CAPTAIN JOHN KIRBY: Well, good morning here in the briefing room, and good evening there in Camp Leatherneck. I'd like to welcome Major General Charles "Mark" Gurganus, the commanding general, Regional Command Southwest, and Helmand Provincial Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal to the Pentagon Briefing Room.
Major General Gurganus currently leads servicemembers and civilians from 11 different nations who work with over 20,000 Afghan security forces and the Afghan government to conduct counterinsurgency operations in southwestern Afghanistan. The general was commissioned in May 1976. His previous operational assignments include the commanding officer of Regional Combat Team 8 in Al Anbar province, Iraq, and as the ground combat element commander to MEF, Marine Expeditionary Force Forward, in Al Anbar, Iraq, as well. He assumed command of R.C. Southwest in March of this year.
Governor Mangal is the current governor of Helmand province. He served as governor of Paktika province from March 2004 until March 2006 and then as governor of Laghman province. On March 22, 2008, he was made the governor of Helmand province, while being replaced in Laghman. He has also served as head of the committee that drafted Afghanistan's most recent constitution.
This is the first time for both gentlemen to be with us here in the briefing room. We're very, very glad that they were able to make this time available to us. They will each have brief opening comments, and then we'll go to your questions.
We'll do like we've done before. Please -- because they can't see you, when I call on you, identify who you are and what agency you're with and then ask your question. We got quite a few here in the briefing room, so I'd ask you to try to keep the follow-ups to a bare minimum, if you can. And if we have time, we'll certainly do another round, or as much as we can. Governor Mangal will be answering questions through an interpreter, so please allow a little bit of time for that. And, of course, we always have a satellite delay, so there may be a delay just in the transmission of the signals.
With that, gentlemen, General, I'll turn it over to you to start, sir.
MAJOR GENERALCHARLES GURGANUS: OK. Governor, would you like to start with your opening comments, please?
GOVERNOR MOHAMMAD GULAB MANGAL (through translator): First of all, I am providing my greetings to you, John, and the rest of the team with you and all of those individuals who are viewing us through the screen on the television. We send our greetings.
And also, I am very thankful to both the military and the civilian personnels of the United States of America, the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.K. forces, Denmark, Estonians, Georgians, Bahrainis, UAE forces, and Jordanians, that they give sacrifices for the better lives and to improve government in the Helmand province.
Without any doubt, as a result of the joint cooperation and operations of the Afghan national security forces, and the coalition forces and the internationalforces in Afghanistan, the situation in Helmand has been improved a lot in the last few years.
In 2008, the capital city of Helmand province, Lashkar Gah, was surrounded by enemies. The districts of Khanashin, Washir, Nawzad and Reg was under control of the enemy. In the rest of districts we have very limited presence of the governments, the (off mic) district centers just by the checkpoints.
The members of these forces was very unprofessional. There were a lot of drug addicted members in the police forces, and we only had one brigade of the Afghan Army at that time.
The development of the (off mic) Helmand province (off mic) coalition forces and establishment of the 215 Corps of the Afghan national army, day by day, the security forces of Helmand province improved.
Very important and useful joint operations were conducted in Marjah and Nad Ali, which broke the backbone of the enemy. Other security institutions were added, such as the Civil Order Police, the 707th Police was established and also the training center for police was established. And the police training center, each two months, a number of the police are under the training and they obtain their training.
And also we have Afghan Local Police in the southern districts of Helmand province who are working very close with the rest of the Afghan National Security Forces for their security. 80 percent of the Helmand police are trained and equipped.
Special units of the national directorate of security have been established (off mic) there has been a good coordination between the ANSF National security forces and the coalition forces in Helmand province, which is the key to our success.
We successfully went through Tranche One and Tranche Two of the transition of the security in Lashkar Gah, Nawa, and Marjah and are preparing for Tranche Three. There is freedom of movement between Lashkar Gah and districts. The enemy is only depending on IEDs and unfortunately the victims of the IEDs most of the time are civilians. In addition to improvements in the security, there has been strong offensive against (off mic) smuggling and use and sale of narcotics. And as a result of that, there has been 33 percent reduction (off mike) And Helmand province was the first province in the last few years that it was rewarded $10 million for the projects because of better initiatives to the peace of the population. Each year, the cultivation of poppy is reducing in Helmand province and the (off mike) of licit crops is increasing such as wheat and cotton. Improved seeds and chemical fertilizers have been distributed to 139,000 farmers.
In the last few years (off mic) small, medium and big smugglers of the drugs and narcotics have been arrested. In districts, the local governments is improving day by day. In addition to the number of government institutions, we established district community councils in each district which are working alongside the local governments.
In Lashkar Gah and the surrounding districts, as of now, we have (off mic) or paved 300 kilometers of road (off mic) and 200 kilometers roads (off mic) or repaired. On both sides of the Helmand River more than 5,000 meters of protection (off mic) has been built. 2,655 kilometers canals -- irrigation canals – and streams have been cleaned. (off mike) More than 3,000 water wells are built to provide clean drinking water, and 29 water storage facilities are also built.
In the sector of health, as of now (off mic) the delivery of health services increased and the health care of the child and mother is also increased (off mic) in 2008 we had (off mike) schools providing services to 52,000 students but currently we have 195 schools and 130,000 students. One public, government owned university and four private universities are currently active in Lashkar Gah. The number of the students (off mic) increased 10 times since 2008.
Only last year in Helmand province, vocational training was provided to over 8,000 (off mic) 60 new schools are built and 13 repaired. Now we are at the stage we can say that Helmand is open for business, that we encourage the national and international investors to invest in Helmand. We are planning a conference for development of Helmand in September in Kabul, where we will invite the donors, investors, the embassies in Kabul, and also the ministries where we will talk about further development, the economic developments of Helmand province.
Through this conference we convey the message to the national and international donor—investors and donors, and the ministries that Helmand, after a long struggle with security challenges, is now ready for investment and now ready -- open for business. Thank you so much.
GEN. GURGANUS: OK, so thank you. First of, let me thank you for taking the time back in Washington this morning and for having us tell you what I think is a pretty good news story. The environment here in Regional Command Southwest remains challenging, but progress, while not fast, it is steady, not only in security, but also in governance and in development. I think we're in the right path, and we're moving forward out here with confidence.
Our mission's evolving. We're moving -- we're moving out of the lead for the counterinsurgency and moving more and more into a security force assistance role, whereby we're providing partnerships where necessary, we're providing advisers and mentors to the Afghan army and to the Afghan police, as well, and as well as taking care of any of the enablers that they just haven't had the opportunity to develop at this point in time.
We're on track with executing our portion of the phase two surge recovery, and we're reshaping our presence to be in a position to support the Afghans as they move into the lead across the province. We also continue to work very closely with the regional platform out of the State Department and also out of the Helmand provincial reconstruction team, as they continue to work to build better governance, and also to build sustainable development
And finally, I'd like to say, it's just truly a privilege to serve with the -- serve alongside the other nine members of our coalition, which includes our Afghan partners, as we all work together to create opportunities for a better future here in the southwest of Afghanistan.
And with that, sir, we're ready to attempt any questions.
CAPT. KIRBY: OK, thank you, General. First question will go to Bob Burns of the Associated Press.
Q: Thank you. This is Bob Burns from AP. I have a question for each of you, please. General, you mentioned the drawdown of Marines. Could you elaborate on that a bit and tell us, how many Marines do you have there right now? How many will you have left at the end of September? And also, based on what you know now, do you see room for additional reductions in the Marines later this year or early next year?
And a question for the governor. Do you have any qualms or fears about the departure of the Marine Corps, in terms of a possible comeback by the Taliban in Helmand?
GEN. GURGANUS: OK. Thank you. Without getting into specific numbers, we -- we are going to be a significant part of the phase two surge recovery. And again, without specific numbers, we'll reduce our forces.
But it's that time. It's -- we're at that point in the campaign where it's time to put the Afghans in the lead. And one of the things that's often forgotten, it looks like that we're making an exodus with a lot of Marines out of this province, but at the same time, you have to take a look at how the capabilities and how the numbers of the Afghan security forces has developed. For 2009, we had one simple brigade of Afghan national army out here. Today, we've got an entire corps of three brigades, and we're building a fourth brigade. The police, which were almost non-existent in 2009, now number somewhere over 8,500. So there will be -- there will be plenty of security forces to continue the mission. And our challenge now is just to continue to work with them and develop their capabilities.
As far as -- as far as seeing any additional draw downs, I'll tell you, I'm going to leave that to the guys that make that decision. We do not -- we have not heard of any additional draw downs this year, once we get through with the -- get down to the number 68,000 that was decided by the president. So it's -- I'll leave that up to them.
GOV. MANGAL (through translator): Taliban will try their best disrupt the security situation, but now ANSF -- Afghan national security forces are at the level that they can maintain the security of the Helmand province. And a good example is the areas where the transition has occurred and we are (off mic) examine the areas where we can take control of security.
CAPT. KIRBY: OK, go ahead.
Q: One quick follow-up for the general. Can you at least say how many Marines you have there now? And why can't you say how many there will be at the end of September? Has it not been decided?
GEN. GURGANUS: Well, you know, I'm just not going to get into specific numbers. I find that I get in trouble when I get into specific numbers. So -- but we will have -- we will have a sufficient amount of Marines to -- to do the mission that we've been assigned.
Q: Yes, General, it’s Dan Lamothe of Marine Corps Times. I wanted to, I guess, ask you to, I guess, compare and contrast what your Marines in central Helmand left -- I guess primarily that would be 3/8 -- are seeing at this point, compared to your units up north?
GEN. GURGANUS: OK, yeah. Hey, thanks. That's a good question. The security environment in the south is far superior to the one up north right now. When I say far superior, it's -- we've seen a lot of progress in the north, as well, too. But with a lot of the operations and with the work that was done over the previous years down in the south, that is certainly the more secure of the areas.
Central Helmand, which is where our U.K. -- our U.K. partners currently have, is -- is by and large in pretty good shape, too. We still do have some -- we have some pockets of insurgents that are up north, and we're reducing those currently. We're working on those with our Afghan partners, getting them into the lead in a lot of the operations. And -- but as you well know, it was just last year that II MEF Forward was able to go up and really open up a lot of the areas in the north up towards Sangin and towards Kajaki. And so what we did is we're continuing to work on areas that -- that they just didn't have a chance to get to.
So the security -- the security environment in the south is really -- is really in pretty good shape.
Q: Sir, this is for the governor on your economic conference. This is Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News. Can you talk a little bit about the major areas you will be seeking U.S. assistance on? I'm thinking agriculture production and improving your already fairly good cell phone infrastructure. Can you talk a little bit about both of those, in terms of how U.S. companies might find investment opportunities?
GOV. MANGAL (through translator): As I said before that 80,000 acres of land have been cultivated in wheat and this is a great example that (off mic) example in the past. The more people cultivate wheat and cotton, that will will reduce the poppy cultivation. And we’re trying our best to make agriculture professional, so the farmers can get more from their land. Therefore, we are paying close attention to the improvements of irrigation canals. We are also building an industrial park with support of USAID (off mic) where we will have about 50 (off mike) factories, and these factories will be processing only agriculture products of Helmand province, which will benefit the farmers.
In terms of the -- regarding the mobile phone industry, I think the country progressed a lot. And about 80 percent of the people in Afghanistan or in Helmand province are using mobile phones. Even now, we are using mobile phones for the payments -- monthly payments of the police forces, that they can get their pays through the mobile phones while they're doing their duty in the far distance areas. And this is a very good progress (off mic)
Q: Sir, I have one follow-up for the governor. Does he see a major market there for iPads or other mobile device tablets that are in wide use in the United States and Europe?
GOV. MANGAL (through translator): Yes, the people who can afford, they have been using the most modern telephones, such as Apple iPods, and so on. And also they’ve using the phones Internet and other internet facilities are provided for the telephone companies.
Q: Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. Despite the fact that you won't talk about numbers, you did say that the surge recovery -- your A.O. will play a significant part in the phase two surge recovery. Has that begun yet? Have you started drawing down any Marines out of your area? And if not, when will that begin? And how many Afghan security forces, army and police, are in -- in the lead or completely independent of any U.S. or NATO help at this point in your area?
GEN. GURGANUS: OK, thanks – thanks Courtney. Yes, we have already started -- we have already started our drawdown. And, in fact, we are probably -- we're probably about halfway through with the numbers that we will have to draw down. This has been a -- this has been measured with the reshaping and resetting of the Afghan national security forces, as well. As we have pulled back out of some of the areas, we have not left the areas open. What we've done is move the -- move the ANSF forces into it, certainly not as dense as we were once -- you know, once upon a time, when we had -- when we had the full forces in here, but certainly dense enough to where they're able to maintain -- maintain control over the security.
The -- what was the second part of your question? I'm sorry.
Q: Are there -- how many Afghan army and police are operating completely independently of any U.S. or NATO assistance?
GEN. GURGANUS: Oh, OK, yeah. Yeah. Right now, the -- right now, we only have, really, one battalion-sized unit that I would tell you is completely independent. We have some that are operating very much independently, but when you say completely independent, I'm assuming that doesn't even mean with advisers. We have advisers with all of the battalions. We have advisers with all of the brigades. And in some places, we even -- we still have -- we still more forces and just an adviser team with them.
We're still (inaudible) where capabilities are being developed. But we only have the one kandak right now that is -- that is completely independent, and it's doing very well on its own.
Q: General, this is Carlo Munoz of The Hill. I had wanted to ask you, in terms of the evolving training mission for Afghan national security forces, one, has that mission got less labor-intensive, for lack of a better term, as time has gone on? And the second part is, are you -- is there any part of that mission that your forces are unable to do because of a lack of resources or a drawdown in resources for the mission coming from the Pentagon?
GEN. GURGANUS: OK, I got the second part. Would you repeat the first part? I couldn't hear you.
Q: Oh, the first part, sir, I wanted to get an idea of how the training mission has evolved, and has it gotten a little less labor intensive as far as getting these guys spun out to -- to do the security mission?
GEN. GURGANUS: OK. Yeah, the -- the evolution of the training mission has -- has really, I think, progressed very far along. We still spend -- we still spend a lot of time in training. It's not -- it's not really less labor-intensive. We're just focusing more and more on the training mission to increase the capabilities of the ANSF, both the army and the different -- different parts of the police forces, as well. That's the evolution of the mission that I was talking about in my opening statement.
In fact, we're starting to hand over some of the training responsibilities to the 215th Corps for the army itself. We have that -- we have our Joint Sustainment Academy Southwest out here. And we will eventually hand it completely over, so that the corps will have a capability, as well, to continue individual and collective training, as they get past even this current fight.
But -- but it's not any less labor-intensive now, but we are using a whole lot more Afghan -- we're using a whole lot more Afghan instructors as we conduct this training. And so training the trainers is really becoming a large part of our focus now.
And, no, there is nothing that we're unable to do because of the draw downs. We have the capabilities that we need in order to continue to -- to do our security force assistance mission and also to conduct the training that we have -- that we're doing with the Afghans themselves.
Q: Hi, General. This is Kristina Wong from the Washington Times. In R.C. South, as far as training, what's the estimated ratio of coalition trainers to the Afghan national security forces, army and police, right now?
GEN. GURGANUS: I'm having a difficult time with that. Could you -- could ask that again, please?
Q: What is the estimated ratio of coalition trainers to ANSF, army and police, in R.C. South?
GEN. GURGANUS: I'm still not getting... Can someone repeat that a little slower for me?
CAPT. KIRBY: Sir, this is Captain Kirby. The question is, what is the current ratio of coalition trainers to members of the ANSF there in Helmand right now? And that's both Afghan army and Afghan police.
Is that right?
GEN. GURGANUS: OK. I got it. Thanks, John. Wow, I don't -- I don't even -- I don't have a specific -- I don't have a specific number of what it is right now. Because we still have forces that are doing things other than training at the current time, although we're moving very quickly towards that -- towards that mold and that role, we do have -- we do have teams with each one of the kandaks -- and kandak being a battalion -- and we have them at each of the district levels, as well, in both -- not only -- not only Marine teams, but the -- the U.K. and the Danes also providing the same level of mentoring and advising for the -- for the Afghans, both the police and for the army. But I don't know what -- exactly what the ratio is right now.
Q: I’ll try to speak slowly and clearly. General, you said progress remains challenging, but steady. Could you talk a little bit about the top challenges right now?
GEN. GURGANUS: Sure, be glad to. It remains challenging, because one of the things that I think makes this mission difficult is that you're building and training and trying to develop capabilities in an army and in a police force while you're still -- while you're still involved in fighting a counterinsurgency. But more and more, the progress is that they're taking over more and more of the fight, and they're taking over more and more of the responsibilities for security with our assistance to provide enablers, that -- again, that they just haven't had the chance to complete the development of yet.
And some of those enablers that -- I know General Allen's talked about this -- that we'll be providing, you know, for some time to come. But the challenging part is we are still in a fight in some parts -- in some parts of the north, and there are still challenges with reaching out to -- as they establish governance in some of the districts, getting the elections held in some of the further-away districts. Development is not quick yet, and a lot of that is as they develop the budgets and develop the projects that they'll need in order to be able to continue development over the years. It's not all in place yet, but that's one of the things that the governor's working very hard on, not only in the governance area, but also in the development arena.
But the challenge for us is we are still fighting, and at the same time, we're developing an Afghan army and police capability.
Q: General, it’s Mike Evans from the Times. Putting aside, if I may, all the progress that's been that you were talking about and the governor was talking about in Afghanistan, do you still have faith, in purely military terms, do you still have faith in the concept of counterinsurgency and that all your efforts will actually force the Taliban to do a deal? Or do you think the Afghan national security forces will be fighting for war with the Taliban in 20 years' time?
GEN. GURGANUS: That's a pretty interesting question. And I don't think that they'll be fighting a war in 20 years' time with the Taliban. I think -- I don't think the Taliban has the capability to continue to be able to sustain itself over the course of years.
And I will tell you, I'm very confident that as we hand over this counterinsurgency fight to the Afghan national security force, they're going to be able to accomplish the mission. They're going to be able to provide the protection for the population and the people of southwestern Afghanistan.
CAPT. KIRBY: OK, just two more here (off mike).
Q: Gopal Ratnam, of Bloomberg News. This is a question for both of you. To what extent is the local economy in Helmand dependent on the international forces? And what is the departure of the forces -- what kind of a gap will that leave in the local economy, in terms of employment and jobs?
GOV. MANGAL (through translator): There is no doubt that the Helmand economy is building (off mic) but I'm certain that, as a result of the drawdown of the coalition forces (off mic) institutions will continue their support, economic support. In the meantime, we will promote—towards our self sufficiency to use our natural resources. Therefore, we are trying to have the donors conference (off mic) in Kabul, so we can be prepared for that proactive (off mike) to improve our economy.
Helmand has a lot of good natural resources, which is for example the underground natural resources and also the water of Helmand, which is good for the agriculture (off mic) and these natural resources will not only support Helmand but can support all of the nation.
GEN. GURGANUS: I'll give you -- I'll give you my short answer. I think I caught the question. The -- yeah, I think that where we have been -- development has been dependent on -- on foreign troops providing a secure enough environment, I think that is -- that is rapidly changing. I think that the -- the Afghans are providing the security now that will enable the opportunities.
I mean, no doubt, there's still trouble. No doubt that the -- that the Afghan national security forces will continue to be challenged for a bit, but they have measured up to each and all of these challenges. So it's -- I think that -- you know, we're not really guarding any parts that are -- that are under development at this point in time. We have forces that they are used -- we have forces that are in places that facilitate security, so the development can take place. But in terms of providing specific security forces to oversee development, we're not doing that.
Let me know if I -- if I missed the question on that.
CAPT. KIRBY: Last question to Otto.
Q: General, Otto Kreisher with Seapower and Semper Fi Magazine. As the Marines withdraw, ANSF ground forces can take up the slack, but they're dependent on your air. And since the Marines are integrated air and ground, is there any provision during the withdrawal to keep air assets available for the ANSF?
GEN. GURGANUS: Another great question, thanks. Yeah, there is -- provisions right now. I mean, you know, as we've drawn down, we are keeping -- we are keeping a significant amount of -- of our air in theater, to cover not only -- to cover not only ourselves, but also our Afghan partners and also our other coalition partners, as well.
And additionally, the U.K has a pretty significant amount of air forces here, as well. So, yeah, we will -- we will keep that, and with some of the adviser teams that will be with the -- the Afghan ground forces, we'll have the capability to -- to reach out and communicate that air as we need it.
CAPT. KIRBY: OK, thanks, everybody. Gentlemen, I'm going to just pass it over to you for any final comments you wish to make before we conclude. Again, thanks for your time today.
GOV. MANGAL (through translator): Thank you. I'm very positive about the future of Afghanistan as a result (off mic) such as the Tokyo pledge, and I can give you assurance that Afghans will stand on their own feet and they will have a brighter future.
GEN. GURGANUS: And I think I would -- I would wrap up just by saying a couple of things, that it's amazing the positive impact the signing of the strategic partnership agreement has had with the people of Helmand, also the -- the recent results of the Tokyo conference, the results of the Chicago conference there. That is a guarantee to the -- to the Afghan population that -- that they're not going to be left behind.
It's been very interesting what a positive impact that's had on the mission out here. And it really has turned a lot of people's eyes towards -- towards the government of -- of Afghanistan. So I think that some of these -- some of these very positive developments in the international community are really starting to set the conditions where -- where Afghan will be able to stand on its own and will be able to be a full-up partner in the international community.
One thing that I would ask you to remember is, as I told you earlier, we have a -- we have a very competent Afghan national army corps out here. We've only had that corps out here since about 2009. As I told you, it was a brigade at that point in time. It has come a long way in the three years that we've had it.
And a lot of people say -- a lot of people seem to think that we only have two-and-a-half years left until the end of 2014. We look at that as, we still got two-and-a-half years. And we know we can accomplish a lot in further development of capabilities. And so I'm pretty positive about this, as well.
There's just a lot of things going in the right direction. Again, not always fast. Sometimes there's a step forward; sometimes there's a step backwards. But it's always -- we always seem at the end of the day to make forward progress with everything we're doing.
So with that, I would tell you, again, I appreciate the opportunity, and thanks for the continued support.
CAPT. KIRBY: Thank you both. Thank you very much for your time tonight.