COMMANDER BILL SPEAKS, DOD PRESS OFFICER: Good morning here in the Pentagon, and good evening in Kabul. First, we apologize that we've been having satellite difficulties, but we are proceeding with an audio briefing from Kabul. I'd like to welcome to the Pentagon press briefing room via telephone General Joe Dunford, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. General Dunford is a native of Boston and has been a Marine for 36 years.
He is familiar to many in this room, having served previously as the deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations, and for more than two years as the assistant commandant for the Marine Corps. This is General Dunford's first appearance before you since assuming his duties as COMISAF on February 10. He will make some opening remarks, and then we'll take your questions.
And with that, sir, I'll turn it over to you.
GENERAL JOSEPH F. DUNFORD: Thanks folks on that end for working through the technical difficulties. Good evening from Kabul, and good morning back in D.C. Today was a really significant day here in Afghanistan. This morning, we conducted a ceremony here in Kabul with President Karzai and NATO Secretary General Rasmussen to mark a milestone 2013 in the transition process.
And as of today, Afghans have the lead for security responsibility across the country. And as you can imagine, this is a source of great pride for the Afghan people and the Afghan security forces, and, frankly, it's also a great source of pride for members of the coalition.
At this morning's ceremony, we emphasized three things, first that we're at this point in the campaign due to the extraordinary sacrifice of the men and women of the coalition for over a decade. We remember the fallen and wounded. Some of our wounded warriors actually joined us from the states today, as we also had some from the United Kingdom and Italy, and we honored the Afghan fallen and wounded as well.
The main thing we highlighted this morning was that the nature of our relationship is changing, that the coalition is going to continue to support the Afghans through 2014. And finally, NATO Secretary General Rasmussen emphasized that the coalition and the international community are going to continue to support Afghanistan beyond 2014.
As we mark milestone 2013, I'm confident in the cardinal direction of the campaign. I believe the Afghans are, in fact, ready to take the lead right now. I believe they'll be able to secure the elections in 2014. And I believe we'll be ready to affect full transition in December of 2014.
Increasingly, our focus is on sustaining the progress we have made. In addition to doing all we can to support the Afghans as they take the fight for the first time this summer, we're working hard to mature the systems, the processes and institutions that are going to allow the Afghans to become fully self-reliant in the days ahead.
And with that, I'd be glad to take your questions.
CMDR SPEAKS: Bob?
Q: General, this is Bob Burns with AP. You didn't mention this, but I wonder if you could give us your view on what your take on the prospect for these peace talks that President Karzai has referred to today with the Taliban.
GEN. DUNFORD: Hey, Bob, thanks. Good to hear from you. I've been watching the news throughout the day and listened to President Karzai today. I don't know if I can assess the prospects from here any better than you can. Certainly, encouraged on this end that they're gaining movement on the political side, but I think we all realize that the successful conclusion to the campaign is eventually going to come through the political process, so we're certainly watching with interest from over here in Kabul and encouraged that there seems to be some positive movement.
Q: A quick follow-up?
CMDR SPEAKS: Go ahead.
Q: General, just a quick follow-up. If I heard you correctly, your last comment there that you're encouraged as there appears to be some movement. Are you referring to the talk of opening talks? Or has there been some communication with the Taliban recently that's encouraging?
GEN. DUNFORD: No, thanks, Bob. I'm referring to the media reports that I've been watching throughout the afternoon here in Kabul, you know, that referred to the opening of an office in Doha. But, again, I don't have any information from here that you probably don't have available to you from the open source back on your end.
Q: Thank you.
CMDR SPEAKS: Phil?
Q: Phil Stewart from Reuters. Have you -- when General Petraeus was there, he talked about having helped facilitate some of these initial reconciliation contacts by moving -- helping transport Taliban. And did you do anything of a similar nature? Did you help facilitate these contacts that led to the start of these peace talks?
GEN. DUNFORD: No, Phil, we -- we have not done anything on this end at ISAF to facilitate those talks.
CMDR SPEAKS: Tony?
Q: Hi, general. Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg. Can you talk a little bit about the key enablers you want to accelerate to the Afghan security forces this year and next year, your top four or five enablers?
GEN. DUNFORD: Sure, Tony. I would tell you that there are several of them. The counter-IED capability – and we’ve got a significant amount of equipment coming in here over the next 18 months, and certainly a good training program in place. I've been out to see that a couple times on my visits. They're really helping the Afghans in terms of their command-and- control capabilities and their intelligence.
Really, one of the key things to improve the Afghans at this point is the integration of Afghan capability across all the (inaudible) if you would, police and the army.
We're fielding a mobile strike vehicle and their artillery pieces as well as mortars to give them the kind of fire support that they need. And finally, although we won’t field a great deal in the next 18 months, we’re certainly working very hard to develop the Afghan air force capability. We do have some initial Mi-17s, some C-208s which are really Cessna-type aircraft, and I know you followed the news this week and saw that we -- we're now going to be able to move forward on the A-29 or the attack aircraft, and we also have some C- 130s coming in later in the fall.
So, those would probably be my top four or five, Tony.
Q: One follow-up. The Mi-17 purchase has drawn much criticism from Congress and from human rights advocates who question why we're buying Russian helicopters from a big Russian company helping Syria. My question to you is this. Why are Mi-17s so important to the Afghan military? Why can't they get -- why can't they use U.S.-made helicopters?
GEN. DUNFORD: Sure, Tony. As you know, that decision was made a couple years ago. It was based on taking a look at the environment here in Afghanistan, taking a look at the residual capacity to fly Mi-17’s in the Afghan armed forces, and based on the simplicity of the aircraft. So those are the key factors that were considered. And again, that decision was made two years ago.
I can tell you, having watched them very closely here over the last several months, the Mi-17 is actually operating very well for the Afghans. It seems to be going through their operational construct and they seem to be using it very effectively, both for casualty evacuation, to move troops around the battlefield, and in fact, this week we've just equipped it with a weapons system, so it's also now capable of providing some limited fire support.
Q: Thank you.
CMDR SPEAKS: David?
Q: General, David Martin with CBS. Could you explain exactly what in the lead means? I watched a video yesterday on the NATO website, which quoted -- well, in which General Carter was giving an interview and said we will still provide the Afghan forces with air cover, with medevac, and with logistics. And then you read things like the story in today's New York Times where Afghan soldiers are complaining that they were in trouble and were denied both air cover and medevac. So which is it?
GEN. DUNFORD: Sure, I can get after that, David. First of all, let me -- let me (inaudible) a few years ago, as you recall -- I'm sure you visited during that time -- we were in the lead for operations, it was coalition forces conducted operations. We then eventually migrated towards partnered operations, where we conduct operations alongside the Afghans. At this point, the Afghans are conducting operations, and we have trainers and advisers embedded in Afghan formations.
And the other significant thing that today means is that the responsibility for planning security, the responsibility for conducting security operations across the country rests now at the security level with the minister of interior and the minister of defense. And I am in fact supporting -- as I told the collective leadership of the ministry of defense with the minister of defense there, effective today, I'm a supporting commander to the ministry of defense with regard to the Afghan army.
Now, what we have continued to do and we will continue to do for the next 18 months is, within our capacity, provide close air support for the Afghan forces, provide medevac support to Afghan forces. We'll provide logistics support to the Afghan forces and, again, continue to train and mentor them.
That doesn't mean that we have sufficient capacity to provide all close air support that the Afghans would want, that we are confident that we can provide them with the close air support that they will need to be successful in a campaign. By the same token, there are also other ways that the Afghans are starting to now evacuate their wounded and their fallen from the battlefield. In some cases, it's using a ground system which has been effective way for the Afghans to do that. And it's also increasingly their ability to leverage the Mi-17s. I mentioned a minute ago, they’re developing a light aircraft -- a Cessna- like aircraft (inaudible) recover the bodies of the fallen, as well as -- as well as some of the wounded.
CMDR SPEAKS: Courtney?
Q: Hi, General Dunford. It's Courtney Kube from NBC News. I'm sorry. I had a hard time understanding something you just said in response to David's question. Did you say that you're now the subordinate commander to the ministry of defense in Afghanistan? I apologize if that's not what you said.
GEN. DUNFORD: Courtney, I'm very glad that you asked that question. Again, I said was the supporting -- supporting -- commander for the Ministry of Defense.
Q: Sorry, just wanted to make sure. And then -- and then just one more follow-up question on that. So does that mean that if the U.S. working in conjunction -- or, I'm sorry, NATO working in conjunction with Afghanistan, the NATO side determines some sort of an operation needs to be conducted that the Afghan Ministry of Defense has essentially veto power to not conduct that raid?
GEN. DUNFORD: Courtney, we are no longer conducting unilateral operations except in three cases. We're conducting security operations. We conduct route clearance to ensure we have freedom of movement. And we conducted retrograde operations. The only operations that are being planned and conducted against the enemy are being conducted with the Afghans in the lead.
Q: Thank you.
Q: General, hi. It's Andrew Tilghman with Military Times. A couple of weeks ago, your predecessor, General Allen, helped author a report that suggested that maybe after 2014 that the Afghans might need what they would call a bridging force of enablers beyond the deadline that we've talked about at the end of 2014 for some time.
Can I ask, is that -- is that part of your planning? Do you have any thoughts on this bridging force that might be temporary, but beyond 2014?
GEN. DUNFORD: Sure, Andrew. Where we are in the process is a few weeks ago, the NATO defense ministers met. Secretary Hagel was there. And they approved, as you probably know, what’s called the Resolute Support Mission, and that's our presence post-2014. Once we got the approval of what was described as a concept of operations, we went into detailed planning, and that’s the phase we’re in right now. And in October, I expect the defense ministers will meet again to approve our plan for January 2015 and beyond.
And that plan will include our recommendations for the methodology for delivering train, advise and assist post-2014, and I will also this fall provide my assessment of the capability gaps that may still exist post-2015 and make some specific recommendations as to which of those gaps are significant enough for us to consider filling, post-2015.
Much of that war-gaming is based on the success of fielding equipment that continues to arrive on almost a daily basis here in Afghanistan, and it certainly depends on the performance of the Afghan forces this summer, particularly their ability to affect positive command and control. As I mentioned a minute ago, I believe the critical thing that has to happen this summer is the integration of Afghan security force capability. And if they're going to do that, that will obviously provide much greater capability after 2015.
So I think what General Allen is suggesting is that the Afghans may still need some support post-2015. I wouldn't argue with that at this point. I'd just tell you that the next two or three months, we’re doing the detail homework necessary to make a recommendation to our secretary of defense and eventually he’ll bring that recommendation forward to NATO after getting approval from the president. So that's where we are in the process.
CMDR SPEAKS: Barb?
Q: General Dunford, Barbara Starr from CNN. I wanted to ask you a couple of quality-of-life questions for the troops remaining for the next 18 months. Now that the U.S. component has reduced the number of hot meals for the troops to two a day, done away with breakfast, hot cooked meals, done away with MIDRATs, hot- cooked meals, in other words, MREs or packaged meals of some sort, is ISAF headquarters doing the same thing? Are you eating, you and your commanders at ISAF headquarters, are you eating the same way now as troops in the field, only two hot meals a day? Or have you been convinced that this is something that is healthy for the troops for the next 18 months?
And I wanted to also ask you about medevac. How convinced are you that you can maintain the golden hour for U.S. troops, given the fact you just said you don't have enough medevacs to be everywhere where the Afghans may want you? Can you maintain the golden hour for U.S. and NATO troops?
GEN. DUNFORD: Hey, Barbara, thanks for those questions. Let me answer the second one first. We will maintain the golden hour. There's absolutely no consideration for not maintaining the golden hour. We will adjust our force posture and our operations so that we’re operating within a range of our capabilities. And in all cases, the operations that we conduct will be covered by one hour, to be able to get our -- our individuals to Role 3 medical facility, just like we have done over the past several years.
So I've given that guidance. We've had a long discussion about that. I'm confident we can maintain it. And, frankly, it's one of the critical factors as we plan operations to ensure we can maintain the golden hour.
With regards to the two-a-day hot meals, we supplement those meals with MREs and other supplements. I don't believe there are any health considerations with two hot meals a day for our forces. It allows us to reduce our contracted footprint literally by the thousands, and that's not about cost. It's about reducing footprints, so we can ensure the force has good force protection and we retrograde in an orderly manner.
And with regards to NATO forces, NATO forces are not yet on that same standard, although Barbara I would tell you, I don't think I've had three hot meals since I've been here. Thanks.
Q: May I follow up with one additional follow-up today to David Martin's question? And let me -- I understand -- I don't mean to put you on the spot, but are you -- two things, sir. Are you eating, you know -- whether you're able to take advantage of it or not, are you as a U.S. Marine eating the same way as your Marines in the field?
And my question, to follow up on David's, I still don't -- I'm still not clear. You said the operations that you do sort of more in a unilateral basis includes security operations. So straight up, can the Afghans veto a U.S.-NATO ISAF operation that may be labeled as a security operation or counterterrorism operation of any sort? Do they have veto authority over that?
GEN. DUNFORD: Barbara, you're back on the food question. I'm not sure why you're asking that. I've been in the Marine Corps a long time, and I've never had a different standard than -- than my Marines. So I'm not sure what you're asking, but if you're asking me if up here at the headquarters, you know, I'm going through the mess hall three times a day, and three hot meals, the answer is no. And I was being facetious a minute ago. I haven't done it once since I've been here.
With regard to security operations, nothing is going to preclude us conducting operations that are necessary to protect the force. Nothing is going to preclude us from conducting operations necessary to retrograde the force. Nothing's going to conclude us from conducting operations that are -- that are in our mandate.
So it's not about a veto. It's about us supporting the Afghans as they plan and conduct operations.
CMDR SPEAKS: Jon?
Q: Hi, general. Jon Harper with the Asahi Shimbun. How optimistic are you that these new rounds of peace talks will lead to a decrease in insurgent-initiated attacks? Or do you anticipate that the violence will continue unabated throughout the remainder of the fighting season?
GEN. DUNFORD: Well, thanks for the question. Let me tell you what I think is actually going to have the greatest effect on violence this summer, is my assessment. One of the things that the Taliban has still been capable of is a pretty strong narrative, and that narrative has really (inaudible) issues. It's (inaudible) us as occupiers and also a message of us as abandoning Afghanistan. And interesting enough, those apparently inconsistent messages exist at the same time.
The message of us as an occupier has actually, I think, rallied Taliban forces to attack the coalition force and also to attack Afghan forces that were perceived as being part of the coalition force. This summer, as the Afghan people increasingly see that it's Afghan forces providing security, that it's the sons and daughters of Afghanistan that are out there on the checkpoints in the villages conducting the operations, I believe that's going to have an impact on the level of violence.
What I have seen even in the past six or eight weeks, in the wake of some incidents that occurred on the border, what I have seen is increased pride in the Afghan security forces, increased ownership by Afghan leadership, and increased ownership of the Afghan people. And, frankly, if I think there's mitigator to violence this summer and the thing that may actually change the campaign in a positive direction, I think it's that relationship.
Since I don't know exactly where we are with regard to the peace talks or how that will progress, I cannot tell you what the impact will be on violence, but what I did see in the open source today is that one of the criteria for opening the peace office in Doha was for the Taliban to renounce violence. So if that's true, then my assumption is that that'll also have a mitigation effect on the violence this summer.
CMDR SPEAKS: Anna?
Q: General, this is Anna Mulrine with the Christian Science Monitor. And I just wanted to follow up on a question that Andrew has asked about, the bridging force. I'm -- I'm not sure I understood your answer. You know, how do you feel about the idea of a bridging force? And is that something that's in the mix, as you guys plan post-2014 drawdown?
GEN. DUNFORD: You told me it's John Allen's term, so maybe it is. I'm not familiar with the term bridging force. What I would tell you is that we're taking a look now. We have -- we have guidance to be operating in four corners of Afghanistan (inaudible) coalition now in Kabul. We're going to be providing training, advising and assisting at the corps level.
And the word assist in the NATO context means providing enabling support. We have not received any approval for providing enabling support right now, but my specific answer to Andrew was that I'm in the process now of assessing what capabilities and capacities the Afghans will have, what the environment will be post- 2014 within which we’ll be operating, and thus what specific capabilities might be -- might the coalition provide for the Afghans.
Now, if what you mean by bridging force is that we will provide close air support, intelligence support and logistics support post- 2014, those are exactly the areas that I will assess and make a recommendation on come the fall.
Does that answer your question, Anna? Did I get at it time?
Q: Yeah, thank you.
CMDR SPEAKS: Otto?
Q: General, Otto Kreisher with Seapower Magazine. Kind of a morale question. A lot of your people -- particularly your young Marines -- went to Afghanistan thinking they were going to be in a fight. You know, we've seen some comments that the kids are getting a little bored sitting in the background as just assisting. You know, how are you -- how are you handling the situation of all of your grunts, you know, not getting into the fight where they thought they would get into?
And the other thing -- what's the definition of an extreme circumstance in which you'll -- the NATO forces would come to the help of the Afghans?
GEN. DUNFORD: (inaudible) Otto. First of all, with regard to the first question, in terms of the Marines wanting to get in the fight, you know, God bless them for that. That's what they came in the Marine Corps to do, and they're ready to do that when we ask them to. And, frankly, there is -- there is a unique leadership challenge in the current environment where Marines have to hold back. You're talking specifically about Marines. I would argue that the challenge is equally the case with soldiers who also want to do something when they came over here.
What we've them is this is what winning looks like. The hard sacrifices of their predecessors in the last ten, 11 years have allowed the Afghans to step up and take the lead. They still do have a role in terms of providing training and advising to their Afghan counterparts. In many cases, that's the most effective thing we can do at this point. And frankly dealing with boredom is a leadership challenge, and what I have seen as I’ve gone around and visited, is that leaders have found innovative ways to train their Marines who are not engaged with Afghans on a daily basis and ensure they're ready when they're called. And that's what Marines have always prided themselves as being, is the 911 force that's ready to answer whatever call they get, and that's what they'll be, I'm sure.
With regards to an example of when we will support, I'll give you a quick example. Recently, there was a firefight up in Badakhshan, which is a province in northeast Afghanistan. During that firefight, an Afghan unit initially became surrounded. They lost about 20, 25 Afghan soldiers within the first few days of the operation. The minister of defense called me on the telephone and asked me if we could provide close air support to his forces up in Badakhshan. So we flew a JTAC [joint terminal attack controller] team with some special forces to link up with the Afghan unit so that we had the ability to determine control aviation fires. And then subsequent to establishing good command and control, we then flew close air support up in Badakhshan in support of the Afghans. That air support was effective in destroying the enemy that was attacking and surrounding those Afghans at the time. And after getting that initial support, the Afghans were able to recover, continue the operation without our support and accomplish their objectives.
I would anticipate those kinds of examples repeating themselves over the next several months, particularly in the difficult terrain in the east and the northeast and to some extent up in the northwest. There are certain areas where the use of close air support is going to be required by the Afghans, particularly given the state of the insurgency this summer, and we’re certainly prepared to provide close air support in those cases.
Q: It’s Phil again, just to follow up on that, you mentioned the high casualty level in that -- in that incident. What is -- what -- where are Afghan casualties through this year compared with the same period last year? Do you have any sense of that?
And also, just a quick question on the peace process. Do you believe the Haqqanis are reconcilable? Thank you.
GEN. DUNFORD: Sure. On the first question, I would tell you that Afghan casualties are among my top concerns. I've gathered all of our commanders and talked about it, and I've also had extensive conversations with the Afghan leadership, including the minister of defense and the chief of the army's staff.
We're suffering in some cases 100 or 120 killed in action in a week for the Afghan forces. We're in the process – in fact, I took a brief on it yesterday, we’re in the process of doing a very detailed analysis to see how we can mitigate those casualties. If we in the coalition would have taken those kind of casualties, we would gather all of our commanders and assess the specific causes of those casualties and do all we could to mitigate those casualties, and that's exactly what we are doing in conjunction with Afghan leadership to address that.
The largest number of casualties are caused by improvised explosive devices, just as has been the case for our forces over the past 10 years, and in a key area of training now for the Afghan forces and a key area of equipping and fielding, is related to counter-IED. In fact, we just fielded some medium trucks that would push mine rollers, similar to mine rollers we have (inaudible) IED equipment out there. In fact I personally went out to observe some engineer training and some EOD training that the Afghans were doing about two weeks ago and -- and have made significant progress in that area.
So the short -- the short answer is that they're taking a significant number of casualties this spring and this summer. We are concerned about it. We are doing all we can to mitigate it. We believe we've identified at least the major cause of Afghan casualties. Not only is it just material capability for counter-IED which we're fielding, but it's also a function of leadership and tactics, technique and procedures. And those are all things we're working on, and I can assure you that the -- the Afghan leadership is as concerned about this as we are.
Q: And on the Haqqanis?
GEN. DUNFORD: Oh, oh, sorry, Haqqanis. I would just tell you that all I've seen of the Haqqanis would make it hard for me to believe they were reconcilable.
Q: Sir, Richard Sisk, Military.com. As a supporting commander, I think you described it, to the -- now to the Afghan minister of defense, how will that arrangement work? Will you be having daily discussions with him to talk about continuing operations? Can you give us a sense of that, please, general?
GEN. DUNFORD: Sure. First of all, Richard, we're -- our commanders at every level are linked up with their Afghan counterparts and speaks at various degrees. I mean, I would say in many cases, if not most, it's daily, certainly not less than a few times a week. I probably see the minister of defense four or five times a week in one venue or another, and then we speak to each other on the phone or visit each other as required to deal with specific issues.
Beyond interaction on a day-to-day basis, in terms of tactical employment, our C commanders working with the Afghan core commanders, frankly, the way we affect the supporting relationship on a day-to-day basis, at my level, the number one thing we're concerned about is the sustainability of the Afghan forces, and so that's what I work with Minister Mohammadi about, mostly is on -- on systems and processes and institutions necessary to ensure the gains that we've made over the past several years are sustained well -- well past 2014.
When it is as an operational requirement in the near term, then we'll absolutely meet and work through those issues. And I gave you in that one example, that was a case where the minister of defense was confronting a challenge and he called me, and probably within two or three hours, we had resolved the issue and we provided him the level of support that he needed. And I expect that's exactly what I'll do here over the next 18 months.
So the short answer is, we talk whenever required, and we see each other virtually every day, but no less than five times a week, and then -- and as required for, you know, an operational issue. But we have a three-star headquarters here, as well, Lieutenant General Mark Milley. He's plugged into what's called the ground forces command. That's headed by a three- star lieutenant general Afghan, and those two individuals are literally joined at the hip in working through the detailed operational issues on a day-to-day basis.
CMDR SPEAKS: Yes?
Q: General, Paul Shinkman with U.S. News and World Report. You had talked about how the Taliban is portraying ISAF as going to abandon the Afghan people after 2014. I understand that ISAF has a good relationship with the Afghan forces currently. Can you talk about the assurances that you're giving them that you will not abandon them 2014?
GEN. DUNFORD: Sure, Paul. From my perspective, a couple of things have happened over the last couple weeks that really, really helped us in terms of having a compelling narrative of commitment post-2014. And I do think that's important for a wide range of reasons.
One of the things that happened was that in Brussels, the defense ministers approved the concept of operations for NATO mission post- 2014. And in that -- in that session, the United States committed to be the lead nation for the south and east of Afghanistan. Germany agreed to be the lead nation for the north. And Italy, with some conditions right now, agreed to be the lead for the west. And Turkey is considering the lead nation for the capital.
So that -- that meeting in Brussels -- and I was there with my counterpart, Minister Mohammadi. We were both there, and that meeting was something that I was able to bring back to the Afghan people to talk about with some degree of authority the commitment that NATO was making post-2014.
Today’s ceremony with the secretary general coming down was also another opportunity to speak directly to the Afghan people and to the Afghan security forces about post-2014. And Secretary General Rasmussen, on behalf of NATO, was very clear that there will be a post-2014 presence if the Afghan people invite us to be here, that that presence will be focused on training and advising and sustaining the Afghan security forces, and that the international community, both in Tokyo and Chicago, pledged resources to ensure that the Afghans are able to take advantage of what was described in Tokyo as the decade of transformation, and what we described here in Afghanistan as a decade of opportunity, where the Afghans can take advantage of that continued international commitment which comes in the form of both training and advising and significant development as well as security resources post-2014.
So while there might have been some ambiguity six, eight or 10 weeks ago here in the past six weeks, we've been able to provide the Afghan people with a much greater degree of confidence that the international community won't abandon them, that this is not, as some Afghans have described it, Y2K, where on the 31st of December, Afghanistan falls off the cliff. There's an increasing sense of confidence in the future as a result of both Brussels and in the build-up to the ceremony today. And, frankly (inaudible) recent polls, and the polls with regard to the people here in Afghanistan, also indicate that they increasing believe and have confidence in their ability to take advantage of the post-2014 environment.
So a continued message will be required, but now that we have a NATO decision in today's ceremony with the NATO secretary general re-emphasizing that -- and then the next major milestone from my perspective would be the announcement of the specific force levels that will be here in Afghanistan, and I would expect that to come sometime later this year.
CMDR SPEAKS: Tony?
Q: Yeah, sir, Tony Capaccio again with Bloomberg. You said you expected the announcement of post-2014 U.S. troops levels to come later this year. The expectation was what -- it would have been months ago. Hasn't that caused some uncertainty within the Afghans, no matter what NATO says, the fact that the White House hasn't articulated what the U.S. presence will be post-2014?
GEN. DUNFORD: There was some concern about U.S. presence post-2014 some months ago, some weeks ago, frankly. But, again, while we didn't announce a specific group level in Brussels, the United States -- and represented by Secretary Hagel -- made it very clear that the United States would provide the preponderance of forces for a NATO mission post-2014, and they would be what's described as the framework nation in the eastern part of the country where there are two Afghan corps and for the southern part of the country, where there are two Afghan corps. So, from my perspective here in Afghanistan, that announcement in Brussels and our ability to make sure that -- that is well-known to the Afghan people back here and well-known to the Afghan leadership.
And, again, my job is made much easier by having the Afghan minister of defense actually with me in Brussels. I think that has mitigated a lot of the concern that people had a few weeks ago that the United States would not be here post-2014.
I can tell you, when I talk to Afghans, I speak without hesitation and with authority that we absolutely will be here post- 2014. That's what President Obama has said. That's what Secretary Hagel has said. And again, we've described in general terms what specific contribution it will make to post-2014. And again, that, I believe, has mitigated the concern of the Afghan people, as you correctly point out, certainly was there some weeks ago. And my greatest concern some weeks ago was the uncertainty about 2014 and the lack of confidence. And, again, today was all about beginning to build even more momentum towards the whole idea of confidence in the future, hope in the future, because I actually think that'll have an impact on the campaign even this summer.
Q: Sir, one follow-up though. Why has it taken so long for the administration to come up with a number or a range of troops? We all thought it was going to happen months ago.
GEN. DUNFORD: Yeah, I -- you know, from my perspective, what I -- what had told my leadership, specifically Secretary Hagel, was that as we developed a plan -- and that's what we're doing right now -- a specific plan for operations post-2014, certainly going to fall, we’ll have to have those numbers to -- to generate forces, which will have to really start being invested early next year, so for planning we would need that, and also so other nations can also plan their contribution.
With regard to why the president hasn't made a decision to date, I suppose it's because he wasn't ready to make a decision right now. And again, what I’ve told Secretary Hagel is, I'm comfortable with having numbers in the fall – works for me.
Q: Thank you.
CMDR SPEAKS: David?
Q: David Martin again. I thought I heard you say that U.S. trainers and advisers are embedded with Afghan forces at the corps level. Is that as low as it goes, at the core level, so that there are no American troops out there on patrol with -- with Afghan forces?
GEN. DUNFORD: David, thanks for the opportunity to clarify. When I talked about the corps level, I was -- I was talking about post-2014. We in fact have advisers down to the battalion level and kandak level today. That's the lieutenant colonel level of command as you know, and we'll have them down to the kandak level and the brigade level through the fall of 2013. We’ll begin to pull off the kandak level, but still have some force at the kandak level in late 2013, early 2014, and eventually as we get closer to the resolute support mission, which I believe we will have set by the fall of 2014, at that point, we will have lifted off to the corps level.
So is that going to clarify?
Q: Yes. Thanks. And do you have off the top of your head the number of operating bases that the U.S. is down to now?
GEN. DUNFORD: Yeah, I'll confirm a number. We're down to about 123. That's off the top of my head. We're down to about 123 pieces of tactical infrastructure, and that's down from about 800 at the peak.
CMDR SPEAKS: Final question. Anna?
Q: General, just to follow up, while we're talking about numbers -- this is Anna Mulrine again for the Christian Science Monitor -- I was just wondering, how many al-Qaeda operatives do you estimate are operating in Afghanistan right now?
GEN. DUNFORD: That question's been asked many times. Estimates range from 20,000 to 30,000. I frankly think, given a wide range of motivations for the Taliban, that that number is not actually that relevant. But 20,000 to 30,000 is the number that's been put out there. Did you say al-Qaeda or did you say Taliban?
Q: I said al-Qaeda.
GEN. DUNFORD: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. The estimate of al-Qaeda is somewhere between 50 and 75.
CMDR SPEAKS: Okay, sir, with that, we will turn it over to you for any closing remarks.
GEN. DUNFORD: Well, thanks, Bill. I appreciate folks' flexibility once again today and the opportunity just to kind of share what happened today. It is a significant day in Afghanistan. It is a major milestone from my point of view. And the secretary general referred to it as historic, and to be honest with you, I don't think that that's hyperbole. I really do believe that's the case.
And as I've gone around and talked to Afghans this week and Afghan leaders and Afghan soldiers and had them in small groups and large groups, I've spoken to them about the significance of this day and them providing security for their country, to be honest with you, the response has been -- has been overwhelming. You can see in their faces the pride and even the minister of defense – I spoke with him at the ceremony, and he said to me, you can't believe what it means to us to have now responsibility for security of our own country.
So from a psychological point -- and I really do believe we're at the point where psychological factors are most important -- I think today was pretty important. I think, as we look to the future, elections in 2014 are really important. There are a couple things that set the conditions for the elections in 2014. One is, how do Afghans perform this summer, and their credibility in the eyes of the Afghan people this fall and the confidence that they have that the environment would be suitable for elections. So that's the first reason why I think today is really important.
And then once the elections take place in the spring of 2014, from my perspective, at that point, we have a trajectory that really is in a very positive direction, and I'll have a lot of optimism about the post-2014 environment. If what I believe is going to happen this summer happens, and if we're able to have inclusive, free -- free and fair elections, secured by Afghans in 2014, and also I think that'll be a significant point.
So, we’re clearly at an inflection point in the campaign. I wouldn't for one minute say that winning is inevitable, success is inevitable, but I would say, I can absolutely see a successful outcome and, more importantly, I can see at this point an effective transition, full transition to Afghans for security, as well as political transition in 2014 which will set the conditions for a much longer process, which is the development of Afghanistan economically.
So thanks very much, again, for the opportunity to share some thoughts with you, and I look forward to doing this again soon.
CMDR SPEAKS: Thank you, sir.