COL. DAVID LAPAN (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Media Operations): Good morning here and good evening in Afghanistan. I’d like to welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room for the first time Major General Michael Krause of the Australian Army. He’s the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command deputy chief of staff. This is General Krause’s second tour in Afghanistan, and he assumed his current duties in February of this year.
The general serves with the IJC commander, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, as his senior plans officer. General Krause regularly travels throughout Afghanistan to gather a full picture of ISAF’s coalition and partnered efforts. He joins us today from ISAF Joint Command headquarters in Kabul to provide an operational update. He will make some opening comments and then will take your questions.
And with that, sir, I will turn it over to you.
GEN. KRAUSE: Thanks very much, Dave. And good morning in Washington. Last time I was in the Pentagon, I got lost, so I’m really pleased that I’m coming in to you electronically.
I do want to get to your questions as soon as I can, but I thought, as Dave said, I’ll just make a couple of opening remarks so you can get an idea of the plan as I see it as General Rodriguez’s chief planner.
First let me look back on our winter operations. As you know, we’ve ramped up our operations and our tempo during winter, and we made significant gains during a time when traditionally the senior leaders of the Taliban abandon their troops and go back across the border. We cleared established staging areas and cache sites. Indeed, we increased our cache finds by 300 percent compared to the previous winter.
Not only did that take a lot of weapons, a lot of explosives off the battlefield, what was really pleasing for us is a lot of those caches were tipped off to us by the locals, which gave us a really good indication of their growing confidence in us.
So by the end of winter, we’d solidified our gains in key populated areas of the country, particularly Kabul, which is now effectively retained and secured by Afghan security forces, and also the centers of the Taliban movement in Kandahar and central Helmand. That area of Kandahar and central Helmand is really key. The combined team not only cleared that area, it secured that area, but it now retains that area. And every day we hold it is a day to harden the Afghan hold.
It is our operational objective to retain that area this year. We know the Taliban want it back, and we are going to continue to work hard to hold it. We believe that by retaining that key area of Kandahar and central Helmand, we will have an operational-level effect and it will represent a significant achievement. And so far, so good.
That might seem a little strange to you, given that we did lose the Kandahar provincial chief of police, Khan Mohammad Khan and indeed this past week we lost the police commander in the north, Lieutenant General Daoud Daoud, who I knew personally. And there have been several other incidents in other parts of the country.
But this is comprehensive counterinsurgency, and we shouldn’t judge the plan by a couple of incidents any more than we should judge any organization by the actions of a couple of members. We have to see the complete picture. We have to take a longer-term view. And we look for indicators that have an enduring effect.
And when we look through that lens, we feel that we have made real progress. While it’s always reversible and it is fragile, the momentum is such to suggest to us that what we have can be made enduring and can be made robust.
Now, certainly the insurgency realizes that. He realizes he has to do something, and something quick, to reverse that momentum. And that’s why all of our senior leaders have forewarned very clearly that there would be tough days ahead and that we would see spectacular attacks and, indeed, casualties.
And that’s what we’re living through at the moment. We’ve seen suicide attacks in the center of Kabul, in Kandahar, in Herat and Takhar. These have killed civilians. They’ve killed Afghan officials. They’ve killed Afghan soldiers and police, and indeed, they’ve killed coalition troops.
They’ve grabbed a lot of headlines, but they’ve grabbed nothing of operational significance. That is, the combined team retains the operationally significant populated areas it started the year with. We are solidifying and hardening the gains, and we’re expanding in many areas.
Importantly -- and this really does give me confidence and hope -- we’ve seen no weakening or doubt in the minds of the Afghan people. They are amazingly resilient. They’ve filled the positions of where those were killed. And they continue to reject the Taliban.
Every day the combined team retains the key areas of Kabul, Kandahar, and central Helmand, among others, the Afghan army and police get a little stronger and a little more proficient. Local leaders get better, and opportunities for development emerge and start to flourish. And that all leads to a stable Afghanistan.
And the corollary of that is that every time the insurgent attacks without operational significant outcomes, then he gets weaker and he wastes assets. Already, we are picking up disenchantment and disillusionment amongst key parts of the insurgency. We pick up arguments and disagreements between those fighting in Afghanistan and those who are safe beyond the borders. We now have over 1,600 registered reintegrees. We are picking up reports of shortages of weapons and explosives. And there is longer dwell time between operations by the insurgents.
We are seeing a high proportion of foreign fighters, which we interpret as meaning the locals just aren’t as interested as perhaps they were previously. And we are seeing quite extreme, desperate and, indeed, sickening tactics on behalf of the insurgents, such as using 12-year-old children as suicide bombers. We saw the other day the rigging of an ambulance as a vehicle-borne IED. And we are seeing the deliberate use of human shields.
These are not the cool or calm actions of a satisfied insurgency confident in their control over the population. These are desperate actions of a weakened enemy who sees the population increasingly disinterested and the tide flowing against it.
I’ll just finish with two ideas you might be interested in. The Afghan police and army are coming on well. We’ve almost fielded all of the fighting troops now and are producing the supporting, enabling troops this year. The coalition temporary surge of 40,000 has created a permanent Afghan surge of 80,000. I work with them daily, and I’m impressed by their courage. I’m impressed with their growing professionalism and indeed their capability. They do get better every day.
Transition of the first provinces and the district centers is also looking pretty good. We’re on track for transition by about the end of July of the first tranche. And while there is a bit of work to be done, there’s also a bit of actual excitement on behalf of the Afghans, and they’re almost ready. We’re confident it’s going to work.
One of the areas that will transition is Lashkar Gah, right in the middle of that central Helmand area I mentioned previously. And this first tranche will put about 22 percent of the population, including the capital, Kabul, under Afghan control.
So look, we have some bad days here. There’s no doubt about it. But we have more good days than bad days. There’s a hell of a lot of good things happening in this country, enough to give us confidence that we have the initiative, that our plan is working, and it would have to come unstuck for it not to continue to work.
So that’s where I stand as the head of plans under General Rodriguez. And I’ll be very, very happy to take some questions.
COL. LAPAN: Okay. Let’s start with David.
Q: General -- pardon me, it’s David Wood, from the Huffington Post. A quick question: You referred to, I think, a 300 percent increase in cache finds. Could you tell us where that was and how many -- what are the numbers involved there? My second question has to do with the airstrikes, and, of course, the president’s directive or request, I guess, that ISAF stop airstrikes on houses. How are you dealing with that operationally?
COL. LAPAN: Hey, General, it’s Col. Lapan at the lectern again. Were you able to hear the question from the reporter?
GEN. KRAUSE: Dave, this is Kabul. I’m not getting any audio through.
(Pause while audio is restored.)
COL. LAPAN: Okay, General. I can -- why don’t we start. I’ll repeat the questions so you’re hearing it from here at the lectern rather than the room. So we’ve got better audio, at least, to start, and then we’ll go back to normal questioning.
The first question was a two-part question from David Wood with the Huffington Post, first part of the question regarding the 300-percent increase in cache finds, and if you could provide some additional detail regarding that. The second part of the question had to do with President Karzai’s recent decree regarding airstrikes on civilian homes and how that might be affecting you operationally.
GEN. KRAUSE: Sure. And I’ll take those in the order that they were given.
We conducted some really successful operations during winter, particularly in the Sangin area and up towards Musa Qal’eh and also up to the Kajaki Dam area -- both of those are in RC-Southwest -- and also in the northern parts of Kandahar up towards Arghandab. What we found is that they were traditional caching areas, or caches, as my American chums call them. And we just took a lot of weapons and explosives off the battlefield, far more than we’d seen previously. And I wish I could show you the graph that shows you that.
As I said, the really important thing for us was not only taking it off the battlefield, but the fact that the vast majority were actually handed in or tipped off to us by the locals.
In terms of the second point, you know, that’s late-breaking for us. President Karzai has not emphatically banned the use of air. He’s going to raise it, as we understand, on Sunday with General Petraeus.
We share the president’s concern. We have an aim of having zero CIVCAS [civilian casualties]. We do not deliberately target civilians. The same cannot be said about the Taliban. We investigate any instances, we admit when we’re wrong, and we do pay compensation.
COL. LAPAN: Michael, let’s try it from there.
Q: General, it’s Mike Evans from the [London] Times. Can I ask you -- you and previous briefers who have spoken to us here over the last six months have all sounded very, very confident and have issued, you know, details of progress made. But you’ve all used the same expression, that it’s still fragile and reversible. General Petraeus said the same thing six, seven months ago.
Why are you still saying this? And why is it still possible that it’s reversible? And if it’s truly reversible and truly fragile, how can you seriously contemplate transitioning areas to Afghan control in, what, eight weeks’ time?
GEN. KRAUSE: Well, the first thing is, we don’t say that all parts of Afghanistan are reversible or all parts are fragile. We’re talking about the whole country, the whole plan. We are looking to a period when the Afghan security force will be fully formed. We expect that to be by the end of 2012. Where we have had success in are in those areas that will form the first tranche, which will be in July. We are not transitioning the whole country at the same time. It will be a staged transition.
Q: I understand that. Thank you. But I just wonder, what is there that could happen that would make your plan reversible? In other words, what is it that the Taliban could do which could suddenly make the whole thing fall apart?
GEN. KRAUSE: Quite frankly, I don’t think there’s anything the Taliban could do at this stage. But, for example, if every single coalition troop left tomorrow, I do not think that we’d be successful.
COL. LAPAN: Luis?
Q: General, it’s Luis Martinez with ABC News. You describe this first tranche of the transition. Could you describe in greater detail what you’re talking about? I heard you mention Lashkar Gah. Does that impact American forces or is that British forces? And where does Herat fit into that tranche?
GEN. KRAUSE: Sure. The areas that we’re going to transition in the first tranche -- Lashkar Gah, we’ll transition; Mehtar Lam, which is up near Kabul, we’ll transition; Kabul City itself, we will transition; Mazar-e Sharif; and we’ll transition Herat. We’ll also transition the province of Bamyan.
In terms of Lashkar Gah, Lashkar Gah is in that central area of central Helmand. We have control of that now sufficient that the Afghans can take a greater role in it.
Q: And if I could follow up, sir, will that impact American forces in Lashkar Gah or British forces in Lashkar Gah?
GEN. KRAUSE: Well, there's both. There's the -- there's the British forces who are just -- are in that area and particularly around Marja, and there are American troops as well. But importantly, there are Afghan troops there. There are Afghan police and there are Afghan National Army there sufficient that they will be able to take more of the security lead by the time we transition in a couple of weeks' time. [sic; there is no change in the current plans. Lashkar Gah will enter into the transition process with the other six named phase-one areas in July 2011.]
COL. LAPAN: Jim?
Q: General, Jim Michaels of USA Today. Historically the challenge in Kandahar has been the provincial government. Are you confident now with the governance there and the local political leadership that’s in place?
GEN. KRAUSE: Well, I certainly look at it through the -- particularly through the security lens. We had a attack on Kandahar now just over a week ago. It was one where nine suicide bombers got in; they attacked the provincial government; there were attacks on other areas. Every one of them was killed. The attack lasted for about 12 hours. We retained Kandahar the day before; we retained Kandahar from now on.
So in terms of -- and all of that reaction to that was done by the local Afghan security forces; indeed, are controlled by the governor. So that’s good enough for me in terms of showing their ability to manage security issues in Kandahar. If they can manage security issues, then the rest should follow.
COL. LAPAN: Rich?
Q: Yeah. General, Richard Sisk, The War Report. You talked about a higher proportion of foreign fighters. Can you give us any numbers, sir? And who are they? What countries are they coming from?
GEN. KRAUSE: I can’t answer the last question in any detail. In terms of the actual numbers and percentages -- again, I’d be loathe to give that. It’s -- but it is indicators to us. When we went into Kajaki area the other day, I interviewed the Australian commandos who returned from that operation where unfortunately we lost one of our commandos. They did note the higher proportion of foreign fighters in that area.
And what that’s telling us is that the insurgency is not relying on the locals anymore. They are having to bring in foreign fighters to stiffen and actually carry out a lot of these operations. One of the reasons they’re using suicide attacks, we believe, is because they can originate those from outside the country. So while they do cause us damage, while they do cause civilian casualties, these are not indicators of a mass insurgency; they’re actually the opposite.
COL. LAPAN: Larry?
Q: General, have you seen any change in tempo or type of attacks since the killing of Osama bin Laden and, if so, do you attribute those changes to the Taliban reacting to his death?
GEN. KRAUSE: We have seen a change in the tempo of attacks, particularly coordinated attacks. They are lesser; that is, the tempo is less. We are seeing longer dwell time between attacks. We don’t attribute that to the death of Osama bin Laden. In fact, what became pretty obvious with his death is that he was pretty irrelevant, and certainly wasn’t leading from the front. He was living a life of luxury far from his fighters. What we are actually attributing it to is our success in taking weapons off the battlefield.
Q: Rosiland Jordan, Al-Jazeera English. You made reference earlier, sir, to the number of former Taliban fighters who have been essentially reintegrated into society. How many? What are they doing now? Have they provided good intelligence to ISAF forces?
GEN. KRAUSE: At this stage, as I said, we’ve got about 1,800 who are formally registered. We’re tracking more what we call opportunities; that is, those who have made initial inquiries. We think it’s the tip of the iceberg. To a certain extent, they’re testing whether reintegrating is worth it, if you like, because when you think of it, they’re making quite a bold statement coming forward to reintegrate because the Taliban has made it quite clear that they will kill anyone -- or they’ll try to kill anyone who reintegrates.
What we’re doing is seeing at the moment a shift of momentum. There are more reintegrees this month, for example, than there were last month. The opportunity is there for them to reintegrate.
In terms of -- I think you asked the question about do we interrogate them. We do biometrically enroll them, and if any of them come up on our watch list, we do follow that up.
Q: So doing any proactive intelligence gathering about what the Taliban has been planning, where it has been trying to reestablish control, or trying to persuade hearts and minds in various local areas -- you’re not taking advantage of that potential information source?
GEN. KRAUSE: Yeah, look, we’re actually in a relatively lucky situation here, particularly in terms of the Afghan Taliban. We know exactly what they want. They want to take back Kandahar, and they want to take back central Helmand. They’ve stated that that is their objective, to retake those.
They will not take them. We hold those areas. We retain them. Every day they get -- we solidify the area. And we are training up the Afghans to take over those areas from us. We’re confident that we will retain them this year. Next year will show that the Afghans can do it.
Q: Justin Duckham, Talk Radio News. You mentioned that there were disagreements between the local fighters and foreign sources. Can you give any details on those disagreements?
GEN. KRAUSE: Yeah, it’s actually quite encouraging. Certainly towards the end of winter, we were tracking and listening to the fighters, the commanders who were across the border, encouraging their fighters to fight harder. Easy for them to say that, when they’re in their safe havens. And quite frankly, the locals are saying no, which is great.
We saw some of the mid-leaders come back earlier and we thought that this was the start of their offensive, until someone pointed out that you rarely get recalled from leave for good reasons. We saw them coming back, one, because they didn’t know what the situation was in the country, and to try and encourage. We’ve seen a lot of replacement of shadow leaders, not because they’re being promoted, but because they’re ineffective. There’s enough there to give us a lot of confidence that there’s a hell of a lot of issues going on in there, and we’re happy to see that.
Q: Thank you, General. Raghubir Goyal, India Globe and Asia Today. Let me ask you one more, just following my colleague’s earlier question. How safe is the border? Do you still see Talibans are coming, or al-Qaedas, across from the Pakistan border? And how do you see the feelings of the Afghani -- Afghan people now, after Osama bin Laden’s death? Do you see more and more will join you?
GEN. KRAUSE: I think your question was do we see more coming across the Pakistan border. Is that correct?
Q: Yes, sir.
GEN. KRAUSE: Okay. Look, in IJC, I really do -- you know, we don’t see much al-Qaeda at all.
We do see, still, Taliban coming across the border. The good thing is we pick them up very quickly as they come across the border. We attempt, as well as we can, to capture or kill them on the approaches too. And then we retain the areas that we know they’re going to. And so we haven’t actually seen a larger proportion come across as result of bin Laden’s death. In fact, we’ve basically seen his death as irrelevant to where we are in the campaign.
Q: And the second part, General, how do you see the -- how Afghanis are feeling of Osama bin Laden’s death now? Do you see that more and more will join the mainstream of Afghan society?
GEN. KRAUSE: We do see a greater number of reintegrees, as I said previously. We do see an increasing confidence in the Afghan people in the way that they’re going forward, in the way their government’s going forward, in the way their security situation is improving. But I don’t tie that to the death of bin Laden. I tie it actually to the success that the combined team is having here.
Q: General, Luis Martinez again, with ABC. There’s only three weeks left in the spring. And we’ve been talking now for the last four months about the spring offensive that the Taliban is going to be conducting, and the preparations that you’ve been building in anticipation of this. How would you characterize, so far, this spring offensive with those from previous years? What do the metrics show right now?
GEN. KRAUSE: It’s a good question. We’re still waiting for it. What we’re seeing so far is what we predicted. Some spectacular attacks, some of which have been effective. But in terms of a mass counterattack to retake ground -- haven’t seen it.
Q: Cheryl Pellerin, American Forces Press Service. You mentioned that there’s a bit of work to be done before the end of July, and I’m wondering what -- if you can say what you have to -- what has to be done. Sorry.
GEN. KRAUSE: It’s more making sure that all of the ministries are synchronized. Making sure that transition is not just a single event, but it’s a process. To make sure that there are -- that as more and more transitions in terms of security, et cetera, et cetera, to make sure that the command and control is right so that it’s clear who has responsibility. These are the types of things. They’re minor but important issues that we’re just tidying up before transition. There’s no real issue.
COL. LAPAN: Okay, General. I apologize for the technical difficulties we had there -- great visual throughout and good audio when we had it. So we thank you for your time, and I’ll send it back to you for any closing remarks you’d like to make.
GEN. KRAUSE: No, look, thanks for that. And I’m sorry about the -- that we missed a couple of questions there. But thanks for the opportunity. You know, I live and breathe Afghanistan at the moment. There are tough days ahead, but there’s enough going on good that I see on a daily basis, that does give me -- that makes it worth going to work, you know. We can do this.
COL. LAPAN: All right. Thank you, sir.