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Media Availability with Gen. Dunford in NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium

Presenters: General Joseph F. Dunford, Commander, International Security Assistance Force, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan
June 04, 2013

            GENERAL JOSEPH DUNFORD:  Okay, since there is about 20 minutes, I'd be happy to go right into questions if you want.  And if you want me to, I can talk for a few minutes. 

            Sure. 

            Q:  Can you give an assessment of how the fighting season is going this year?  We've heard that the Afghan security forces are facing very heavy loses.  Could it be useful to get a sense of just how many -- 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  Sure. 

            Q:  -- and what parts of the country? 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  Yeah, they are -- they are taking heavy losses.  In fact, last week, we had a memorial service, and they -- they lost 104 in one week.  And that's been an issue. 

            I would tell you this, in terms of how they're doing, the Taliban came out and they're doing exactly what they said they would do, high-profile attacks, attempting insider attacks against the Afghans, and then fear, murder and intimidation.  So that's what they've come out to try to do. 

            The encouraging thing has been the integration of Afghan forces.  And I think you all know we're going to mark what's known as "Milestone 2013"  here in June, which is part of the Lisbon process, recognizes the Afghans that are in the lead for security nationwide.  So that's going to happen here in the month of June. 

            And I would tell you that based on their performance over the last couple months, I feel pretty good about that.  The -- the challenges they've had against the Taliban, they've absolutely confronted those.  And -- and not had an issue, you know.  Does that give you a sense for? 

            Q:  Do you have any broader numbers of how many casualties they've taken?  For example, this year, the past couple of months -- 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  Yeah, yeah, I can almost tell you since I've been there.  The numbers have been, you know, as I look back over the last six or eight weeks, it's probably, you know, 70 one week.  It was 44, 34, and then the last two weeks have been over 100.  Yeah, which is -- which is significant.  It also highlights that they are actually in the lead right now. 

            Q:  (inaudible) said that you're -- you were probably not worried about the narrative of -- (inaudible) -- in Afghanistan. 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  That I was worried. 

            Q:  There's been reports recently and talks about -- (inaudible) -- control of -- (inaudible) -- force, sorry -- (inaudible) -- for 2014 to -- to fill the gap.  Do you think it might appear that it might affect the perception of how things are going in Afghanistan and that they are maybe not going as well as one might think? 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  Yeah -- 

            (CROSSTALK) 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  Sure, I -- I have talked about a -- (inaudible) -- force.  And, frankly, with regard to the Afghans' ability to assume the lead this summer, I don't have concerns that the Afghans' ability to secure the elections in 2014.  I don't have concerns.  And to their ability to actually affect transition post-2014, they're going to be able to do that.  

            Are there capability gaps that need to be addressed?  Yes, you know, leadership issues, command and control issues, logistics issues.  Frankly, the systems, the processes, the institutions associated with an army, ministerial capacity, those are all areas that we're working on.  But in terms of on the ground, you know, I think their performance actually exceeds where we thought they'd be a couple of months ago. 

            And in particular, and I -- and for those that are going to come visit soon -- particularly the thing that's been encouraging is the integration of Afghan capability.  In other words, at the tactical level, the cooperation between Afghan police, Afghan army, Afghan local police, Special Operations forces has been -- has been significant. 

            You all want to ask questions, so I won't -- I won't walk you through a couple of examples.  But even in the last three or four weeks, what -- what we've seen is, with the exception of us providing air support, the Afghans are leading all operations.  The only unilateral operations that we're conducting right now are local security patrols, route clearance in our own retrograde operations.  Those are the only operations that we're conducting where the Afghans aren't physically in the lead. 

            So the discussions about a -- (inaudible) -- force, I think that's -- those are projections -- people -- that discussion, I think, we should be clear.  That discussion about post-2014 is based on a projection of what we think the security environment will be within which the Afghans are operating in 2015.  

            And -- and I would just offer to you, there's a number of variables that you should trek over the next 18 months -- certainly the performance of the Afghans this summer, the results of the elections in 2014, any political processes that may -- that may bring the Taliban into a political process will have an effect on that, which obviously affects the -- the strength of the insurgency. 

            So I think it's impossible today, except with a linear progression, to project out to 2015 what the security environment is going to be.  So I think all those discussions about what's going to take place in 2015 right now, I think you need to bear down and -- and take a hard look at the assumptions that people are making when they -- when they have that discussion.  But I think it's very much a discussion at this point. 

            It's normal, taking a look out at 2015.  But I don't think the discussions right now would indicate that we're not -- in fact, I would tell you, if anybody, to include those even in this room, would have back in 2010 and 2011 said that we'd actually be able to put the Afghans in lead in June of 2013, I don't think you would have had a whole lot of people that would have agreed with you. 

            Q:  General, considering what you had spoken to us before about the need to express commitment to the Afghans, do you think there are risks at this point in not being more specific about the U.S. and NATO commitment to the troops post-2014? 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  I think the most important thing right now is not specificity, it's credibility.  And -- I think that's what the June milestone 2013 is all about from my perspective.  There's a couple of messages that we want to deliver to the Afghan people this month, especially coming out of Brussels now.  Number one, we want to make sure it's very clear that the Afghans have assumed the lead.  And that -- that in accordance with the Lisbon process, the Afghan's will, at milestone 2013, be responsible for security across the country.           

            The other message that we want to deliver here in June is that, although our relationship will change in December of 2014, the commitment in accordance with the agreement that was made in Chicago for security and for development in Tokyo, that those commitments remain strong, and that the international community will be there past 2014.  And if you take a look at security for example, the international community has commitments that extend out to 2018 in terms of support for aviation, in terms of support for the Afghan National Security Forces program of record. 

            So that's -- that, I think at this point is the most important thing to address this concern of abandonment and the -- and the confidence issue, is just making sure it's clear that we actually do have commitment post-2014.  And that that commitment at this point is credible.  I think to talk about the specifics that might or might not be needed after 2014 for all those reasons I talked about, there's a number of interdependent variables right now that need to be considered when making a specific recommendation post-2014. 

            And I'm certainly not prepared today to tell you exactly what we'll need post-2014. 

            Q:  To follow up on that, is the range of 8,000 to 12,000 NATO troops still roughly right in terms of this? 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  That's being discussed.  But the -- that's what tomorrow is all about.  So I can't -- I can't get out in front of the defense ministers now.  Tomorrow, the defense ministers will discuss post-2014.  So I'm not sure what -- what conclusion they'll draw tomorrow. I can tell you what I expect we'll have to do after 2014.  I can't talk to you about specific numbers right now. 

            Q:  When do you think you'll know when the right time is to talk about specifics?  What -- what's -- in your mind -- in your mind, I mean, are we looking at later this year, you're talking next year? 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  No. In my mind, when we have to get -- again, aside from the issue of commitment and credibility, and making sure that we have -- we have the Afghan people understanding that we actually will be here and all of the other people that we've talked about before as a group, with the audiences that would be out there for those numbers.  From a military perspective, I think after the summer of 2013, when we determine how the fight goes, we'll also in the fall be able to assess the political process and where we are with regard to the political process at that time. 

            And then I think with some assumptions, we'll project out at that point what the mission ought to look like specifically in 2015.  But the thing that I have argued for consistently and will continue to argue for, is to -- (inaudible) -- some degree of flexibility for the commanders that are actually going to be there in 2015 based on all of these interdependent variables.  I think it's really important that we -- that we have plans.  Plans have assumptions by definition.  And those assumptions will change over time. 

            The one thing that I've been struck with in the months that I've been on the ground in Afghanistan is the pace of change.  And -- and we're -- I'm having a significantly different conversation today with people about where we on the ground than I might have had even in January or December of 2012, or -- or January 2013.  

            So, given -- given the unknowns about the pace of political change and how transition will go in 2014, this is, you know, a reminder, this is the Afghan's first summer in the lead for security.  We're going to -- we're going to learn a lot this summer about what 2015 is going to look like. 

            Q:  Sir, the Taliban has said it is in talks with Iran.  What do you think of that?  And what do you think the elections in Iran -- how will they change the dynamic? 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  Well, what I would say about -- about talks is that at the end of the day, this mission is going to be resolved with a political solution.  I mean, that's how we're going to bring the crisis in Afghanistan to a close. 

            And so, any -- any discussions that are going on now that would be productive, certainly I'd be supportive.  But I think all I know about the talks that the Iranians are hosting is what you all have written about, in that they're -- that they were announced. 

            I just read that yesterday, so it's hard for me to tell how substantive they'll be.  I'm not sure who's participating in it and I don't know if the Afghan government is involved or not involved in that.  So it would be hard for me to make an assessment. 

            Q:  But the fact that -- the mere fact that they're talking to the Iranians, is that troubling at all to you? 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  It's not to me, no.  

            Q:  General, what -- what have you seen lately in terms of cross-border attacks from Pakistan, activity in the Haqqani Network?  And has the CIA drone campaign, which I'm not asking you to --

            GEN. DUNFORD:  Right. 

            (CROSSTALK) 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  Yeah.  I can tell you on the border, the major issue that I'm -- that I'm concerned about is the border tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  And you've seen, we've got a number of cross-border incidents over the last couple months. 

            We have a moratorium right now on -- on construction along the border.  Both the Afghan leadership and the Pakistani leadership have agreed to give us some time to -- to help work through that.  More importantly, they're working through it in a bilateral way.  

            But we have had some tactical actions over the last couple months that have had strategic consequences and -- in the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  We certainly know that there's still sanctuary in Pakistan and the Haqqani Network is still operating out of the -- out of Pakistan.  So to that extent, I can confirm that.  We still pay particular attention to that.  

            But with regard to anything that the CIA is doing or not doing, I certainly wouldn't comment on that. 

            Q:  But is it getting any better?  I mean, or has it been about the same, still a problem?

            GEN. DUNFORD:  What do you mean? 

            Q:  I mean in terms of the -- the pace of cross-border attacks and the problems that -- that the safe haven is causing for security -- (inaudible). 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  Yeah, I mean my overall sense is the insurgency last year didn't meet their objectives, 2012.  And that this year what we see is they have more difficulty with resources, so they're more challenged, and we see some friction between the leadership in the Taliban.  And so their strength and their ability to operate inside of Afghanistan is less than what it has been in the past. 

            Q:  Leading up to the end of the NATO combat role at the end of 2014, sir, and as you expressed clearly, the Afghans have not been in the lead long enough for you to perform a full assessment.  

            GEN. DUNFORD:  Sure. 

            Q:  But what do you see as the gaps in capability that are the most urgent to fill before that happens? 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  Yeah.  The number one issue for me is sustainability.  And -- and, you know, a thing I've spent a lot of time over the last several weeks looking at is -- is the logistics infrastructure.  In other words, it's -- it really gets at everything from programming, planning, budgeting, acquisition, maintenance, distribution, those -- those major issues have to be addressed.  Leadership development, leadership capacity is another area that needs to be addressed.           

            And then their aviation capability will not be in place until '16, '17, '18.  In other words, there's a pretty good program of record that will bring in some aviation capabilities.  We -- we just graduated one of the first classes of Afghan pilots now out in Shindand, at the aviation training facility. 

            And so we're making progress.  But we won't really have the -- the full program of record realized until late 2017. 

            Q:  Sir -- sir, I'm a little confused, you know. 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  Sure. 

            Q:  When we came here a few months ago, Leon Panetta, you know, laid out kind of the two pieces of this, the eight to 12 for the NATO-led mission, plus the counterterrorism -- U.S.-led counterterrorism force.  And today, it sounds like you're saying it's way too premature to be talking about. 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  No, no, no.  No, I don't think it's premature to talk about ranges of numbers for planning.  It's not.  I mean, we get paid to do that.  And so, I -- I absolutely can give you -- I won't today, but I -- I can give you specifics in terms of planning with clarity that there are certain assumptions that you make when you -- when you put those plans in place. 

            To be clear, what Secretary Panetta did in February was make a recommendation for guidance that would go into us developing a concept of operations.  And so, from a process perspective, what happened is, the defense ministers last met in February.  This is their first meeting since February.  Secretary Panetta made some comments at that -- at that session.  Other defense ministers made some comments.  That was all rolled into the political guidance that we received as we develop what we call a "concept of operations."  

            That concept of operations now has been developed.  That's what will be considered by the -- by the defense ministers tomorrow.  And then we'll get additional planning guidance to move forward in what we call an operations plan development.  And -- and that's a -- another -- another degree of maturity in the planning process.  And so, we'll come back in the fall with -- with an operations plan as a result of -- so we've given a concept of operations.  

            In that concept of operations, we make some assumptions.  That's the critical difference between a concept and a plan is the assumptions that are in there.  And again, it's not as mature.  And so tomorrow, based on their review of the concept of operations, we'll get some additional guidance and we'll continue to plan. 

            Q:  So the bracket that we -- that he unveiled last time, the eight to 12, is still the operational? 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  I don't know -- you know, I -- and I'm not being evasive.  I don't know what the defense ministers will say about the range in numbers tomorrow.  I don't know what they're going to say.  So it would be premature of me to address that today.  And I don't suspect the secretary general will -- will address that with you tonight.  I don't suspect the secretary of defense would address that because there will be a discussion tomorrow about resources.

            You know, I think first and foremost, the most important part of the discussion tomorrow is to get clarity on what it is that NATO is going to do post-2014 -- I mean, to get consensus on the actual mission, the elements of the mission in terms of training, advising, assisting, at what level will we train, advise, and assist, at the institutional level, core level, and above.  Will we be in the four corners of the country?  And then what nations might be willing to assume framework nation responsibility in each of the geographical areas?  Those, to me, are probably the most important pieces of that.  

            I would just tell you from the military perspective, I don't need specificity in numbers at this point.  You know, we get paid to plan.  We -- we have plans for any number of ranges and numbers based on what it is that we want to do.  The most important thing that we'll have to do on the back side is just make sure, as General Dempsey has probably said to you all on -- on occasion, as long as we have at the end of the day 10 soldiers doing 10 soldiers' worth of work, then that's our job, is to match the ends, the ways, and the means of the strategy of the back side. 

            But I don't think you're going to get much more clarity on numbers in the next couple of days than we've had.  I think what -- what will be helpful to me is just get clarity and guidance on what it is that the -- that NATO is -- wants to accomplish after 2014.  

            And then I would expect that I'll be back here in, you know, six or eight months with a campaign assessment to talk about what progress we've made and then project out then what we might need to do to sustain.  And that's really what we're doing.  We're transitioning from building the Afghan security forces.  And we really have, even now, moved into a sustained Afghan national security forces phase of the campaign.  

            In my mind, it's kind of three pieces.  It's what we've done to date in growing the army.  It's now refining and addressing the quality.  And then post-2014, it really is moving into a sustainment phase where you want to be at the end of 2017 or 2018 is the ANSF -- Afghan National Security Forces -- mature to the point where they can sustain themselves.  And I -- I very much look at it in kind of those three phases. 

            MODERATOR:  Pardon my quick interruption, Sir? 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  Yeah? 

            MODERATOR:  Time for just a couple more question before General Dunford has to walk. 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  Or maybe not? 

            Q:  There's been a few rough patches with President Karzai earlier this year.  I was wondering if you could walk us through the evolution of your relationship with him since you've been in country and where that stands. 

            GEN. DUNFORD:  Yeah, no, that's a fair question. 

            First of all, you know, we're in transition.  And you know as I -- as I tell people, transitions -- there's inherent friction in transitions.  It doesn't matter, you know, whatever endeavor you are in life, transitions are tough.  And -- and what we're dealing with today is as Afghanistan increasingly asserts its sovereignty, we are in the middle of -- still of conducting a military campaign in accordance with the U.N. Security Council mandate, a military technical agreement, which is where I draw my authorities in the law of armed conflict. 

            And so as we move through issues, you know, addressing Afghan aspirations of sovereignty and at the -- -- still at the same time, moving the campaign forward, we have tension and friction.  But, you know, I think -- and I can tell you two, three or four different cases, we -- we worked through the close air support case.  We worked through the Wardak issue.  We've worked through the detentions issue. 

            And in each case, we've been able to come to a -- to a conclusion that addresses our needs in terms of the campaign, moving it forward, and also addresses President Karzai's, and more importantly the Afghan people's -- people's aspiration for sovereignty. 

            So, I think the relationship right now is, you know, we're going to work through each of the issues.  There's going to be some tough issues ahead.  And even when I talk to the defense ministers tomorrow, what I'll tell them is that in the coming months, we'll continue to see the same kind of friction as we work through these issues that we've seen over the last couple of months.  It's inherent in the relationship.  But at the end of the day, what's important is that we -- we remain focused on the common objective we have, which is stability and security in Afghanistan. 

            And that's been the touchstone.  As we've worked through these issues, there -- there is absolutely unanimity in terms of where we want to be in 2015 and beyond.  How we get there is where the friction and where the issues are.  And -- and, you know, we've -- like I said, we've worked through those in a satisfactory way over the last couple of months, and -- and I expect we'll be able to continue to do that.  

            All right, you all have been locked up in here with General Breedlove and me, so that's good -- 20 minutes and you -- and you're done.  

            All right, thanks.  Take care.