March 3 Defense Department Briefing

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - March 3, 2011

            COL. DAVID LAPAN (deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations):  Good morning to those here.  And I'm welcoming back to the Pentagon press briefing room for, I believe, his third time Marine Major General Richard Mills, the commanding general of Regional Command Southwest.  General Mills assumed his duties in Afghanistan on June 14th of last year, and he assumed his duties as the first commander of the newly activated Regional Command Southwest several weeks later, on July 3rd.

            As you know, the area of responsibility for RC Southwest includes the provinces of Helmand and Nimroz.  He last joined us in December, so this will be, as I said at the top, his third briefing, but it will also be his last briefing in this format, as he and his command prepare to turn over authority with another Marine unit that'll follow in by the end of the month.

            Again, the general will make some opening remarks, and then we'll take your questions.  And with that, sir, I'll turn it over to you.

            GEN. RICHARD MILLS:  Well, thanks -- thank you very much.  I appreciate that, and it's certainly an honor and a privilege to be with you, I guess, this morning back home in Washington, D.C. 

            Just one quick slight correction to my introduction, and I appreciate the kind words.  We actually deployed here in April of last year and operated for several months as part of RC South.  And then when RC Southwest was stood up as a -- as an independent command on the 14th of June, we assumed duties as the RC Southwest commander.  So it just -- I can understand the confusion, but that's -- that was kind of just to set the record straight.

            What I thought I would do very quickly this morning is to quickly go over some highlights of the past few months regarding security, regarding development and regarding governance, and then of course take your questions on the issues that I'm sure that you want to talk about.

            In security, we continued over the fall and the winter months to make steady progress all across the board.  We have attempted with our winter campaign to maintain pressure on the enemy, and I believe that we have been able to do that.  We have seen a steady expansion of our security bubbles as we move out from the areas that we do control into those areas where the enemy still has a presence.  And we believe we're making strong progress at that.

            We are trying to deepen in the center of our area in the -- around the Lashkar Gah area, trying to deepen the hold and work closely there with the ANSF  [Afghan National Security Force] forces to improve their capabilities as well.  Starting up in the north, up in the Sangin area, where I know there's much interest, there's been a rapid expansion of the security bubble up there due to the Sangin security arrangements that we came to with the local tribe there back in January.  That still holds, and it is still -- we're still moving forward with that, and, I believe, having some real success up there.

            The -- as you know, we landed the elements of the 26th MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit] here last month.  We're using them in the upper Gareshk valley, which is the center of our AO [area of operations], in an area in which we haven't been able to be active before due to just a -- where the forces have previously been used. 

            That MEU is having great success, is -- has interdicted an area known to be a supply depot for the enemy and has provided security for a road build that's very critical to our efforts next summer.  That's the Route 611 road build, which eventually will tie the Kajaki Dam area, which is our most northwest -- northeasterly area -- will tie that down into the Ring Road, Route 1, and open up, we believe, a large section of the northern province to development and to further GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] influence.

            In the center, the U.K. forces are doing a very, very good job of cleaning out the last of the pockets of enemy presence, not so much resistance as much as it is presence.  And they are, again, making some real success down there in doing that, and perhaps have even been more successful in getting the Afghan army to operate semi-independently on many of their operations.

            The Afghan army in that area has improved dramatically.  They now operate with -- just simply with our assistance in certain areas, such things as air support and medevac.  And they have even incorporated their own supporting arms now into their operations in that area and have been proven quite skillful at the use of a 122-millimeter long cannon, which they use on their own to provide their own supporting arms.  And that's a big, big step for them.

            As you move down through the areas of Marja, military activity there has really been at a low.  Security there is excellent.  And as evidenced by yesterday's district community council elections, in which we had about 1,100 of the 1,500 registered voters turn out, spent most of the day voting in a very rigorous debate and a very rigorous campaign -- and they all took great pleasure in casting their votes, elected 35 members of their new council that will help the governor govern and make budget decisions.  And that was all very, very successful with absolutely no security incidents, despite a threat delivered by the insurgent that he wanted to break that election up.  He was unable to do that.  And all the security was provided by the local Afghan police and by the -- their local -- their national police, the ANCOP [Afghan National Civil Order Police], the so-called ANCOP.  Coalition forces were not involved in the security matters around the district center that day.

            We've seen in the governance area some real developments as well.  We have seen a surge really in talented individuals being appointed to the district governor position, very critical positions here in the local governments.  We have seen all of them pass their literacy test, which was a big hurdle for some of them.  But they all did very, very well.  And I'm not a big believer in polls necessarily, but a recent poll down in Nawa indicated that some 89 percent of the local population supported the government and felt that the government of Afghanistan was now providing them with the basic services that they needed.

            And in fact an independent recent survey showed that 79 percent of the local population throughout the areas controlled by the -- controlled by GIRoA were in favor of the -- of their -- felt they had a better standard of living and a more secure way of life than they did just one year ago.

            Regarding development, we've worked very closely, again, with the Afghan police and the Afghan soldiers to develop their capabilities.  Numbers are climbing.  Capabilities are climbing.  Leadership abilities are climbing.  And we've seen a real interest now in the local security initiatives, as sponsored by the government of GIRoA and by General Petraeus, things like ALP, which is the Afghan Local Police -- extraordinarily popular.  We have many more people who want to join that than we have spots.  We do have four approved places in which we will raise those auxiliary police.  And they will be trained by the Marines or by the British forces.  They will be equipped by the government of Afghanistan and paid by the government of Afghanistan.  And they will perform local police duties in support of the already up and functioning police units in -- within their townships.

            We have seen an upcharge in schools.  School attendance is exceptional this year.  We estimate upwards of 100,000 students.  And we're very pleased to say that probably 20 percent of them are women -- are young girls.  And that's a huge change and a huge sea state change, I think, from conditions that we've seen here in the past.  And the school programs are vibrant and doing very, very well.  And we've recently refurbished a teachers' college in Lashkar Gah that will produce our own qualified teachers to meet the really growing demand for trained and qualified educators at -- of all grades.

            We've seen cell tower coverage pop up now, and we're putting some programs in place that will -- throughout the province will be a huge step forward.  Cell phones are extraordinarily important both to the social life of the people who live here, to the business life of the people who live here and just to the feeling of normalcy that I think they really crave:  to be able to use a cell phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- something the Taliban has told them they cannot do.

            But they will, in fact, be allowed to do it using both government of Afghanistan phones, private phone companies and some that we will help them with.

            Let me just close by saying probably the biggest change I've seen in the last few months is the freedom of movement, with new roads popping up all over the province.  We've seen the people moving about the province in really unprecedented numbers.  That's great for business.  We're seeing that -- that has an impact in all of the bazaars, which are doing extraordinarily well.

            But it also just, again, provides a feeling of normalcy to many of the people.  The governor himself has announced that his staff and the people who work for his government, the local government, will not travel by helicopter locally around the area, but instead will use cars.

            I was extraordinarily pleased yesterday to find out that the governor late -- night before the election in Marja -- late that evening, he decided he wanted to visit Marja and see the preparations for the election himself.  He hopped in a car with his bodyguard.  He drove from Lashkar Gah to Marja, met with the district governor there and then returned by car that same night along the roads.  Six months ago, that would have been a suicide trip.  Today it was done very normally, without incident, and he was able to see his conditions on the ground; visit his subordinates, if you will; and then carry on very normal government business.

            Is that to say that we think the insurgency is no longer here?  No.  We are preparing for a counterattack in the springtime.  Our job will be, of course, to gauge how that counterattack will form and what manner the enemy will choose to come after us.

            We feel he has to do that in order to regain very, very valuable territory that he's lost over the past six to eight months.  And that most critically was, he's lost his source of money, which of course is the narcotics industry that he ran here within Helmand province to fund his activities.

            But we are anticipating that.  We are planning for it.  We are taking actions right now to cut his supply lines and make his logistics very, very difficult.  We are also intercepting as many of the foreign fighters as we can who come into the area through the Pakistani border for the main part, and feel that will hurt him as he tries to organize himself for the upcoming spring and summer.

            With that, I think I'll close and take any questions that you might have.  I'm sure that I haven't answered all of the issues you bring with you, but I'll be happy to give it a try.

            COL. LAPAN:  Thank you, General.

            Mr. Burns.

            Q:  General, this is Bob Burns from the Associated Press.  I just wanted to ask you a bit more about the last comments you made there about anticipating a spring offensive by the Taliban.  You mentioned that you're doing a number of things to -- in anticipation of that to lessen the effectiveness of a Taliban offensive.

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