Transcript: Press briefing Q&A with Gen. John Allen on insider attacks against U.S. & NATO troops
Edited by Jenny Jiang
* Press briefing held on Aug. 23, 2012
Transcript of press briefing Q&A with Gen. John Allen, Commander of ISAF and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, on green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan:
“Gen. Allen. Question for you on the insider attacks that you had referred to. Yesterday, President Karzai’s office said that after having studied this problem, they’ve come to the conclusion that it can be attributed mainly to foreign intelligence services that are essentially brainwashing Afghan recruits. I’m wondering do you buy that?”
Gen. John Allen:
“Well, the reason for these attacks are very complex, and we’re going to look at all of the reasons but I’ll tell you that I’m looking forward to Afghanistan providing us with the intelligence that permits them to come to that conclusion so that we can understand how they’ve drawn that conclusion and we can add that to our analysis. But we’ll wait for me to make a definitive statement on that issue until we’ve seen their intelligence in that regard.”
“We’ve been told that most of these insider attacks are due to personal grievances and disagreements with U.S. forces and that maybe 10% of Taliban infiltration. Do you still believe that – that there’s a very small percentage of Taliban infiltration? And if it’s personal disputes and disagreements, how do you account for 10 of them in the past few weeks?”
Gen. John Allen:
“It’s a really important question. We don’t have enough data from those who have participated in the attacks to be able to make any kind of a definitive conclusion. We think the reasons for these attacks are complex. Some of them we do believe are about infiltration, impersonation, coercion. But some of them – and we think that’s about 25% or so – but some of them are about disagreements, animosity which may have grown between the individual shooter and our forces in general or a particular grievance. And so we look at each one separately. We’re trying to understand what may have caused in each case but also in the aggregate why these attacks have occurred and why they have increased in number in the last several weeks may have something to do with Ramazan [Ramadan]. It’s a very tough time for these forces, and in particular this year – in Ramadan as it is known in most of the Muslim world – Ramadan fell in the middle of the fighting season during some of the harshest time for the climate in much of the region in which we fight. And so the daily pressures that are on some of these troops compounded by the sacrifices associated with fasting, the nature of our operational tempo, remembering that Afghan troops have gone in the field and they have stayed in the field and they have been in combat now for years. We believe the combination of many of these particular factors may have come together during the last several weeks to generate the larger numbers that you point to.”
“If I could just quickly follow up, so clearly you’re seeing an increase in Taliban infiltration in the most recent attacks.”
Gen. John Allen:
“No, I didn’t say that. What I have said is we believe that there is Taliban infiltration. You know, the truth is we have – between those who have escaped and those that we’ve killed, the number is relatively small that we have – that have been captured and then can be interrogated. Some of those have been infiltrators. Many of those have been motivated to undertake these attacks because of personal grievance or radicalization or having become susceptible to extremist ideology. But you’re right – there is a Taliban influence here, and it – as I said – takes several forms. It might be an impersonator – someone who gets into the uniform in order to get into close proximity to the forces. And I might remind everyone that in many cases these impersonators or these infiltrators have indeed killed Afghans as well as they have killed Coalition forces. Indeed, the Afghan casualties are higher than ours in this regard. And so yes there are infiltrators involved but I don’t believe at this particular junction given the analysis that we’ve done that that infiltration has increased and has generated this higher number.”
“General, given the spike during Ramadan, was it a mistake not to pull back more advisors and partnership, partnering during Ramadan? Would you recommend that next year – in Ramadan next year – that advising effort gets reduced during that festival – during that fasting time? And the larger question – does this spike in insider attacks threaten the strategy here – the move toward more intensive advising and assisting?”
Gen. John Allen:
“At this particular moment, I don’t believe that we need to contemplate reducing our contact with the Afghans. You know, indeed, what we have learned is that the closer the relationship with them, indeed that the more we can foster a relationship of brotherhood the more secure we are.
“We were very careful actually during Ramadan this year to undertake operations during those times that would not place great physical strain on the troops – their troops as well as ours given the partnership requirements. And so we’re going to watch the outcomes of Ramadan. We’re going to look back hard upon our operational tempo, the relationship of our security force assistance teams with the Afghans, and see if there are any conclusions that we can learn.
“I don’t think at this juncture that we need to pull back at that particular moment. I think we need, in fact, as I said have learned that the closer the relationship, the more secure ultimately our troops will be.
“Now, what we have to do is to ensure that we – we together the Afghans and the Coalition forces – undertake the kind of protective measures, which we’ve been undertaking for some time, but we’re putting greater emphasis on it now. We need to emphasize that probably more during Ramadan. Be careful. Be more careful about our force protection. Be more watchful of the emergence of a threat. Be able to respond more quickly to that threat rather than to pull back away from our Afghan partners. It’s important to understand that while every one of these is a tragedy – every one is a tragedy – every single day in this battle space there are tens of thousands of interactions of our general purpose forces, our special operations forces, and our advisory forces with the Afghans. And in the vast, vast majority of those instances and cases, the result of that interaction is a growing friendship and a deeper relationship, and that’s playing out in greater success in the battle space – more partnered operations, more Afghan-led operations. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of this threat. It doesn’t diminish our ambition to understand it and to take the measures necessary on our side and with our Afghan friends who are seized with this threat. It’s a threat to them as well as it’s a threat to us, and they see it as a threat to us and they’re gripping it as well.
“So we’re going to look at how this fighting season has evolved. We’re going to look at how our operations unfolded during Ramazan, and we’ll make an evaluation after that. But at this juncture, my initial belief is that we should not pull back in our contact with the Afghans. We perhaps should be more watchful – Afghan and Coalition – for the emergence of the threat and be able to react quickly to that.
“And I think that gets to the second part of your question, which is whether we believe this threatens the overall efficacy of the strategy of our advisory orientation, and I don’t believe that it does. At least now based on our analysis, I do not believe that it does.:
“General, I don’t quite understand your point about the impact of Ramazan. Ramazan of course is cyclical and we haven’t seen the kind of spike in green-on-blue attacks as we’ve seen over the last several weeks. And we’ve heard from you, from your predecessors, from your colleagues throughout the past couple of years about how the up-tempos on the ANSF has increased significantly. Could you explain a little bit more what you think the impact of Ramazan might be on the green-on-blue spike?”
Gen. John Allen:
“Well, again, I want to be careful not to lay the blame for green-on-blue solely on Ramazan. But I think the holy month of Ramazan demands great sacrifice of the Muslims who observe it, and the idea that they will fast during the day places great strain on them.
“As you know, Ramazan moves across the calendar each year and for this year it was square in the middle of the fighting season. This year the ANSF was a larger force than it’s ever been before. We were conducting very aggressive operations this calendar year. And even with reduced up-tempo during Ramazan where we try to do it in the coolness of the morning or the coolness of the evening, did it closer to the period of time when they troops may have had access to water or to food, it was still during a very hot part of the season. So we take that as a potential reason – not the reason – for an upswing.
“So there are many different and complex reasons for why we think this may have increased. We think Ramazan was a part of it. We don’t think Ramazan was the principle reason though.”
“One of the concerns I’ve heard expressed about these is the sense that over the transition of the next 28 months, the force structure is going to change so much that you’re going to have more U.S. and NATO troops embedded in smaller numbers and in closer proximity to the Afghan forces. I’m wondering in terms of just a force structure issue, is that a fair characterization and does that potentially increase the risk for these kind of attacks moving forward?”
Gen. John Allen:
“Thank you. That’s an important question. As you heard me say a few minutes ago, what we have learned is that the closer we are to the Afghan formations, the closer the relationship, the deeper the friendship, the deeper the relationship.
“Now, to its great credit, the Army and the Marine Corps have organized the forces that are coming here in purpose-built security force assistance brigades – the Army in particular. These brigades are organized together. They are trained together in their pre-deployment training cycles. When they arrive in theater they prepare together. When the time comes their security force assistance teams deploy from a central location tied into the brigade headquarters with communications. So there is constant coherence within that security force assistance brigade. And the teams originated back in the United States. They were built together out of this brigade. The brigade provides command and control, fires, other support as is necessary. So there’s a real coherence to the employment of security force assistance brigades, which are deploying into the region now.
“We’ve actually been at this in terms of security force assistance teams since earlier this year.
“Now as time goes on and as our numbers come down, we will seek to continue to deploy those kinds of brigades, again, because they form together; they are a coherent brigade with a distinctive patch. They’ll deploy together. They’ll have centralized command and control for support of the teams during the period of time that they’re here. The teams will be employed with Afghan units in areas where they will understand those Afghan units and the operational environment before they get there. They’ll be employed together. And the brigade will re-deploy together at the same time.
“So this, I think, is an important approach, and as our numbers come down and as our general purpose forces continue to diminish we will see that our reliance on security force assistance brigades, which can still provide force protection, still provide command and control and fires, can still in fact partner with Afghans as well as advise Afghans – we think that’s an improvement in prior advisory approaches over the years. And we think it’s exactly the approach that we need to take now as time goes on out through ’13 as your question implied and ultimately ’14.
“Now, the question for us will be as time goes on at what level we both partner and advise. And eventually as the numbers continue to come down, we will see our advisory effort move upward in terms of the Afghan hierarchy. Some Afghan battalion level formations will be advised for a long period of time because those will be in those areas which will require close attention probably because of the enemy threat, the difficulty of the terrain, the importance of the mission, and so on. But we may see as our numbers come down there will be larger numbers of battalion, even brigade size formations, where our security force assistance teams will depart an advisory mission. So it will just be the physics of our force structure.
“But we’re going to watch the entire battle space closely, and we’re going to allocate those forces based on where we see progress and also where we see the need to maintain pressure on the enemy and close partnership with the ANSF as they continue to grow, as they continue to be fielded, as they continue to improve.
“And it’s worth reminding the team in the Pentagon and, of course, the public in general that we’re still in the recruiting phase of the ANSF. There will be a 352[,000]. Our goal is by 1 October I think we’ll be at that goal. In fact, we’re very close now.
“And then during ’13 we will still be training and forming, equipping and fielding elements of the ANSF so that the full ANSF is not fully in the field, not fully equipped until the end of ’13. So we’ve got work to do.
“And we will structure our advisory effort – we will contour it based on the operational conditions of ’13, operational requirements of the battle space, and the needs of the ANSF as time goes on.”
“A larger question. The so-called surge of coalition forces. Is that drawdown now complete? And looking ahead over the next 28 to 36 months, you made a reference to creating space so that civilian, government and non-governmental organizations can have the space to develop. What does Afghanistan look like on Jan. 1, 2015?”
Gen. John Allen:
“On the 1st of January 2015, we will see that the ANSF will have achieved its full strength of 352,000. It will have been deployed across Afghanistan, having completed the process of transition where it will be fully in the lead for the security of the entire Afghan population. And it will be deployed in a manner and in a way to continue to deal with the violence that we’ll find on the 1st of January 2015. We will see that as security has continued to improve across the country, it has given the central government in Afghanistan and provincial governments below the national level, it has given opportunity and has provided opportunity for improved governance at the sub-provincial level, improved governance at the district level – which is really key for the Afghans, increasingly key even today. In some areas of Afghanistan where we have seen really dramatic improvements in security, this is now the moment for the Karzai administration to begin the process of concentrating on sub-provincial and district governance and the establishment of the rule of law.
“We’ll see on the 1st of January that as security has continued to improve, that there will be increasing opportunities to improve the sub-national governance necessary, primarily at the district level – in some cases at the provincial level, to give the Afghan people the firm opportunity finally to make a choice and to commit themselves ultimately to their government.
“On the 1st of January, we’ll see a new administration. The election will have occurred in the Spring of 2014, and that election will usher into office the first democratically-elected government since the fall of the Taliban, beyond the Karzai administration. So we will see a transition in ’14 to a new administration and a new government and a new President. And that President will have seen the period of time in the last 28 months – the last several years – of the emergence of an Afghan National Security Force, which is professional, which is willing to sacrifice mightily on behalf of the Afghan people to achieve a level of security that gives that new President and gives that new administration and the ministries and the judiciary the opportunity to truly become a part of and a factor in the lives of the Afghan people.
“And they’ll also see on the 1st of January – and I’m sorry to go on so long; this is an important question – that the international community is still with them, that the promises that were made by the heads of state of the ISAF coalition in Chicago to continue to support and sustain the ANSF – sustain it with the right amount of resources and to support it with some form of a international force in Afghanistan to provide for the continued professionalization and development of the ANSF. So the Afghans will see the international community in Afghanistan continuing to grip and to improve and to partner with the ANSF.
“And the Afghans will see the interest of the international community in the context of that which was promised in Tokyo and in Bonn II. Bonn II talked about the decade of transformation – the decade that will follow the period of transition – and the decade of transformation will be where the international community in close partnership with the new administration that will have been elected in 2014 will move forward to take advantage of the sacrifices that have been made by the troops of ISAF and the Coalition and increasingly the sacrifices that are being made every single day by the ANSF. They will move forward together into the decade of transformation starting on the first day of January 2015 into what I believe will be a period of hope, lots of challenge still – challenge in the installation of governance, challenge in embracing the rule of law, challenge in rooting out corruption.
“But I believe the Afghan people understand and we will prove that the international community will not abandon Afghanistan. In the next 28 months, we’ll continue to reinforce that so that as we transition from the 31st of December 2014 into the 1st of January 2015, the Afghan people have reason to be hopeful and they have reason to be proud of what has been accomplished by their ANSF and what will be accomplished of the ANSF as they bide the time and they bide the space for the improved governance, economic development, and the embrace of the rule of law by this new administration.”
“At the beginning of this fighting season, it looked like violence numbers were going down. Now that we’re almost through it, it looks like the attack numbers are about the same as 2011. U.S. casualty numbers are about the same as 2011 for this fighting season. I guess I’m curious about what that tells us and whether that’s a concern to you that we’re continuing to see robust attacks even as we draw down.”
Gen. John Allen:
“I would qualify your question just a bit. As we measure them, enemy-initiated attacks – those numbers are down a bit. They may not be statistically significant. We see them down about 3%.
“It is less about the numbers this fighting season than it is about the location. And in so many of the places, the enemy-initiated attacks are first and foremost a reaction by the enemy to us. We have pushed hard on the insurgency to push them out of the population centers, much of which was cleared last year, and we’ve continued to push them into a series and increasingly smaller series of areas, districts, where we have in many respects contained them. They’re on the defense.
“You know, there’s about 10% – excuse me – 10 of the 405 districts across Afghanistan constitute about 50% of the violence across the country. And about 20% – and I’m careful about statistics because they do change from time to time and George Little can provide you some of these numbers; we’ll get them to him. About 80% of the population of Afghanistan only experiences about 20% of the enemy-initiated activities.
“And so this year there was a number of enemy-initiated attack that statistically look similar to the numbers of last year. The difference this year is that our operational tempo against the enemy was very high, and much of those enemy-initiated attacks were in response to us. And so I think in this regard it has continued on track. The campaign has continued in the manner that we envisaged that it would.
“Our casualties are not the same as last year. Our casualties – and again George can get you the number – are about 25% lower this time than they were last year.
“But the difference is that the Afghan casualties are higher this year. They’re higher because the Afghan force is a larger force. They’re higher because they are leading and partnering in far more of the operations than last year. They’re higher, frankly, because the Afghans are in the attack. And so, in that regard, there is a significant change from this year – this year from last year.”
“As you do battlefield circulations, who do the soldiers and Marines say to you about these insider attacks and, I guess, really the question would be are these attacks hurting the morale of the people out there on the edge of the spear or the tip of the spear?”
Gen. John Allen:
“I spend a lot of time – I try to get out at least twice a week. I spend a lot of time with the troops. I think one of the signal reactions, while there is concern, one of the signal reactions is a very stalwart commitment to the mission.
“You know, we’re blessed in the U.S. military – truly blessed – with magnificent small unit leaders. And this is a tough mission. It’s a tough mission for a whole variety of reasons not the least of which is the operational environment in which these troops have to fight and partner. So the non-commissioned officers, staff non-commissioned officers, junior officer level – these troops are very well-led.
“And where we have seen incidents of insider threats play out in terms of a green-on-blue attack, where those young non-commissioned officers and officers very quickly covered down on their Afghan partners, and where they led their troops through the crisis of the moment and through the grief of the loss of their troops, where they led them personally gave them context on the importance of the mission and closed the gap between the Afghans and the ISAF forces. We’ve seen that unit recover. We’ve seen that unit continue its mission with the Afghans.
“Back several months ago, during one of the crises, there was a shooting at one of our camps. I got on the helicopter very quickly with Gen. [Sher Mohammad] Karimi, their chief of defense. We flew out to that camp to talk to the troops. I talked to – in this case – I talked to the American troops, I talked to the U.S. troops and the Afghan troops and Gen. Karimi did the same. And it was a very important moment. It was one of the earlier of the attacks, and it set I think both the standard and the condition that in the aftermath of one of these events, it’s going to be leadership that gets us through it. Leadership that shows the troops the way, that it is not about vengeance or retribution. It’s about gripping the mission. It’s about understanding that while an Afghan pulled the trigger the vast majority of the Afghans they know everyday, in fact, are their brothers in this campaign and their brothers in this mission.
“There have been other places where in the aftermath of one of these crises one of our battalion commanders publicly and openly hugged his Afghan battalion counterpart, and that solved the problem right on the spot and it reduced the potential distance that might have emerged between our two forces.
“So you’re right to ask the question about morale. And when it happens to a unit, it creates a moment of crisis but that crisis can be overcome and is usually overcome by the application of the great leadership that is the hallmark of our forces today – the magnificent young NCOs and junior officers who are at the point of impact every single day in this campaign. And I’m very proud of them.”
“There’s still controversy over your attempt to increase the local police units and give them increased arms. You’ve talked about in 2015 the Afghan people will have to make a choice. One of the choices they could make is to go back to the warlord days when each of those local police forces becomes an independent actor. What’s your concern about that?”
Gen. John Allen:
“Well, as you know, we’ve worked very hard on this program called Village Stability and the Afghan Local Police.
“Let this helicopter go by.
“The ALP – and we’ve recently passed 16,600 in this number. The ALP is one of the most hated aspects of the ANSF by the Taliban. A whole variety of reasons for that.
“If the village stability operation program works – and it does – it is a mobilization of Afghans at the ground level, at the grassroots level, to take the business of their local security and their future into their own hands. Elders, the local shiras [SP], agree ultimately to raising an Afghan local police force out of the sons of that village or that community. And in most cases – not most – all cases, when an ALP unit stands up it is advised by U.S. special operators and they provide for the training and the professionalization, they provide for the mentoring. And all of the ALP units are tied into the Ministry of Interior and they are tied into the local district chief of police.
“Now, as time goes on and as our numbers come down, we will see that the role of the police will be even more important in maintaining the connectivity of the Ministry of Interior to the Afghan Local Police.
“And we’re working very hard – I assure you – we’re working very hard to ensure the professionalization of the ALP, recognizing that again this is a grassroots movement and so often the literacy rates are very low. There will be tribal affinities. There will be local loyalties. But the challenge for us – and where I think we’ve been successful but there’s much more work to be done – is ensuring that the Ministry of Interior from the Minister all the way down through the district chief of police and his police force are tied in closely to the ALP.
“Now, I believe if we continue on the route that we’re on, which seeks to strengthen the bonds between the ALP and the district. If we continue on that trajectory, on 1 January 2015 we will find that the ALP is in fact part of the force of the Ministry of Interior for local security and local policing and not a potential reservoir of foot soldiers for the local strongmen.
“Now, your question is an important one and it is something about which we pay a lot of attention and we’re very cautious about this.
“And there have been ALP sites where our concerns about whether that site will be viable, whether that site will be coherent, have been such that we either elected not to form it or we’ve disbanded it. And so we’re very careful about that. And we’re extraordinarily careful particularly over the next 28 months that we build those strong relationship between the ALP leaders, the village elders and the shiras with the district chief of police and the Ministry of Interior. That is the secret. That is the means by which we anticipate the ALP being part of the long-term security solution and not ultimately potentially part of a security problem after the beginning of 2015. Very important question. Thank you.”
“When you were initially describing the insider attack issue, you said that you believe roughly 25% can be attributed to Taliban activity or connections. The Pentagon just a few days ago told us that your folks had looked at this and come up with a number of around 10%. I’m wondering how you can explain the difference – is there a difference there? What is it?”
Gen. John Allen:
“Our view is it’s about 25%. We think it’s about 25%, Bob. This still requires a lot of analysis. And so if it’s just pure Taliban infiltration, that is one number. If you add to that impersonation, the potential that someone is pulling the trigger because the Taliban have coerced the family members, that’s a different number. So it’s less about the precision of 25% versus 10% than it is acknowledging that the Taliban are seeking ultimately an impact in the formation. And Bob, I know you are aware that the Taliban tried to take credit for every one of these attacks whether it’s a personal grievance or whether it’s a successful infiltration. The number 10% or 25% is a number that we’re going to continue to hone to get a better feel for this so that we really do have a sense of the size and the magnitude of the enemy threat in the ranks of the Afghan National Security Forces versus what could be issues associated with personal grievance, social difficulties and that’s really important for us to understand that.”