DoD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Caslen at the Pentagon Briefing Room via Teleconference from Iraq
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): I have 10:00 straight up. So why don't we get started?
Good morning. Thank you for coming this morning. And welcome to our briefer. It is my privilege to introduce to you Major General Robert Caslen, who is the commander of Multinational Division-North, Multinational Forces in Iraq.
General, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me all right?
GEN. CASLEN: Bryan, I hear you. Good to be with you. Thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: Thank you for your time this afternoon.
General Caslen assumed his current duties in Iraq in November of 2008. This is our first opportunity to have him in this format. And he is joining us today from Contingency Operating Base Speicher in Iraq and is going to give you a brief overview, has a few comments and then is going to take your questions.
So General, again, thank you for joining us today. And with that, let me turn it over to you.
GEN. CASLEN: Okay, Bryan. Thank you very much.
And good morning, ladies and gentlemen. And thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. As Bryan said, my name is Major General Bob Caslen, commanding general of Multinational Division- North. And as Bryan said, I'm speaking to you from Contingency Operating Base Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq.
As has been recently reported in the media, our headquarters was named after Navy Captain Michael Scott Speicher. He was killed when his plane was shot down, while flying a combat mission over western Iraq, January 17th, 1991, during Operation Desert Storm.
Captain Speicher was a great American who paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country. And he helped pave the way for the gains that we see today, with the Iraqi people.
I would like to extend my condolences to his family, and personally thank them for Michael's service.
For those unfamiliar with Multinational Division-North, our area of responsibility is comprised of the seven northern-most provinces. They include Salahuddin, Diyala, Nineveh, Kirkuk, and the three Kurdistan provinces of Erbil, Dohuk, and Sulimaniyah. It's an area roughly the size of the state of Ohio, and employs about 23,000 service members and civilians. In our daily operations, we work closely with three Iraqi operational centers; one in Nineveh, one in Samarra, and the third in Diyala.
We also work with five Iraqi army divisions, one Federal Police division, the Iraqi police and the Sons of Iraq. About 156,000 Iraqi security forces serve within the Iraqi Army, Iraqi police and National Police throughout MND-North. In addition, we coordinate with the Kurdistan regional forces, called the peshmerga, and they total approximately 100,000 active forces.
This region is enormously diverse, and I'm extremely proud of all those who serve to bring peace and increased stability. The security situation here has improved significantly over the last nine months. This is largely due to the effective partnership with Iraqi security forces during combined operations and reconstruction efforts.
Our partnership has disrupted insurgent and extremist networks; it's degraded insurgent attack capabilities. The Iraqis are fully in the lead. And through the security agreement, Iraq continues to capitalize on these security gains.
One of our focus areas is in reconstruction, and this is based on improved -- improvement of essential services. The division and the brigade combat teams in support of the provincial reconstruction teams assist the Iraqis in order to develop and improve their economic services and economic development. We continue to see a steady improvement.
Economics across MND-North have also improved since our arrival. We continue to work with our Iraqi partners to capitalize on economic opportunities. Local governments work closely with our brigade combat teams and our provincial reconstruction teams to find innovative ways to facilitate long-term employment.
Finally, we are working hard in assisting Iraqis with the rule of law. We have helped validate five Iraqi police stations and over 20 local police stations. We helped recruit over 12,000 Iraqi police, and continue advanced training in forensics, in criminal intelligence and leadership development. Four provincial joint coordination centers are prepared for crisis action management. In Mosul alone, U.S. forces have committed to building 23 new police stations, and replaced infrastructure destroyed by previous insurgent attacks.
All these things said, Iraq remains a challenging and potentially volatile place, as noted by yesterday's senseless and high-profile attack in Mosul that claimed numerous innocent lives. Gains in security, economics and governance remain fragile.
U.S. forces continue to assist in partnering with Iraqi security forces to help resolve these challenges. Our forces remain committed to building and improving peace and stability to MND-North.
And with that, I look forward to your questions.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, thank you for that overview. And we do have a few questions here.
So who'd like to start us off? Courtney, why don't you go ahead.
Q Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. You mentioned at the end of your opening statement about the attacks yesterday. Can you talk a little bit about your assessment of al Qaeda's strengths in Nineveh province and in Mosul, if any military assessment has recently found that al Qaeda is spreading out away from Mosul or if that continues to be a center point of their strength in Iraq?
GEN. CASLEN: Thank you, Courtney. No, I think al Qaeda of Iraq, which also has teamed up with Islamic State of Iraq, or ISI, as we call it, still remains centered with its leadership and its financial capability in northern Iraq, primarily in Mosul.
What we did is we went after them pretty aggressively when we first got here, with kind of a mini-surge, which started right around January and February. We brought a significant amount of combat power. And over the first five or six months, we had steady attack levels, and then right before 30 June, they dropped off significantly. And we were very encouraged by that. Plus the intel reports said that there were some significant issues that they had, particularly with regard to their financing.
And then after the 30 June transition, there were some spikes in some of their capabilities that you saw, and especially some of the VBIEDs and the S -- the suicide VBIEDs, and the one that you saw yesterday -- which means that they have the capacity and they still have the capability, and they remain a -- I would say a resilient force that has the capability to regenerate their combat power as necessary. So we put a lot of pressure on them. I think that's very evident. But like I said, now that the Iraqi security forces are inside the city, they do remain some sort of resilience and they do have capability of conducting some attacks, as you saw yesterday.
Q You mention they have the capability to conduct attacks. Do you think they also still have the capability to incite a new round of sectarian tension or violence in that area?
GEN. CASLEN: Well, that's an excellent question. The attacks that they had were primarily directed against sectarian sort of issues, like the Shi'a mosque, that you had on Friday, and then the Shi'a population, that you saw yesterday. And some of the attacks in Kirkuk were also on minorities as well.
What you found, though, is -- what's interesting is, what kind of sectarian reaction or retaliation that occurred or failed to occur. You know, what's significant about the surge that occurred in 2006 and 2007 was how the United States forces, working with the Iraqi leadership, broke the cycle of violence. And they broke the cycle of violence by going after leadership, and they convinced the sectarians, once they were attacked, that we can go after their leadership, as opposed to attacking massively against, you know, the -- a retaliatory-type attack.
So what we're doing right now is, when these attacks occur, we'll talk to the leadership and -- of who was attacked, and then we will put together the necessary plans, working with the Iraqi security forces, to go after who conducted that attack and the leadership of that attack, in order to continue to break that cycle of violence, so you don't get the retaliations that you saw a couple years ago.
MR. WHITMAN: Anne, go ahead.
Q General, hi. Anne Gearan from the Associated Press. Can you talk a little bit, please, about the tensions between Arab Iraq and the Kurdish areas, how close you see that -- -- that -- how close that tension is to actually becoming a shooting war, and tell us a bit about what the American forces do as intermediaries?
GEN. CASLEN: Okay, Anne. Thank you, because that -- (chuckles) -- we spend a lot of time and a lot of energy in that particular area, and that's one of the problems that exists right in MND-North that we address a lot.
I personally think that the Kurd-Arab issues and the tension that exists is probably one of the most dangerous courses of action for all of Iraq and could certainly resolve (sic) in an ethnic lethal-force engagement between Kurds and Arabs.
The issue, as you know, is the resolution of the land that exists between the Kurds and the Arabs, of which both claim to that. And in order to resolve that, there's an article in the constitution that maps the way to try to resolve that. It's called Article 140, and I assume many of you are familiar with that.
But our goal in working with this -- and we're working with it at the tactical level -- and that is to build transparency and also to try to bring both the peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army forces together. And we do that at various institutions, like checkpoints and at our command centers, and we even bring them into our own command centers, and we also bring them into the -- even the police stations, so that they're together. And by being together, they conduct combined checkpoints, combined operations, and what that does is, that builds trust and that builds confidence.
But none of this is going to get resolved unless it's going to get resolved at the senior-most levels within this country, and that's in Baghdad and in Erbil.
And I believe they have the capacity and the capability of resolving it. I think it's going to take leadership from -- the senior-most leadership from this country to get it resolved.
I've been encouraged over the last week when Prime Minister Maliki went to Kurdistan and met with President Barzani. That was very encouraging, has a tremendous rippling effect throughout the entire force, both the peshmerga and the Iraqi army. And so I'm encouraged by that. And I'm also very encouraged by my boss, General Odierno, and General Jacoby and their works to try to continue to bring this towards resolution.
Q (Off mike) -- a little bit about the embedded U.S. troops on both sides, how many there are and what their primary function is?
GEN. CASLEN: Not sure what you mean, Anne (sp), by the embedded U.S. forces.
Q Aren't there some advisers embedded with the pesh and --
GEN. CASLEN: Oh. Well, we don't have any advisers embedded with the pesh. We partner with the pesh, and we meet with them on a regular basis and we partner with them.
And we do the same thing with the Iraqi security forces: We partner with them -- heck, we're actually with them in their command centers and in their command posts.
And we also try to encourage within our command post the embedding of peshmerga and the Iraqi army as LNOs in our command posts. And even in an Iraqi army command post, we'll get a peshmerga person in there as well.
What we're trying to do is, every command-and-control node, whether it's United States, peshmerga or Iraqi army, we're trying to bring the entire group of people that are involved in the problem set in there at the local level so that you have that transparency, which builds confidence, and then that builds trust.
MR. WHITMAN: Daphne.
Q Sir, this is Daphne Benoit with the Agence France-Presse wire service. In this context of current violence in the north, are the Iraqi security forces asking for a lot of U.S. help to pursue their operations in the cities, especially Mosul? Are -- is the American presence permanent in Mosul with the Iraqi forces?
GEN. CASLEN: I'm sorry, I really missed the first part of that question. I know you asked me about Mosul, and I know you asked me about American presence inside Mosul, whether it was going to be permanent or not. Is that where you want me to address, ma'am?
Q Like, given the current violence in the north, how much is -- are the Iraqi forces asking for your help? And are you permanently in Mosul with them these days?
GEN. CASLEN: We are -- okay, I understand. To answer your second question, we are permanently in Mosul. We're actually not inside the -- inside the city with combat forces.
Our combat forces are in Marez base and in Diamondback, which is south of the city.
However, what we've -- have partnered with the Iraqi security forces are at their command centers inside the city. So we have our U.S. forces that work with them in planning and coordinating operations, and then the command and control of operations.
We also have -- I think you're familiar with the MiTT teams and the PTT teams. The MiTT teams are the military advisers and the PTT teams are the police advisers. And the MiTT teams and the PTT teams are going out, and they're linking up with their police at the district headquarters, and they're linking up with their brigade level and above leadership -- the MiTTs are -- at the Iraqi army and the federal police in conducting their operations.
These are noncombat roles. These are advise and assist roles. But for the most part, the security of the city rests with the Iraqis at this particular point.
Q To follow up, are you confident that the Iraqi security forces are able to face such a violence in Mosul, especially if it goes on at the rate we're seeing right now?
GEN. CASLEN: That's -- no, that's an excellent question. It's a fair question. It may be too early after 30 June to make an assessment or to make a call at this particular point.
If you look at the -- let me give you some statistics on the attacks that have occurred in Mosul. Prior to 30 June, the average number of attacks per week was around 40 to 42. And then if you look at each one of the six or so weeks past 30 June, the average attacks have dropped down to 29. So overall, believe it or not, the number of attacks in Mosul have decreased. We see that as very encouraging.
What has increased, however, is the capabilities to conduct the high-profile attacks, and the attacks are primarily focused on Iraqi security forces, like police. So the number of attacks against Iraqi security forces have increased, and the high-profile attacks, which are these VBIEDs or the suicide vests, especially the VBIEDs, they have increased.
And the VBIEDs are the ones that are really focused after the local nationals and are the high casualty producers. So you see an increase in numbers of casualties post 30 June, but you also have a decrease in the number of attacks.
What we need to do is get in there and break the networks of the SVBIEDs and -- primarily -- and some of the networks that actually do the high-profile attacks, similar to how we had done that prior to 30 June.
And I'm confident that with how we jointly work, with the Iraqi security forces, primarily in our fusion of intelligence and our command centers, that we'll be able to look -- you know, get after these particular networks in this particular -- this particular case and do what we need to do. The Iraqi security forces will do what they need to do.
MR. WHITMAN: (Off mike.)
Q General, hi. It's Kevin Baron from Stars and Stripes.
You earlier mentioned reconstruction and getting jobs. Can you give an assessment of how much of that type of work is being done now, military versus State and USAID, how you guys are partnering together?
And is there -- what the plans are for the future, as far as -- as, you know, military draws down, the military's role in those civilian, you know, development kind of work pulls back. What's the plan going ahead? Is there one?
GEN. CASLEN: Kevin, that's a great question. There's a lot of work going on in there. And there's some great plans that are being implemented and put in place.
When we first got here, our primary effort -- in the counterinsugency strategy of clear, hold and build -- in the build phase was to look at the essential service infrastructure.
And the essential service was like the sewage and the water and the electricity. And out in the rural areas and the agriculture, it was the flow of water and drinking water and then also schools and medical facilities and even some key roads and things of that sort.
So as we mapped out what the infrastructure was, we found what the critical nodes were. That was those critical nodes that needed to be repaired. An example would be a water pump to get water out of a river into a canal.
Those ended up being the focus of our CERP projects. So we spent a lot of energy working on the infrastructure of the essential services, to try to get those up and running. And we've had some tremendous, tremendous successes.
That was implemented before the provincial elections of 31 January. And then right around February-March, we had the seating of the new governments, the provincial governments. And in each case, the new provincial government embraced our efforts of building infrastructure.
And they started getting their new district engineers online with our people, to ensure that we were building projects that were in line with Iraqi priorities. And we had some of the Iraqis doing -- you know, they had to do the cross-checking into -- in the approval process.
All the while, we're working in conjunction with the provincial reconstruction team, because they bring experts and they bring other sources of programs, as you had mentioned, USAID and the like. And then we started integrating those programs into the overall plan. And now we're at this particular stage.
We're shifting out some of our PRT leaders. And some of the new leaders that are coming onboard are developing a new strategy.
And this is important, too, because the strategy is going to put them in the lead. And as we start drawing back in the drawdown, we're going to be in support of the PRT and the strategy they have. The strategy they put together is strictly in conjunction with what the -- their Iraqi counterparts are doing at the provincial level as well.
This is a very effective program. It's not only produced a significant number of jobs, but it's got the infrastructure in a lot of areas up and running. And what it does in the end is that it gives the provincial government legitimacy to the Iraqi people; because in order for a government to be legitimate, it's got to provide security and essential services and rule of law, and essential service is a critical component of that. So we're making a lot of progress, and I'm very glad to see it. It's very effective.
MR. WHITMAN: Joe.
Q General, this is Joe Tabet, with Al Hurra. Based on your efforts to deal with the tensions between the Arabs and the Kurds, how do you see the future of the peshmerga as part of the final solution?
GEN. CASLEN: Well, Joe, that's -- that's a question the Iraqi government is going to have to resolve. According to its constitution, the Iraqi constitution, they are the reserve force for the Iraqi government. By that -- that's important, because what it does is it recognizes -- the constitution recognizes them as a legitimate military force.
And I think once you resolve Article 140, you're going to have a legitimate force supporting the regional government of Kurdistan which will be recognized by the constitution. And once it's recognized by the constitution, then the minister of defense will have the responsibility of providing necessary resources, you know, and supplies and stuff like that, to maintain it, as well. And, you know, I think in the end that would be the best thing.
So, there's going to be -- there's going to be some time to move towards that, but in some of the discussions that have been going on already at the senior leadership level, they recognize that this is an area that must be addressed as they resolve -- as they continue to move forward and resolve Kurd-Arab issues.
Q Just to go back to your opening statement, you mentioned that there is service cooperation between you and the peshmerga. Could you clarify what kind of cooperation you have with the peshmerga leadership?
GEN. CASLEN: We -- I would characterize it, Joe, as very good cooperation. We meet with the leadership of the peshmerga often. We have -- we share their phone numbers.
They have our phone number. If they sense something is not particularly right on the ground -- well, they use that phone quite often.
When we are beginning to work with the Iraqi army in the planning of operations in and around disputed areas, those operations have to be combined. They have to be joint. We will play a critical role working with the peshmerga to bring everybody together in dialogue and in discussion to come up with the right force mix for those operations which are along the disputed areas. And then those are required times that we've got to meet them.
But we meet them on a regular basis -- you know, just going up there and just check and see how things are doing. They are a very professional and a very confident group of people, and -- you know, and it's a -- it's a pleasure to be able to work with them, just as much as it is to work with the Iraqi army. We have a very trusted role in being this unbiased mediator between the peshmerga and the Iraqi army, and we try to remain that way so that we can maintain the confidence and trust of both the Iraqi army and the peshmerga and are not seen as biased on one side or the other. And it's very important that we do that, and it's been very effective thus far that we've been here.
MR. WHITMAN: Al?
Q General, it's Al Pessin from Voice of America. I was looking at these statistics you gave us, the weekly attacks down from about 40 to 29, but bigger attacks and more focused on the Iraqi security forces. What do you think's going on there? Why are the attacks down? Why are they bigger? What is al Qaeda up to, or what are -- is the -- are the Iraqi security forces doing that has resulted in this change?
GEN. CASLEN: Great question. When we were leaving the city on 30 June, we were at that particular point where we saw a significant decrease in trends -- about a four-week consistent trend of -- downward in attacks. We also got some significant intelligence on the -- how well the network had been disrupted. We also saw some of the financing through some of the raids that had been done and some of the documents that were recovered, and then their financing had been down by over 50 percent. So we knew that there was significant pressure going on on that particular network at that particular time. Since then, we had a resurgence of some high-profile attacks. But, you know, it's -- but a couple of the attacks were not to the significant level that we experienced last January and February.
I lost a battalion commander against a huge attack against his vehicle. And then we lost another five soldiers against another huge attack. But we haven't seen attacks to that level yet.
So, you know, at this particular point, like I said, they have the capability of regenerating themselves. They recognize how important it is to have these high-profile attacks in order to get the attention that are necessary. Overall, their attack trends are down, but they recognize what they need to do is to do the high-profile attacks and to go after the local national -- in order to entice the sectarian violence.
We have not found the sectarian reactions, which I think is good. We've found the government going after them. The Iraqi security forces are responding very appropriately. And we're working with them and coaching them and advising the leadership, both the military and the political leadership, how to work through all of this at this particular time.
And given the fact that overall attacks are down, we believe that there is continued pressure on the network. And in the end, I think what you're going to end up having is an irreconcilable remnant of criminals that will never reconcile, and they'll be like criminals that will want to attack for whatever reason, whatever motive.
It's clear that the population in Mosul does not share in their ideology. And these criminals will be treated -- once you get a competent police force, they'll be treated no differently than they are in any other major city like New York City or London or anyplace like that.
MR. WHITMAN: (Name off mike.)
Q Yeah. General, considering that -- what you just said about al Qaeda and also what you said earlier, that -- I think you said that the potential for violence between the Arab and Kurd forces is maybe the greatest threat to stability in Iraq. And then you also said that the progress is fragile.
So my question is, how fragile is it? We've been hearing this word now for over a year, since things started to turn around in Iraq. So how fragile is it? How large or small do you think the potential is for either Arab-Kurd civil war or sectarian violence? GEN. CASLEN: Well, those are -- a great question. They're two separate problem sets.
The problem set of the insurgency is significant. But what you're seeing is the pressure that we put on the insurgence -- United States and coalition forces -- that pressure now is being transitioned to Iraqi security forces, both their conventional forces, their special operating forces, as well. It's already been transferred in the city, and eventually it's going to be transferred, you know, a year from now, across -- when all combat forces come out -- across all of Iraq. And what we're finding is the Iraqi security forces, with some hiccups, are able to maintain the pressure on the networks.
I feel -- this is my personal opinion -- I feel that the networks have degenerated enough that with sustaining the pressure by the Iraqi security forces, they'll be able to maintain the lid on them, and you're not going to get this tremendous resurgence of sectarian counteractivity that you saw back in 2006 and 2007. That -- you know, that's just what I see.
If, however, the Iraqi security forces either degenerate or whatever, and you -- or they are focused on the wrong directions, and there is a capability of one of these networks to gain some energy, that may not be the case. But I'm more confident in what the security forces have been able to do, in what they will do in the future.
The problem set with the Kurd-Arab issues is another entirely different problem set, and that is, you know, the strategic question I always ask is, are the Iraqis -- once the United States leave, are they capable of resolving their ethnic differences peacefully, at the peace table? And when I first got here, I was -- you know, I was concerned about that. But based on some of -- because the answer is, they have the capability to do it. The question is whether their senior leadership will exert the leadership necessary to do that. And I'm very encouraged by the last couple weeks, when I've seen both the prime minister and the president, from President Barzani, get engaged and have -- has exerted some leadership to move this thing forward. I'm also very encouraged by the leadership that our embassy and General Odierno are exerting at this time as well.
So I'm -- so the answer to the second question is, I'm encouraged that we will get this resolved. If we do not get it resolved, then yes, it has potential to go towards lethal contacts, you know, in small separate areas.
MR. WHITMAN: All right. We've got time for one quick follow-up, maybe, and then we're going to need to let the general get back to his day job. Go ahead.
Q General, it's Courtney Kube again, from NBC News. Just one follow-up. You mentioned the number of attacks per week had gone down and the number of casualties had been going up. Do you have the figures for the attacks per week from before June 30th and after, so we can see the change?
GEN. CASLEN: Well, I can tell you in Mosul the numbers that we're tracking is that before 30 June, the attacks per week were averaging 42. That was a six-month average before then, but it was pretty consistent during that time. And after 30 June, it's down to 29.
I want to say, though -- you know, this is very important -- these are the attacks. These are not casualties. Excuse me. But the time period after 30 June is statistically -- if you look at it from a statistics standpoint, you probably need some more time in order to develop a comparison to see whether or not you're actually at a lower trend in numbers of attacks than you were before then.
But you can't -- and in the same analysis, you must be sure that you understand that you just can't look at numbers of attacks, because what's very important are the significant numbers of high-profile attacks. And the high-profile attacks have increased, and particularly against local nationals. And the attacks against Iraqi security forces have increased. Even though lower -- the overall number is down, the high-profile have increased. And then, when you do a high-profile attack, I mean, that goes right to the heart of Baghdad each time.
Q Do you have the number of casualties per week, to give us a gauge of how that's changed?
GEN. CASLEN: I'd have to get it to you. And I don't have it off the top of my head, but we do have it.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, we are at the bottom of the hour. And I'd like to thank you again for taking the time to give us an update in terms of what's going on in Multinational Division-North.
And before we bring it to a close, though, let me just turn it back to you to see if you have any final thoughts for us.
GEN. CASLEN: Well, Bryan, thank you very much. My final thoughts are that, you know, when I got here nine months ago, to where we are right now, I'm incredibly encouraged.
And as I look at the last three months that we have, I don't look at it as three months to -- I've got three months before we go home. Our soldiers and our leaders are looking at it as, we've got three months of about a 90 to 100 days of opportunity to continue to make a difference. And we are excited about the opportunity to make a difference, and we feel that we are making a difference.
And I also want to tell you how much we appreciate American support for this generation of soldiers and service members that we have here in MND-North. As you know, each one of them came -- or the majority of them came in the Army after 9/11. I like to refer to them as the 9/11 generation. They joined their Army while their country was at war, knowing full well they were going to join a unit that was going to deploy to war. And they didn't flinch, or whatever. They knew exactly what they had to do, what their mission was. And they're going to count themselves among the generations that went before them that had the opportunity to serve their country, and did so with honor because it was their duty to do so. So, you know, for an old guy like me to stand in their ranks for this incredible generation of young men and women, it's truly an honor to be able to do that.
None of this can be -- can happen without the tremendous support of the United States of America. And I'll tell you, we feel that in a big way, and it makes a huge difference. And we are very grateful for the support that America gives each and every one of our service members over here in Iraq, and in Afghanistan as well.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, General, thank you, and hopefully we can check in with you perhaps one more time before you depart at the end of your tour.
GEN. CASLEN: Okay, Bryan. Thank you very much.
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