DOD News Briefing with Col. Johnson, Gov. Fidai and Col. Aref via Teleconference from Afghanistan
COL. DAVID LAPAN: Good morning all, and good evening in Afghanistan. I'd like to welcome to the Pentagon briefing room U.S. Army Colonel James H. Johnson, commander of Task Force Bayonet and the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Task Force Bayonet is comprised of approximately 4,900 personnel, and is responsible for counterinsurgency operations in the eastern Afghan provinces of Logar and Wardak. Colonel Johnson took command in October 2008, and deployed his unit to Afghanistan in November 2009. This is his first briefing in this format.
Joining him from Forward Operating Base Shank today is the governor of Wardak province since July 2008, Governor Mohammad Halim Fidai, and Jordanian Colonel Aref Alzaben, commander of Task Force Nashmi of the Jordanian armed forces in Logar province, a position he assumed in June of this year. Our speakers will make some opening remarks, and then will take your questions.
So with that, Colonel Johnson, I will turn it over to you.
COL. JOHNSON: Good morning. As already noted, I am Colonel Jim Johnson, commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team stationed in Logar and Wardak province of Afghanistan.
First, I'd like to thank OSD Public Affairs Office for allowing a modification in the normal press conference format and letting me be -- to be joined by two of my closest partners: Governor Fidai of Wardak province and Colonel Aref, the commander of Task Force 222 of the Jordanian armed forces.
We're currently at FOB Shank, which is located 70 kilometers south of Kabul. Together, our military and civilian partners are working to improve security, governance and development for the people of Logar and Wardak provinces.
Our current priority mission is the parliamentarian elections which will occur on this Saturday. This is an Afghan-run process. The independent election committee is responsible for the elections. The Afghan National Police are responsible for securing the polling sites. And the Afghan National Army is responsible for providing a wider ring of security during the election process. Throughout the process, ISAF will be there to support and ensure that a fair and transparent election occurs and that this is a strong step forward for the people of Afghanistan.
I would also like to highlight a recent initiative for our team -- it's a first of a kind -- called the Voices of Moderate Islam, in which Task Force Bayonet, along with the governments of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and charitable organizations, facilitated the travel of 34 local Afghan leaders to Jordan for a series of seminars on Islam in other cultures, and then followed by travel to Mecca for the Umrah [pilgrimage to Mecca].
It is our desire that these Afghan leaders, recently returned to Logar and Wardak, bring back a broader, less radical interpretation of Islam and share it with their families and friends to counter the insurgents who attempt to subvert and misuse Islam to preach a message of intolerance to the people.
We're seeing great progress with a program that we call the People's Development Fund, the second initiative I'd like to talk about. Again, this is another first in Afghanistan. This program uses CERP funding to sustain district governance. Previously, coalition forces have exclusively allocated CERP dollars. This is a process that may not be transparent. Using the People's Development Fund, it provides transparent district governance that empowers district committees to prioritize CERP and other funding sources for their communities. This effort allows the infusion of donor dollars and eventual Afghan funding at the district and provincial level.
As we like to say, instead of just building bridges, roads and schools, we are now building Afghan governance capacity to build and maintain bridges, roads and schools.
Both of these initiatives will be key as we continue to expand the bubble of security and prosperity out of Kabul, but we are not accomplishing this success alone. The ISAF team is supporting the Afghan leadership in a truly multinational fashion. In our two provinces, we have PRTs, Provincial Reconstruction Teams, from Turkey and the Czech Republic. We are partnered with our Jordanian battalion, and additionally we have forces from Hungary, New Zealand and Britain who operate with our security forces. This is truly a global effort to bring prosperity to the Afghan people of Logar and Wardak province, and I'd like to thank you for giving us the opportunity to explain this to you today.
I'll be followed by Governor Fidai.
GOV. FIDAI: Good morning. I'm Governor Fidai of Wardak province. Wardak is a very strategic province, located at the gateway of Kabul.
I would like to talk very briefly about the progresses that we have made in three key areas: security, governance and development.
We have made significant progresses when we are comparing Wardak with the -- a very dark era of the Taliban. We have made thousands of projects in Wardak province, and also the schools, clinics are open for boys, girls, male and female. And also we have also made significant progress in building the capacity of the Afghan National Police, Afghan National Army and Afghan National Department of Security, which is called also intelligence department.
All these progresses were made possible with a very great, effective partnership of the Afghan people, Afghan National Security Forces, and also the coalition forces in Wardak province and across the country as well.
I would also like to talk about the recent elections. These elections will be the first Afghan-led, Afghan-run elections. And this -- these -- only in Wardak province, 399 polling stations will be guarded by the Afghan National Police, supported by the coalition forces.
We understand that the development of the ANSF is very crucial, both the individual capacity of the Afghan national security forces and the institutional capacity of our forces, because in this election we understand that the civil and military institutions are also experiencing -- and it's a test for them to run first national elections. The Afghan people will go and choose their members of the parliament. And this is also a sign of progress, where the Afghans elect their members and their -- and their representatives -- instead of bullets, through ballots.
And I'd also like to talk about the progresses in the development sector. And I would like to give one example, of the People's Development Fund. The People's Development Fund is very, very crucial to increase the capacity of the Afghan civil administrations in managing the development projects, because we think that through the People's Development Fund, the Afghan civil leaders, the district governors and the provincial governor, they will have the opportunity to effectively manage these programs with a transparency and accountability of this program.
This program will also increase the confidence and trust of the Afghan people on the government, because people are involved in the selections and monitoring and evaluations of these programs as well.
With all these progresses, we do have some areas where we need improvement: the corruption. We understand that corruption is a big problem, and it -- we understand that the corruptions can undermine the progresses that we have made so far. And we are trying to stop these corruptions at all levels and also by improving the governance, engaging the public.
And also, the People's Development Funds could be also a vehicle to fight the corruptions and make everything and all projects available to the people, and the people then can make a final word on the success of these programs.
And also, recently I would like to talk about a burning of the holy Quran by -- the issue of the burning of the holy Quran. We understand that it never represent the American people and also other citizens of America. But it outraged and made the Muslims in Afghanistan very angry. These -- the enemies are trying to use this against our government forces. But recently, with the Voice of Moderate Islam, a program supported by an -- by a partnership with the coalition forces and the Jordanian forces here, this will enable our scholars who went to Jordan to bring new experience and also learn about a culture of coexistence, a culture of tolerance, so that at the end of the day everyone can live in a peaceful environment despite the differences of opinion.
I would like at the end of my -- this short briefing to thank all of you for this great opportunity to be -- to be provided to me so that I can share at least some snapshots of the progresses that we have made.
And thank you very much.
COL. AREF: (Greeting in Arabic). Good morning, distinguished members of the Pentagon press corps, ladies and gentlemen watching this on the Pentagon Channel or C-SPAN at home. I'm Colonel Aref, commander of the Task Force Nashmi, from the Jordanian armed forces, and the commander of the Jordanian Ranger Battalion, partnered with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Logar province, Afghanistan.
The Jordanian head of state, His Majesty King Abdullah II, issued the Amman Message in 2005. This message denounced terrorism and those who use Islam for a purpose not in keeping with the Muslim religion.
Many Americans are unaware of the triple suicide attacks in Jordan in November 2005 that killed 61 of our people and injured many more. We pledged then that the attacks on the Jordanian homeland would not stop us from fighting face to face with terrorists. King Abdullah assured the world after the monstrous attack on the 9th of November, 2005, that we would pursue these terrorists and those who aid them. We will reach them wherever they are.
After these attacks, the Jordanian people -- men, women and children, from all parts of society and all walks of life -- showed the world the -- that the Jordanians are united. After the terrorist attack, they marched in the streets of Amman and all the Jordanian cities in demonstrating, condemning such a cowardly and inhuman act.
Jordan have -- rise around His Majesty in his leadership, and that leadership that stands against all terrorist, inhuman, or uncivilized acts.
Today, His Majesty is pledged to ensure the world is safe from extremism, as the extent of our support for the ISAF, the coalition forces in Afghanistan, where Jordan has made a commitment for over 1,000 Jordanian military and policemen and women.
I look forward to taking your question today and discussing the amazing things we have been able to achieve with the 173th Brigade together in Afghanistan under Colonel Johnson's leadership. It's a true partnership and an example of how security, governance, development and information all works together to make this insurgence irrelevant. And I thank you.
COL. LAPAN: And questions from here. Michael.
Q Michael Evans, from The London Times, if I could ask a couple of questions.
First of all, Wardak has become a sort of symbol of success in many ways, but it has come under severe attack from the Taliban in -- over the last few months. What sort of level of threat do the Taliban pose to you in Wardak at the moment?
And I'd like to ask you also a little bit more about the visit of the clerics to Jordan, which I think is an interesting mission. Explain just a bit more about what they've done. And have they now come back?
COL. JOHNSON: Well, Michael, first, let me address the discussion on Wardak province and its security, and then I'll let the governor address that, and then I'll let Colonel Aref address the Voices of Moderate Islam.
In all parts of Afghanistan, in an insurgency, there's going to be varied security issues in different portions of districts and provinces. Currently what we are trying to do in Wardak is expand the security and prosperity that exist in Kabul and move it through the districts from north to south, mostly along what we call Highway 1, which is the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway and is a major thoroughfare for commerce and the patterns of life of the Afghan people.
What we've been able to do is expand that prosperity down Highway 1. We do still have threats along that highway, one of them being issues sometimes with private security companies that are engaged by either locals or Taliban forces. But again, under the leadership of Governor Fidai, who took measures to ban certain private security companies and also took measures to control their movements on the highway, we've been able to provide better security on that highway and allow prosperity to move south through the province.
So even though there are small issues of security, we're continuing to make progress every day. And as we make greater progress, the enemy will continue to make greater effort to disrupt that security.
Governor, would you like to add on the discussion of security for the province?
GOV. FIDAI: I agree also with Colonel Johnson that we are making progresses with security. We are -- the Afghan National Army and Afghan police forces are -- the capacity is growing day by day. Every day the coalition forces are helping our forces -- the leaders at the provincial and district level to be -- to be professional and to have more result-oriented.
And currently we believe that the public have more faith and trust in our forces. And that also comes with a bit of cooperation with the -- with the people so that we believe that it will -- it will ensure more security in the future.
But we do have some issues, and that happens with any other provinces. But we have to be also very realistic, that we can't fix the problems of 30 years or more than that in seven or eight years. We have to be patient.
We are making progresses. We have now policies, systems, procedures for hiring different officials at national and provincial and district levels. And a time will come where we believe that all the hirings in the police will be based on merit and professionalism.
COL. JOHNSON: Colonel Aref, sir, for the Voices of Moderate Islam, the effect it had on the mullahs that traveled?
COL. AREF: Yeah, in fact, we know it's in the last 10 years that insurgents, terrorists -- they start using the ideology of -- the extremist ideology of fusing their personal -- their violence act, to blame it on Islam and in the name of Islam.
And this is something which is -- we can say it's the red line, it's not -- (inaudible) -- on it for using these accusations. And we found out the insurgents and the terrorists sometimes they use it in the name of Islam as jihadists or they are fighting the coalition forces in the name of Islam.
So the initiative of the Voice of Moderate Islam with Task Force Bayonet partners, my task force, with the support with my government and the Saudi government and the United States government, both the U.S. embassy in Kabul and in Amman, we have -- get this initiative to select 34 personnel from the Logar province and Wardak. And these people they are -- some of them they are scholars, some of them they are from the Afghan National Army, from the Afghan National Police, and different kind of people from the society.
And they are participating for the first station in Jordan, Amman, with a seminar, and this seminar I'm talking about the moderate Islam and the tolerance, and to stop accusing and getting to stop that Islam is -- they use it like it is a reason or a method to -- in their goals.
So during that phase in Jordan, they have visited some of the companions of Mohammed -- (in Arabic) -- peace be upon him. And they have meet some of the Jordanian senior scholars, Islam imams, to discuss the issues of, like, the Takfir ideology and the extremist ideology.
And during this seminar, this is one of the things which is -- people they have to expose to the right voice of Islam, the Islam of the religion of peace, while nowadays we can notice that the burning of the Quran -- and this is what they reflect of that on the -- in the war -- because these red lines -- which, as I mentioned, to step on it, that's something which is -- people all over the world, they make the grievance between people and in their -- in their countries or in their village.
And after that, during the last 10 days of Ramadan, which is Umrah, which is equivalent to Hajj, the Jordanian government and the U.S. government, with the Saudi support, they have been in Mecca to meet with other Muslims' countries, other Muslims' brothers from all over the world to share with them the worship to God and to visit the Medina.
This is something which is also -- they have been exposed and they have met their counterparts, some of the workers from Afghan who work in Saudi Arabia and some of the people who went to Umrah by their own. And this is something which is when they come back, we need them to come up with their point of view about what they have noticed about civilization, security, development in Jordan and how can we develop Afghanistan in a secure way in the future. Thank you.
Q Hi, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News. Governor, if you could go back to your opening statement, you mentioned that on the talk of burning Qurans last week that Afghans are very angry and outraged and that the enemy is trying to use it.
Can you give us any specific examples of how the enemy has tried to use it in your area, in your province, or any specific protests or anything that you've seen?
And then, Colonel, if you could also talk a little bit about the parliamentary elections this Saturday. I think -- I think that you or the governor said that there are about 350 polling stations open. More than a thousand apparently are not going to be open, that had hoped to be, due to security and some logistics concerns. How many -- how many of the polling stations in your area will not be open due to security? And can you talk about any specific security threats that you're facing?
COL. JOHNSON: Courtney, sure. I'll allow the governor first to discuss the comments you made at the beginning, reference possible issues with the enemy using the Quran burning to their advantage.
GOV. FIDAI: The religious scholars in our society are the traditional agents of change, and they are very influential. The biggest problem of these -- in these religious schools and madrassas are that they are not exposed to other cultures and they have not seen -- even the majority of these scholars have not gone outside of their mosques and villages. And they are very limited in terms of both knowledge and experience. That's why the enemy is trying to use these -- the burning of the Quran as something that the -- it has been done either by the Jewish or other forces, and then associated this with the fighting against the insurgents and terrorism in our country.
Because it could jeopardize the lives of not only our soldiers, both the Afghan and the international forces here, but also the lives of the civilians that work in this government. However, the program that we have designed, like the Voice of Moderate Islam, would help to fight this heretic extremist mentality and ideology of -- that enemies and all their masters outside the country and other madrassas, religious schools, are preaching.
So this program will help these scholars to gain more knowledge, also expose to other cultures, also visit other countries and bring a new perspective with them and then share their experience with other scholars.
We do understand the risks associated with the burning of the Quran and the disinformation that prevails, but we can stop it if we have a -- tolerant, moderate Muslims scholars who can then play a role to promote a culture of tolerance, a culture of coexistence where that all human beings can live with each other despite of differences of their religion, opinions, race and color.
COL. JOHNSON: Courtney, to address your question in reference to polling sites in Saturday's election, of the hundreds of polling sites across Logar and Wardak province, only 10 will not be opened on Saturday, and they are not open more for reasons of logistics and for simple analysis of voter registration numbers and other polling sites being available.
We've made every effort possible to ensure that the voter base knows where their polling sites are, and the security plan for those is already in motion. Really, the most important thing we've been able to do is, as we've conducted our rehearsals and planning with our Afghan and other coalition partners, immediately after those rehearsals, we would have Afghan security leaders that would get on our local radio stations, which -- we have 13 across our two provinces. All their information is networked. And that information allows the public to know what actions the security leaders and the governance leaders have done, so that people have confidence that come Saturday, they can move to their polling site and participate in the parliamentary elections as they desire.
COL. LAPAN: Anna.
Q This question is for the colonels. There have been -- this is Anna Mulrine with the Christian Science Monitor, by the way, and -- there have been questions about the Haqqani network, and particularly in areas of eastern Afghanistan, posing a greater threat in some areas than the Taliban poses. And I just wanted to get your particular take on that for Wardak and Logar.
And then also Wardak was one of the first areas to implement local security militias kind of taking part in security measures and providing security for the provinces. And I just wanted to get an update, you know, and see how that's going. Any concerns? Just kind of the basics there.
COL. JOHNSON: Okay. I'm sorry. I didn't catch the name at the beginning, but I did catch the two questions. And I'm going to take the last question first.
For the local security force -- we call it the Afghan people's protection force [sic – Afghan Public Protection Force] -- that has recently been officially recognized by the Ministry of the Interior, and is now within the Afghan National Police structure of command. Once that occurred, we were able to get needed resupplies for those police forces.
And again, it's been the strong leadership of Afghan leaders, such as Governor Fidai, who has continually pressured his national government to legitimize this force and allow it to continue to provide success in, particularly, northern Wardak, where it had a significant role in bringing, for instance, Jalrez district into an area of prosperity and security, which will allow us to continue to expand further into Wardak. So that program continues to be successful.
We still have a long way to go in terms of training and organizing that force. But again, it's an initiative that I think will be modeled across other parts of Afghanistan and will bring future success.
The Haqqani network is a very complex problem, and it's really a regional problem, which General Petraeus has addressed in detail and has made his analysis known. Within our two provinces, the Haqqani network does influence the insurgent activity. But again, really, at this point, what we're focused on is taking care of all the security issues. Some of them may even be local criminal activities that the Afghan police can take care of to provide security for the personnel and the Afghans that live within our provinces and our districts.
We keep a good intelligence network that we share with our Jordanian partners and with our Afghan partners so we can better understand the networks.
But really, it's less of what label they may be put under and more of what they're doing to destabilize the security of the population that we're focused on. And I'll let Colonel Aref expand on some of the actions that he's taking in northern Logar against the insurgent activity.
COL. AREF: Okay. In fact, one of the things which is -- for fighting the insurgents -- and sometimes we don't as people in uniform -- it's -- the hard hand is not the main tool for fighting insurgents. Sometimes the soft hand, which is another approach which is -- we can approach to the local or to the Afghan people.
And when I -- what I mean by the soft hand, a soft hand to talk with the minds and the hearts of the Afghan local. Task Force Nashmi, we have the key leaders' engagement, which is we have senior imam clerics who can talk with the locals by the religious means, and they talk through the radio station in Logar. And they encourage people to go for voting, to stop the killing of innocent people and (inaudible) the criminal activity in the name of the Islam.
And this is a major support for winning the minds and the hearts of the Afghan people, and to put them, in a way, in the system -- which is -- I mean, by the religious approach, to approach the people and talk to the people in a religion way.
And by the hard hand for the election and the security of the northern Logar -- the Jordanian task force here provide the security for -- with the support -- in fact, the Afghan -- the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. They are the people who's running their own election, and they are providing the security, but we supporting the success of the election.
Another way which is -- I would like to mention for -- to go back to the soft-hand method, the Jordanian contribution to Afghanistan in the incoming future, we're looking for police officers, gendarmerie officers, who are going to support the Afghan national security forces, specifically the Afghan National Police.
And the -- in the same time -- even this is -- since 10 years, the Jordanians' hospital in Zabul, which is one of the big success story for the Jordanians to talk with the people, winning the minds and the hearts of the people for treat the people, and the -- these doctors, expert doctors who have treated hundred and thousands of patients or people who went to the hospital, this hospital was up in the north in the beginning, in Mazar-e Sharif, and when our doctors trained the Afghan doctors and they built confidence, and they just moved to Zabul. And this is a huge contribution for a country like my country, Jordan, to have a hospital here in Afghanistan.
COL. LAPAN: Okay.
Q Jim Michaels, USA Today. You mentioned briefly some issues surrounding private security companies that are transiting.
GOV. FIDAI: I would like to comment on the -- on the first two questions, about the Afghan local police and also about the Haqqani network.
What we believe, that the ideological and the financial resources for the terrorism and insurgency is outside our country, it is not within the villages of Afghanistan. However, there are contributing factors to the insurgency, which includes high illiteracy rates, ill- informed religious scholars and ill-informed traditional elders, community health, poverty, unemployment. These are the contributing factors that could inflame the insurgency, because the Taliban are using these factors to recruit the young people and also deceive the naive and ill-informed Afghan population.
That's why it is very important that the Afghans take the responsibility for their own defense. And we piloted a program in Wardak province, which is called the Afghan Public Protection Force, which is the first layer of defense against the insurgency. And it is a very comprehensive approach, which is not just fighting the insurgency with the arms and with military means, but also with a creation of employment opportunities for the young people and also bring development to the people. This program is one of the factors that ensure the progress in Wardak province.
Haqqani's group is one of the groups that could utilize these opportunities to create a disturbance and violence in different parts of the country, including Wardak province. And also it is very vital that we also take a regional approach to fighting insurgents.
And when it comes to the private security companies in Wardak province, the private security companies did violate the rule of law in this country. They did fire on the locals, and they did work beyond the agreement that they had signed with the Afghan Ministry of Interior.
And we -- we have seen -- we have seen many incidents where the public, on Highway 1, which connects Kabul with Kandahar, they were very angry. And there were many protests against these companies. So we took some measures to ban at these two companies and also organized the movements of these companies.
We do understand that there could be private sector to flourish, but no one is above the law, and everyone must work within the parameters of the law and respect the Afghan culture and Afghan law.
COL. LAPAN: Colonel Johnson, Colonel Aref and Governor Fidai, it looks like we're out of questions here at the Pentagon. So I will send it back to you for any closing remarks you'd like to make.
COL. JOHNSON: Colonel Aref, closing remarks?
COL. AREF: In fact, for Task Force Nashmi, we maintain a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to terrorism and insurgency in Afghanistan. Regardless of its goals or means, nothing in the world can justify taking the life of innocent people. The focus of insurgents in Afghanistan is on justifying violence in the name of Islam as a kind of jihad, instead of presenting a solution that will make Afghanistan strong country, independent. And insurgents believe their violence is a mean to achieve an end, but what kind of end would that be? No one wants to live under the Taliban again.
God says in the holy Quran that the killing of one innocent person is the killing -- is like the killing of all humankind, and saving the life of one person is like saving the life of all humankind. Our duty in Task Force Nashmi is to save the lives of the innocent Afghan people and lives of our American military brothers and sisters with whom we serve. We will sacrifice ourselves to save their lives. And I know we stand -- they stand ready to do the same for us as Jordanians. And this is the -- this is the power of our two nations' commitment to one another and to Afghanistan.
Thank you again for the courtesy of addressing you today.
COL. JOHNSON: Governor, closing?
GOV. FIDAI: First of all, I thank the Pentagon, please, people to provide me this opportunity to talk about progresses that we have made in different sectors, in different areas, in security, governance and development.
We are making progresses. And we did have many initiatives in Wardak province, like the Afghan Public Protection Force, the Voice of Moderate Islam, the People's Development Fund, the Afghan local police, and there were other -- more partnerships and cooperations and coordinations among the coalition forces, civil and military institutions.
Having said that, it also attracted the attentions of the enemy to stop these progresses, but we are very confident that the enemy is losing and the people's trust are gradually increasing on our civil and military leaders in Wardak province.
And we are also confident that with these elections, we'll have a government where the Afghans will have the real representatives, and that will also help to promote the local governments in the provinces so that we can lead the security, government and development initiatives with the support from civil and military international partners.
COL. JOHNSON: Again, for the Pentagon press corps, I'd like to thank you for your time today.
I'd like to thank you for your efforts in getting the facts to the American people. And I'd like to thank you for highlighting the sacrifices that many are making in this endeavor in Afghanistan.
I hope what you have seen and heard today, which is a U.S. commander, a Jordanian commander and an Afghan government leader working together for the security and prosperity of the Afghan people, gives you confidence in our mission and our way ahead. (Farewell in Arabic) and good morning.
COL. LAPAN: Thank you all.
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