CAPT. DARRYN JAMES (Director, Defense Press Operations): Good morning here and good evening in Afghanistan. Today we are joined by the commander of Regional Command-North, Major General Markus Kneip of Germany, and his deputy, U.S. Army Brigadier General Sean Mulholland.
RC-North spans nine Afghan provinces, from Turkmenistan in the west to China in the east, and is comprised of more than 12,000 coalition troops from 16 countries. This is the first time that General Kneip has briefed us in this format. He assumed command of RC-North in February. General Mulholland assumed his duties in April of last year, and he briefed us in January. They’ll join us today from Camp Marmal in Mazar-e Sharif; they’ll provide a brief update on current operations, and then will take your questions.
And with that, gentlemen, I’ll turn it over to you.
GEN. KNEIP: Best greetings from Mazar-e Sharif. This is Major General Kneip speaking. I’m partnered here with Brigadier General Sean Mulholland. I took over two months ago the command here in RC- North. It’s my second tour. I was doing the job in 2006.
I’m seeing a huge difference when I compare it to 2006. The capabilities are far more relevant to the job. The cooperation with U.S. forces is making a change. We increased the op tempo to a maximum possible for us in the north. We are at the economy of effort. The main effort lies not in the north, but we do our best with what we have here. And we are very multinational, so this is an advantage because we are partnered with a lot of other European nations, and U.S. is our major, major partner. And since they arrived here, we changed again in a more active posture.
SOF, special operation forces, is really doing a difference every day and every night. Conventional forces took no break. They stepped forward -- U.S, German, Swedish, Norwegian and all the others -- during the winter and are doing every day a great job. And our training efforts are still at a high level and will go on and must be increased, because the army is increasing. I propose this should be enough from my side as an opening statement.
Over to you.
CAPT. JAMES: Well, then we’ll go ahead and start with questions. Go ahead.
Q: General, this is Army Sergeant First Class Michael Carden with American Forces Press Service. You said you see a huge difference since your 2006 deployment. Can you elaborate on that a little more? Is it -- is that more focused on the capabilities of the Afghans or your familiarity with the area and making progress in kinetic operations?
GEN. KNEIP: I hope I got your question right to compare the situation as of today with 2006. First of all, the capabilities in some areas were doubled or tripled, talking about medevac capability, ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] capability. In some areas, like attack helicopter capability, we got new capabilities. In 2006 we had a gap. By arrival of the U.S. forces, we started to have real own capabilities.
This means by the same piece of land -- it’s one-third of the Afghanistan land and the same size of people -- also one-third -- we are doubling and tripling our efforts, and in some areas, by bringing in new capabilities we made the difference. Without having this, it would be impossible for me to do the job.
Over to you.
Q: Yes, sir, can you be a little more specific on doubling your efforts, I guess maybe a little more on the civil-military operations side or a little more on the kinetic side? I know you said that the north isn’t the main effort, but what is your piece of the fight in Afghanistan overall? Over.
GEN. MULHOLLAND: Yeah, this is General Mulholland, the DCOM [deputy commander]. I can answer some of that. Like the boss said, last April was the first time that two U.S. brigades arrived here. One was the 10th Mountain Infantry and the other was the 4th Cav [Cavalry]. So the face of the fight in terms of capability, force, you know, changed drastically since last April. To complement a lot of the conventional operations that were already ongoing, now we fight together as a combined team with ANSF [Afghan National Security Force].
There are still kinetic operations that go on up here in RC-North. There are pockets of Taliban that we’re still clearing out. An example would be the Kunduz-Baghlan corridor. When I got here last April, it was chock full of Taliban throughout Baghlan, in Shahabuddin, up in Aliabad all the way through Kunduz. Every night, the PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] was getting mortared last June. Now it’s -- they’re not there. Now they’ve all been cleared out of Chahar Dara, Gor Tepa, Archi, Imam Sahib. We’re working on Aliabad right now, and down in Baghlan all that area has been cleared.
So the difference is -- what General Kneip is trying to say is the difference from 2006 to now is that a lot more capability has arrived since last year in RC-North, where all forces have the ability to go further out than beyond 60 minutes from their PRT or FOB [forward operating base], based on the medevac extension by air and also the attack weapons teams that can reach out and touch the enemy.
There are other, non-kinetic things that we’re doing that are contributing to the fight, and that is reintegration, village stability operations through CJSOTF [Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force]-- (inaudible) -- multinational development efforts, female engagement teams as well as developing -- continue to develop the Northern Distribution Network. These and other things, kinetic and non-kinetic, are the things that are making us successful right now. Over.
Q: Thanks. I wanted to ask about poppy eradication.
Is that part of the -- your current military mission? And can you give me some idea of, you know, what poppy cultivation is going to look like in the north this year?
GEN. KNEIP: I heard you asking for poppy eradication and counternarcotics.
First of all, we in the north are less affected by this. We still have some pockets here in the north. Most of them are in the Badakhshan Takhar area, but you can’t compare it with the south -- the southern area.
Second, most nations here in the north have a caveat which tells them not to be active in eradication.
Third is we all are allowed and do it to take secondary missions, which means exchange of intel [intelligence] in extremist support, log [logistic] support, helping the guys who do the job, the Afghans and the eradication force, to help them with airfield support, POL [petroleum, oil and lubricants]. This means we are not tasked to get direct into the fight, but we support as much as possible and as ordered.
Over to you.
Q: General, Mathieu Rabechault from AFP, Agence France Presse. You were talking about additional capabilities in RC-North area of responsibility. And there have been some reports from Germany that Berlin is considering sending Tiger attack helicopters to Afghanistan.
What does that mean? Does it mean that the security hasn’t improved as much as you would like and you need these capabilities to help improve the situation there?
GEN. MULHOLLAND: Please repeat the question or restate it through the podium. We couldn’t hear you.
Q: Yeah, sorry. We’ve seen reports that Berlin considers sending Tiger attack helicopters to RC-North area of responsibility. Can you give us some insight on it?
GEN. KNEIP: I read you that you asked for the German Tiger heli support, NH90. We recently had this week and last week a recce [reconnaissance] team from Germany here to liase with the U.S. forces. I’m very thankful for the support given to the German recce team. The recce team is ordered to recce in the whole area of RC-North, not only here in Mazar-e Sharif. The possibility is to station both aircraft, the Tiger and NH90, within next year. And I got a debrief which tells me that it should be possible pending political decision.
Over to you.
Q: Thank you, general. This is Raghubir Goyal from India Globe and Asia Today. My question is that how much confidence in your area the Afghan people have now as far as your presence is there, and also if the Afghan army or police, are they ready when changes comes in your area as far as Talibans are concerned?
GEN. MULHOLLAND: I think you’re asking about the local populace and their feelings in the capabilities of the Afghans in terms of the ANSF. The local populace -- you know, you’ve got to remember I was here last when things were pretty gloomy. Right now, the security is holding. I’m cautiously optimistic.
But the winter gains are still holding. We haven’t lost any territory. And so the populace, through our atmospheric reports, where we go out and pulse the populace, they’re telling us pretty good stories about how they feel about security in Kunduz, how they feel about security in Baghlan and Faryab, in our key areas throughout RC-North. And they’re pretty optimistic about the Afghans starting to take control of their government and act accordingly, like Afghan leaders should.
The ANSF every day, the ANP [Afghan National Police], ABP [Afghan Border Police] and the ANA [Afghan National Army] are getting better. They’re getting better through partnering. They’re getting better through doing combined operations with ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] forces, and every day they’re getting more and more confident.
I would still say we are still in the woods. We’re not out of the woods. We still need to be relentless in continuing to pressure the Taliban and the bad actors up here. But the trend is for the positive right now in terms of how the local populace feels about ISAF and their security forces and how we’re progressing. Over.
Q: Can I just follow, one more? How do the local Afghans feel about the Afghan government and your presence there? Do they have more confidence in you or in the -- in their government there to do the job?
GEN. MULHOLLAND: Please repeat the question.
Q: I’m sorry. Let me try again. If the locals, if they have confidence in President Karzai’s government as far as your area is concerned dealing with the Taliban, as far as your presence is concerned -- thank you.
GEN. MULHOLLAND: The locals are -- the locals have confidence -- in my view, in my opinion, the locals have confidence in their local governance, which is -- locally, they look all the way up to the provincial governor. Everyone is aware of what President Karzai is doing throughout Afghanistan. There are people obviously that are confident in what’s coming out of Kabul and -- but for the most part, what I’ve seen with the locals is that the only governance that they know is really the provincial governor. They understand Karzai -- President Karzai’s policies coming out of Kabul, and obviously everyone is working to support his direction and leadership. Over.
Q: Chris Carroll with Stars and Stripes. Have the tempo of attacks and engagements with the Taliban picked up as the weather has grown warmer?
GEN. MULHOLLAND: Repeat that, please.
CAPT. JAMES: Has the tempo of the attacks by the Taliban picked up now that the weather has gotten warmer?
GEN. MULHOLLAND: Repeat again. You’re both coming in pretty broken. Over.
CAPT. JAMES: Gentlemen, the question was, have the tempo of the Taliban attacks picked up since the weather’s gotten warmer?
GEN. MULHOLLAND: OK. We haven’t seen the influx of the Taliban in -- since the weather has gotten warmer in RC-North as we were anticipating. Obviously everyone has been working through the winter, in accordance with COMISAF’s [Commander ISAF] guidance. We’ve done numerous operations. We just got -- we just finished today the Operation Wahadat, which was the operation in the tribal provincial area west of Mez [Mazar-e Sharif] that was very, very successful.
We’re not seeing the flow of Taliban that we saw -- that I saw last Spring. I’ll give you an example. Due to operations, we actually saw 12 Taliban leaders leave RC-North and go back to Pakistan, based on the pressure from SOF operations and conventional operations. We continue to put the pressure on -- with ISAF and with the ANSF partners to continually clear out those pockets. We haven’t taken a rest, and I think it’s starting to show on the Taliban in terms of them flowing back in here. A lot of them are not eager to come into RC-North. Over.
Q: There were some demonstrations, violent demonstrations, in Mazar-e Sharif at the beginning of the month. What are a few weeks later the situation regarding security in Mazar-e Sharif and the relations with the locals?
GEN. MULHOLLAND: Please repeat the question. We can’t understand you.
Q: A few weeks ago, there were some violent demonstrations in Mazar-e Sharif, and I wondered what was the situation now regarding security and relations with the locals.
GEN. KNEIP: You are right. We had, especially over the last weeks, a lot of announcements here in the north for demonstrations, nearly 30 to 40 demonstrations all over the country. Therefore there’s no link to an ethnic group or to an ISAF partner. It’s crossing all over the country from Badakhshan to Faryab.
Second finding is, most of them went quite peaceful. We got some warnings. We tried all together to convince local authorities to speak to the people, and in most cases, this went into a good way. Therefore, we had only a few -- and unfortunately the biggest one, in Mazar-e Sharif was a bad outcome.
I guess there is a potential for riots. This is clear. And we must work on it, especially our Afghan partners must work on it. And just to remind you, this was always over the last 10 years the case. I remind you that in 2006 and 2005 in Kabul, in Pul-e Khumri, and in Faryab we had violent demonstrations with the Mohammed cartoons, and in both cases Norwegian and Dutch PRT were nearly conquered. Therefore, there is a bad tradition, but they are singular and we have to keep an eye on this.
Q: Thank you. Again, Raghubir Goyal. There is some -- there are some reports that local Afghans still do not have much confidence, really, as far as Talibans are concerned. How can you give permanent confidence to the local Afghans that Talibans will not come back from across the border into Pakistan? And what they believe is you push them to Pakistan, then they keep coming back. How can you stop them permanently?
GEN. MULHOLLAND: The way -- the way you can build the confidence with the local Afghans is continue to engage them. Have the Afghan leaders engage them. And they’re getting -- the Afghans are getting a lot better at this.
An example is the Afghan Local Police program, which is the village stability operations. We are engaging 24/7 out there with locals that are recruited as Afghan Local Police. They are mentored, trained and guided by Special Forces, and the villagers are selected by the elders, the local elders.
And through programs like that and reintegration, there are a lot of local Afghans building confidence in what’s happening now. The -- there’s a lot of positive things that are happening because we’re staying the course here, and we -- we’ve -- we’re doing very, very well.
Over to you, sir.
GEN. KNEIP: I would just like to add that we have put a huge burden on our soldiers -- and they are doing a great job -- by ordering them to be very careful with their actions. Civil casualties have to be observed, have to be -- yeah, should not take place. And every -- if there’s a possible civil casualty, it has to be into an investigation, very open and very detailed, with the Afghan colleagues.
Driving directives, flying directives, flying procedure are all under very, very strict roster and legal and behavior regulation so that we show to the Afghans respect. We take care of the habits of their local infrastructure. This is something which the Taliban are not doing. Therefore, we distinguish by our action. Even by putting military action into the terrain, we distinguish between ISAF and ANSF forces. We do this together with them. We ask them to follow these rules as well as we distinguish our actions from the Taliban, who take advantage of children, who take advantage of schools and put suicider in, which is a cruel doing.
CAPT. JAMES: This concludes the question-and-answer period, so I’d just like to turn it over to you for any closing comments you might have.
GEN. MULHOLLAND: Closing comments? Yeah.
GEN. KNEIP: For my side, I feel very privileged here to have a chance to continue with the job I started as the first RC commander. I’m very proud being a commander of U.S. forces and some other 50 nations here in the north.
We take advantage out of this multinational structure, which is different from the other RCs. And we will trek on, we will take no break, and we will give the Taliban a hard time and the Afghan people a good time. This is my aim.
Over to my DCOM [Deputy Commander].
GEN. MULHOLLAND: Just to reiterate what General Kneip said, we can -- we will continue to the pressure, relentless pressure on the enemy and obviously take care of -- help our partners take care of the Afghan people.
Over to you.
CAPT. JAMES: Gentlemen, that concludes our brief. And thank you for your time this evening.
GEN. MULHOLLAND: Thank you.
GEN. KNEIP: Thank you.