(Note: General Mills appears via videoconference from Afghanistan.)
JAMES TURNER (deputy director, Press Office, The Pentagon): Okay. Good morning, everybody.
General Mills, this is Jim Turner in the Pentagon Briefing Room. Can you hear me?
GEN. MILLS: Yeah, Jim, I got you loud and clear. Over.
MR. TURNER: Let's get started, then.
Good morning. I'd like to welcome Marine Major General Richard Mills. He is the commander of Regional Command Southwest. General Mills assumed command of the newly-formed RC Southwest June 14th, overseeing some 30,000 troops from six nations.
This is his second briefing in this format. He last briefed in July. And he joins us today from his headquarters at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.
General Mills will make some opening comments, and then he'll take your questions.
And with that, General Mills, I'll turn it over to you.
GEN. MILLS: Jim, thank you. And good evening from Camp Leatherneck. It's an honor and a pleasure to be with you. And hopefully, unlike last time, the communications link will stay up and I'll get a chance to answer some of your questions a bit later.
We've been extremely busy here in Helmand Province since we spoke last. As you know, General Conway, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, was here in the middle of August.
He had a good chance to see the battlefield up close, a chance to visit the troops and a chance to gauge for himself the progress that we're making here within the province. I know that he reported back to you last week on what he saw and what his feelings were.
We've also had General Petraeus with us. And he also had a chance to see the battlefield for himself, to conduct discussions with both the civilian and the military leadership, both of the coalition and of the Afghan government. And I think he had a feel for the conditions that were operating here in Helmand province.
We are in the midst of the summer fighting season. The insurgency has attempted this summer without success to regain some of the momentum within the province, and has also attempted without success to hold on to some of the areas where he had never been challenged before.
Specifically, in Marjah we've seen some significant gains in the security situation. In June, there were no local police in town. Now I can report to you we have a force approaching 300. That force is well-equipped with vehicles and weapons. It's well-trained. It works from two newly constructed police stations that are away from the district center and near the bazaars. It has a solid, professional police chief who is enforcing an ethos of protect-and-serve within his officers and with his force.
Of note is the fact that over 75 of those police have been recruited directly from the Marjah area. And they show a significant investment by the people of Marjah in their own local security.
To the north, in Sangin, a combined U.S.-U.K. force is expanding the security bubble to the north and to the south of district center. Georgian troops will be joining them soon. And the Afghan army and police units who are there are also performing very well.
To the south of the province, the town of Safar Bazaar, last month that was a town that was a hotbed of drugs, IEDs and weapons merchants. That is now firmly under coalition force control.
The local bazaars reopened there to serve the people of the area. And today, market day, nearly 1,000 shoppers were observed buying the produce, the meat, and the simple home products that are now stocking the shelves down there.
Now, none of these advances have come easy. A steep price has been paid in coalition blood -- not only in U.S. and U.K. blood, but in the blood of all of our coalition partners. Our Georgian partners have suffered. Our Danish partners have suffered. And yesterday I attended a memorial service for one of our Estonian warriors.
I can tell you that the morale of the troops remains high. They remain focused on the mission. They remain committed to the task at hand. And I'd be remiss not to recognize the sacrifice of our Afghan partners as well. Their security forces pay a high price each day, but each day they become more capable and more skilled and more ready to take on the security responsibilities for themselves in the months ahead.
I also have to compliment the sacrifice of the population -- the civilian population, specifically. They suffer a -- the insurgents' IEDs and gunshots. And that takes a large, tragic toll on them, on the innocent children, the innocent women and the innocent men who live here in the province.
Of good news, the school season has started here in Helmand. One hundred and ten schools will be opened this year, and that's a great upgrade from last year. As a matter of fact, in 2007, there were simply 47 schools in existence. In Marjah there were none.
Today in Marjah, four will reopen, and ground has been broken on a new high school. We expect throughout the province to have a large increase in the student population, to include a good number of females. Atmospherics along the river, where really 1.4 of the 1.5 million people live, is very positive. Local schools are their number-one priority, followed closely by roads to open up the economic potential of the area.
And in addition to the school successes I've talked about, road projects are beginning throughout the area as well.
With fall comes the planting season. This is an agricultural area. Governor Mangal's food zone program initiative this year will provide 48,000 farmers with seed -- wheat seed, specifically -- and fertilizer.
Additionally, those farmers will receive classes on the growing procedures in order to ensure a bountiful crop.
We see this program as a major step in the effort to convert the economy here from the growing of illicit poppy to the growth and the sale of licit foodstuffs.
Lastly -- a major step -- we're preparing for the upcoming elections for the parliament. The Afghan security forces have taken the lead and taken charge of the security for polling stations and for candidates, and are doing a good job.
The government of Afghanistan, in conjunction with the International Elections Commission, is also working hard to ensure a fair and transparent election takes place in the coming weeks.
Let me finish by thanking everyone back home for the support that my Marines, my sailors, my soldiers and my airmen get on a daily basis. Everything they have, from the first-class equipment they work with to the medical assistance they get, to the support for our families back home, even to the goody boxes the men out in the field devour when they get their hands on them, tells them their country is behind them.
Thank you. God bless our country. And I'll be happy to answer any questions that you have.
MR. TURNER: Okay. Let's get to the questions. Right here.
Q Sir, it's Anne Flaherty with Associated Press. I wonder if you could give us your best assessment on how long it might be before Afghan security forces take the lead in Marjah.
And also, you mentioned the parliamentary elections in September. Do you have any -- and you also said that you're in the midst of the summer fighting season-- do you have any insights into whether or not you think that might carry through the elections? Are you concerned about the security situation come September?
GEN. MILLS: Yeah. The - Afghan security forces, we work very closely with them.
We're partnered both with the Afghan army, of course with the Afghan police, both the local police and their national police. And we work hard to raise their capabilities, raise their training, work with their leadership to ensure that they are becoming more and more proficient in their skills every day.
And I think some of the units have risen to fairly good standards. The Afghan army within the province where we have the 215th Corps is capable of small independent operations already and have conducted some very successfully. They have moved out on their own, deployed to the field for several days, moved into areas controlled by the insurgency where coalition forces have not been, and employed the full spectrum of skills expected of battalion-size organizations in taking on the enemy. They have fought well. They have resupplied themselves. They've used air and artillery to enable their efforts. They've conducted medevacs. And they've shown good leadership and communications skills.
So the army is -- has improved, I think, considerably over the past few months.
I think -- believe the police are also showing improvement across the board in their skills, in their ability to get out on patrol, and perhaps most importantly, by their acceptance by the local population as the force that enforces local laws and ordinances.
We see them about the bazaars, see them at road intersections; we see them on patrol in the rural areas -- again, all of which are perfectly what you expect of a police force in a rural environment. They patrol. They move out. They enforce laws. And they seem to treat the people fairly and with good -- with good humor and good grace.
So all of that is coming along.
Within the province itself, there are -- there are areas in which the security situation is such that we can begin to allow them to take on more and more authority on their own.
There are places like the capital, Lashkar Gah, where it's rare to see a coalition uniform on patrol or out in town. Security there is handled strictly by the local police and by the army that are stationed in the area. There are other towns as well in which the local police force, the local army are doing what you expect of a security force to do.
So I think there are areas here within the -- within the province, where we can expect to see some significant transformation in the months ahead, where we can turn more and more authority over to them to allow them to handle it, while we remain in the background and prepare to help them if and when needed.
That's not to say there aren't other areas in which the insurgency is still strong and in which the police are still coming on line, still joining members, and still becoming better and better at what they do. But I do believe that, in the coming months ahead, there will be areas in which we can turn over a significant portion of the security to them for their -- for their execution.
Regarding the elections, again, as I said in my statement, the Afghan security forces have taken on the responsibility of providing security at the polling sites and in general for the candidates. It's difficult to do that, as the candidates move about in their daily work and in their campaigning. But they are -- they are putting a tremendous amount of effort into securing the polling sites, so that the people are able to come out and vote safely. And we expect that there will be a turnout on election day.
MR. TURNER: Barbara.
Q General, Barbara Starr, from CNN.
Two follow-ups please. You said in the coming months you believed it would be possible to turn over portions of Helmand or Marjah. Do you believe that you can -- and I wasn't clear whether you meant Helmand or Marjah, so my first question is: When? Will it be by July 2011?
What do you mean by "the coming months?" When? And are you talking about Helmand or Marjah?
And very quickly, sir, my other question: What are you seeing in terms of the growing sophistication, size and capabilities of the IEDs?
GEN. MILLS: I'm sorry. If I said Marjah is ready for turnover, I misspoke. I am speaking about other areas within the province, areas that are more mature, where we have been longer -- towns like and districts such as Nawa, for instance; Garmsir to the south; of course, the capital of Lashkar and some other areas that I think are -- have improved, where we've seen a reduction in violence and, more importantly, we've seen a corresponding rise in the skill and size of the security forces that the Afghans have deployed there.
Marjah is still a work in progress, there's no question. I would remind you we've only been in Marjah, you know, five or six months. It is still an area -- I'm very proud of the progress we've made there, but we still, of course, have a ways to go. We are -- we've been there a relatively short period of time, and our starting point in Marjah was considerably behind some of the other areas here within the province. So I think Marjah will still -- will still require some -- (audio break) -- in the months -- in the months ahead.
Regarding the IED threat, the IED threat is significant. It is -- it is the enemy's choice -- weapon of choice because it's a cowardly weapon in which he can place at night in places where he doesn't care who walks by, that can explode and harm anybody who happens to be in the area. That includes a very alarming number of civilians.
He places his charges in bazaars; he places them along roads, along farm lanes, on bridges where the farming people cross to go to bazaar and go to the fields to work.
He doesn't care who and when he strikes. He simply strikes. And it's very, very -- it's sad to see the cases that we have treated. We do our best to treat them. It is very, very sad to see some of the -- some of the youngsters and some of the women who are -- who are crippled by these, as I said, very heartless devices.
The enemy is a smart enemy. He's an adaptive enemy. He changes his tactics. We haven't seen some of the sophistication in IEDs that we have seen in places like Kabul, nor in my past history in places like Iraq. The IED threat here is simple but lethal. He relies often on non-metallic devices, which are difficult for us to locate with our equipment, and he places them in areas in which he will do the most damage to the human body. He places them waist-high. He places them where they can aim at legs, where they can take off arms.
Again, an extraordinarily cruel weapons system that he can sneak in at night under cover of darkness, whatever hole he's been hiding in, plant those devices, sneak away, and allow -- and just wait for someone to -- some innocents, often, to walk up on top of them.
We have taken a number of casualties from IEDs, as you know. We are working extraordinarily hard here and back home to get a solution to that problem. It's probably a combination of technology, some of our new detection devices that we use, some things like I can't really discuss here, but some things that we are working on that will give us an advantage. We train very hard with our Marines, our sailors, our soldiers, everyone who goes outside the wire, to ensure they know how to deal with IEDs and how to identify IEDs. And we ensure that there are experts around, technical experts who can disarm the IEDs.
We are finding and we are disarming more than we are -- than we are -- than are being exploded. We are winning that battle, slowly but surely.
Perhaps most importantly, we are achieving a reduction in IEDs because we are reducing -- we are reducing the number of people skilled enough to make them through a very, very surgical application of our special forces, who are taking out the IED makers. They are taking out the IED suppliers. Those things are not getting to the battlefield as readily as they did just a few months ago, just a few weeks ago. We are attacking the networks that design them and build them. And we are attacking the networks that plant them. And then we're having -- we're having a very, very successful effort at doing that.
So we are seeing a reduction in the IEDs, a reduction in their sophistication, because the enemy can no longer afford to plant them. He doesn't have the skill necessary to build them in many places. And the people who supplied them are rapidly disappearing from the battlefield.
MR. TURNER: Dan.
Q Coming back to Marjah, could you tell us how the insurgents have responded to your offensives and your tactics? What -- how do you see the insurgency evolving over the past several months since you've moved into Marjah? And has there been a change in their response and their tactics?
GEN. MILLS: Yeah, Marjah's extraordinarily important to the enemy. He's not going to give this ground up easily, and he hasn't given it up easily.
It's important to him for a number of reasons.
First of all, it is the heart of the Pashtun tribal areas, and the insurgency in this part of Helmand or part of Afghanistan is mainly a Pashtun insurgency. It's important to him for that reason.
It's important for him -- for the statements that he made back in March that Marjah would never fall, that he would fight to the death to hold on to Marjah, and that the desert would run red with coalition blood if we attempted to take it.
Well, that statement didn't hold much water. He gave up the city very quickly.
But perhaps most important to him is that Marjah is his treasury. It has -- it has bankrolled his insurgency and his government for years. He turned Marjah from a rich agricultural area that was producing foodstuffs for all of Afghanistan and for much of the -- this part of Asia, and he turned it into a drug factory. He took out all of the licit crops, removed the wheat, cut down the fruit trees, rooted -- uprooted the nuts, and took away the vegetables. And he planted poppy. He planted poppy so that he could harvest it and turn it into heroin in the labs that he constructed in that area. He then took those drugs, smuggled them out of this country and sold them so they would pollute the United States, Europe, Iran -- all over the world -- and poisoned our young generations.
That's where he made his money. That was his treasury. He can't give that up. He gives that up and he can't afford to conduct the insurgency. We have seen significant signs that he's hurt -- that he is in financial -- (audio break) -- that he cannot fund the local insurgency that he is trying to do in this area. So he can't give this -- he can't give Marjah up without a fight, and he hasn't.
What he has done, though, is he realizes he cannot fight us toe- to-toe. He cannot stand and dispute the ground in which we won. Instead, he relies on the IEDs, as I've -- as I've talked about before. Marjah's a difficult -- it's difficult infantry terrain. There -- it's cut with a number of irrigation ditches; it's cut with water obstacles. Your movement is very, very restricted. Easy for him to plant mines, plant IEDs and put ambushes out that will be effective. And he's done that.
But we have seen the groups of insurgents get smaller and smaller each month. Generally now he will rise up, take a shot or two at you, and then disappear before you're able to react, simply to remind you that he's there; but he can neither capture terrain back nor really influence our action on the battlefield with those kinds -- with those kinds of actions.
He's been driven to desperation around Marjah. And the last tactic that he is -- last tactic that he has, since he can offer the people of Marjah virtually nothing -- when he ran Marjah, there was no economy. It was simply a drug -- a drug center. There was no education system. There were no schools. There was no government. There was no economy. The bazaar -- bazaars had all been shut down and closed. He really has nothing to offer the people of Marjah, except for the last card in his deck, which is terrorism.
So he comes in at night. It's a rural area. It's difficult for all of us -- for us to patrol every place. These are small compounds, often isolated out in large fields; greenery around it, so it's easy to sneak in there.
He comes in at night. He routs old men out of their beds, takes them into the street and beats them. And he thinks that's going to win the fight.
Instead, what we are seeing are pockets within Marjah of concerned citizens who are rejecting that. When he shows up the first night and does his -- what he does, when he comes back the second night people are waiting for him. We have reports, very good reports, verified reports of Taliban taxpayers and Taliban thugs who are being beaten by the locals and thrown out of town.
His -- his last card in the deck is not playing very well, which is simply murder and intimidation. It has not convinced the people of Marjah. They are looking at a better way of life when they see the insurgent come into the neighborhood.
Q A follow-up. You've talked about how they bankroll the insurgency based on this poppy trade and what you call a drug factory. To what extent has that whole system been broken or disrupted?
GEN. MILLS: We believe it's been disrupted significantly, both in the amount of money that he has available this year to spend on resupply and new recruits, and explosives. We have intelligence that indicates to us that he is -- he's got -- he's got a financial crisis on his hands. He has a cash-flow problem. He doesn't have the money that he needs to buy the weapons that he -- that he desperately needs in order to continue. And he is, as I said earlier, been reduced from the use of rather expensive IEDs to simple bullets, which are cheaper to get, easier to get and which he -- which he uses in a direct fire mode.
It's difficult for us to judge specifically how much money he has lost. We believe that the local insurgency here within the province has less than one-half of what they had last year in operating funds. Again, we based that on some sensitive intelligence that we're able to work with and some things we've studied.
Last year was a poor year for poppy for several reasons, both from the Governor Mangal's programs that he instituted, which encouraged the use of licit crops vice illicit crops. It also happened to be a bad year for poppy due to growing conditions. There was actually a blight on poppy that reduced the harvest.
So he was -- he had a couple of strikes against him right from the start. And we believe that the efforts both of the government of Afghanistan -- we ourselves, the coalition forces, do not engage in eradication. We are -- we attack poppy only when it crosses over into the insurgency.
But the government of Afghanistan, led by our good governor, Governor Mangal, has some significant programs, again which eradicate on the local level, and again, as we eliminate his -- the bazaars in which he sold the product, as we eliminate the fields in which he grew it and we eliminate the labs in which he used to process it, and perhaps, most importantly, we have eliminated the rat lines he used to get it out of the country, sell it, and then bring back the weapons, through a very, very strong program of interdiction that we use along the desert supply lines that he has, all of which have added up, I believe, to significantly deprive the insurgency of the money they so desperately need to operate.
Q Thank you, General. You're highly pleased about Afghan army and police making significant progress. Do you think they would be ready by next summer to take over Marjah? And can you also give us a sense of the supply line up -- (word inaudible)? Where does this comes from?
GEN. MILLS: I am pleased. I can only speak to the Afghan army here within Helmand Province. This is my -- my area of responsibility and it's the area in which I work closely.
The Afghan army has come on very, very strong. They have done a very good job of recruiting young -- young men to join the army. Their tashkeel, which is their manning document, is at almost 100 percent here in the corps. And they have recruited some good young officers and they're working to train some good young NCOs, which is that bottom-line battlefield leadership you desperately need to be -- to be successful. But I'm pleased in that way.
They have also, I believe, progressed at the right pace, not wanted to attempt too much, but instead to build on each success and to build their confidence, to build their capability and to build the morale of their soldiers very slowly, very carefully, but with a goal in mind of being able to take over their own responsibility.
I spoke earlier about several operations they conducted independently, which I was able to observe, and I was impressed with their abilities.
They are partnered at every level, from the corps headquarters, where I partner with the corps commander, down to the -- down to the platoon level, where our Marines in the field partner closely with their Afghan counterparts to teach leadership and to work with each other as they move out on operations.
Nearly all of our operations are partnered with our Afghan counterparts. They operate with us on patrol. They operate with us in the attack. They operate with us also in civil-military operations. And again, important to -- for them to develop their skills as they fight the insurgency campaign.
I think perhaps one of the other areas that I'm very, very impressed by is their desire, their -- their real desire to raise the morale, the living conditions of their individual soldiers. They had suffered in the past from problems with soldiers in unauthorized- absence status, soldiers who decided to go home and not come back. And they have worked very hard to raise the living conditions of the individual soldier here in the barracks to ensure that he is paid properly -- and we believe they are being paid properly, on time. He -- they work very -- very hard at ensuring their food is good, of sufficient quality.
And most important, they are involved, of course, in fighting. They're under a tremendous amount of stress. And so they look forward to their leave, as any soldier does. And the Afghan leadership has worked very hard to get an effective, efficient program of leave so their soldiers can come, can fight, but can also get home to relax and refit and bring their money home to their families. Again, encouraging them -- and we have seen the UA rates drop significantly because of those very simple yet very effective means that we would just say are just basic good leadership.
Q Answered that question though -- he never answered. Will Afghan troops be able to take over in Marjah by next summer?
GEN. MILLS: Again, I think that you have to understand with Marjah that Marjah is not an island.
The simple conclusion of the Marjah campaign is not going to signify victory within the Helmand Province. Helmand is a connection of communities that stretch along the river, all of which have large populations in them, and all of which had insurgents who controlled them at one time or another.
The Afghan army is working well in Marjah right now, in close partnership with two coalition-force battalions that are there on the ground. I believe that, as they get better at what they do, as we ensure that the insurgents have been reduced in size and in capability, and at the proper time, the Afghan army will in fact be able to assume security responsibilities for Marjah.
But I believe it's more important that we develop the local police. It is the local police who will ultimately be responsible for security in Marjah, the way local police are responsible for security in any town in the United States of America, or anyplace in Europe. The insurgency will ultimately become a criminal problem, I believe, in this country, and best handled by the police, while the army performs those missions that you expect of a -- of the armed force; which is to defend the country's borders, defend its sovereignty.
I truly believe that if you emphasize too much the importance of Marjah, you will miss the -- you will miss the scope of the progress that's being made. What happens in Marjah impacts what happens all over Helmand Province. But what happens all over Helmand Province also impacts what happens in Marjah: the success of Lashkar Gah, the succession of Nawa, an area that's -- that is very close to being ready to be transitioned, which is -- which is simply 4 (miles) or 5 miles away from Marjah.
Marjah is still a work in progress, as I've said, one that we're working hard on, one that's being developed. And I'm pleased with the progress, but there's still -- there is still work to be done.
MR. TURNER: Okay. Last question. Right here.
Q Would you like to tell us about the corruption that's going on there? And this being a Pashtun area, how are you dealing with the language problem there?
GEN. MILLS: Yeah, regarding the corruption, of course, as we're aware, President Karzai has -- and General Petraeus have made this very high on their list of priorities, to eliminate the corruption problem that has plagued the country for so long. At our level, we are also working of course to solve that issue as well.
That is mainly attacked through areas such as contracting, supervision of work that's being done, and careful accounting for money that's being spent, both United States money and all coalition forces money that goes into developmental projects and goes into the equipping of businesses and facilities throughout the province.
Corruption is a difficult issue. There's no question about it. But it's something that has to be addressed, and I think it will be addressed in its proper time.
As I work the security issue here within the Helmand province, the question of corruption is probably less than it is in some other areas. As we can see here, and we monitor this very carefully, the soldiers and the policemen are being paid on a regular basis. Their -- the allotments they get for food are being handled correctly and being used for what they are intended to be used for.
And we think that the corruption that was so rampant in the -- in the security forces, especially the police, during the years of the Taliban has for the most part been rooted out, the -- (audio break) -- corruption that -- of the use of police on the streets to extort money, that type of thing.
That has been gone.
Perhaps the largest source of corruption, if you will, in Helmand are some of the illegal checkpoints set up by the insurgents where they shake down travelers on remote back roads for money, for goods, for gasoline in order to keep the insurgency -- the insurgency alive. Corruption is certainly a problem, and it will be addressed, I believe, in the -- in the proper moment.
MR. TURNER: Oh, and there was a question about dealing with a Pashtun language.
GEN. MILLS: Okay. I'm sorry. That one didn't -- that didn't come through too clear. I got -- understand.
The Pashtun language, the -- most of the security forces down here, most of the people, of course, speak Pashtun. We -- that's the language of the street and it's the language in which most of the security forces operate. It's the -- it's the language in which we try to expose our coalition forces to use to some extent. Of course, our interpreters are all very, very skilled at that language.
Most of the army down here, although not local boys, are in fact Pashtuns from the -- from the tribe throughout the country. So it's the -- it's the language of use down here in the province.
And we have very, very skilled linguists who work with us. We have good interpreters. And we do give some basic training to our Marines and our soldiers who are on patrol in basic phraseology. And some of them are becoming quite skilled at it, actually.
MR. TURNER: Okay. With that, sir, I'll turn it back to you for any closing remarks you would like to make.
GEN. MILLS: Well, I certainly appreciate the opportunity to speak and to answer some questions. I hope I've been somewhat helpful. I can assure you that there is much work to be done here in the province.
We still -- it's not all good news over here. There are -- there are still -- the insurgents are resilient, they're brave, and they fight hard. And they have much to fight for. As I said, this is their heartland. And I believe, more importantly, it's the source of their -- of their wealth, the drug trade. So they're not going to give this up easily, but they are going to give it up.
They are being pushed back constantly by the efforts -- the brave efforts of our -- of our warriors. We have not lost an engagement. We have not given back an inch of ground that we've taken. And I believe that the results can be seen both in the improved security procedures, in the better governance that we see coming on, and the beginnings of development that we see here, with roads, with schools and with businesses that are beginning to open and to flourish.
So, again, thank you for this opportunity. Please -- thank you for the support that you give all my troops. They appreciate it very, very much. We have a -- we have a population these days in the ranks who are extraordinarily sensitive to -- they read the news, they see it live on the Internet, they see what's going on. And the -- their morale is high, and they are focused on their mission and appreciate, again, very much the support that you give them.
Thank you very much.
MR. TURNER: Thank you, General. Thank you for your time.
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