COLONEL DAVID LAPAN (deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations): Good morning all here and good evening in Afghanistan. It’s my great pleasure to welcome you and to introduce you to Marine Major General Richard Mills.
General Mills is the commanding general of the recently formed Regional Command Southwest in Afghanistan. General Mills assumed his duties in Afghanistan on June 14th this year and assumed his duty as the first commander of RC Southwest a few weeks ago, on July 3rd.
This is his first time joining us in this format, the first of many, we hope.
And he joins us today from his headquarters in Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province.
General Mills will make some opening remarks, and then he will take your questions.
General Mills, with that, we’ll turn it over to you, sir.
GEN. MILLS: Well, good evening. As I was introduced, I am Major General Rich Mills. I’m a United States Marine and currently assigned as the commander for Regional Command Southwest. My U.S. responsibility is, I’m the commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Forward and the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division.
The headquarters here is a combined headquarters. In addition to the U.S. personnel that we have, I have nearly 100 officers from the United Kingdom filling various very key positions on my staff. I also have members of other members of the NATO alliance filling jobs on this -- on the staff, and they’ve been here since we -- since we stood up in early July.
As you know in response to President Obama’s decision in December to increase U.S. force levels, this command was formed and began to employ -- and began to deploy in March.
On 20 April, we relieved the USMC brigade that was in Helmand province, and we spent our initial 45 days or so as a subunit of Regional Command South, working for Major General Nick Carter of the British Army.
On 1 June, in preparation for becoming an independent regional command, we undertook command of Task Force Helmand, the U.K. brigade, and that came under our command on the -- in early June.
Currently we’re focused on operations within the central Helmand River Valley. It’s key ground. The bulk of the nearly 1.5 million residents of Helmand province live here. Progress here has been steady. I look forward to progress to continue to show improvement over the -- over the coming months, and I think we’ll expand rapidly in the months ahead.
Regarding the northern part of our AO, again, much progress has been made there, and I anticipate more progress in the months ahead.
All that we do here in the -- in the areas are partnered operations. We remain closely aligned with our Afghan partners. We have seen continuous progress with them, and we work with all of the Afghan security forces and have been very, very pleased at the increase in their capability, increase in their manning level, and the increase in the equipment with which they operate.
I would remind you that the price paid and that continues to be paid within this area has been steep. The Helmand valley is key ground to the insurgency. We can expect the insurgents to defend it strongly, and they have. But they have done so at a very high cost to themselves.
They are consistently being pushed back further and further away from the various district centers. They are being pushed further and further away from the river and the very important narcotics-growing areas that they’ve been -- used for years to fund the insurgency. And they’re consistently being separated from the population both by our efforts, by the efforts of the Afghan security forces, and by the efforts of the Afghan government both from the national level and from the local level.
Now, as I’ve said before, though, there’s still much hard fighting left to do, and there are still improvements in the Afghan security apparatus that need to be made. But our progress is steady. Our troops are the best in the world. They operate extraordinarily well in a coalition environment. They naturally function as part of a team.
I have found all of the coalition forces to partner extremely well with the local forces, both with the police and with the army, and they have embraced their Afghan counterparts as fellow warriors. All of the coalition forces here understand their mission, and their motivation remains high. They are extremely focused.
I appreciate this opportunity to talk with you, and I welcome your questions.
COL. LAPAN: Thank you, General.
Q General, this is Anne Flaherty with Associated Press. I’m wondering if you can give us the -- a status update on Marja. General McChrystal had called it a bleeding ulcer. I’m wondering if you agree with that and, if so, what that says about the U.S. strategy for clear, hold and build.
GEN. MILLS: Yeah, Marja reflects the progress that’s been made throughout the province. I would just like to say that Marja six months ago was a completely Taliban-controlled environment, Coalition forces could not approach it, nor could they fly over it. Anyone not involved with the insurgency who approached Marja drew fire and drew very accurate fire. It was an environment that is very, very important to the insurgency, both psychologically, as a very hot bed of the -- their beliefs and where they drew their forces from, but perhaps most importantly as the -- as a true center of their financial support. It was an area in which they forced local farmers to grow narcotics, which -- they harvested those narcotics, processed those narcotics and then smuggled them out of the country, to Europe and to the United States, in order to support the insurgency with the funds they need to buy the lethal IED-making materials they have, the weapons they have, and to pay the warriors that they put on the battlefield.
The insurgency claimed, when the coalition forces approached, that they would die in the trenches rather than give up Marja in a very, very dear fight. Of course we all know that that fight didn’t occur. The forces drifted away when they were -- when they were taken on by the coalition forces, and we had initial success on the battlefield.
Since then, we have seen again steady progress in the security situation in Marja. Today, as I -- as I talk to you, there is an emerging police force down there. It has some 140 members. It patrols in the streets. It runs checkpoints for security measures and enforces not only the basic laws expected to operate within a town but it also fights the insurgency when it’s called upon and when it’s attacked.
Additionally there are elements within Marja of the national police force, who have shown themselves to be talented, skilled and brave as they take on the insurgents that remain.
Of course, I myself have two battalions of Marines that remain in Marja helping with the security duties, working with the local forces to improve their capacity. And again the progress that we have seen in that area has been I believe steady and very, very positive.
Are there still insurgents in the area? Of course there are. It is very, very key ground to the insurgency. It is not a city in which they are going to give up easily. But they are being forced to give it up. And they are becoming desperate.
We are beginning to see more and more of that desperation reflected in the weapons and the tactics they use against us within the city. They come in in the evening. They plant their IEDs. And they try to spread terrorism throughout both our forces but more importantly I think among the civilians who live in Marja.
The Marja people are simple farm people. They work hard and they expect very little to be given to them. And they -- when they move through the city to go to the bazaars that are open now, when they move through the city to go to the schools that are open now, to include schools for girls, they encounter the enemy’s IED: a lethal, cruel weapon that does not pick out its victims; it simply strikes.
The number of children, the number of women, the number of innocents that we treat in our medical facilities, as the result of IEDs within Marja, is unacceptable.
The enemy is desperate. We see that in his murder and intimidation campaign. He has very little else to offer the people of Marja, other than threats. When he ran Marja, there were no schools. They had been destroyed.
When he ran Marja, there were no health clinics. They had all been closed. When he ran Marja, there was no local government other than Taliban. When he ran Marja, the bazaars were closed. And he destroyed most of the buildings that made up the bazaars.
Now, as we begin to see an emerging civil government in Marja, as we begin to see a local police force take on civil responsibilities, as we see the Afghan army take on more and more of their own security responsibilities, we have some 800-plus shops within the bazaars that are open and are quite busy on market day. We have freedom of movement by the people of Marja. As they move about, it’s a -- very simply, a rural farming area. It’s not an urban area that you would think of as -- but rather a grouping of homes on large farms. People move freely throughout the area -- of course, always subject to the enemy’s choice of IEDing their roads and their narrow paths on -- which they use.
So I would say to you that Marja, if you stay here and you observe it over the long haul, you would see progress. The people who seem to be disappointed are those who come and go and only take a day or so to observe. But the people who stay around report steady progress.
Q Thank you. Jeff -- this is Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes. The Afghan government recently approved local police forces, and I’m wondering if your -- any of your troops are going to be partnered with these new local security forces.
GEN. MILLS: Yeah, it’s my understanding that President Karzai has studied that program, the local security program, and has decided to accept it being used. It has gone through several iterations, and we have adapted it to ensure that it meets the Afghan needs and their desires and their concerns that it not become a militia.
I myself am in favor of it. I think that it encourages neighborhood responsibility for their own security. I think that it provides protection on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week basis. There’s nowhere in the world, there’s no city in the world, where the police can provide every citizen 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week protection.
Police in Marja, like police everywhere, patrol. And they come and go depending on what the situation in a particular spot is at a particular time.
What the local security initiatives give the people of Marja, and give the people throughout Helmand province, is an opportunity for them to defend their own territory, in which they have, of course, a very, very vested interest.
We have begun to see that. We have anecdotal evidence, strong anecdotal evidence, that as Taliban tax collectors enter Marja at night and enter other parts of this province, that they are repulsed and sent away by the people, refusing to give in to their demands. We have reports of Taliban recruiters, again, entering villages, not just Marja but throughout the province, and once again being rejected and told to disappear. So I think we’re beginning to see the emergence of the people wanting to defend themselves.
We also have gotten some very, very successful tip lines going, where the people can call on their phones. And although it’s a rural area, all of Helmand province, everyone seems to have a cell phone in their hands, and they use them very, very effectively and throughout the day. We have a tip line, both in Marja and in other places throughout the province, that are becoming more and more useful to us as concerned citizens call in, tell us of IEDs that have been planted, tell us of factories producing IEDs, and tell us of strangers who don’t belong in the local neighborhood who have come in and begun to cause trouble.
So again, I’m a big supporter of the local defense initiatives. I intend to make use of it here within the province. I intend to be very careful that I ensure that I stay within the guidelines of what the Afghan government wants. I also intend to work very, very closely with that program with the Afghan security forces, with the Afghan provincial governors and with the Afghan district governors to ensure once again that that program meets their needs, as well as meeting the needs of the -- of the people of the province.
Q Are your troops going to train or partner with these new forces? (Pause.) -- troops going to train or partner with these new forces?
GEN. MILLS: I’m going to have to ask you to repeat the question. We’re having -- we’re having some few spotty blackouts here on the -- on our communications. So if you can repeat the question, please?
Q Sure. Are your troops going to train with or partner with these new security forces? (Pause)
GEN. MILLS: I believe the question concerned the security forces, the Afghan security forces. And let me say again, as I -- as I’ve said before, we have seen steady progress in the Afghan security forces. This week, the 3rd Brigade of the 215th Corps of the Afghan Army -- and I am a partner of the 215th Corps -- the 3rd Brigade conducted semi-independent operations into a -- an area north of the capital city of Lashkar Gah, within the province, into an area not previously operated in by any of the coalition forces, an area in which we had reports of insurgent activity. That operation lasted two days.
I visited on the ground, and I took a look at the -- how it was progressing. And I can report good progress. It was an operation that was command-and-controlled by the Afghans themselves. It was planned by the Afghan staff, and was carried out, I thought, in a very professional and thorough manner. They had light contact. They cleared some IEDs they found within the area. They conducted supporting arms in a safe and effective manner.
Unfortunately they had a medevac. But they conducted that one as well in a very professional manner and conducted a withdrawal, once the operation had reached its goals, once again in a very professional manner.
So I think that is indicative of the type of progress they are making. We still work very closely with them. We still mentor them closely and partner with them. Literally all of our operations here within the province are partnered operations.
There are very few things that we do on the battlefield, that we do alone. We take our Afghan counterparts with us. They help us plan the various operations. They provide very, very valuable intelligence into the -- into the area of operations that we work in. And they are fully partnered both in the kinetics and the nonkinetics of conducting the COIN fight.
So again like any new army, the Afghan army has good units and units that need work. But I have seen steady progress once again in some of the junior leadership, in some of the staff planning capabilities.
And they are -- they are an army that likes to fight. There’s no problem getting them to go to the sound of the guns. We are working with them on some of the more intricate parts of the profession. And they are again showing a great eagerness to learn and a great eagerness to improve.
Q Sir, this is Daphne Benoit with Agence France-Presse. A follow-up on the question about local security forces.
Can you tell us if the special forces already --
He doesn’t hear me, I don’t think.
COL. LAPAN: Dave Lapan from the lectern. Can you hear me?
GEN. MILLS: Again I’m sorry that I’m missing the questions. I’m not -- they’re not broadcasting. If you can, repeat them or --
COL. LAPAN: General, Dave Lapan here. I’ll try to relay the question.
On the local police as opposed to the ANSF, is there partnering going on?
Have the special forces already started to work with villagers in this area of responsibility?
COL. LAPAN: Okay.
General, the question is, have special forces begun working with local villagers in your AOR?
GEN. MILLS: You know, I’m sorry, that -- the question did not come through. I guess it referred to the operations with the Afghan security forces. Perhaps part of the question might have been referring to the incident we had this week in which we lost three U.K. soldiers to a -- to a rogue ANA soldier?
COL. LAPAN: General, we’ll try again. The question specifically is about whether any special forces are in your AOR working with the local villagers.
GEN. MILLS: Just to comment on that -- on that incident. First of all, it is being thoroughly investigated by all sides. We have a team downrange right now from this headquarters combined with our Afghan counterparts to take a close, hard look at the -- at what took place.
Again, what I prefer to do when I look at that is to -- is to emphasize that there are close to 10,000 Afghan soldiers within my AO, all of whom are performing very, very well. As I explained before, the 3rd -- the 3rd Brigade is a great example of that. We have -- everything that we do is partnered, and our Afghan counterparts are out there sharing the threat, sharing the danger on the battlefield and participating with us in everything that -- in our successes and in our challenges.
That incident will be investigated. It is a -- very unfortunate that it did happen, and my deepest sympathies and all of this command’s sympathies go out to the families and the friends of those very gallant soldiers that were -- that were ambushed.
But I think overall -- and I can say this having visited members of parts of my command just today -- everyone remains focused; everyone remains fully trustworthy; everybody remains partnered with the Afghans.
There has been no loss of trust and confidence in each other by it. I receive sincere apologies from many Afghan officers and soldiers as I’ve moved around and also from their high command. I think it’s an unfortunate incident that we’ll push on from and continue to -- and continue to work around.
COL. LAPAN: General, Colonel Dave Lapan again here at the Pentagon. We are getting you and loud and clear, with no breaks in comms. Are you getting me at all, or is it still spotty?
STAFF: I think I can relay the question.
GEN. MILLS: Yeah, unfortunately you are coming in extraordinarily spotty and broken completely in most areas.
GEN. MILLS: If they’re going to -- I think they’re going to -- they’re going to relay the questions through a -- a through a cell phone here, and I’ll be prepared to respond to them.
COL. LAPAN: I wouldn’t do that. – I’ll give it a shot.
Q General, it’s Al Pessin from Voice of America. You mentioned two things, and I’m -- I wonder if you can provide some statistics. One, you talked about women and children who were hit by IEDs that you treated in your facilities. Can you provide us with some numbers on that? And if you can’t do it right now, can you ask the staff to come up with it?
And also, you talked about the increase of calls to the tip lines. Can you provide some before and after statistics on that and also whether the tips are significant? (Extended pause.)
COL. LAPAN: Okay. All right, guys.
We’re going to call it here.
We’ll work with them to see if we can reschedule. We just need to get on the phone with them and let them know that we’re pulling the plug here. So hopefully, we’ll have better comms next time.
Q Thank you.
Q Thank you. Bye.