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DOD News Briefing with Lt. Col. Walker and Governor Azizi via Teleconference from Afghanistan

Presenters: Commander, Mehtar Lam Provincial Reconstruction Team, Lt. Col. John Walker, and Governor of Laghman Province, Governor Mohammad Iqbal Azizi
March 24, 2011

            COL. DAVID LAPAN (deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations):  Good morning here in the Pentagon, and good afternoon in Afghanistan.  I’d like to welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room for the first time United States Air Force Lt. Col. John “Red” Walker, the commander of the Mehtar Lam Provincial Reconstruction Team in Regional Command-East.  In November of last year, he assumed responsibility for  his joint command of 110 military and civilians who oversee more than $38 million in reconstruction and development projects in the provinces of Laghman and western Nuristan, with an area of -- an Afghan population, I’m sorry -- in that area of more than 500,000. 

            Joining him today at Bagram Airfield in Parwan province is the governor of Laghman province since March of 2010, Governor Mohammad Iqbal Azizi.  His previous political posts include director of education in Nangarhar province, director of education in Paktika province and director of education in Wardak province. 

            Our speakers will make some brief opening remarks, and then will take your questions.  And with that, Red, I’ll turn it over to you. 

            LT. COL. WALKER:  Thank you, sir.  And “nawroz mubarak” [greeting for new year] to everyone.  As the colonel mentioned, we have just a quick background on PRT --  PRT Laghman. 

            We’ve got over 110 people.  We have Department of State, USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] and USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] representatives, as well as military representatives from active and reserve components of the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army, as well as DOD civilians and contractors.   

            And just to cue you in on where Laghman is if you’re not familiar, on the main highway from Kabul to Jalalabad, we’re about two-thirds of the way east along that highway and then into the north. The geography’s marked by mountains, two major valleys with the Alingar and Alinshing River and the confluence of those two rivers and the Kabul River. 

            With that, I’d like to pass it off to Governor Azizi. 

            GOV. AZIZI:  Thank you, sir, for giving the opportunity to talk with you in United States -- America.  And let me express my deep condolences to the mothers and fathers who are sending their sons and daughters to Afghanistan, and then they are facing some casualties here in Afghanistan.  So my deep condolences and sympathies with those families, specifically and generally to your very proud nation and the world. 

            Today, when I’m talking with you in Afghanistan, which is too different from nine-years-before Afghanistan.  A few months before, I was visiting some European countries.  The thing which changed me was the perception and the image about Afghanistan was too contradictory or too different from the current realities here.  Sometimes the perception outside Afghanistan, the reflection of the realities are -- here are sometimes manipulated, and the achievements and the improvements in Afghanistan have -- undermined sometimes. 

            So this is what I found there.   

            Let me tell you very briefly about the developments here in Afghanistan, in Laghman.  Nine years before you (inaudible) in Afghanistan the doors of schools were closed to all the children of Afghanistan.  Eight years before, when I was the education director in Paktika province, it was very heartening to me when I had been to a school.  It was 350 school children.  And I asked them, what do you want from me?  The wants from the students was the teacher.  I was unable to find a teacher for the students there.  So it was very frustrating.   

            But today we have seven -- five -- five million students enrolled in the schools; 38 percent of them are children.  Health services improved in Afghanistan.  The democracy is exercising in Afghanistan.  The foundations are strong.  The governance is improving.  And security sector is also becoming more and more professional.  So we are highly optimistic about developments and achievements in Afghanistan. 

            But there are some challenges, of course, here in Afghanistan. The first challenge I found is the imbalance between the expectations and patience.  Expectations are very high from international community.  Some people are expecting Switzerland in Hindu Kush in 10 years. The patience seems slow.  So this is the first challenge. 

            And of course, we cannot compensate for three decades of war in 10 years.   

            So we are improving.  There are great improvements and changes in Afghan society.  So we are very highly optimistic for the future of Afghanistan.  Thank you. 

            COL. LAPAN:  All right. 

            Q:  Thank you, colonel, this is -- sorry.  Thank you.  Thank you, colonel.  This is Raghubir Goyal, from Asia Today.  What I’m -- my question is that whatever is going on in Libya, and now NATO is part of the coalition in Libya, do you see any effect on your mission in Afghanistan?  How do they feel there about ongoing bombings in Libya, including by the NATO? 

            LT. COL. WALKER:   Governor? 

            GOV. AZIZI:  Yes, of course, NATO’s engagement in Libya and some other parts of the world, of course, may divert the attention of the world in some extent.  But the commitment of the international community we are expecting to be the same as it was nine years before, because we had and we have a lot of improvements and achievements.  I think the world is very conscious that the -- (inaudible) -- what they achieved in these nine years.  And of course, the developments and achievements and improvements in Afghanistan is reversible.  So we would be trying to ask the international community not to lose what we have achieved in these nine years. 

            LT. COL. WALKER:  And speaking specifically from a tactical commander perspective, there have been -- there have been no impacts on our operations from any of the NATO or coalition efforts in Libya. 

            Q:  How much of -- the budget for Laghman province, how much of that comes from the Ministry of Finance?  And is the money flowing from the Ministry of Finance down to you at the provincial level so that you can do projects?  Or is most of the money still coming through -- for development through USAID and CERP [Commander’s Emergency Response Program]? 

            GOV. AZIZI:  As I told you, governance in Afghanistan and the capacity is much more improved than last few years.  Some years before, of course we very much relied on the PRT partners and technical assistance from different international organizations.  But today assessment shows that Afghan institutions’ capacities improved. 

            So -- and at the same time, decentralization started in Afghanistan.  Authorities are given to local government.  So we are expecting, the Finance Ministry and all the donors to give money to Finance Ministry, to the local government.  And of course you might have heard about the transition started here in Afghanistan, and one of the provinces is Laghman.  So of course we are expecting the international community, donors and organizations.  And there is, of course, a very good understanding with the international partners here in Afghanistan.  So Finance Ministry and Afghan administration is taking the responsibility for running and financing the projects here in the province. 

            Q:  (Inaudible.) 

            COL. LAPAN:  Gentlemen, if I can do it from here, the question -- the follow-up question was, has that money from the ministry started to move into the province yet, or are you still waiting for that? 

            GOV. AZIZI:  Yes, of course.  The money started to have -- the capacity is building and enhancing.  The money is coming from the center to the Finance Ministry to the local departments and the provinces.  And yes, it’s started.  And there’s a very functional exercise and very positive exercise of spending the money and -- by the local government there in the province.  So it is a very fruitful, productive exercise.  So the more that capacity is enhanced, the more the money is given by the Finance Ministry to the local government. Yes, it already started. 

            COL. LAPAN:  Courtney? 

            Q:  Hi, thanks for doing this briefing.  If I could ask both of you, there were some photos that were -- oh, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News.  There were some photos that were released in a German newspaper this week that had some graphic pictures of American soldiers posing with dead bodies.   

            I’m wondering, colonel, for you, are you concerned at all that this could have some repercussions on U.S. soldiers in your region? Have you seen any kind of outbreaks of violence against Americans that could in some way be tied back to the release of these photos? 

            And then, governor, if I could ask you, have you heard at all from your constituents about this?  Has there been any concern from the people in your area? 

            LT. COL. WALKER:  Yes, ma’am.  We have not seen any type of outbreaks.  As soon as we were notified about this, I worked very closely with the governor and his staff to make sure that we were both notified of what was going on.  And the short answer is no, we don’t expect -- we have haven’t had any and we don’t expect any incidents like this in our unit. 

            GOV. AZIZI:  Ma’am, when international community is behaving responsibly, of course, Afghans know that level of responsibility. When the pictures were brought in that magazine, at the same time, there was announcements that the soldiers who committed this kind of mistakes be tried and prosecuted.  So it is giving the responsible message to Afghan people.  That’s why Afghan people are not reacting in a manner -- in a hostile manner.  So that’s why there’s a silence and the people of Afghanistan are waiting for responsible actions against those who are committing these mistakes. 

            Q:  And Colonel, if I could just also ask you this, is there going to be any kind of additional training or meetings or anything to tell soldiers in the future that this kind of behavior is inappropriate?  Is there any change in your training because of this? 

            LT. COL. WALKER:  Ma’am, in our training?  No, there’s not.  I mean, I speak very frankly with my soldiers about it.  We have rules that are already in place.  And we take a very disciplined approach to every combat operation and every combat mission which leaves the FOB [forward operating base]. 

            So I -- no, I think the rules are already in place, and I’m very proud of my soldiers.  And they’ve acted with the utmost discipline on every mission that we’ve conducted. 

            COL. LAPAN:  Luis? 

            Q:  Gentlemen, it’s Luis Martinez with ABC News.  President Karzai in the past has expressed reservations about PRTs and their usefulness and that they create a dependency on the coalition.  Can I ask for your opinions on that?  And just expand on that, please. 

            LT. COL. WALKER:  I’m sorry.  Could you repeat that question, please? 

            COL. LAPAN:  Yeah, I’ll do it from here.  The question had to do with President Karzai in the past expressing concerns or reservations about the Provincial Reconstruction Teams creating a dependency on the coalition forces.  So he’d like both of your comments on that. 

            LT. COL. WALKER:  Yeah, I’ll start on that one.  One of the things that we’ve done or one of the -- one of the actions that we’ve been very cognizantly taking is, all of the PRT actions and all of our processes are nested “shohna ba shohna” [shoulder to shoulder].  I mean, we are really integrated very well with the governor and his staff, so we don’t give any opportunity for any projects or development or really any actions without the knowledge and prioritization of that Afghan government entity, whether that’s at the district or at the provincial level. And I think that’s what President Karzai is getting at, is that the PRTs need to be very well nested with the provincial governor and his staff. 

            GOV. AZIZI:  And may I reply to this question?  Sir, President Karzai commented in a very responsible and friendly matter.  Four years before -- this was not comments of President Karzai’s five years, eight years before, because we started from the beginning. There was no capacity in Afghan administration.  So the PRT very constructively and positively contributed to capacity building, governance, project management and also the technical assistance to Afghan government, local government in the provinces. 

            It is highly -- it was highly impressive.  But with the passage of time, of course, Afghan government was building the capacity of its administration and institutions.  So that’s why the assessment of President Karzai is that there is a satisfactory level of capacity in Afghan institutions, so -- as the transition starts -- so President Karzai is talking about very responsible manner that there will be a transition to Afghan -- if we needed the technical assistance four years before, today we have our own technical capacity in Afghan institutions. 

            So I think it was reflected in a very manipulated way in some of the press outside this country that President Karzai is talking in a hostile manner; but it was in a highly friendly, responsible manner. President Karzai want Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan to be served by Afghan government and Afghan nation and officials. 

            I think this is an understanding with our coalition and international partners here in Afghanistan.  International colleagues also want the same, and it is based upon understanding.  So we appreciate the very impressive and outstanding performance of PRTs in the provinces some years before, but today, when our own capacity is built, of course, international community is recognizing that.  And of course, when the capacity is built, there should be a transition. 

            Thank you. 

            Q:  Governor Azizi, hi.  Chris Carroll from Stars and Stripes. Could you comment a little bit on the security situation in your province and how that impacts on development, and also your best guess about how long before local troops can take over for foreign troops in that regard? 

            GOV. AZIZI:  With the passage of each day, security is improving. There is a change in the face of the province because of numerous development activities of the province.  Insurgency and Talibans and insurgents are highly marginalized in my province and the society is highly immune from Taliban’s radicalization.  It is because we work with our international partners and we develop a strategic approach to work with our people.  We very constructively engage Afghan people and communities in development projects, but at the same time in security.   

            There’s a very exciting project we called at Gobeen, and the people of the village that are contributing in the projects. 

            And at the same time, PRTs or other donors are contributing some money. The people are keeping their security, as well as the sense of ownership is enhanced consciously to keep and protect the projects safe. 

            So the people are very tired and exhausted from Taliban, and they are highly marginalized.  That’s why today more than 70,000 girls are going to the schools.  The doors of the schools have opened for the girls in the very far, distant districts.  This is a kind of dream for Afghan people, that a very far, distant village that’s called Unapal; yet there was no education, for boys even, 10 years before. Today, girls are going -- and are very exciting and enthusiastic -- straight to the school.  So there are a lot of developments in security as well as in all sectors of life.  Thank you. 

            Q:  Thank you.  How long will it be, in your estimation, before Afghan troops can assume this responsibility entirely? 

            GOV. AZIZI:  Actually, there is a very precise assessment of the conditions in Afghanistan by transition commission and President Karzai.  So I am fully confident that Afghan forces can secure the province with a very high morale.  And the transition assessment is -- and evaluation is very precise, and it took months.  And this is consciously transited, so Laghman will be -- the transition will happen there in the month of July. 

            And inshallah the forces there, Afghan national forces, can keep this -- the province and the capital of the province very secure, because in this nine years, we invested a lot.  People are consciously involved in security maintenance of the province; elders, youths, wives, students.   There is a high engagement of the people. 

            So I am fully confident that in my province, enemy is highly marginalized and there is no influence of them at all.  We can deal with the situation by our own selves. 

            Thank you. 

            Q:  Karen Parrish, American Forces Press Service. Gentlemen, a question for both of you.  Once transition takes effect in your province in July, how will operations between the PRT and the provincial government change?  How will that partnership progress to more of a government lead? 

            LT. COL. WALKER:  Could you repeat the question please? 

            COL. LAPAN:  The question had to do with if the province is able to transition as scheduled in July, how do you see the transition affecting the PRT?  How will that relationship evolve more toward the government of Afghanistan after July? 

            LT. COL. WALKER:  I think it’s important to note here that transition begins in July.  It’s not like we’re there on one day and we’re gone the next.  So transition, it’s a journey that’s going to begin in July.  And I would say that the relationship will remain the same or grow stronger as we continue toward and through our transition milestones and our transition conditions. 

            GOV. AZIZI:  Respecting the transition -- highly successful and smooth and will be in a highly responsible way.  Of course, it’s a condition-based transition.  And we are assessing the situation.  And the field assessment is already there.  It will be highly smooth and inshallah be more productive and strategic, of course, than what we are expecting. 

            So I am fully confident that all the things -- we are working with my team in the province, and the transition commission is also working on the details and specifications and the technical respects, how the transition will happen smoothly and successfully. 

            We are working very closely with each of them in a very coordinated manner.  So I’m very optimistic that the transition will be highly successful in the provinces which are announced. 

            Q:  (Off mic) -- follow-up, if I may?  Can you tell me what -- in the next year, what are your chief priorities for development in the province?  What projects are your highest priorities? 

            GOV. AZIZI:  Could you repeat, ma’am, your question, because it was not clear. 

            COL. LAPAN:  The question, governor, had to do with in the next year, what do you see as your highest-priority development projects? 

            GOV. AZIZI:  In Laghman, it is -- it was very strange to me when I was talking to with the people -- communities and people, the people were asking for the university, and it was because there was a high enthusiasm of Afghan Laghman girl students that they need it. 

            And they were asking for higher education, and President Karzai officially recognized a university in Laghman for the girls there in the province.  

            And the second highest priority there is, for the people of Laghman, the water management.  There is huge resources of water.  And the people are asking for the water management there.  And of course, ADT’s, Agricultural Development Teams, PRTs, USAID very generously contributed their -- for the water management in my province.  So we appreciate the very generous contribution of the colleagues working with us in the province, but we still need more investment for water management.  And at the same time, of course, there are a lot of other activities, normal and daily activities, that we can manage -- (inaudible). 

            Q:  Thank you.  Raghubir Goyal again.  I just want some clear -- some clarification from both of you.   

            One, there was some anger among the Afghani communities because of some civilian casualties there.   

            And second, how do the Afghan community, Afghan people feel now as far your presence is there?   

            And also, according to the reports, some people in Afghanistan doesn’t want to leave you right now because they think that you must fulfill and complete your mission as far as stability and security for the Afghani people is concerned.   

            Thank you. 

            GOV. AZIZI:  Since I have been selected as the governor of Laghman province, there is no civilian casualties in the province. And some military operations which were conducted was highly professional and -- (inaudible) --  so no civilian casualties occurred in Afghanistan.   

            So of course in general there is a concern of coalition colleagues and at the same time Afghan people about this, and the civilian casualties are mainly happened in part because of the insurgent activities, more than 85 percent by them and the others by some of the tactical mistakes. 

            So of course there is -- an understanding is developing between Afghan government and the coalition partners.  We have established OCCPs [Operational Coordination Center, Provincial], our security coordinating bodies in the provinces, to coordinate with each other, the international partners as well as Afghan security forces; here in the capital, OCCR [Operational Coordination Center, Region]. 

            So there are improvements.  There is reduction, but whenever there is civilian casualties, of course, as in general  -- (inaudible) -- in every part of the world, there is some concerns and -- but mainly the civilian casualties are because of the insurgent activities. 

            COL. LAPAN:  Okay, gentlemen, we have gotten to the end of the time here, so I’ll send it back to you for any closing remarks you’d like to make. 

            LT. COL. WALKER:  (Inaudible) -- for your closing remarks. 

            GOV. AZIZI:  Thank you, friends, for giving us your very precious time.   

            Let me comment on one very important thing that you didn’t ask that -- that’s an international concern:  that’s corruption in Afghanistan.  President Karzai is fighting the corruption, and it is on the very top of President Karzai’s agenda to get rid of corruption.  

            And there is -- two very important steps are taken by President Karzai to fight very actively with the corruption.  One is establishing a civil service commission to recruit civil officials on merit basis, and the second is an anti-corruption commission. And also he’s bringing a lot of reforms in judicial system here.   

            And my expectations and what I’m hoping from your colleagues there, the journalists, the media, the press in the Western part of the world, to reflect the very grand realities, the improvements, the achievements happening here.  And of course, in Afghan context, there are some challenges, as I told you, that the patience is low and the expectations are high.  So I hope you colleagues to reflect the very grand realities and the right perception about Afghanistan and what’s going on in Afghanistan.   

            Thank you so much for giving us your very precious and -- (inaudible) -- time. 

            LT. COL. WALKER:  I’ll echo that sentiment.  Thanks for your time, and thanks for the support of all the military families and family -- American families across the states and around the world who are supporting us every day.   

            You know, not a day goes by that we don’t receive a card or a package from somewhere in the United States, and I’m here to tell you, that makes a difference; that makes a difference in every soldier’s life. And we are very thankful, and as a commander of these young soldiers on the ground, I thank you personally for all your support for our troops. 

            COL. LAPAN:  All right.  Thank you very much.