Department of Defense News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Nick Carter from the Pentagon, March 20, 2013

Washington, DC—(ENEWSPF)—March 20, 2013.

COMMANDER BILL SPEAKS: I’d like to welcome back Lieutenant General Nick Carter, British Army, to the Pentagon briefing room. Lieutenant General Carter assumed duties as ISAF deputy commander and commander of the United Kingdom’s contingent in Afghanistan in October of last year. He was commissioned in the Royal Green Jackets in 1978 and has served six months as director of plans of the U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force 180 in Afghanistan in mid-2002. 

Lieutenant General Carter assumed command of 6th United Kingdom Division in January2009 and was responsible for the preparation and training of the task forces deploying on operations in Afghanistan. The division then became a Combined Joint Task Force and assumed responsibility for ISAF Regional Command South from November 2009 to November 2010. 

This is Lieutenant General Carter’s fourth time with us here in the Pentagon briefing room. He last joined us in October 2010 while serving as commander of Regional Command South. He will provide brief opening remarks on progress towards transition in Afghanistan and then take your questions. 

And with that, General, sir, I will turn it over to you. 

LIEUTENANT GENERAL NICK CARTER: Thank you very much for that introduction. And it’s very good to be back with the Pentagon press corps after a couple of years’ layoff.

I thought what I’d do is just to give you a sense of how transition is going from headquarters ISAF’s perspective. I think what’s interesting, following the joint announcement of President Obama and President Karzai in Washington on the 11th of January, is that we now find ourselves looking at the announcement for tranche five coming up quite soon in the spring and, of course, the so-called milestone 13, which fell out of the Chicago declaration. 

We see this very much as an inflection point in the campaign. It is going to see a refocusing to the ISAF mission. It’s going to see the ANSF being the supported piece of this, and it’s going to see us supporting them. It’s going to see us very much reverting to train, advise, assist, and enable, where appropriate, with combat operations happening either in extremis or certainly on a limited basis. 

It’s going to see us providing very much our assistance through the new model of security force assistance teams and it’s going to see us thinning up to the brigade level in the context of the Afghan army this fall and then up to the corps level probably after the election next summer. So it’s an inflection point. It’s an interesting point in the campaign. And it’s going to see us increasingly achieving our objectives through an Afghan chain of command, rather than through an ISAF chain of command. 

Now, that brings me onto Afghan security force capability, which at the tactical level is evolving rapidly, it’s improving hugely, it’s challenged in certain places, but in principle, we see it being a significant success story. The challenge, of course, is sustaining it throughout the institutions of the army and the police force and up to the ministerial level, and that’s where we’re focusing a good deal of our effort at the moment, in terms of capacity-building. There was a bit of press, you’ll recall, last year claiming that only one of the 23 ANA brigades was operational independently. I can report that now five out of the 26 brigades are in that position, and 16 of them are effective with support from their Security Forces Advisory Teams, which is a creditable performance and it’s one that we see improving significantly during the course of this year. 

All of this has a bearing on the insurgency, and I would characterize the insurgency now as being somewhat confused. It is the case that Pakistan’s behavior is slightly different, and we believe that that has confused the insurgency. And the prisoner releases that have taken place over the last three months are asking questions that perhaps were unexpected hitherto. The announcement of the Doha office has also, I think, caused confusion, and the extent to which that is the place that political engagement can now occur is something that is focusing minds. 

It will increasingly be difficult for them to achieve Afghans fighting Afghans, much harder for them to mobilize support on that basis. And the fact of the matter is, in my 10-year association with this campaign, that this country has changed significantly. In terms of technology, you now see 40 percent of Afghans using mobile telephones, up to six million Internet users. Forty-five percent of Afghans now live in urban areas. The transport network is really quite joined up quite sophisticated. Highway 1 is very nearly completed. Women’s issues are very different now. You see some 2.5 million girls in either primary or secondary education. Health care is much improved for women. They’re able to talk to each other on mobile telephones. And if you look at the economy, it’s growing at nine percent per annum at the moment in GDP terms. 

And I think for all those reasons, the insurgency is having to think differently about how it might come back, if it ever came back in political participatory terms. 

And I think the view in Pakistan is different, too. The sense I get now is that they recognize that got a shared problem, and some of the things that General Kayani has talked about over the course of the last three to six months recognized that this problem is something that they’ve got to solve internally, as well, and that’s changing things. 

The big challenge, as I see it, at the moment, though, is maintaining Afghan confidence. It’s quite obvious that the Afghans are not going to be confronted by a 1992 once again. The Chicago commitment and the Tokyo commitment and the international community’s overall commitment to Afghanistan is very different to what it was 25 years ago. 

However, Afghans still need reassuring. And, of course, they’ve got this significant political transition coming up in 2014, and that will be very challenging. You have to go back to 1902 for the last time there was a peaceful political transition in Afghanistan, and that, of course, worries Afghans. 

And deadlines have a habit of focusing minds. And what we have to compete with in challenge terms this year is maintaining the population’s confidence through into 2014 and the security forces’ confidence. And to my mind, that’s the big challenge. 

So with those as some introductory remarks, I’ll hand it over to all of you for questions. Thank you. 

Q: Spencer Ackerman, Wired. Sir, can you clarify what’s actually happening with the Wardak agreement? We didn’t see any set deadlines for transition. Can you clarify if there are timetables in effect for ISAF leaving the province? And, if so, what are they? 

LT. GEN. CARTER: Yes, what’s happening now as a result of a very positive meeting that General Dunford had with the president this morning is that the Afghan security forces, under the leadership of General Karimi, are looking at how they are going to assume responsibility for the district of Nerkh. We don’t yet know what solution they will apply to this, whether it will be one based upon local police with maybe their special forces providing mentorship, whether it’ll be something that’ll be under the aegis of the Ministry of Interior, or whether it’ll be simply a conventional solution. 

My expectation is that they will brief the president — back-brief him on Sunday at the National Security Council meeting that takes place routinely. We’ll be involved in the planning with the Afghans between now and then. And as we produce this combined plan with them, so I suspect we’ll be in a better position to explain what the solution will be. 

I would just say that this is a very interesting pilot, if you like, in terms of how transition will occur over the course of the next year or so. Wardak is probably one of the most complicated provinces that we have had to deal with, and how this goes I think will be a good bellwether of how the overall transition process works. 

It sits on a political divide, not least between the roving Kuchi community and Hazaras, with a Pashtun piece of it, as well. There is a HIG-Taliban tension in there. Many of the elders and land-owners from Wardak have moved back into Kabul. And the extent to which there is, therefore, the fabric of leadership in place in Wardak is very challenging. 

So I think the politics of this place give us a really good indication as to how the Afghans are going to manage transition as we step forward. So it’s an interesting place to focus on in terms of our attention. 

Q: Does that mean we should expect to see ISAF special forces and other troops operating in Wardak in the coming months? 

LT. GEN. CARTER: It’s absolutely the case that they will still — they will operate there. I think that Nerkh will be treated slightly differently, as I’ve described. But, of course, what we’re seeking to do in the coming months is to transition much of Afghanistan, and Wardak will be part of that plan, as well. 

Q: So just to clarify, then, does this agreement even for this one district include special operations forces or not even — is it just for the traditional ANSF? 

LT. GEN. CARTER: Given the political dynamics in Nerkh and the background there, it’s going to be transitioned to an Afghan solution during the course of the next few days, subject to the agreements that will be pushed forward to the National Security Council on Sunday. 

Elsewhere in Wardak, it’s business as usual, and it’s no change, but be under no illusion that the other places where we will need to transition in much the same way as we’re transitioning in Nerkh. 

Q: The SOF will stop operating in Nerkh?

LT. GEN. CARTER: Sorry, I missed the nuance of your question. 

Q: (OFF-MIKE) Special operations forces will stop in Nerkh district? 

LT. GEN. CARTER: Nerkh District will be transitioned to an Afghan solution. 

Q: Dan Deluce, Agence France Presse. All right. Two things. One, what — did ISAF — do you think that ISAF made some kind of mistake? Or did they make a mistake in how they communicated with the Afghan authorities that led to this kind of urgent problem that had to be resolved? 

LT. GEN. CARTER: No, I don’t think so. I think that in my experience in Afghanistan, often you get local political situations which are very complicated. And how you take forward those local political complications are issues that will often bubble up in the way that this one has done. And I don’t think anybody necessarily made a mistake. I just think it’s a challenging area to operate in, and I think that it is one of those sorts of issues which regularly you have to deal within Afghanistan. 

Q: And then I have a second — second question, unrelated, you spoke about the Taliban being confused. How does that manifest itself on the battlefield? Are you seeing some change in how they’re operating or a change in how — their internal dynamics? 

LT. GEN. CARTER: I think it manifests itself in the levels of violence. I think there are areas where we’ve had a significant amount of tactical success, particularly in the south, in my old haunt, Kandahar, and in central Helmand. And I think that how they are achieving their effects has been significantly set back in those places. And I think more at the strategic level, you get the feeling that they’re having to rethink their overall approach and their overall strategy. And you’d expect that, because ultimately this is about politics. And when you see a country that has changed like Afghanistan has over the last 10 or 11 years, you can understand why they’d have to rethink the political aspect of it. 

Q: Courtney Kube, NBC News. Hi, general. Not to belabor this point on Nerkh District, but I just want to be sure that we understand exactly what you’re saying by the term Afghan solution, transitioning to an Afghan solution. Just to be clear, that means there will not be any ISAF or coalition forces. It will be Afghan forces only in the Nerkh District going forward within — after this transition in the next several days. Is that correct? 

LT. GEN. CARTER: Yes, once the plan has been put together and there is confidence on all sides that it is possible to transition it to an Afghan solution, Nerkh will be transitioned to an Afghan solution. 

Q: And then a follow-up, sort of a larger question, sort of like Dan’s. Can you — can you sort of lay out what the spring fighting season — we’ve been told back here that it started recently in the last week or so, it started a little earlier this year because the weather’s a little warmer. Can you sort of lay out what you’re looking at for this fighting season as far as the areas that you’re looking most specifically at that could potentially have the most violence? Any new or different or emerging tactics by the insurgents that you’re particularly concerned about or that you’re watching? Just sort of lay out the fighting season for us. 

LT. GEN. CARTER: Yes, I mean, I — the way that we have laid out transition — and you know it is in five tranches, the tranche five geographic areas, which are essentially along the eastern front here and down into Kandahar and into parts of Helmand, those are the areas which are the Pashtun heart of the insurgency and those are the ones that we would expect to be most violent. 

We always show concern to the areas that run up from Pakistan into Kabul, and that’s why Wardak is important, but Logar to its east is also important, and Paktia and Paktika and Khost are also important. And those areas are ones that one needs to pay particular attention to throughout any of the fighting season I’ve experienced. And those are the areas that we will focus most of our attention on during the course of this, not least because they are the areas that are part of the tranche five piece of transition. 

Now, that said, looking down towards the south, I went down to Kandahar myself about a month ago for the first time since I’d left it as an R.C. commander in October. And I know that you heard from General Abrams last Wednesday. 

But I was seriously encouraged, you know, two-and-a-half years on by the security situation in Kandahar. And I was impressed with it, also, in central Helmand. And it’s my sense that the insurgency will find it difficult to create traction in that area. And I’m slightly more positive, therefore, about those parts of — of where the insurgency will have to operate. But it’s my sense it’s the eastern areas, and it’s the areas that push up into Kabul which will be the principal threat during the course of this summer. 

Now, I think elsewhere in Afghanistan you should still expect there to be reports of violence, but the motivations behind that violence I sense are much more likely now to be involved in criminality, rather than straightforward insurgency that seeks to knock the government over. 

Q: Lalit Jha, (inaudible). In the back of the conclusion that you mentioned among the Talibans, can you give us a sense of their willingness to come back to the dialogue table? And who they are comfortable in talking to, the Afghans themselves, their government, or the U.S., or the Pakistanis? 

LT. GEN. CARTER: I mean, the question you’ve asked me really should be directed to the Afghan government. It’s for the Afghan government to manage the negotiations with the Taliban. And, therefore, I wouldn’t go any further than to observe on that. 

Q: Spencer Ackerman, Wired. Just a follow-up on Courtney’s question. You said that combat operations by coalition forces will happen in extremis. In the eastern provinces that you discussed and the southern ones that you discussed that fall under tranche five, do you expect to see coalition offensive operations in such places like that? Or is that going to be something that the Afghans decide that’s going to be an Afghan campaign? And if the latter, are the Afghans already moving extra forces in there to sort of fill the gap during this current fighting season? 

LT. GEN. CARTER: Yes, the — the inflection point that is the announcement of tranche five and milestone 13 very much sees the Afghans determining what operation’s going to be mounted in the tranche five areas as well as anywhere else in Afghanistan. 

Now, the level of support that we expect to provide in those areas is greater than it would be in the earlier tranche one to three areas because of the nature of the threat and the conditions on the ground. We, though, would not expect to mount unilateral combat operations unless there was a serious problem that required our support to the Afghans. We would very much expect the Afghans to lead and us to enable those operations and provide training and assistance to those operations, as well as some of the battle space management necessary to integrate some of the fires and air support that they might require from time to time. 

Q: Carlo Munoz, The Hill. General, just wanted to go back to your previous statement about five of the ANA brigades sort of operating independently. Where are those brigades located? Are they mostly in — in R.C. South or R.C. East? And on the meeting between General Dunford and President Karzai this morning, was the issue regarding the Parwan detention center, was that discussed, as well? And will that possibly come up during the Sunday National Security Council meeting? 

LT. GEN. CARTER: As you know, we put most of our early investment into 201 and 203 Corps, which are the corps in R.C. East area, and that’s where you’ll find brigades are at their most capable. 

In terms of the Parwan detention facility, the answer is that General Dunford is having ongoing discussions with the president, and it would have been raised at this morning’s meeting. I don’t expect it to be raised at the National Security Council meeting. It’s my expectation that General Dunford is making good progress in terms of his discussions with the president on all of this and that we will be working towards resolution to the problem during the course of the next week or so. 

Q: Luis Martinez, ABC News. General, fatality counts for coalition forces so far this year seem to be rather low. But when you look at the fatality numbers for — excuse me, Afghan forces, they seem to be in the several hundred range for the last couple of months. What explains the disparity? And are those numbers way too high for Afghan forces? What’s going on that they are suffering such fatality rates? 

LT. GEN. CARTER: Yeah, I mean, the — the obvious answer to the question is that this is what is going to happen as we transition to an Afghan security force lead. We’re going to step back, and increasingly they are going to shoulder much of the burden of combat operations and, therefore, they’re going to be at the forefront of combat and, therefore, in the face of the enemy. 

Now, in terms of their attrition and casualty rates, the answer is that we monitor these very closely. The Afghans are concerned by the level, as are we. We’re going to work very closely with them to try and manage the issue and to reduce the casualty rates. A lot of this is to do with ongoing training. It’s important, for example, that armored vehicles are used more than Ford Ranger trucks, because so much of the difficulty comes from the IED threat. 

That said, every day the Afghans improve their ability in counter-IED terms. They find now similar numbers of IEDs to those which we find, and their tactics and procedures improve on a daily basis. And, of course, we train more engineers on a daily basis to improve their counter-IED overall capability. 

There is at the moment no problem with recruiting people for the army and the police force. Indeed, the Kabul military training center is full of recruits. It’s not difficult for the Afghans to do it. 

The trick, of course, is trying to get to a steady state where we don’t have to fill the Kabul military training center at the rate that we’re doing at the moment, and these are issues that we work through with the Afghans. These are issues that we work in detail in the Ministry of Defense with. These are issues which Minister Bismillah Mohammadi is personally engaged in. He understands that the attrition rate is something that has to be managed by leadership at every level, particularly with him at the helm. And I think we’re confident that we are going to improve matters, subject to, of course, the way in which this fighting season evolves. 

Q: If I could follow up, sir, so does this portend that as coalition forces pull back, that as the fighting season ensues and continues on, that we may see even higher Afghan casualty rates, given what we’re seeing now? 

LT. GEN. CARTER: I mean, it’s impossible to predict this, of course, but the plain fact is, is that as the intensity of operations increases during the course of the summer, it would be logical to assume that casualty rates might well increase with it. 

I can’t predict that, but that is something that, of course, we are keeping a very weathered eye on, and it’s important that we make sure that we sustain this through the fighting season. 

A: Jon Harper, Asahi Shimbun. Hi, general. What would you estimate the size of the insurgency to be at this point? And how many insurgents have laid down their arms and gone through the formal reintegration process? 

LT. GEN. CARTER: I mean, on that latter point, plus of 5,000 have formally entered the reintegration process over the course of its — of the duration of the program. It’s very difficult to put a headcount on how large the insurgency is, not least because I think it’s always quite difficult to be clear about who the enemy always is. 

I mean, I always use the term insurgency, and I use that in a very precise term, because an insurgent is somebody who wishes to knock over the government. There are a lot of other people who may well be involved in criminality or furthering their own economic or political agendas who might not wish to upset the government and therefore be formally described as insurgents. 

So I think how you categorize who the enemy is, is very much determined by motivation. And I think it’s a point that, you know, we need to keep focusing on as we try and understand the political dynamics in Afghanistan as a whole. 

So I wouldn’t put numbers on it. Rather, what I would tend to do is to try and examine those areas where violence is high, and there are about 10 districts in Afghanistan where 40 percent of the violence often happens. I would tend to try and look at the capability that the insurgency is able to field in terms of threats to places like Kabul and to key cities like Kandahar and areas like Kunduz and up into Mazar. 

That’s a better way, I think, of looking at it, because it’s about the output rather than the input number in terms of the number of people. And, of course, as is always the case in the counterinsurgency, people will often simply fade away if you get the politics right. So the numbers, in a sense, are — I think are less relevant as opposed to the output and the capability that they’re able to generate. 

CMDR SPEAKS: Okay, sir. With that, we will turn it back over to you for any closing remarks. 

LT. GEN. CARTER: No, well, thank you very much for your interest this evening. Like everything in Afghanistan, it’s always a rollercoaster. It’s a pleasure to be back involved in the campaign. And I much look forward to engaging with you if you have the time in a few months’ time. So many thanks for everything, and a very good morning to you. 

CMDR SPEAKS: Thank you, sir. Good evening.