DOD News Briefing with Paul Reid and Michael O'Neill via Teleconference from Afghanistan
CAPT Jane Campbell (Pentagon spokesperson): Good morning in the briefing room, and good evening in Afghanistan. I'd like to welcome Mr. Michael O'Neill and Mr. Paul Reid to the Pentagon briefing room.
Mr. O'Neill is the U.K.'s senior representative in southern Afghanistan and head of the Civil-Military Mission and the Provincial Reconstruction Team, Helmand.
Mr. Reid is the senior civilian representative of Regional Platform South West, serving in collaboration with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force Forward. He is a career foreign service officer and arrived in Afghanistan on the 5th of July this year.
This is Mr. Reid's first time briefing us, while Mr. O'Neill joined us via DVIDS last April -- or last October with Major General Toolan.
Our speakers join us today from RC Southwest headquarters at Camp Leatherneck.
Following their opening remarks, we'll take your questions.
And with that, gentlemen, I'll turn it over to you.
PAUL REID: OK. Thank you very much.
Greetings from Camp Leatherneck. I -- again, I'm Paul Reid. I'm the senior civilian representative for the U.S. here at RC-Southwest.
I'd like to just talk a little bit about the civil-military effort that we have ongoing. It's really marked by a great complexity, I'd say. Certainly the collaboration with the British is one that's -- is very rich. And the entire mission is a rather diverse one as well, reflecting a number of nationalities and of course a number of ministries and local authorities as well among the Afghans.
But we all have a common mission, and that is that we get the most out of every dollar that we spend. And every dollar that we spend at this point is basically geared toward transitioning, that is, the handoff that we will do of the civilian effort to the Afghans here. So we are here all about building capacity of the -- in the Afghanistan government, of this society and its economy.
We've had rather substantial success in Helmand province over the last year or two years. Perhaps you recall the days when you would read about the provinces -- the districts of Helmand province and the violence there. The security situation has improved remarkably, and a number of Afghan services are now being delivered directly to the population.
Today 133 schools are open. There are some 1,600 teachers in Helmand province alone. Where before there -- under the Taliban, there were virtually no girls going to school, today there are 20,000. In all, there are some 93,000 students going to school in the province.
Community access to health care has doubled in that period. Infant mortality has dropped by 6 percentage points. And from a complete absence of women's participation in the political process, today there are 38 elected women serving in official functions in Helmand province.
We've done – we’ve helped this advance on in a number of ways. Most recently, we had a kind of international donors conference that we hosted to highlight the public investment opportunities in both Helmand and Nimroz provinces. We had representatives from the World Bank, from the Asian Development Bank, from the U.N., and a number of bilateral donors as well. And we held two days of seminars on opportunities for the international donor community, focused on not just what can be done today, but in that period after the main military presence moves on and, essentially, the civilian effort takes hold.
We talked about the large irrigation potential that still exists. This is already a well-irrigated province, Helmand, but there -- there's considerable scope for improvement of the infrastructure. The same goes for electricity. There's a lot of capacity expansion that is possible and delivery of transmission lines and that sort of thing from Helmand -- from Helmand province to the neighboring provinces of Kandahar, as well as -- as well as Nimroz.
We also -- on October 31st, Ambassador Crocker of the United States and Governor Mangal of Helmand province launched a $65 million agricultural program that will cover both Helmand and Kandahar provinces. This is the Southern Regional Agricultural Development Project. It's led by the -- by the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock.
As I said, it's a $65 million program and will mentor agriculture extension people. It will also provide some stabilization funds. It will develop important market linkages among crop traders, processors, wholesale and local distributors and the local farmers who immediately benefit from better-quality seeds and training. That means better incomes, that means higher productivity, and that means a self- sustaining Helmand that can be a surplus producer of agriculture in the near term.
There have been a number of -- a number of advances that we've made in central Helmand. Let me just highlight a few of those. In Marja, the district government -- governor has been working with community elders and 120 men to clean and repair the 16 sluice gates in the canal that irrigates a large section there. In Garmsir, the district governor and district community council have coordinated a farmer-led effort to reinforce the main intake of the Darvishan Canal. More than 90 farmers and community members have worked for 10 days to repair and maintain the canal and infrastructure.
In neighboring Nimroz province, in Zaranj, we're mentoring Afghan Border Police and Customs Department to deliver improved security and oversight at the border crossing, and we're training them in the option of new technology to better monitor the trade that goes on at that border.
Let me just emphasize that these are all efforts that the Afghans themselves are undertaking, partly under our enabling, but we have essentially moved from a situation where we are doing these things for them to making it possible for them to do them for themselves.
We have a little bit of time left to do this, and we will be moving, in the context of transition, toward handing over those efforts to them.
I don't think this would be complete if I didn't mention the operation in the north to clear Route 611 north from Sangin to the Kajaki Dam. It was a remarkable achievement by the Marines and the ISAF forces generally. This will expand the security area into new communities; extend movement to freedom of goods and people. And now what we see happening is that the populations are returning to the Kajaki area and now are putting their faith in the government to build better lives for themselves.
So we really see a lot of success in the province. The Afghans are taking the lead, and they're growing increasingly confident that they can build a better future here, in freedom.
We work every day to build capacity and to improve Afghans' -- Afghanistan's infrastructure, boost development and ensure stability. The bottom line is that both Helmand and Nimroz provinces have made great strides, and we've seen significant successes, and we're in a better place today really than we've ever been, and we have high hopes for the future.
I think I'll end in there and turn it over to Michael.
MICHAEL O'NEILL: Thanks, Paul. Maybe I could just pick up on some of those points Paul has made about the progress. I will focus on Helmand, which is where I'm concentrated, talk a little bit about that and how we see things going forward over the next two or three years of transition.
I think in the ways that Paul has set out, Helmand has seen what I think you could call a transformation over the last couple of years. And I think it's striking how much of that has come really in the last couple of years, 2010, 2011, building on foundations that were laid before that, but really moving forward in that last two-year period as a result of the U.S. military surge, the arrival in Helmand of a large number of U.S. Marines.
That has enabled the British-led brigade, Task Force Helmand, to focus its forces on the key population areas of central Helmand; between American, British, Danish and other troops, a much greater ability to train and mentor the Afghan security forces, whose effectiveness has really shot forward; and alongside all of that, very strong political leadership from Governor Mangal in this province, for example, in the fight against narcotics.
And you can see there's progress in lots of ways. And Paul has given some examples in areas like health and education. I think the announcement last Sunday by the Afghan authorities of transition -- the beginning of formal transition for Nawa, Nad Ali and Marja is a great testament to the progress. You know, a few months ago, in July, Lashkar Gah, the capital of the province, entered transition. We now have those three other districts following. And I think probably even at the beginning of this year people would have questioned whether Helmand or parts of Helmand would be ready to begin that process. But it's now happening.
And just to give some illustration of that, Nad Ali is an area where a couple of years ago there was still pretty intense fighting. There are still some pockets of that, but in the main part of Nad Ali, the level of violent incidents -- SIGACTS -- has fallen by over 85 percent in the 12 months from the end of summer last year to this summer.
I think Marja is a great indicator of the progress, which I'm always very struck by because it was the first place I visited in July last year, about five months after the beginning of Operation Moshtarak. And in July of 2010 Marja was still a very difficult place. And when I went there that day, I wasn't allowed off the base for security reasons.
I've been back many times since then. Every time I go, I see more progress. And on the 1st of March this year, the people of Marja had their first-ever elections for district council. This week, they've had further elections to extend the coverage of that council to parts of the district that in March were still too insecure.
And I took my own successor down there a few weeks ago, when she was here on her "recce" visit, and we had lunch in a local restaurant on the main street; to get to that restaurant, we walked past an Internet cafe. And really, these are things that 18 months ago would have seemed almost impossible to imagine.
So you've seen remarkable progress. And I think, probably as recently as 2009, people were worrying and debating, you know: would we be able to make real progress in Helmand. I don't think, really, anybody's asking that question today. I think everybody who comes here, including Afghan leaders, foreign visitors, recognize the transformation that is under way -- still has further to go, but it's well under way.
The key question for all of us now -- and for Paul, me, General Toolan -- is, how do we make sure that progress can be sustained, how do we make sure it's lasting? So I think, as we look out at the next two or three years, up to the end of 2014 with the international drawdown, that's got to be the priority and the focus, as Paul has described.
So I think for us, working very much as a combined team, between the PRT, the regional platform, RC Southwest and the U.S. Marines -- I think the focus I see in terms of governance and development is in three areas. The first and most important is helping the Afghans strengthen their own machinery of government, if you like, to make sure that those systems are operating effectively; the money is reaching the province and the districts, providing the services people need; and the links between the province and Kabul have got to become smoother and more efficient. So we'll do a lot of work in those areas, down here in Southwest, but also with our colleagues in Kabul -- working from the top of the system, if you like.
So the U.S., the British, the Danish embassies and so on.
Secondly, I think what we call economic infrastructure -- and Paul has talked about a big conference that was held a few weeks ago on that -- trying to attract investment, but in areas like power, with the Kajaki Dam, irrigation, and roads in particular, I would say, these are absolutely vital for continued progress in Helmand and across the southwest.
Roads have been a huge part of the transformation in the past couple of years, with blacktop roads now running across central Helmand; new contracts being let even this week to blacktop the road from Lashkar Gah to Marja; construction beginning on the road down to Nawa; the U.S. Marines making great progress on Route 611, as Paul has described; roads connecting Gereshk to Musa Qal'eh and Now Zad. And those things are allowing the extension of governance, freedom of movement, greater economic opportunity, and that does an enormous amount for the confidence of the people.
And I would say that the third area that we're going to focus on in the last couple of years that we're here is about encouraging other people to come here, people who will be able to stay long term: for example, U.N. agencies -- we have UNICEF visiting soon -- other nongovernmental actors and aid agencies, but also new donors; for example, as Paul has described, countries who've been investing here in the past, like the U.A.E. We had the Japanese come down for the conference that Paul described.
So we'll be trying to focus in those areas because we see those as really key to making sure the progress that has been made can be sustained into the future. And in parallel, all of our numbers will be coming down, both military and civilian. So that will take some juggling.
But really that's what transition is all about. Our numbers will come down. Afghan capability and capacity will continue to increase, whether that's the Afghan army and police or the systems of government, systems of justice, which are increasingly prevalent across Helmand.
So that's really the mission we have from now to the end of 2014.
I'll stop there, and Paul and I are happy to take questions.
STAFF: Thank you, gentlemen. Thank you for painting that picture in your opening remarks.
We'll take your -- we'll take questions on this end and also understanding that, I believe, we've actually got about a multi-second delay. So we'll understand that there is that audio delay between here and there. So --
Q: Viola Gienger from Bloomberg News. Mike, can you talk a little bit more about what you were talking about that related to the potential investments and the delegations, I suppose, from the U.A.E. and Japan, and exactly where were they and what exactly were they doing?
And how much of a problem is corruption? I mean, how serious is it in terms of its ability to undermine the progress that has been made so far once some of the American troops move out? Or does that make a difference?
MR. REID: Let me start at the -- at the end. As far as corruption goes, it is definitely a serious impediment to the expansion of foreign investment. It is probably THE most important obstacle to the -- to the involvement of the private sector, I would say, in this economy. And I think we have the attention of the Afghan authorities that we must once and for all root this out.
And we've been giving technical assistance in a whole range of areas from -- to the Ministry of Justice, to the local authorities, and providing as well investigative support to address the problem of corruption.
But ultimately, it is -- it's a cultural shift that will have to go on. And I think that as Afghanistan moves forward into -- to increasing linkages with the -- with the international business community, that will become clear, that this is something that has to be addressed if Afghanistan is going to be a locus for foreign direct investment. So yes, I think corruption is definitely one of the -- one of the main things we need to be cognizant of as we move forward.
As far as the conference itself goes, it was just one effort among many. I think it was -- it was a -- it was a very concentrated effort on our part to attract the attention of those international financial institutions, those bilateral donors and also implementers as well to the kinds of -- the kinds of investment opportunities that exist. Again, this is more sort of a public investment sort of approach. In other words, what are those large infrastructure investments that will have the largest social payoffs?
I think that anybody who looks at the Kajaki Dam and looks at the potential for increasing the capacity of that reservoir, the potential for increasing the capacity of the generating station and all the downstream -- both irrigation and electricity, the downstream benefits that that can provide, will come away convinced that this -- that this definitely meets all of the -- all of the hurdles for a good public investment. Similarly, there's a whole host of irrigation infrastructure in the central Helmand River Valley and all the way along the Helmand River -- again, public investment that will have a huge payoff in terms of increased productivity, increased farm income.
We also -- as Michael mentioned, we also featured an extensive discussion of the road network. I think that the -- that our presence has made possible the grading, and in many cases the paving, of a whole network of roads north to south, and around from Kajaki west, that basically link a whole network of farms to markets and to distribution centers along the Ring Road, and along Highway 9 that goes from the Ring Road to Zaranj on the Iranian border. So these clearly are other channels through which local agricultural producers can add value and build prosperity in Helmand.
I don't know if you have anything to add to that, Michael.
MR. O'NEILL: Yeah, just two things quickly. I mean, I -- first of all, I agree with all the points that Paul has just made. And one quick thing on corruption: One of -- one of the exercises we do here every three months is a pretty extensive polling exercise of ordinary people in Helmand, several thousand people each time. And most of what we see from that -- we just got the latest data in the last couple of days -- is a -- is an encouraging picture. And remember, this is what ordinary people in Helmand are saying; it's not just our spin.
And what those -- that polling has shown consistently now over several months -- we've been doing it for about 18 months -- is an upward trend, a positive trend, in terms of how ordinary people see security in their own area, how they see the performance and the responsiveness of local government, and how they see the performance of the Afghan security forces -- the army, but also the police. I think all of those have still got some way to go, but they all show an upward trend, which is great.
Unfortunately, they do also show continuing high levels of public concern about corruption. And since so much of what we're doing here is trying to help the Afghan authorities secure the confidence, the support of their own people, clearly, that needs to be tackled, in the ways that Paul has described.
I think just one other point about the other -- the other actors, if you like, that we're trying to encourage and facilitate to come to Helmand, whether that is private sector companies, U.N. agencies, NGOs or bilateral donors: We -- we're putting a lot of effort into that, from the PRT, with the platform, the U.S. Marines. And really just getting them to come here in the first place is an important start because I've been very struck, in the 14 months I've been here, how many people come, including Afghan leaders, journalists and others, and they go away amazed by how different Helmand seems from what they had imagined. And I think very often there is an outdated view of how things are because, as I described earlier, so much of the progress has come in the last two years.
And just to give you one anecdote around that, in Marja a few weeks ago, I met a -- an elder who had been talking that week on the phone to his brother in Kabul, another Afghan. And when he told his brother he was in Marja, his brother replied, you must -- you're lying because Marja is under Taliban occupation. Now, Marja is actually a thriving place, and you can go and walk the streets there, go to the local restaurants; I did. There's the Internet Cafe, all of these things flourishing, and yet that isn't widely understood.
So just getting people to come here and see that Helmand is now a place where you can do business, systems of government are beginning to flourish, you have an increasingly effective Afghan security force -- in Lashkar Gah, for example -- and we're seeing that now in these three areas, Nad Ali, Nawa and Marja, which are joining the transition process.
Q: The roads that you were talking about -- for example, between Marja and Lashkar Gah -- are those currently paved and functioning or you're talking about projects that you'd like to see funded?
MR. O'NEILL: Well, the road network -- the road construction has been under way for a long time, and you now have blacktop roads across central Helmand.
So for example, Lashkar Gah to Nad Ali is now a 30-minute drive on a blacktop road. That would have been several hours a couple of years ago. From Marja, there is -- there is already a road. Just about three days ago, actually, the contract was awarded to blacktop it. So there was a road there. It's now going to be blacktopped.
And that really has quite a powerful impact because, you know, it's harder to lay IEDs on a blacktop road. Obviously, you can travel more quickly. So that really has a powerful force-multiplier effect. The construction -- the blacktopping for the road to Nawa is already under way. So you have a lot of blacktop roads already there and more being constructed all the time by the U.S. Marines, USAID; you have U.K. and Danish money. It's very much a collective effort, as Paul was describing earlier.
MR. REID: And I'd just -- let me just add, as far as that road from Marja to Lashkar Gah, I understand now it's a routine taxi ride. The taxi ride itself costs $3.50.
Q: (Off mic) -- (audio break) – repeat that? I didn't catch what you said about the road from Marja to Lashkar Gah.
MR. REID: The road -- the road is frequently-traveled. Today it is a routine taxi ride. The taxi ride costs $3.50.
MR. O'NEILL: That's pretty precise. (Chuckles.) (Off mic.)
MR. REID: (Off mic.) I just got that today.
Q: Thank you very much.
This is Raghubir Goyal, from India Globe and Asia Today. I have a three-part question. One, as far as your reconstruction or agriculture and infrastructure is concerned, what role India is playing today. And second, as far as upcoming Bonn conference, how this conference will make a difference in your progress, or in your mission. And finally, as far as the rift between U.S. and Pakistan as far as delivery of goods and closing down the roads and also fought by the Pakistanis, how is it impacting your mission. Thank you.
MR. O'NEILL: Do you want to --
MR. REID: Well, as far as the Indian contribution to reconstruction and development, certainly, I think the most -- the most dramatic is that construction of the road from the Ring Road to Zaranj. That was an Indian project. Today, that road is freely traveled and it is a -- it is an arterial means of delivering goods to and from the border and an open -- an open-water port in Iran. So it really is -- it really has become another outlet for both Helmand and Nimroz provinces to mobilize their goods to export and to take delivery on their imports. So I think that -- I know that the Indian -- the Indian government undertook that construction, and it has certainly paid great dividends.
As far as Helmand, I have less visibility on exactly what the -- what the projects are that the Indians have covered. But before I let Michael fill in that possible -- those possible details, as far as the Bonn conference goes, I think that everyone is aware that this is going to be the first international conference that Afghan -- Afghanistan itself has hosted on its own.
Previously it's been co-chaired with other -- with other partners.
The Bonn conference will be chaired by the Afghans, and it's really -- it comes 10 years almost to the day after President Karzai was first named to the provisional authority. This has been 10 years of Afghan self-rule essentially. And we look for this conference to demonstrate, once and for all, how Afghanistan is taking charge of its own destiny. Certainly, the discussion of the transition, the second tranche of transition, in which more than half of the Afghan population will be living in areas under the security control of Afghan forces, is significant, and the Bonn conference will be giving due attention to that.
As far as the issue with Pakistan, I think I'm just going to refer you to the American Embassy on those issues. Certainly, we just see a very small part of that here, and I wouldn't want to bias your perception of that.
MR. O'NEILL: Let me just add a little bit about the Bonn conference. Paul has described the significance of it in a number of ways. I think all I would add to that is, you know, it's been a tough year in some respects, with problems around the Kabul Bank, what are -- the impact that has had on the attitudes of some of the major donors, including the U.S. and the U.K., the IMF. But I think, you know, we're seeing progress in resolving some of those issues, and things have begun to move forward.
And the Bonn conference represents a pretty major opportunity to re- energize what we're -- termed last year the "Kabul Process," the commitments that were made in London and Kabul last year by the international community and by the Afghan authorities, including to tackle issues like corruption. And Bonn is really a chance, I think, to re-energize some of that.
And now that we're entering transition -- transition is formally under way, as Paul said, covering half the population -- as we look into the next three years to complete that process of transition and move towards the longer-term partnership the international community has pledged to Afghanistan, Bonn is an important moment. It will lead into further big international events next year: the NATO summit in Chicago in May, where I think there will be a big focus on future support for the Afghan security forces; there will be a major conference in Tokyo looking at development assistance. So we see Bonn as really a major milestone in that process of securing and re- energizing international commitment and support and partnership for Afghanistan as the Afghan authorities continue to implement their own commitments to see further progress.
Q: This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. Michael, you mentioned in your opening statement that one of your goals is to strengthen the links between Kabul and the province. Can you give us some specific examples of how that loose link or those -- that loose relationship has a tangible impact on the people in the province? How exactly is that affecting the people in a day-to-day basis, not having a strong link to Kabul?
MR. O'NEILL: Sure.
Well, I -- you can see it in a number of ways, including areas where we're making progress. And I think, you know, there is good progress being made, which we should keep in mind. But for example, in the last few weeks, about a dozen new judges have arrived in Helmand. We have had some more prosecutors. And clearly, those things are a necessary part of the statutory justice system, which itself is an important piece in terms of governance and the rule of law.
But the deployment of those judges, those prosecutors, depends on Kabul -- you know, on the national ministries up there recruiting the people. They go to exams, then they get sent out to the provinces to serve in ordinary communities. The same applies for teachers, for civil servants.
You know, again, one of the areas of progress in the southwest in the past couple of years is you now have a significant presence in Lashkar Gah of the national ministries, you know, delivering services in health, in education, agriculture and so on. But that depends on finding the civil servants, just like the teachers or the judges, who will be sent from Kabul out to the provinces; and of course, their salaries.
So it's in those kind of areas that it has an impact. And I think we have made a lot of progress over the past 12 months, but we need to do more. And sometimes there are delays -- you know, delays in the people coming down here, delays in the money reaching the province and paying the salaries. So we're working with the Afghans not only in Helmand in the southwest, but also in Kabul, to try to improve those to reduce the delays.
And I should make clear, you know, what we're trying to do down here -- you know, we have colleagues not only in Kabul but around the country trying to work the same issues. So USAID has a major program in other provinces as well. We -- what we want to do in the future is both work to strengthen the links between Kabul and this province and others, but also work, maybe in a more coordinated way with other donors in Kabul, all of us with the Afghan authorities, to see if things that are working well in one part of the country can be rolled out and applied elsewhere.
So that -- that's really the program as we look forward to try and improve those systems.
Q: Hi, it's Joan Soley with the BBC. Mr. O'Neill, the last -- since the last time you briefed us with General Toolan, he has said in an interview that by next year they expect to go from -- I think the figure is 20,000 Marines to 6,000 Marines in Helmand -- and I'm curious, based on the impact that that would have on civilian plants and programs. Have you been given any indication as to the timing of this drawdown? And then I have a follow-up.
MR. O'NEILL: OK. I guess -- I mean, the overall indication of the timing has come from President Obama, when he announced the surge, including the timetable for surge recovery.
On the -- on the specific details, including as they affect Helmand in particular, we're waiting for final decisions on that. The -- that should come in the next few weeks, I think. But obviously we're in constant discussion with our partners here, with General Toolan, his staff. And this is something where Paul and I share a very close interest. And we'll see when final decisions are made.
The broad shape of things is beginning to emerge, and I am confident that will allow us to continue to provide the support we're trying to do in terms of governance and development -- a lot of focus at the provincial level at Lashkar Gah where the provincial authorities operate and which is really the motor, the driver for progress across the province.
But we also have -- both Paul and I have people out in the districts co-located with U.S. Marines, British, Danish, Estonian and other troops. And I believe most of that is going to be able to continue certainly through '12, and there's still a great deal of work to do. So on the base of what we know so far, recognizing there aren't yet final decisions on the details, but I feel comfortable we'll be able to continue our work going forward.
Q: To follow up, you've mentioned the Danish a few times, and in the grand scheme of things and in the discussions you're having, do you have reason to believe that you'll see British forces responsible for Sangin again? And aren't all Danish forces leaving by Christmas?
MR. O'NEILL: Well, I think the Danes -- I don't really want to speak on behalf of the Danish authorities, but I think they've set out and the new government in Copenhagen has reaffirmed commitment to their own Helmand plan, which does in fact involve maintaining troops here into 2012, some of those troops moving into a mentoring role for the Afghan security forces, which is absolutely vital part of the mission and essential to making transition sustainable and effective. So the Danes are going to continue to play a very important role.
As far as British troops, they're deployed in three of the districts. I see no sign of that changing. And General Allen has made clear that transition -- as all the troops' numbers begin to draw down over the next three years, transition is to the Afghan security forces. So that's what seems to me likely to happen.
Q: Yeah. Dan De Luce -- AFP. Excuse me. You talked about focusing on trying to sustain the progress you've described. How concerned are you that donor contributions will decline as the level of ISAF troop numbers decline? A lot of people in the donor community have pointed to previous conflicts and said that donor contributions tend to decline as troops leave. Are you confident that Helmand can continue on its present trajectory if donors begin to give less?
MR. REID: Well, I think it's -- I think that it's quite likely that we won't see the levels of assistance that we've seen in the past few years in the years especially after 2014.
That doesn't mean that we're abandoning or shutting the door on Afghanistan at all. Rather, I think what we're doing is we're looking -- we're looking for a different model for delivering assistance than we've had up to now. Up to now the development effort has been married to a whole stabilization effort that, thanks to the improvement in security, the stabilization effort is phasing out, and now we're -- now we're adopting a much more of a classic sort of development approach to Afghanistan. As that stabilization -- as the need for stabilization decreases, and it -- and it has decreased, so too will stabilization expenditures.
So I see -- I see very much a -- much a shift toward sort of classic development type of assistance delivered from -- rather than outposts throughout the country delivered from -- at least in the case of the United States -- four enduring posts and the -- and the embassy with USAID teams stationed there to monitor -- to develop projects and monitor their execution.
So I think we can't be complacent about what is likely to be this decline. I think we have looked at cases in other countries where the decline has been too precipitous or has been -- has been unanticipated. I think we have learned our lessons from that, and I think what we really need to do is to chart a path of clearly expected sort of stepwise changes in our assistance levels.
Now, of course, what we have going on, at the same time, with development is the private sector coming in to take up the slack. And a lot of what we're -- what we're doing is building capacity for the government to undertake a lot of these -- a lot of those efforts that belong to the government and creating a type of environment where the private sector can make its contribution and ultimately provide a self-sustaining economy for Afghanistan.
MR. O'NEILL: Again, I agree with all of that. I'd just underline a couple of those points. The -- I mean, first of all, I think certainly the British government, I believe the U.S., the Danes and many others have pledged a long-term commitment to continue to support Afghanistan, and we're seeing that from other countries in the region, too. So that is a positive thing. And as Paul has said, I think all of our governments have made clear: We don't intend to repeat the mistake of walking away.
Second point, I think a reduction in the level of the investments going in now is inevitable, and frankly, is probably going to be healthy. Over the past several years, we've all made substantial investments here. There were good reasons for that. You know, the infrastructure was in many cases decimated; systems capacity were very low. So a lot of effort has been needed. But it won't be sustainable at the current levels indefinitely into the future. So actually beginning to draw some of that down to a point that is more likely to be maintained in the future is a necessary thing.
But I would add one further point, which is the -- as the international presence draws down, as Afghans are increasingly taking the lead, there's plenty of evidence they can do things effectively and in some -- in many cases more cheaply. School construction, for example: We've got evidence that the Afghan authorities are now increasingly leading in those areas themselves, the capacity of the Education Ministry; provincial education department's got stronger. They're able to do that more cheaply.
We have British, American and other military engineers doing a lot of vital work on infrastructure, in the design, quality assurance. And again, that's been a necessary thing, for the reasons we've already described.
But what those engineers are now increasingly doing is mentoring Afghan engineers. So a big part of their time is devoted to that. From the ministries, from private contractors, and you know, frankly, those Afghan engineers are probably going to be cheaper to employ than some of the internationals.
So I think the levels spent will come down, but in some respects that's healthy. There is nonetheless a long-term commitment from many governments to continued support, and I think we'll find more affordable models. And if in parallel private-sector development continues in the way we hope it will, as Paul describes, and Afghan revenue's increasing, that we will, I think, be able to find a balance. But you know, that won't be simple, it won't come quickly, but that's the direction we're trying to move in.
MR. REID: Let me just add one more thing to the -- when you look at these assistance numbers particularly, I think it's important to keep in mind that not every dollar that you see in the account is a dollar that's spent in Afghanistan. Quite a few of it -- quite a bit of those dollars essentially are spent outside the country and don't make a direct contribution to the actual GDP, if you will, of the -- of the country. So part of this migration away from the way we've been doing businesses toward an Afghanistan that's more self- sustainable is going to involve more of that money be spent in the country and again more of the economic activity that's being generated in the country remaining in the country.
So I think that -- as you look at those assistance levels, I think it's worthwhile interpreting them with -- according to their actual economic effect, rather than citing how large a decline you're likely to see.
CAPT Campbell: A couple of more questions on our end.
Q: Gentlemen, Richard Sisk, The War Report Online. I want to ask about the poppy crop. Back in May and June in Helmand, the Marines, the British, State, AID were quite up front in saying there'd been a delay in -- delay in what was the expected summer offensive, a dip in violence, because everybody had to go home, including the Afghan army and the Afghan police, to help their families in harvesting the poppy crop.
The question is, where do you stand -- presumably it's planting season now -- where do you stand in trying to get the Afghans to substitute wheat, other substitutes, for the poppy?
And if I could ask a second question, Mr. O'Neill, you said all your numbers will be coming down in Helmand -- military, civilian side. On the civilian side, what are the numbers now? What do you have in the way of aid workers, PRT, in Helmand, and what are you projecting to come down to?
MR. O'NEILL: OK, the -- well, counternarcotics -- let me say a little bit about that.
The -- you know, the fight against narcotics in Afghanistan is a tough fight. You know, this country has produced a lot of the world's heroin over the past few years. During a time of insurgency, when the rule of law has been limited, you know, those things can get very difficult to control. And you know, it can move backwards and forwards. As the price fluctuates, you know, there's a supply-and- demand issue.
So, you know, in Afghanistan as a whole, unfortunately we saw an increase in the last period in poppy production. I think that makes it all the more impressive, in Helmand, under Governor Mangal's leadership, there was a further fall.
And there's been a consistent fall for each of the last three years now. So, you know, that is an encouraging sign of progress in Helmand -- vital in terms of removing or reducing a source of corruption, a source of funding for the insurgency, so it's been important.
Now, for the past three years, we've been supporting Governor Mangal's efforts through the wheat seed program, as you describe. This year, for the first time we have -- on a major scale, we have strong support in that from USAID, also from the Danish authorities. And that actually made quite a powerful, positive change. And in particular, I think one of the realizations we've come to is that subsidized wheat seed, handing out that, may be approaching the point of diminishing returns. So, very much with the influence of USAID, this year there's been a conscious effort to broaden beyond wheat seed to more high-value crops, like alfalfa and other things.
And I think, looking forward, subsidized wheat seed is probably not going to hold too many more answers. There needs to be a greater effort -- and USAID is doing a great deal of work in this area -- on supporting those high-value crops, supporting the agriculture value chains that farmers can make more money from the crops they grow; meanwhile, a strong effort at interdiction operations, particularly on the military side. We have an increasingly effective Afghan counternarcotics police that is taking part in that.
On the -- in the question of numbers -- forgive me, I don't mean to sound coy, but it's difficult to get precise on some of the numbers, because we have such complex structures here, as Paul describes. So within the PRT, for example, we have a number of Paul's staff in State Department, USAID, who are embedded in the PRT; the U.S. Marines are a similar position.
The -- there are probably about -- in terms of civilians, whether they're American, British, Danish, probably about 120 in Lashkar Gah and in the DSTs.
We have a significant number of Afghan staff. So you could decide whether or not you could have them, but several dozen Afghan staff doing jobs that range from support functions to interpreters to program managers.
We also have a number of people in uniform. That includes the U.S. Marines I described earlier who play a really vital role -- mainly as a liaison between the PRT and RC Southwest, but very much operating as part of a team -- also British and Danish, and quite a number of civilian police officers who contribute to the police development activity.
But in terms of all of that, by the end of 2014, the Helmand PRT, like all the PRTs in Afghanistan, will close, because by that point, with transition completed, we very much believe the Afghan authorities should be, will be in the lead. And there will be continued assistance, but as Paul described, it will be a different model, coming in from USAID, from DFID, from DANIDA, coming in at the national level and then flowing out through Afghan systems, and therefore we won't need the PRTs.
MR. REID: Let me -- let me just say on the counternarcotics, Michael described a fairly dramatic reduction in poppy production. Particularly that's been the case in the so-called Green Zone; that is the area where -- the agricultural area along the Helmand River. In some cases, it's been, you know, in -- up to as much as 80-some percent. But you know, we -- even Helmand-wide it's been in the range of 20-some percent reduction in poppy production, year over year; of course, these estimates are all over the place, but I think the most exact -- the most exact imagery we have of – points to reductions on that scale.
And I think there are all kinds of reasons for that. I think the eradication efforts make a contribution. But frankly, I'm more of the opinion that the improved security situation and the fact that there are not Taliban anymore, or insurgents seeking to impress farmers into cultivating poppy present on the ground -- they've all been pretty much dispersed at this point.
So there's no one -- there are -- there's not an insurgency forcing people to plant poppy now.
And I would also say that farming now is becoming more and more of a viable way of life. I think that's partly due to the wheat seed distribution, though again not entirely. I think that farmers are becoming more and more aware that their -- that the best chance that they have for establishing a sustainable livelihood is to turn to licit crops. And I think that the network of roads, the infrastructure for delivering those crops to market, all those things are encouraging to the farmers to engage in more licit crop production.
CAPT Campbell: Gentlemen, we'll take our last question here on this end.
Q: Hi, gentlemen. I'm Lisa Daniel with American Forces Press Service. And I was just wondering if you could speak to how the military-civilian partnership has changed in the past few months as this progress has been made in Helmand, how daily operations changed.
MR. O'NEILL: It's got even better.
MR. REID: Oorah! OK, yeah, I think there's no question that we are -- we are always learning by doing how to do better together. Certainly the way we work at the platform with Civil Affairs, we are becoming more and more integrated in our -- in our operations, in our planning, just in our general interactions.
It's not only -- it's not just with Civil Affairs, it's also with the sort of -- the sort of capacity building we're doing with the -- particularly with the Border Police. And that falls into a different area -- the so-called C-10 -- that are seeking to increase the capacity of the Afghan national security forces. We work very closely with them. We work very closely with the Afghan Border Police in both Helmand and numerous provinces.
And as I say, I think we're -- we -- I think we have -- we've learned each other's language. I think we've learned each other's strengths. I think we -- reduce each other's weaknesses. As Michael says, I think it's just getting better and better all the time. And I think that we probably have a model civ-mil operation here in Helmand province, and anybody who wants to create a catalogue of best practices should come here and have a look.
MR. O'NEILL: Yeah, I agree with that. The -- you know, we work in an extremely close kind of partnership, because we have to, you know. And all the work that we're trying to support, all of us, on governance and development, strengthening Afghan systems, that really depends on improved security and freedom of movement. That's got to come first. But as we move forward in a lot of the areas that, you know, Paul had just described, there has to be that kind of close partnership.
So, I mean, just to give you a flavor, last Saturday, Paul, General Toolan and I, we had a working dinner with Governor Mangal. That's something we do quite frequently. Paul and I went out together to California about a month ago to talk to the new group of U.S. Marines from -- I-MEF Forward -- who will come back here in March. And we work hand-in-glove, and that goes right down to the local level, you know, the battalions -- again, whether it's U.S. Marines, British, Danes or others, with civilian staff -- both British, American, Danish -- embedded alongside them, working together, day in, day out.
And I think it's fair to say that the areas where we've seen best progress are the areas where that cooperation, that coordination, communication is close. And where, for one reason or another, it goes wrong, then we see hiccups. So all of us, as Paul said, we've all learned from that, and we've worked quite hard to fix those things.
You know, it's a complicated set of issues we're working on. The environment's a tough one. And again, the teamworking is absolutely essential for all the progress that we need to continue to see. But I think with John Toolan and his team, it's very good. And we're all committed to maintaining that.
CAPT Campbell: Gentlemen, thank you. I think you have touched on a -- certainly a wide variety of issues. With all of the questions wrapped up on our end, I would turn it back over to you if you have any closing comments.
MR. REID: Well, I just want to thank the press corps for this opportunity to tell the Helmand story from people who actually see it happening. As Michael said, the perception of those who are not in Helmand is of a place of great violence and instability. The reality is, this is a -- this is a province that is -- that is -- has substantially achieved stability and has a great potential for prosperity with Afghans building their own lives for themselves and a responsible and responsive government of Afghanistan.
I personally am very proud to be a part of it, and I very much welcome the opportunity to work with Michael, with the U.S. Marines and all of my combined team partners.
MR. O'NEILL: Well, likewise, on all of that, and it's only really through the efforts of the combined team that we've seen all this progress.
I think I would just add two last points. The -- I said at the start that I'm struck by how much of the progress has really moved forward in the last couple of years, quite a recent period. And again, it was building on foundations that people were laying before that, but it's got much stronger.
So taking that time frame, I think, if we look forward three years from now, to the end of 2014, there's a major task there, which is to make that progress durable, make it sustainable, help the Afghans get into a position where they can take it forward themselves.
But if you look at what's been achieved just in the last two years, I think another three years to consolidate that is a reasonable length of time.
None of us are under any illusions about the challenges in particular bits of the province, some of the northern areas, at a regional level and national level. So we're not -- we're not naive about those things. But we've seen substantial progress, and I can think consolidating that is a reasonable objective, and we have the right strategy for it.
But I think the very last thing I would say as we get into transition and as the international presence starts to draw down, which is what all of our governments have said, what the Afghan government wants, increasingly it's all about what the Afghans are able to do. And the measure of progress, the measure of success, is going to be less and less about what we do ourselves than what we help them to do, facilitating their own operations, their own leadership, their own delivery. And so that's really the key task for the next three years.
But like Paul, I thank you very much for the opportunity to talk about this, and I'd certainly endorse his invitation to all of you to come and see for yourselves at any opportunity you get.
CAPT Campbell: Gentlemen, thank you, and thank all the civilians that you represent who stand alongside the men and women in uniform as we continue to make progress in Afghanistan.
We genuinely appreciate you spending part of your evening with us, and we thank you for joining us here in the Pentagon.
MR. REID: Thank you.
MR. O'NEILL: Thanks.