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Major General Robert Cone, Commander, Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A)
Foreign Press Center Briefing via Digital Videoconference (DVC)
Washington, DC
November 25, 2008

9:00 A.M. EST


MODERATOR: Hello, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today, we have Major General Cone, CSTC-A Transition Commander, to speak to you about an Afghan security update.

Go ahead, sir.

MGEN CONE: Okay. Let me go ahead and get started. I’m Major General Bob Cone, the Commanding General of Combined Security Transition Command to Afghanistan. Thank you very much for attending this conference. My command trains, equips, and fields the Afghan National Security Force, and this includes both the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.

Both the ANAP – ANA and ANP are leading in the fight here today. The ANA are leading about 60 percent of the operations they participate in and have proven themselves an effective fighting force. The ANA is also in the midst of expanding. They now have about 68,000 in the fielded force, and about 11,000 in the training base. They will grow to 122,000 force structure with another 12,000 in the training base.

Last year, we trained and added some 26,000 soldiers to the Afghan National Army. This year we plan to expand the Afghan National Army by another 28,000 and are on track to meet that number. At the same time, we are modernizing this force. We are building up up- armored Humvees; we’re fielding up-armored Humvees and NATO weapons to replace light tactical vehicles and Warsaw Pact weapons.

The Ministry of Defense has many challenges ahead of it. They are expanding rapidly while fighting a tough counterinsurgency. But I am confident that the ministry will meet and exceed our expectations. We are seeing similar progress with the Afghan National Police. They, too, are leading in this counterinsurgency war. The Afghan National Police currently suffer about 56 percent of those killed in action here in Afghanistan. This is more than double the rate for either the ANA or coalition forces; however, the Afghan National Police has lagged behind the Afghan National Army in development. While the United States has been training the ANA for about five years, we began training the ANP only about a year ago. Since then, CSTC-A and the Ministry of Interior have retrained over 22,000 police. That’s more than a quarter of the police force in just one year. We’re very pleased with our progress, but we have more to do.

Our cornerstone program for police retraining is the Focused District Development program. This program has resulted in substantial change and progress at the ground level where the police interact with the population. To date, we have reformed 42 districts. This is a program that has proven that it works.

In addition, and as part of the larger effort to reform the Afghan National Police, we have initiated another program to retrain and reform the Afghan border police. This program is called Focused Border Development, and is modeled after the highly successful Focused District Development program. Over the winter, we will train 52 companies at a cost of some $70 million. These companies will then partner with coalition units. In addition, we will construct some 165 permanent border facilities all across the border in Afghanistan at a cost of some $845 million. We believe the increased security and stability along the border and throughout the country will be worth the investment in Afghanistan.

We have made great progress in training, fielding, and equipping the Afghan National Security Forces, but we have a long way to go. As all of you know, this effort requires sustained support from the international community. This is especially true in reforming the Afghan National Police. We welcome the international community involvement, especially in providing police trainers and mentors.

Thank you. And now, I’ll be happy to take your questions.

MODERATOR: Okay. Please wait for the microphone and state your name and publication before asking a question. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for talking to us this morning. It’s Paul Johnson from Global TV of Canada. My last trip over there, one of the overarching concerns was the unwillingness, or the caveats rather, amongst some of the NATO militaries that are there, the things that they’re allowed and not allowed to do. This was a major complaint several months ago. Is this still an ongoing issue? What could you say about this?

MGEN CONE: I can speak to it as it directly affects the forces that are in the training pool, and some 15 different nations contribute to the operational maneuver liaison teams. We have seen some progress in recent months in regard to the willingness and relaxation of some of the caveats by some of the nations. Of course, the training mission is fundamentally different, and it is not first line combat. And so, in many cases, countries are more willing to contribute to this training mission. So given the fact that it is not really an acute issue in the training mission, essentially it has not been a problem for us in the recent months.

QUESTION: My name is Andrey Bekrenev from ITAR-TASS Russian News Agency. General, in Russian media there are – from time to time, there appears – appears some reports that the Russians in some way are helping Afghan Army with some material support. Do you feel this support? And if yes, so what it is?

MGEN CONE: The decision on participation by Russia as a training team is largely a political decision. We have received assistance in contributions in the past from Russia. And we at CSTC-A and the Afghans, I can tell you, are particularly grateful for those contributions. There are many Soviet or former Soviet pact weapons that Russia certainly has a good supply of, where they have assisted us; in fact, most acutely, in the area of helicopters that are still flown. So as I say, that is a political decision. But from certainly a soldier’s perspective, we have been grateful for what has been contributed to date.

QUESTION: Hello, Alex Spillius of the London Daily Telegraph. I was a little bit late, so apologies if my question goes over some of your opening remarks. But, I mean, I did hear you say there’s, you know -- I got the gist of what you were saying that improvements have been made but there’s a long way to go. Could you give an idea of what are the principal hindrances to progress and what are the main factors that are – you know, maybe is not making progress as quick as you’d like?

MGEN CONE: Yeah. When you’re building an organization like an army or a police force, really, human capital in terms of people with the long-term experience and professional education is really the longest pole in the tent, if you would, in terms of development. And so given the fact of 30 years of war, a high level of illiteracy, that is really the area we attack most aggressively. And I can talk about the Command and General Staff College, the War College, and all of the intermediate level schooling that is taking place. But essentially, growing leaders who have both not only the innate leadership capabilities -- that Afghans are very good leaders in the interpersonal level. It is more the systems approach and dealing with complex systems -- logistics, supply, command and control -- both on the army and the police side, that is probably the longest lead time item.

The other point I would make is that certainly, I’ve heard this said before, but we’re not reconstructing Afghanistan. We are constructing Afghanistan. And essentially, if I want to increase the capacity of building – of training policemen, let’s say, I literally have to scrape a police training center out of the desert and build that facility from scratch. It’s not like I can go somewhere and rent or lease an existing facility. You have to build it. So you have to think through the long lead times.

And then I would be remiss if I did not mention the issue of corruption. There is a culture of poverty here that basically deals with economic survival on the part of many Afghans. And again, often, we as Westerners are not used to the fact that corruption is perhaps a way of life. And again, Afghans are wonderful people. They have very good values. But the fact is that in many sectors of life here, corruption is a key part and we have to deal with that when we’re talking about accountability of the taxpayer dollars that we are entrusted with here in Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. It’s Erika Niedowski, Washington bureau chief for The National, a paper in Abu Dhabi. Just a clarification. You had said -- was it the ANA and the ANP combined are leading 60 percent of the operations they’re participating in? And can – you just give a sense of a timeline towards full readiness or full preparedness on the part of the ANA and the ANP? Thanks.

MGEN CONE: Yes. The Afghan Army is what I was specifically referring to. That’s what we track. And there’s any number of ways that you can count that. And I don’t – I think what I want to make sure is that what I talk about is consistent with what your soldiers are talking about. And I think that just anywhere you go in Afghanistan you would hear from NATO troops that, in fact, the Afghans are probably leading well over half of the operations that take place. The numbers depend on how you count them.

We talk about what we call named operations, which are planned operations, normally company and above. That’s not unusual given the number of Afghan battalions that are on the ground today. In fact, they are – because of the number of units, they actually have more battalions on the ground, but they’re in various states of development.

About 20 of those battalions today are capable of independent operations with only air support from the coalition forces. There are another 22-some odd battalions that are capable of leading operations. That means essentially that you would see like, a battalion of Afghans, or a 650-man formation of Afghans in a smaller unit of coalition forces that would be there sort of as a safety net or if something unanticipated happened. And then are another 20-some odd battalions that are essentially capable of contributing, but not capable of leading an operation.

And normally, what we have with Afghans is they’re willing to fight at the individual level. They’re very good at that; this is a warrior culture. But what they – what is not developed -- the hardest thing to develop for them are the systems, logistics, command and control fires. So it might be that a NATO battalion goes to a forward operating base and asks for the Afghans to give companies and platoons to fit into a NATO formation to go forward and fight. That’s part of their learning. And I would argue that Afghan learning that takes place in these operations is more important, perhaps, than really the outcome of any single engagement because it’s really not in doubt we are successful.

But the point is what do the Afghans learn about it and are they better tomorrow than they were today in terms of the operation. So I think that number overall we track of named operations is about 62 percent in the last six months or so. And that number will continue to change over time and we expect that to increase.

QUESTION: So going back to the previous question, there was, I think, a question about full preparedness and when you might see that happening. And I also wondered if, in the south, what the ethnic makeup was of the battalions and if the Pashtun-Tajik issue was playing on that.

MGEN CONE: I think what’s important is that we have a process that – by which the Afghans go through and they validate their capability to do things, like if we say they’re capable of independent operations, that they’ve demonstrated in combat the capability to do all of the things that a battalion is supposed to do.

And so I would not want to put a timeline on it, particularly when I keep adding new forces. But it is safe to say that from the time a unit is formed to the time it is in the field and equipped and trained, I think the fastest unit we’ve ever had accomplish this has been about 18 months. And I think most average about two fighting seasons of doing things before they can stand on their own.

But again, I’ve got units that are – as I described to you, about 20 that are – we call capability milestone one -- about a third, a third, and a third. And I’m adding new units all the time to the back end of this process, so it will be a continual process as we grow out to the 134K – 134,000 end strength.

MODERATOR: Are there any other questions?

QUESTION: Sure. I want to ask a follow-up question. How has your – it’s Paul Johnson from Global TV again. How has your training differed, if at all, in the run-up to the election there? Are you doing anything specifically to train units to provide protection or any forms of additional security because of the elections?

MGEN CONE: You know, actually, that’s a great question that we have been through with the Afghans. And I would say that, you know, really, now into the second phase of the election registration, that is essentially a rehearsal for the actual conduct of the election. And so that over the six-week or so period that the Afghans do voter registration, it’s an opportunity to work with the Afghans to talk about, you know, really the conventional tactics that are used in terms of security for an election site. And I would say certainly the early returns have been very favorable.

I think most of the people who were here for the last election that are here today comment that the biggest difference is how much of the burden of security that the Afghans are taking themselves. Specifically, at the polling sites, you see the Afghan police. At the -- in closer cordons, you see the Afghan police, and at the outer cordons and security, you see the Afghan army. And again, I think that’s really what the Afghans want is leadership in this.

And so what we have done is used sort of the voter registration as a dress rehearsal to iterate and get better. And as I say, we’ve seen some real success in the first two phases of voter registration, although I will acknowledge the fact that the more difficult phases will be in the southern parts of the country as we get into the later phases. So it will be a test. We can then evaluate that and then retrain and make sure they’re ready for the actual election.

MODERATOR: Are there any final questions? Well, thank you, sir, for agreeing to do this. And thank you, everyone.
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