. I mean, you can -- over time, when you want to look at an end state here, it's the growth of the Afghan national security forces that will eventually allow the U.S. forces and international forces to draw down over time. And so that partnership is absolutely critical.
Again thanks for all listening. And I certainly appreciate what you do for us each and every day.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you, General. And on behalf of all of us, we wish you a safe and speedy redeployment.
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