MODERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, after a few glitches, we have for you to provide an operational update on the offensive in Southern Afghanistan, Marine Corps Brigadier General Larry Nicholson.
General Nicholson is the commanding general of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan. And he is on the phone with us from Camp Leatherneck, located in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
General, I understand you've got some opening remarks to make. And then we'll take questions. So over to you, sir.
GEN. NICHOLSON: Okay. Thanks, Dave. Yeah, I've really just got two quick issues I'd like to hit. And first of all, I appreciate the opportunity to talk to the men and women of the media there today.
We certainly have had no shortage of media here over the last week or so. And frankly I think it's been a pretty good news story. And we certainly appreciate their being here.
Let me start with the start. And that is seven days ago tonight, we inserted -- at 01:00 local, we inserted about 4,000 Marines and sailors into the Helmand River Valley, over a period of about seven hours.
The intention was to go in big, strong, fast; overwhelm any opposition and frankly save lives on all sides but most specifically save civilian lives. And I think what we have found here is that in some areas, there's still some fighting going on. But in large part, the enemy has not resisted too strongly.
Now, we have essentially come into their areas. Every area we went into were areas that were considered Taliban heartland areas, where they had strongholds in there. And these are areas that have been visited before by coalition forces and Special Operations forces. But they never stayed. It was always just passing through.
The number-one question we're getting across the board right now is, how long are you staying? And one of my requirements, to every one of our company commanders, was that within 24 hours of hitting the deck, you will have a shura with the local elders. And that has occurred. I've attended several of those myself.
Let me just start with, what makes this so different? And first of all, I think, it was the size of the force going in and the speed in which it inserted. We almost looked at this like an amphibious operation, back to our Marine roots.
We really had the force sort of contained on Camp Leatherneck and Camp Dwyer. And when the word go ashore was launched, when we hit execute at 01:00, when the weather was right, when the conditions were right, we moved very quickly and decisively, almost the way we would for an amphibious op.
And again those first couple hours ashore are very vulnerable. And we understood that there was some risk but also high gain. It was a high-risk/high-gain type of operation.
What also made it very different is that several weeks ago, probably seven weeks ago, I laid out a map in front of the governor of Helmand province. And I said, Governor, if you were me, where would you go?
And we looked at all the small towns and hamlets within the Helmand River Valley, which is an extensive piece of terrain, understanding that, you know, at my level, I have the same problems that any commander has, whether it's General McChrystal or a company commander. That is, you can't be everywhere.
So you got to choose where you're going to be. You choose that as wisely as you can, and then you accept some risk in other areas.
So I asked for the governor's help. I also asked him for a list of elders that those young lieutenants and captains could contact as soon as they got in. And the focus of this operation from the very beginning has been on the people, not the enemy. And I know that may sound very strange, and I got some raised eyebrows even with talking to Marines, but our focus is to get to the people. So the -- you know, on the way, we'll take care of the Taliban. But get to the people. So the fact that the Taliban in large part have decided to flee the area, often leaving significant weapons caches and weapons and IED, you know, components behind is in our -- I think in our great favor.
Okay. Second thing I'd like to talk about, just very quickly, and then we'll get to questions, is today was a very special day. Today down in the town of Khan Neshin, which is the southernmost city in Helmand province and probably the southernmost city in Afghanistan, that town fell on D-day to our light armed reconnaissance battalion, and it fell literally without a fight. There were some shots fired by the enemy, none fired by us. There's a castle down there, and the origins of the castle date into the 18th century, but there's a castle down there where today the governor of Helmand province, for the first time ever, visited. And he raised the flag. We had a -- kind of an Iwo Jima moment, if you will, with the Marines very much in the background as the governor and Joel Mihaildin (ph), the brigade commander, the Army brigade commanders from this area raised very solemnly -- an Afghan flag for the first time in many years over Khan Neshin castle.
It was followed by a show of about 150 local elders that came, which was a huge positive. We just weren't sure what sort of reaction we would get at informing the locals that the governor of Helmand was coming in. And again, for us it's been very important to demonstrate the role of the government here and the connection of Governor Mangal to his people. Tears in his eyes today, and I think everyone there was moved. I think I did interviews on seven Afghan networks today. But a great day for the Marines. And I'll tell you, the Marines are pumped up, because they feel like they're part of something special.
So -- and let me just wrap up, and then I'll take questions. But the wrap, very simply, is that, you know, we're still very early into this operation. We're only seven days in. Very cautiously optimistic that things have gone well. Again, I think the Taliban is used to people coming maybe through the area, not staying very long. How they react to the fact that we are staying in large numbers in many of these small towns and areas that we're going to be here to help the government get on its feet, get its sea legs -- and that we're going to help support the election; we had voter registration today in Khan Neshin.
And again, you know, this is a Taliban iconic town that has fallen to the government. And we're just pretty pumped up about the today's events and the very positive reception that the governor received by the people down there.
Okay. With that, I'm going to cease fire, and I'll just -- Dave, I'll turn it over to you and answer whatever questions the media may have.
MODERATOR: All right. Thanks, General.
First question to Andrew Gray of Reuters.
Q General, could you tell us -- are you satisfied with the number of Afghan forces and the number of U.S. government and other civilians you have helping you in the operation? Do you have enough to hold and build?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah, well, you know, what we've said is what makes this all so very different as an operation is where we go, we stay; and where we stay, we hold; and where we hold, we build; and where we build, we work with an eye towards transition.
I mean, I'm not going to sugarcoat it. The fact of the matter is, I -- we don't have enough Afghan forces, and I'd like more. You know, imagine right now I've got 4,000 Marines in Helmand with about 600…650 Afghan forces. Imagine if I had 4,000 Marines with 4,000 Afghan forces. I mean, it would not even be comparable to this -- even the success that we -- the relative success that we've had over these first seven days.
So no, I have -- but I have told, from General Petraeus to General McChrystal, everyone who's come through here, even General Jones, the national security adviser -- I mean, the fact of the matter is, there is a plan to source more. I'd have liked to have had more. They're just not available right now, and I'm -- and I know that CSTC- A [Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan] is working very hard to create more formations of Afghan forces.
But the bottom-line answer is, I'd like more, I need more. And they are such force multipliers, because as you move through areas, they see things we'll never see. They understand intuitively what's going on in an area that we'll just never get, no matter how much cultural training our guys get. So they are absolutely essential.
And of course everything we do -- everything we do -- is with an eye towards turning over and transitioning to them.
And again, you know, there's no empire building going on here. It's -- we're trying to build a base, and that base has got to be established with Afghan security forces moving to the lead. We're not ready for that yet, but that we know where we want to go, we learned a lot of hard lessons in Iraq -- and I think all of us that are Iraq vets intuitively understand what we need to do to get these guys ready to shoulder more, just like our Iraq security forces did for us there.
Part two is State Department and other interagency -- we all understand that the power of the interagency is certainly, you know, so credible here and so much needed here.
I have with me a State Department rep from the embassy who does tremendous things, Mr. Kael Weston. Coincidentally, he and I served together in Fallujah a couple years ago. And so we know each other very well, and I think we're a great team.
I also have a British political adviser here from the PRT -- (name inaudible) -- does great work for us here. And I use the PRT, the Provincial Reconstruction Team, in Lashkar Gah, where they have U.S. AID reps, where they have representatives from the whole of government.
I'd like to get more, and I know more are coming, but kinda just like during-- (inaudible). It will empower us. It will make us more capable as they arrive. Department of Agriculture reps. I mean, how important is that? You know, we're looking for those guys. And I know that there are some here, more coming, but I'd like to have that interagency representation at every battalion level. And I think, now, that brings the whole of government approach that we've been talking about for so long, brings it right into the battlefield.
MODERATOR: Thanks, General. Barbara?
Q General, Barbara Starr with CNN. Running through a little bit more on this logistics chain issue, when you say Afghan troops are absolutely essential, how -- first question, how many more above the 650 or so do you need right now? Can you make this work ultimately if you don't get them?
And then, sir, could you also run us through the rest of the logistics chain? There are reports that -- families are reporting that Marines don't have enough water out at the end of the line. Do you have -- has all of your combat gear arrived, or is it still in transit? And do you have the necessary medevac for these very southerly reaches you're going into?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Okay. Hey, Barbara, how are you? Yeah, let me take the first question first.
How many would I like? I'd like as many as I can get. I mean, you know, frankly, I don't know if there is a magic number. I think what I'm looking for right now is to get another Kandak battalion. So I would like to have -- you know, frankly, at the end of the day, Barbara, I'd like to have every Marine battalion partnered with an Afghan battalion. So I mean that's kind of -- that's where I see this going.
I think we'll get there. We're not going to get there in the next couple months, but I think we'll get there. And that's where we need to be.
The other piece is the police. We have what I’d call a fledgling police force right now. It is not as well trained as we would like.
It does not enjoy as much of the confidence of the local population as it should. You know, some areas are very fond of their police; some areas are less so.
So we're looking to sort of improve their quality. We're going to open a police academy, believe it or not, between the Brits and the Americans. We're going to open a police academy in Lash, where we can bring these guys in that are already kind of beat cops, bring them in and sort of help improve them and make them better.
All right, next question, water. Yeah, this thing popped today. I'm not sure where it came from. I know that the number-one threat to us right now is the heat. And I was out in it most of today, down at Khan Neshin. It's -- it's -- it's just hot as fire down there. We pay great attention to our delivery -- (extended audio break). (Sound of dial tone.)
MODERATOR: General Nicholson, it's Colonel Lapan here. Can you hear us?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah, I can.
MODERATOR: Where we kind of dropped you off, you talked about hot as fire and were going to get into talking about water for Marines, and then combat gear and supplies.
GEN. NICHOLSON: Okay. The Kandak -- is she satisfied? I'd like a one-to-one -- I'd like one battalion to one battalion on the Afghan army. Did she hear that? Did I pass that to her?
MODERATOR: Yes sir. And there was a question here, while we were offline, about how many battalions you have in the fight.
GEN. NICHOLSON: Okay. All right. Right now I've got -- I've got an infantry battalion up north -- (inaudible), which is not part of Operation Khanjar. They're up in the areas of -- (inaudible). I have three battalions -- three infantry battalions that are in the fight down south as part of Operation Khanjar, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines in -- (inaudible), the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines in Garmsir so you're sliding down into the fish hook, then I've got an LAR [Light Armored Reconnaissance] battalion in Khan Neshin, and then operating in the most southern reaches, I've got 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines as my artillery battalion in support. And of course, I've got Marine aviation and Marine logistics supporting us.
Let me answer -- get back to the water thing. Barbara, we spend -- we understand the number one threat here right now today is not the Taliban, it's the heat. And as I said, it is hot as fire. Every day we've got helicopters, day and night, pushing all manner of logistics, but especially pallets of water to the Marines. I am more than confident -- and I stay in touch with my commanders down there -- I am more than confident that we're getting the amount of water they need in a timely manner. No one is going without water.
My problem, and what I'm fussing about with my staff, is that the water's not cold. We need to freeze that water. We need to deliver water that's pretty well frozen. It will thaw out very quickly. So we're working on that.
Also trying to get them a special meal this weekend, get some steaks down there. And these guys sure as hell have earned it. So we will have some helicopters this weekend flying in a special meal to the guys. And, you know, we -- (inaudible) -- the water thing.
Medevac. I've got level two trauma surgeons with my forward most-deployed unit. And again, if there's one area that I think we nailed and got right and our commandant would not allow us to do otherwise, and that is to make sure that we've got the best possible medical care to our guys, and to the Afghan soldiers and police. And again, casualty is treated no differently, or a civilian casualty is treated no differently.
And so at this point I think I'm very happy with our Medevac laydown. We spent a lot of time in preparing that. And thankfully we have not had to use our trauma surgeon down in Khan Neshin at this point, other than the fact that the Taliban shot a woman through the hand here today. Other than that, I think we've been relatively quiet with our medical services down in that part.
Okay. I think that covers Barbara's questions.
Q (Off mike) -- sir, was a year --
Q (Off mike) -- still waiting on that equipment?
GEN. NICHOLSON: I didn't hear that.
Q General Nicholson, but some -- some people say that, you know, the Marines, it's just that you're still awaiting full delivery of all your combat gear to the area, that, you know, some of it's still on ships, some still in transit for the Marines in general down south.
GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah, Barbara, great question. The fact of the matter is, we would not have crossed the line of departure if we didn't have the gear we needed to do the mission. We wouldn't -- would not have accepted that level of risk.
You're right, there is still gear flowing from the States to us. Some of that gear will be extra trucks and extra vehicles that'll be battle damage replacement gear. Some of it is extra communications gear. Some of it will be gear that we use as the company starts setting up their COPs [Combat Outposts] and FOBs [Forward Operating Bases].
And again, right now none of those companies were put in the Helmand River Valley or in a firm base. They are moving day by day. Their mission is to get to know the area, get to know the people, go from village to village with the packs on their backs. It's heavy work, it's hot work, but it's important work.
And the first thing we didn't want the people of Helmand River Valley to see is Marines arriving and then immediately -- (inaudible) -- up at the base and hiding behind key walls. You know, you're not going to -- we're not out in the desert. We're going to be in there with the people.
Where we finally set up our firm bases and where we build that company in between combat operations will largely be dependent upon the advice we get from local elders. And that's -- and again, that makes this a very different kind of op. We are so very focused on that population.
And again, separating more from the Taliban, again, we've learned a whole lot from Iraq. I think at this point it's going well. And I would expect within the next week they'll come -- we'll start to say, "Hey, I've got it figured out. This is where our -- this is going to be where home is. This is where the local leadership is. This is where we can have the most influence and engagement. And that's when we start building that -- those COPs and FOBs.
So the bottom line is, yes, there is still gear on the way. There are still ships full of extra seven-ton trucks and bulldozers and tanks. But we work very hard to assess when will we green -- and green for us -- when was that light green that we could actually cross the line of departure and do this very, very challenging operation? And a lot of time spent on that, and our assessment across the board was we were ready. We established the D minus seven, and then we went.
Q Sir, this is Daphne Benoit from Agence France-Presse. So can you first of all give us some more detail on the number of engagement with the Taliban you've had so far in those seven past days?
And how long do you plan -- I mean, how long is this offensive going to last? Are you confident that this will be over before the presidential election?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Absolutely. In fact, you know, we are starting to -- trying to get the IEC [Independent Election Commission] folks down to register voters. We did that today in Khan Neshin. Again it's been many, many years since anybody in Khan Neshin registered. There are a few people that have registered. But they have traveled great distances, up to Lashkar Gah, to register. So voter registrations are priorities.
I don't know when this op is going to end, in terms of the series that we're in right now. I suspect there will be another week or two of moving around and just engaging with the people. And then again as I mentioned earlier, at some point, the companies will go what we call firm. And they will decide that this is where they want to be.
I'm characterizing this as an offensive at this point. I think luckily for us right now it's not -- I think what we're doing right now, it's an engagement operation at this point and getting to the people. And that was our objective.
The number of Taliban engagements has probably been around 20. Some are more significant down in the southern areas. We are certainly finding more IEDs, you know, affecting us. Many IEDs have been laid very hastily by an enemy that frankly fled. And that's okay. I mean, you know, the battle not fought is perhaps one of the great victories here.
We were prepared for a very tough fight. We were prepared for the Taliban to contest every inch of terrain. We knew we had to come in and be strong. And I think we've done that.
We were prepared for very high-intensity action, if that was required. But our hope was that -- (inaudible) -- we would not have to go very kinetic very often. And we have -- frankly we have been able to achieve that. And we're very pleased and cautiously optimistic at this point of the operation.
Q Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News.
You mentioned that you spoke with Generals Petraeus, McChrystal and Jones about needing more Afghan troops. Did you also talk to them about needing more U.S. or coalition forces in the south? And if so, can you talk to -- tell us a little bit about their response to that?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah. You know, I think any commander wants more troops. You know, certainly if I had another battalion, I could do more. But at the end of the day, I want more troops, I'd like more troops, but I don't necessarily need more troops. I've got enough troops to get the job done.
What I need is Afghan troops. You know, would I like another battalion of U.S. Marines? Absolutely. Do I need them to get the mission done that I've been assigned? Probably not. I'd love to have them.
Now, as the Marine Corps or as the MEB gets different missions, you know, I may have to go back to my leadership and say: Hey, I need more Marines, because now my commander, General de Kruif at RC [Regional Command] South, has given me a new mission. But for the mission we have right now, for Operation Khanjar, I've got what I need in terms of U.S. forces. I'd like more, I could do more, but I've got what I need.
But -- so the discussion with those three general officers was principally focused on Afghan -- more lack of Afghan forces, not on the lack of U.S. or coalition forces.
Q I have a -- it's Kimberly Dozier with CBS News. I have a question about how many advisers do you have with each of the Marine units on the ground. Who is doing the interface if you don't have enough ANA [Afghan National Army]?
And the Afghan national battalions you're asking for -- do they exist? Are they in the pipeline? Or is it a matter of wrestling away from the Afghan government or another part of the NATO command to get them down south?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah. No, I think here's where we're at. What we -- what we've had to do, what we've been required to do is take the existing Afghan forces that we had, and we had to sort of -- with the wisdom of Solomon, is slice pieces so that every Marine unit out there, every Marine company that's slogging through the Helmand River Valley has a platoon of Afghan forces with them, or they've got some number of Afghan forces with them.
And again, you know, I mean, one of my biggest fears -- as we move into the Helmand River Valley, if I'm a local, and I just see a company of U.S. Marines come by with no Afghans, you know, how does that inspire confidence in my government? How does that make me believe in -- that -- in something -- that something positive has happened? It doesn't. And again, it's just another bunch of foreign troops moving through the area.
So we were very adamant that we had to have -- and I hate the term “Afghan face” because I think (inaudible) and disingenuous -- but we had to have Afghan forces involved at the 20, 25, you know, manning level, you know, with each of our formations out there. And again, as we did our local engagement, as we're -- you know, as we hit a compound, we want to surge, we send the Afghans in. They understand those cultural sensitivities that we're just never going to get.
So we have sort of subdivided and sliced and diced the existing Afghan forces that we have and moved them down into every formation we have, so that there are no Marines on the battlefield that don't have Afghan forces with them.
Even the artillery battalion, you know, has a platoon of Afghans with them, you know, learning -- you know, learning what that's all about.
What was your second question? I'm sorry.
Q Sorry. A follow-on to that would be, could you give me a ratio of number of troops in the field to Afghan troops with them, just roughly? And the other question was, the extra Afghan battalions you need, do they exist? Are they still being trained in the pipeline? And who do you have to wrestle with to get them, or who does General McChrystal have to wrestle with to get them?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Well, I think right now there is a planned growth, a significant growth of the Afghan force. I mean, at some point, I've heard that they plan on doubling the force over the next short -- short period of time. So that's one way of doing it. Potentially, there are Afghan formations.
And again, the decisions about where these Afghan forces go, you know, are not made by any U.S. commander. I mean, they are made, frankly, by the Afghans. This is a sovereign government. They have a ministry of defense, and they have leadership in Kabul and will decide, you know, where and when these forces will be applied.
We've made, you know, frankly, as good a case, I think, as possible that we -- you know, down here going into these areas where no one has really ever stayed, and sort of taking back these areas from the Taliban would require significant enhancement of our Afghan forces here.
In terms of a ratio, you know, I've got 4,000 Marines in this area, and about 600…650 Afghans. So I mean, you can do the math. But we've divided them out as equally and apportioned them as best we could, to make sure that we had no Marine units operating out there independently without Afghan forces.
Q Hi, General. Justin Fishel with Fox News. You say you need more Afghan troops. I'm curious if this new tactical directive, which essentially says the U.S. soldiers require -- Marines require an Afghan escort to enter the homes -- I'm wondering if there's frustration, if you're feeling hamstrung by this tactical directive and the lack of Afghan troops.
GEN. NICHOLSON: No. And I'll tell you, the Afghan -- or the directive came out but, frankly, for us, I mean, we are so focused on the population and we are very attuned to civilian casualties. And I mean, they were very important in Iraq, but here they have taken on a whole new level of importance it seems.
And I think, you know, if you want the people to cooperate -- and again, I think one thing we learned in Iraq -- you know, at least in our envoys -- you know, the surge was great, the surge provided more troops and more equipment; but at the end of the day, you can't surge trust, you can't surge cooperation, you can't surge personal relations. Those have to be built over a period of time.
If we go into a town and it requires lots of damage to the town and we're killing local people, even if we kill Taliban, those local fatalities and the damage we cause is going to resonate. And I think one of the things that the governor has been so public about this week is that we don't have one -- as far as I know right now, we have not had one civilian casualty in the past seven days. Now, that's -- you think about 4,000 Marines, 600 Afghans, moving through an area, at least 20 engagements with the enemy, and to the best of our knowledge -- and we stay very close to this -- we've not had a civilian casualty.
But the governor is extremely happy with that. I talk with him quite frequently, and he is exceptionally happy with that. He says the people are happy with that. So I think the tactical directive, for us, did not change anything in terms of -- or restrictions in terms of how we're operating in this environment today. So I think for us, we came here focused on the people, and I think we've -- so far, we've been able to accomplish that.
Q General, Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes. McClatchy has a story citing Afghan defense officials who say that the offensive in the south has simply moved the Taliban into other parts of the country, specifically in German and Italian sectors. Is that your assessment as well?
GEN. NICHOLSON: You know, I can't -- I can't tell you where they went. And again, I admit it, I got to say -- (inaudible) -- what I care about is that they're not in our area right now, or the ones that are there… They had a couple options. The Taliban could stay and fight; some did, some ran or got to hide in the population.
Another reason you want Afghan forces is be because they can see guys on the street and they can tell you that this guy's not a local, that he's not even an Afghan. And again, you know, we're never going to be able to do that. But they can identify that right away. So it takes away the enemy's ability to hide, which is just one more of a series of compelling reasons why, you know, we've been so insistent for more Afghans.
Wherever they've gone, where the enemy has gone, have they gone somewhere else, I don't know. But I do know this: I know that Helmand province -- you know, 90 percent of all the poppies that are produced in Afghanistan, I think the figure is 90 percent of that comes out of Helmand province. This is the fuel that drives the Taliban. If they can't make money on this, and if they can't be in Helmand province to, you know, plant and coerce farmers into planting poppy and be here for the harvest, if we've taken that away from them, if they're out in some other area where there is not that level of poppy, then that's a good thing.
So, you know, again, our job, our goal is to get to the people, secure them, have an election here.
And I think we're doing that. I would not be able to speculate as to where the enemy or large portions of the enemy have gone.
There's also the reconciliation thing. And again, although we are not involved directly with reconciliation, the governor is. And I think the governor has gone through the -- we've got what we call helicopter diplomacy. We're putting the governor on a helicopter and then flying him around to all these villages like Khan Neshin. Next he's going to go to Nawa, and then he'll go to Garmsir. And he'll go to these places, you know, where he's going to be able to engage at his level with the locals. And I know that reconciliation and bringing these people back into the Afghan fold, gaining more support for the government, is a big, big project and issue for him.
And so that's -- you know, that's sort of where we're at with regard to where they've gone. I don't know. I'm just -- at this point, they're not bothering the people, they're not on top of the people, they're not coercing the people. And we've got an operation that frankly, at this point, little bit standoffish. Not sure when we're going to -- how long we're going to stay. But the initial results are that the shuras are going well, and that we will start with that first cup of tea. And I tell my guys, be prepared to drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of bread, because this is the long haul. And we're going to have to build that confidence one cup of tea at a time.
Q Can you estimate how much of the enemy fled Helmand province ahead of this operation?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Well, I can tell you it didn't flee ahead of this operation, because the day before -- the day before D-day, we had kind of snuck some guys into a few locations, and they were getting attacked pretty good. So, I mean, there were some significant fights three days, two days and one day before the operation. The enemy was robust. The enemy felt that this is their area and that we were going to have to come take it. And so the enemy was there. They didn't flee ahead. They had gone (inaudible).
But I suspect -- I mean, I want to underscore this, too. This enemy's not going to -- not going to just go away. This area is far too valuable, far too important to run. And again, this is -- you know, this is the engine that drives the Taliban, is this poppy crop here in Helmand province. I suspect that they will try to get back.
And none of these are -- (inaudible) -- Afghan forces here is, you know, to let us know. And we'll -- and by working with the population and trying to gain some trust and confidence, hopefully we'll be able to know a little bit about when they -- how they're trying to come back and when they come back.
MODERATOR: General, I'm very cognizant of your time as a battlefield commander, and we've done this in fits and starts because of the comm issues. I have at least four more solid questions. How much more time can -- do you think you can give us?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Sure. Let's go.
Q Hi, General. It's Lara Jakes with the Associated Press.
Could you tell us if there have been any, I guess, efforts to coordinate with the Pakistani army, either as part of this operation or in RC South in general at -- in -- to anticipate the Taliban maybe fleeing over the east border?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah. You know, I -- to tell you honestly, I don't know. I would hope and I suspect that somewhere between Kabul and the government of Pakistan that there are discussions that are going on. But I can tell you, very firmly at my level, there are not. And so I am not on the border.
Now, Khan Neshin is the city closest to the border. It's -- as you come in from Pakistan, Khan Neshin will be their first real city, governance center. That's straight when you come across the border. So we've taken that back for the government.
But no, I am not in any direct dealings with the government of Pakistan, but I am sure and confident that my leadership is.
Q Thank you.
MODERATOR: (Off mike.)
Q General, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America. Can you give a sense of what percentage of your operation you've completed, or how much of the offense? And how much have you shifted over to stability operations? And to follow up on what you said about civilian casualties, have you -- because you have so many troops on the ground, have you been able to use fewer airstrikes? Is that a factor in lack of civilian casualties?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah, you know, I mean, a term we're coining here is called "muscular strength." And that was kind of a buzz word as we went in. It's -- you know, and -- using a sledgehammer to kill a fly, you're going to do a whole lot more damage than you are just killing that fly. So I think, you know, we are not averse to using our power or using it where needed and when required.
But also, a really good example the other day -- of being able to surround the buildings. And again, if you can end an issue -- if you can end a -- what we call a -- an event, where, you know, you can get to that building, surround the building, use the -- either the Afghan forces in there to -- you know, and here we go again with the importance of Afghan forces -- but get the Afghan forces that you have to try to talk the -- talk the situation out, or, in some cases, get a local leader and have that local elder be out there and try to resolve the situation and try to get the women and children out, try to get that -- the enemy to lay down their arms.
And it's not going to work every time.
You know, we're not naive. We're not crazy that we think that that's the solution every time, but it is a solution that we found effective the other day in Khan Neshin. And so I guess the bottom line is, does the number of Marines help, not having to do those air strikes? Absolutely. Absolutely.
Q My other question was about the percentage of the operation that's completed, or how much of the -- how much of it's now offense versus stability ops?
GEN. NICHOLSON: You know, I -- I made sure my guys understood that stability ops started the day we hit the deck -- the day we hit the deck, when we see our first locals. Because again, we choreographed this very closely with the governor, and what we didn't want was a humanitarian disaster that -- this collision of forces between the Taliban and the Marines causing significant elements of internally displaced people to move out into the desert or leave their camp.
We worked with the ICRC. We were ready, in case that happened. But thankfully, it didn't. And I give max credit to the governor on that, because the governor through his networks got the word out: When the Marines land, stay. Don't leave. The Marines are coming in, but stay there. And furthermore, approach the Marines, go up to the Marines.
So again, this is -- you know, this was great, because as these units landed, as these units were moving through the area, we did see some level of outreach, not just from the Marines to the public, but from a lot of the elders, who were cued-in to our arrival. They didn't know when and exactly where, but they kind of knew we were coming in the general areas; and if we did arrive, to come out and try to -- try to find out who the leaders of our units were and start that engagement.
So I don't know that there's an ending where, okay, on this day we will cease all of our clearing ops. And again, clearing for us, as I've told our guys a hundred times, can be moving into an area, handing out Jolly Ranchers and drinking tea, or it can be a very kinetic, house-to-house fight. And I've told our guys: You should expect some of both. And you'd better be able to hand out Jolly Ranchers and 5.56 ammunition with equal enthusiasm and accuracy.
And so I really think that our guys have taken this to heart. They feel like they're part of something special, because they are. We've taken a hell of a large swath of Taliban heartland away from them.
And again, our job now is to inspire the people, inspire confidence in the people that we're going to stay and that their government is there to take care of them. And that's -- the heavy lifting is just ahead. That's going to be the really hard part.
Q Thank you.
Q Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg News. I have two quick questions. One, under the new rules of engagement that Secretary Gates approved earlier this year, are you actively targeting and destroying labs and poppy fields? Then I have a second.
GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah, okay. Let me -- let me answer that one. First of all, coalition forces, and particularly U.S. Marines -- I can speak for us -- we're not involved in eradication. Eradication is a program that is run by the Afghan government. So now, if they are somewhere out eradicating and they're in a firefight, will we come to their rescue? Absolutely. Will we medevac them? Yes, we will. But are we out there? You will never see Marines out there plowing fields, digging -- you know, I mean, it's just -- that's not why we're here. That's not what we're doing. That's an Afghan program. And so I hope that answers that.
Now, if I find -- if our Marines are out there and they find a lab, if they find a drug lab, will they report it to the Afghan officials? Will they cordon off the area and treat it like a crime scene and bring in Afghan government folks? Absolutely. But are we out there hunting labs? Are the Marines hunting labs or hunting poppy fields? The answer is unequivocally no.
Q You said the heavy lifting is still ahead in terms of dealing with the -- working the population. In August and September, what ideally will Helmand province look like from a Marine Corps, a U.S. military presence?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Well, I think the force we have will be in place. And again, I hope that we will continue to attract more and more Afghan forces. And again, success breeds success. We're hoping that, you know, that by our initial -- at least initial success down here, that there will be more organizations, more Afghan units that may be dispatched to join us to help us sort of build upon the success that we've had, you know, at this very early stage.
So I don't think the Marine Corps (inaudible) will look very much differently. I mean, at this point, we are still moving through the areas, and we will adjust slightly but not significantly.
Now I mentioned at the very beginning of this that we can't be everywhere. There are some areas that frankly we're not in that we will continue to visit. So we will add some visitation. You know, we will go into some areas just to make sure that they understand that while we're not there permanently, it doesn't mean that we -- you know, that we're not going to go in, we're not going to go in to look around. And again, you know, back to the Afghan forces, having them going with us and partnering with us is very important.
So does that answer the question?
Q Thank you.
Q Sir, Julian Barnes with the LA Times. You mentioned a couple times you wanted the unit leaders to do shuras as soon as they got into their areas. What -- have there been -- what have been the initial requests or the initial complaints from Afghans as they've met with your commanders in these meetings?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah. Again, I'll go back to the -- the number one question our small unit leaders are asked is, how long are you staying? When are you leaving? That's number one.
So I think we are just very actively and persuasively trying to convince them that, hey, we're here, and these Afghan forces that are here, they're going to grow. And we will continue to -- you know, to expand the security. The number one thing they want is security.
The heavy lifting for me is, as we start using the whole government -- interagency, working with the PRT -- to bring that governance in, again, if you've never seen evidence of your government, it's kind of hard to believe in it. And so, you know, trying to establish at these government centers, you know, just the beginnings of rule of law; trying to look for projects -- again, there could be long-term projects like roads, but frankly we need some small-term projects, getting some folks back to work.
Again, our enemy has never been the poppy farmer, the guy who's trying to make a living and feed his family. He's not the enemy. He never has been.
So I think for us to try to provide employment, to try to provide alternate crop choices, you know, that involves our PRT, our Provincial Reconstruction Team.
We have put together what I think is the most capable and what we call muscular civil affairs team ever assembled for a Marine Corps deployment. We've got really some great talent here. They work closely, hand in hand, with the PRT.
And again, our decision coming into Helmand province was that we were not going to establish a separate and distinct Provincial Reconstruction Team; we were going to buy into the existing British PRT, but we were going to put some heavy loads on it. The number-two guy at the PRT in Lashkar Gah now is a Colonel Jerry Fisher, who's one of my guys. So we had a buy-in, because if we have a separate American PRT in Helmand province, we're now vying for the attention and affection of the governor, which would have been counterproductive.
So I think -- I think we've got that piece right. But we're going to ask that PRT to be very responsive. As those young company commanders and platoon commanders, as they come up with projects -- and again, it's not up to us to decide what the locals need. And we learned this from Iraq. You know, it is up to the locals to tell us what they need and how we can help their communities.
MODERATOR: Last question.
Q General, Justin Fishel from Fox. I just wanted to follow up on a question you were asked earlier about civilians. You did answer the question, but we wanted to know exactly how many civilians State Department sent over there and are currently serving where you are. Can you give us a number, or a good estimate?
GEN. NICHOLSON: As a matter of fact, I've got my civilian representative -- can I put -- (laughing) -- I've got my State Department rep sitting right here next to me, Mr. Kael Weston here. Let me put him on -- can I -- do you mind if I put him on the phone and let him answer this question? (Pause.) Okay, this is Mr. Kael Weston from Department of State, and he is our embassy representative. Again, he and I spent a tough year in Fallujah together. But here's Mr. Weston.
KAEL WESTON (State Department): All right, I'm on the line. How can I help?
Q Well, sir, we just wanted to know how many civilians are serving in the region right now. How many civilians did the State Department send over to that area, in the south?
MR. WESTON: Contrary to some of the recent media, we actually have a pretty good complement of people. And I would flag that the real institutional knowledge resides in a couple of officers, one with USAID and one American FSO [Foreign Service Officer] at the PRT, who together are going on their third year. So I think there was a little bit of a disconnect when that initial story came out.
The plan, of course, is to bring more people in. And I just got a message from Kabul indicating that we've got incoming over the next few weeks and will be about at, I believe, 10 by September. The plan is to basically place people at the district level with the battalions.
I think General Nicholson talked about that. We're going to have a complement of people here with the Marines at the MEB headquarters. But our best value will be added locally, engaging with the Afghans.
So it didn't happen as fast as everyone wanted, but it is different from Iraq, where there were a few people that came in late. We've actually got a plan, and it's being implemented.
Q To be clear, 10 by September, and the number there now is what, two?
MR. WESTON: No. Total number, we've got two State, one USAID based at the PRT in Lash. I'm now with the MEB. We've got a new State person coming into the MEB next week. So that puts us at five. And then we're starting to get the people rolled out at the district and battalion level in August-September time frame.
Q How do you spell your name?
MR. WESTON: And in other locations, too.
But I would have to defer to our press people to, you know, give you the line by line. But all I can tell you is, it also is not just, I think, a numbers questions. It's what function are we serving.
I think General Nicholson mentioned that the relationship we have goes back a long way. Every big decision that goes on includes my British FCO counterpart as well as myself. And I'll tell you, the two guys at the PRT have done more time in Helmand than anyone -- anyone, period, and that includes the British. So it's the qualitative aspect, I think, of what they're doing, not just how many people are on the ground. And I think that's kind of been lost in the debate back in Washington, as I see it from here.
Q This is Andrew Gray from Reuters. Just taking your point about the quality being important, but in fact, is your current quantity or the target of 10 anywhere near enough when you consider the huge problems with the opium and civilian reconstruction there in a very difficult area?
MR. WESTON: I don't think you're ever going to get, you know, quote, "enough," as far as the ratio with uniforms to civilians. But again, I would tackle it a bit differently, that it's not about sending platoons of civilians out to talk to poppy farmers. We've got a strategy. We're here to implement it. And a reporter, to his credit, said, you know, sometimes you can add a few zeros behind individual civilians.
And I tend to believe that. You know, the expertise that you've got as a PRT right now is -- is unlike anything I've seen in Afghanistan, and I served about a year-and-a-half in the East before.
So, no, you know, if you're looking at sheer numbers, 10,000-to-10, it looks ridiculous. But you've got to dig into those numbers and look at what the functions are, what kind of budget they bring with them, and really what kind of support we're getting from Kabul and Washington, which is a lot of support.
Q Can I have just one final clarification. How many people, total, are in that British-led PRT?
MR. WESTON: I would have to defer to them, but I believe the British PRT number is -- I want to say over a hundred. They rotate in and out, but it's fairly large. They're a bit on a different rotational scheme than we are, but the coordination is good. We're not arguing over priorities. There's not friction that you might think with some of, I think, the British press highlighting the fact that the Americans are coming in to pick up the pieces. We don't see that here on the ground, but we know that's part of the debate back in London.
Q Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Kael. Good to hear from you again. If you could put the general back on, we'll push it back to him for closing comments.
MR. WESTON: I will, Dave.
CAPT. PELLETIER: Okay, sir, it's Captain Pelletier. Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: I've got you. Did we lose the general?
CAPT. PELLETIER: Yes, sir. He just got pulled out for something else; sends regrets, but he got pulled out. He had to go to something else, get an update. So is there any other information that I can provide anybody -- well, is there any administrative stuff? Anybody want to know how to spell "Kael"?
MODERATOR: It's K-A-E-L.
CAPT. PELLETIER: Yes, sir. You got it.
MODERATOR: We served in Iraq together, as well.
Q (Off mike.)
MODERATOR: No, he's State Department. Yeah.
CAPT. PELLETIER: Anything -- yes, sir.
MODERATOR: And it's K-A-E-L.
Q And the last name?
MODERATOR: W --
CAPT. PELLETIER: Weston, right. Correct, last name, Weston, W-E-S-T-O-N.
MODERATOR: All right, Bill. Thanks a lot. Tell the general thanks -- thanks for giving us so much time.
CAPT. PELLETIER: All right, sir. Take care. Thanks. Out here.
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