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DOD News Briefing with Brig. Gen. Nicholson from Afghanistan

Presenters: Commander, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson
March 04, 2010

                MODERATOR:  Well, I do have the top of the hour here.  So why don't we go ahead and get started?  I understand we've got good audio. And we've got a good picture there of General Nicholson.   


                So it's my privilege to be able to have in the briefing room today the commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade.  He assumed these duties in Afghanistan in June of 2009 and is joining us from Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan today and is going to give you a brief overview of what they've been doing and then take some of your questions.   


                So General, welcome and thank you for your time this morning. And let me turn it over to you.   


                GEN. NICHOLSON:  Okay.  Hey, good morning.  Thanks.  I don't have an opening statement.  But I do have just a few comments.  And let me just hit a few of those, and probably will cause some interest in a wide variety of topics here.   


                But as you know, right now we're on day 20 going into day 21 of Operation Moshtarak, a planned 30-day op, at least for the initial phase.   


                RC (Regional Command) South, my higher headquarters, is working Op Moshtarak in two different AOs (Area of Operations).  Really one is the Task Force Helmand, the British AO, in Nad Ali.  And within Task Force Helmand, you had Afghans, of course, Brits, Danes and Estonians.   


                And then the port that we'll talk about tonight was in southern Nad Ali district or what we better know as Marja, where we had Task Force Leatherneck.  Again we had Afghan, Marine, Navy of course and an Army Stryker Battalion.   


                I'd just like to hail up top that I see a lot in the papers about Marja being a city.  Marja the AO is about 400 square kilometers. Marja proper, what we would define, is almost 200 square kilometers, so a pretty significant area.   


                I think most of you are aware that D-Day went on the 13th of February.  RCT-7 (Regimental Combat Team) under Colonel Randy Newman inserted three companies of Afghan and U.S. Marines between the hours of zero-two and zero-five on that night.  They were inserted by our aviation combat element led by Colonel "Beak" Vest and the U.S. Army Combat Aviation Brigade, Paul Bricker, and supported by Colonel John Simmons in our combat logistics regiment. 


                What we wanted to accomplish very quickly was to go big, strong and fast, get into the center of Marja, occupy the spine of Marja if you will, and start clearing out.  We were able to insert all of our heliborne forces without incident, and at first light -- we wanted to wait till first light to begin moving our ground forces in.  We were prepared to breach at several different sites. 


                We had a deception operation in the sense that we amassed forces at areas we had no intention of breaching on, and at first light we moved swiftly and, using the Assault Breacher Vehicle, we were able to get through the minefields, which were significant, and the enemy had lots of time to plan and shape those.  But we were able to move in relatively unencumbered.   So we got about 4,000 Marines, Afghans and soldiers into Marja relatively quickly. 


                I also see the number 15,000 thrown a lot, and that might include all of the support that is involved in the operation.  But within Marja today, we have about 2,500 U.S. Marines and about 1,500 Afghan soldiers.  In addition, we have about 600 ANCOP, or National Police. 


                We did a little shaping part of the operation, and Stryker Battalion -- U.S. Army Stryker Battalion 423 Infantry did a great job of holding 11 bridges that connected Marja from Nad Ali on a canal there. 


                Again, our goal here was to come in big, strong and fast, put the enemy on the horns of a dilemma.  But we understood from the very beginning that the people here were the prize; they were the objective of the operation, which was to get to the people.  I will tell you that as important as the tactical ops were, the tactical ejection of the Taliban is a distant second to the psychological dislocation of the Taliban. 


                We've been here for ten months, and I can tell you that wherever we go, people say, "Yeah, you did a good job in Garmsir or Nawa or Kahnishin, but when are you going to Marja?"  There was a pervasive  sort of question consistently about when would the Marines, when would the Afghan government go into Marja.  And I certainly understand it, because if that's where the enemy's at, if that's where the enemy's center of gravity's at, that's where the enemy's sanctuary's at, why aren't you guys going in there?  I think the second- and third-order effects of this Marja operation will have tremendous benefits not only for Helmand but for all of southern Afghanistan. 


                Talk about the Afghan army just for a second.  You know we've had about 40 media embedded with us over the last month, and I would tell you that I think the Afghan army is grading out here pretty well.  Some units are veteran units that we brought in from outside the AO and have done exceptionally well.  We have an Afghan battalion that for all intensive purposes has operated independently since the very beginning of the op. 


                We have some newer Afghan units that we have to partner with very closely.  Really they're just out of recruit training.  So I think there's a wide variety of the Afghan army experience here in Marja, but I can tell you that I am exceptionally proud of their great service.  These guys run to the sound of gunfire.  And when I talk to the young Marines, they tell me how very happy they are to have them there. 


                You know, Marines don't search any of the homes.  In an area this large, when you decide you've got to search a home, the guys going in are going to be Afghan soldiers.  And they've done that very well; they've earned the trust and confidence of the Marines.  And so overall, I think we're in good shape. 


                And the other piece I would add is, when we did Operation Khanjar in July, we had -- for every Afghan soldier we had about 10 Marines. So for this operation, Moshtarak, I think it's almost a 2-to-1 ratio, maybe a little less than that, but -- you know, maybe closer to 3-to- 1, but the fact of the matter is, it's a tremendous improvement in not only the numbers but in the capability of the force that we have. 


                We are now obviously working with the ANCOP.  I don't know how long we'll have them, but we are in the process of recruiting young men to become the future police force of Marja. 


                And probably, one of my greatest concerns from the very beginning has been the type of police that we're attracting and the type of young man that we're getting in.  Because at the end of the day, the stabilization inside of Marja by the Afghan government has got to be led with the police, and I think we all understand that. 


                Just by virtue of stats, on day three we had 36 TICs, or troops in contact.  Seemingly, everywhere in Marja, we had Marines in direct- fire contact.  We have now not had direct fire in Marja in the last eight days.  So I think we're -- while we still continue to find IEDs, I think we're very pleased with how things have settled down.  Doesn't mean it's over by any stretch.  And again, the IED threat is real and formidable, and we'll continue to work in terms of clearing it. 


                I can tell you, though, that I went to a school this morning in Marja.  There hadn't been schools open in Marja in many years, so the fact that we now had 107 kids at the class I attended in -- near city center, was pretty significant. 


                We've got a very skeptical population here, though.  And I think, unlike some of the other areas that we've been in that were generally glad to see us but were always wondering if we would stay, the population here is concerned about what we're going to be able to do for them.  I think they've -- are a little tainted by their former experiences under the Afghan government.  And I think Governor Mangal and his team is trying to convince through a number of shuras that this is different; that this is not the government of three, four years ago; that the forces that are here, that the police that are here, that the leadership that is coming in, is here to serve the people and take care of the people. 


                And at the end of the day, I think all of us understand that in a counterinsurgency operation the people are the prize, and the people are going to vote.  We are in competition every day for the confidence and support of the population.  We're in competition with the Taliban. And I'll tell you, I think we have a very narrow window of opportunity here in Marja to make that first impression.  You get one shot at it. And we're working very hard with the PRT, Lindy Cameron and their team, in trying to get the resources in here and trying to have that "hot stabilization" that will show the people that the new government is actually here to help them.  And that is a challenge. 


                Community-based approach:  We not only work with the local appointed and elected leaders, but with the tribal leaders.  And I  think one of the more innovative things that our team has been pursuing lately is the religious leadership.  And we've -- it's always been a little bit awkward, engaging with the mullahs, but we're going after it.  Because for too long we've deferred that leg of the stool to the Taliban.  It's just not been something we've been comfortable with.  We now are working very hard to gain the trust and to work engagement with the local mullahs.  And we did that, in fact, today in Marja. 


                I tell the Marines consistently that -- and they always give me big eyeballs when I say:  We cannot win this war -- can't possibly win it -- but we can help the Afghans win it.  And I think every day what you'll see within Task Force Leatherneck is an embedded partnership that we think is a model.  We're very proud of how we work with the Afghan army and the Afghan police that we have, and we are very aggressive, I think, on all lines of operation -- and very patient. 


                And I know we're going to drive the PRT crazy here over the next couple of weeks and months, just in terms of trying to get those resources, trying to get those services in to the people.  Because, again, I think we have a limited amount of time to win -- not the hearts and minds, but their respect and cooperation.  And that's what we're after. 


                All right.  I'll close just by saying that today I'm very proud that the Afghan flag flies throughout Marja, and that we are ready to work with the government in bringing these services to the people. The experiences so far with the people are good, but I just can tell that they're a little more stand-offish than other populations we've been in.  And I think that the Taliban have really worked hard to convince them that we are here not for their benefit, but to take things from them.  But I think we've got our work cut out for us.  And as hard as the clear was -- the clear was challenging for us -- I think that this piece now -- the hold, the stabilize, and the build -- I think that's where the heavy lifting begins. 


                So with that, I'm going to cease fire, and turn it over to you for any questions you might have. 


                MODERATOR:  All right.  Thank you, General. 


                And we'll get started here with Ann. 


                Q     General, can you talk a little bit more about the timeline? You mentioned that this will take several weeks for the Afghans to stand up their government there and to provide services once again. 


                Do you expect the 2,500 Marines will be needed in the area that entire time?   


                GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yeah, I'll tell you right now, we are planning on leaving the two battalions that are in there.  We have two Marine battalions in there.  We're planning on leaving them in there.  And we'll make decisions later this summer in terms of, you know, whether we keep two in there or whether we go down to one.   


                But I can tell you right now that there is no short-term plan to withdraw the Marines or the Afghan battalions that are in there. We're very conscious of the fact that this is a very fragile area. And so I think the necessity to keep the security forces in place, for the foreseeable future, is critical to us.   


                As far as the timeline for services, nothing can arrive soon enough frankly.  We have opened the roads.  The roads to Lashkar Gah now are open.  Commerce has started, the return of families.   


                I was in Marja two days ago.  And we saw probably 30-40 loads of families coming back in from Lashkar Gah.  I think that bodes well for us.  And I think that's a great sign that there is beginning to be some trust that the area is increasingly secure.   


                But in terms of medical and in terms of construction, I think we would all agree that unemployed young men in any society are bad news, whether it's ours or Afghan.   


                So I think our ability to get out there and hire not just a couple hundred, but I want to hire more than a thousand very, very quickly, get them off the street, get them working.   


                And I'll tell you that I think a lot of the people we hire may have probably been Taliban at one time.  You know, the whole notion of integration -- that the lunchpail Taliban, the working Taliban, will raise their hand and ask for forgiveness -- is probably a flawed assumption.   


                I think they just quit being Taliban and go on and do something else.  They either go back to farming.  Or in many cases, they'll come work for -- you know, on projects: cleaning canals, cleaning rubble.   


                There is so much work to do in Marja.  The mythology that Marja was this wealthy place that everyone benefitted from the drug trade is a fallacy.  I will tell you that my opinion is that Marja, the portions I've seen, is the poorest area in all of Helmand.   


                So there's a lot of low-hanging fruit here.  There's a lot of opportunity that presents itself, for us to get to work.  And so yeah, we're going to keep pressing the governor for Afghan services.  And we'll press the PRT (provincial reconstruction team) for the coalition services, to come in here to help the people.   


                MODERATOR:  David, do you want to take the next one?   


                Q     General, Dave Martin with CBS.   


                I thought you said that the ratio of U.S. to Afghan soldiers was three Marines for every Afghan soldier.  How does that square with the repeated statements, from officials involved with this operation, that the Afghans are in the lead?   


                And how does the statement that the Afghans are in the lead square with the casualties, which the last numbers I heard are way on the side of the Marines taking the most casualties?   


                GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yeah, great question.   


                Again an Afghan battalion is a lot smaller than our battalions. We've got two Marine battalions, three Afghan battalions.  Those battalions number about 300.   


                So I think when you look at the amount of Marines that are in there, you know, our battalions come in pretty heavy.  Afghan battalions are a little lighter.   


                So I think again probably a three-to-one ratio.  I think the casualty lines are pretty close to that.  And again we've taken some casualties with our specialists, with the engineers, with our route clearance guys.   


                And these are functions frankly that the Afghans aren't doing yet, although we hope they will be doing them soon.  So I think I've obviously looked at these.  I think the ratios are probably representative, in terms of the amount of folks that are in there.   


                Now, in terms of an Afghan lead, I'll tell you, I call it Afghan- partnered.  And I think we are very closely partnered.  We have squads and platoons that live together, eat together and are fighting together and doing a great job.   


                So there's no cosmetics here.  And you know, I'm the guy that back this summer was blasting pretty hard about the fact that we brought 4,000 Marines in here, and we only had 400 Afghans to go in and clear the Helmand River valley.   


                So I've been kind of a squeaky wheel on this.  So I'm not shy about calling it out.  But I'll tell you right now, I've been pretty impressed.   


                And again, we've had 40 embedded media, and I think the preponderance of stories on the Afghan contributions to this fight have been -- have been very positive. 


                MODERATOR:  Go to the NBC employee -- (off mike). 


                Q     Thank you.   


                If I could go back to -- oh, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News. If I could actually go back to Ann's question, General, you mentioned that recruiting young men to ANCOP was -- one of your greatest concerns was the type of men that you'd be recruiting in that area.  I mean, does that go towards what you were telling Ann about reconciliation?  Are you concerned that some of these former Taliban are who you're bringing into the Afghan police in this area in Marja?  Are you concerned about infiltration? 


                GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yeah, no, you know, we've been recruiting -- we run recruit training here at Camp Leatherneck.  And I think one of the things we never thought about before we left Camp Lejeune and our units left Camp Pendleton and around the Marine Corps was getting here and running our own boot camp or recruit training for police.  We've not seen any evidence that the Taliban have joined our police.  We've never had a negative incident with the police that we've brought in here and trained.  So I don't have real concerns about that. 


                I do have real concerns, though, about the quality of the police overall.  And we've been very public to say I'd rather have no police than bad police, because bad police, they just kill you.  I mean, they turn the population against you.  And if you're seen supporting a corrupt police force, well, then you're seen as corrupt as well, and it hurts your credibility. 


                It's interesting, and it's almost counterintuitive, but the Afghan army, largely not from Helmand, not even Pashtun, many of them, many don't even speak the language down here, but yet they are really very much looked up to and the people admire them for the institution they represent.  And it's very, very rare that you ever even hear about an Afghan soldier doing something to fleece the locals or anything like that.   


                But there have been too many examples, especially when we first got here, about police in uniform not acting the way we would expect them to.  And probably we have sent -- we have helped send any number of them home.   


                We're very encouraged by the latest wave of recruiting.  And while the Ministry of Interior obviously does the formal recruiting, we help by talking to the elders.  And that's how we help recruit.  We encourage them that if you want the security to be better, you've got to help contribute to the security.  Your young men have to be able to support the security in Helmand Province.   


                So I think that's been effective, and I think our personal relations with those leaders -- with local leaders and tribal elders -- have gotten us a better quality of young man to be a policeman. But again, we've got to get it right in Marja.  My assessment is one- third of the police in Marja should be local, two-thirds should be outsiders.  We're proponents here in the MEB of the one-third/two- thirds rule across Helmand.  We think that helps limit corruption and sort of reduces sort of the tribal encumbrances and affiliations that sometimes tie these guys down.   


                So I think we're moving in the right direction.  We're certainly not there yet.  But -- we're short on police, but I'd rather be short on police than have the wrong guys in uniform that we had, frankly, when we first got here. 


                MODERATOR:  Whitlock. 


                Q     General, it's Craig Whitlock with The Washington Post.  You mentioned that the population there in Marja has been standoffish and skeptical.  To what degree is that because they feel let down in the past by the Afghan government?  And to what degree is it because maybe they're broadly supportive of the Taliban and their beliefs and goals? 


                GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yeah, I had a great shura the other day.  I was at City Market, I think on day five or six, and there were 40 or 50 elders that showed up.  And they were one of the first guys to make any kind of appearance, because everyone had pretty well been locked down in their houses.   


                But in the middle of the shura this fellow stood up -- and this was reported somewhere, but an individual stood up and said -- he pointed at the Americans and said, "Hey, I like the Americans.  The Americans built Marja.  And I trust the Americans."  And then he pointed to some Afghan leaders and said, "But I don't trust you, because in the past, you know, you've represented a failed and corrupt government."  You know, my words, not his, but essentially that was the theme. 


                And then he said, "I'm a Taliban.  I'm a Taliban leader.  And we're all Taliban here."   


                And then he said -- the amazing thing was, he pointed at the Afghan leader and said, "I'm going to give you a chance.  And you have a limited amount of time to prove to me that you're not the old government."  Because I think one of the great talking points right now of the new Afghan government that's coming into Marja is, hey, we're not the guys from three, four years ago.  We're different.  And you need to give us your shot, you need to give us your chance to earn your trust.   


                So I think that's a positive.  But that's why I'm so very impatient that we've got to get in here and we've got to start demonstrating and earning that trust. 


                MODERATOR:  Otto, go ahead. 


                Q     General, operational question.  It's Otto Kreisher, working for Semper Fi magazine.  We know that the MV-22 Ospreys were used in the Marja operation, but there's some question as to whether they were doing milk runs into Shah Aziz or whether they actually got into the fight. 


                Could you give me a little rundown on how you used the Ospreys and what they contributed? 


                GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yeah, I'd be glad to.  I'll tell you, if there's any perception or notion that we're babying or coddling the Ospreys, you need to come out here.  We have done tactical inserts.  In fact, when we went into Now Zad behind enemy lines at three in the morning, we used Ospreys, because they were the right platform for that mission, that long-distance carry.   


                I've been flying around Ospreys for the past two weeks almost every day, in and out of small and very rugged LZs in Marja.  So, you know, I know that impression was out there, but I'm telling you straight, we are using the hell out of these things, and we're putting them in very, very challenging environments, and we are not coddling or babying them at all. 


                So I -- the only thing I could -- I could offer you is, come on out here and we'll put you on one and we'll fly you in and around Marja.  But certainly no shortage of correspondents has been riding in these things, all hours of the day, daytime, nighttime, insertions, sometimes under fire.  And so they're -- nobody here is babying those things.   


                And Colonel “Beak” Vest has probably been pushing these things a little bit to make sure that we give them a good workout. 


                Q     (Off mike) -- the Ospreys have been, reliability -- their availability.  How are you doing as far as having available birds? 


                GEN. NICHOLSON:  What's the question? 


                MODERATOR:  The question, General, was on reliability, the availability of the aircraft. 


                GEN. NICHOLSON:  Question was on reliability. 


                MODERATOR:  Yeah. 


                GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yeah, no, I tell you, we brief it every morning. Every morning I get the reliability stats, and we're averaging about 70 percent.  So seven in a -- you know, 70 percent is pretty good. That's, in fact, standard for my helicopter fleet.  So we're doing very well on reliability.  And it's important.  We know a lot of people are watching the Osprey, and they're doing great.  They're working very hard.  That's a great squadron; they're working very hard to keep those things flying. 


                MODERATOR:  Go ahead. 


                Q     General, it's Mike Mount with CNN.  If I can go back to the recruiting question again, our understanding is, the existing police that were in the town were essentially all pushed out, and then you would start this new recruiting campaign.  I know you just explained how -- that you're talking to the elders, et cetera, to, you know, encourage them to bring people in.  But what exactly is the vetting process there that you are -- so you don't prevent infiltration or these older -- you know, the old police force coming back in?   


                And are the Marines doing any -- you know, what part are you playing in there to guarantee that this force is going to be a legitimate force? 


                GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yeah, no, great question.  I just want to be clear -- and maybe I wasn't clear on one piece.  There has been no police -- there have been no police in Marja for the last many years. So it's not a question of coming in here and trying to get the old police out.  The old police were driven out, frankly, by the locals -- and the locals probably working with the Taliban. 


                And this is, you know, probably what is so important here to understand is that, back to my opening statement, is that the population voted, and they chose the Taliban, and they chose the Taliban because a couple years ago they felt that the police and the government that represented them did not serve them well and was probably corrupt.  And so I really feel that we have that opportunity now to bring in new police, bring in fresh police after they're trained and after they've been vetted. 


                Right now in Marja we have 600 ANCOP, which are the national police.  And I'll tell you, these guys are -- these guys are terrific. But they move around from area to area, and they backfill wherever there are problems.  And right now that area that we needed them the most was in Marja. 


                We were not going to bring in other local policemen into Marja. We want a chance to start fresh.  So we're going to go out and recruit some of the best and brightest that we can.  We're going to bring them here to Camp Leatherneck, where we put them through an eight-week boot camp, which -- any Parris Island or San Diego Marine Corps graduate would recognize a lot of similarities.  We're not trying to make Marines here, but we're pretty good in our institution about entry- level training.  We get that -- we got that down pretty good. 


                So the whole notion of team building -- and we worked very hard on these guys to make sure that they are going to be an asset to their community and a not a liability to the government.  And we spend no shortage of time talking them through scenarios, talking about protecting the population, though there's -- and we bring in guest speakers from Kabul.  Whether they're American, British, Afghan, we bring in police from all over.  So they get a very good education here.  We're very proud of the product. 


                As far as recruiting goes, we go to trusted elders, and we go to elders to ask them to send their very best.  And again, we've not yet had here in our AO we've not yet had a case of an infiltration of a Taliban in the police force.  So again, I can't guarantee that would never happen, but I mean, he's going to have to put up with eight weeks of pretty tough training and vetting, and frankly we just -- we have not seen it, and -- but we're always on the lookout for somebody that's not with the program. 


                Q     Can I ask you a quick follow-up on a stat? 


                MODERATOR:  (Inaudible.) 


                Q     General, it's Mike Mount again, from CNN.  And what is the number of recruits you have in -- so far, since you've started this? 


                GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yeah, right now I've got 200 recruits going through training here at Leatherneck right now.  We've already graduated a class and -- now we are not yet training Marja police.  We haven't recruited police that are going to go to Marja.  We are in that process right now, working with the Ministry of Interior.  And again, we're just at that ice-breaking stage with the elders. 


                Again, today's day 21.  So you know, we are -- we're really just down at the very beginning of building those relationships, which are so important here, and working with the elders to try to recruit some of the young men, some of their best young men, into the police force. 


                MODERATOR:  General, we have maybe time, if we can, for one more, and then we'll let you go.  Luis, I know you've been trying to get one in.  Go ahead. 


                Q     Luis Martinez with ABC News.  There have been reports about creating maybe a regional, another regional command in Helmand, calling it RC Southwest.  Can you talk a -- bringing that under a two- star Marine command.  Can you talk to us about the benefits of that and what the resourcing would be if such a regional command is created? 


                GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yeah, I'm probably a little ahead of this.  You know, I know there's a lot of discussion about Regional Command Southwest.  I can tell you that those decisions have not been announced by ISAF.  So I would be premature.   


                I can tell you I am being relieved by a Marine two-star.  Major General Rich Mills will be here in the -- in -- probably sometime in late April.   


                Lot of discussion about Regional Command Southwest, but certainly I'm not sure that a decision has been announced.  So you could understand how I probably don't want to get ahead of that discussion. 


                MODERATOR:  Very good, General.  Well, we will -- we will end on that one, and -- but before we close it, let me just throw back to you, in case you had any final thoughts that you wanted to leave us with. 


                GEN. NICHOLSON:  No, I appreciate the opportunity to kind of tell our story.  I think, again, we have a team here.  We have a great team that -- within this MEF and for 10 months has, I think, been an agent of change in Afghanistan and done great things here. 


                We are, again, very focused on the population, and the clearing is something we're good at.  You know, that's our stock in trade.  But I am equally proud of our ability to get in there and start making good things happen for the people, because, again, at the end of the day, it's the population that is the prize, and that's what we're after. 


                And we will continue to work with our Afghan partners and our civilian partners, in trying to achieve a stable and prosperous Marja, the way we see Nawa, Garmsir, and some of the other areas that we've had the privilege of being able to help move to the right side of the ledger.    


                So from here in Camp Leatherneck -- from the Marines, sailors and soldiers, civilians here -- thanks for -- thanks for the opportunity to tell our story.   


                MODERATOR:  Thank you, General, for your time.  It's been very helpful for us that are 8(,000) or 9,000 miles away to get a perspective from somebody right there on the ground.   


                Thank you.









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