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MAJOR GENERAL KEVIN BERGNER TALKS WITH AUSTRALIAN MEDIA, FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2007

Multi-National Force-Iraq

Friday, 07 September 2007

MAJOR GENERAL KEVIN BERGNER TALKS WITH AUSTRALIAN MEDIA, FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2007

Q General first talking about differences in Baghdad. What differences have you noticed in the security situation in this city over recent months?

GEN. BERGNER: Well Tim first it's important to note that just in the last several weeks Iraqi and Coalition forces have mounted this surge of operations really an offensive effort to go after the terrorists network, not only in Baghdad but in the northern part, the belts surrounding Baghdad and to the south as well. What we have seen from that is over the last eleven weeks in eight of those we have seen a decline in the number of security incidents overall. We have seen about a 40 percent decline from June when this surge of operations began to the end of August, the most recent reporting period. So we have seen improvements just in the short-term as a result of the surge of offensive operations. And if you go back to December of 2006, when sectarian violence was partially challenging level and we have seen it come down by about 50 percent nationwide over that same period of time. I've seen some improvement.

Q Do you think that's enough for us to say the surge is a success?

GEN. BERGNER: I think it's enough to say that we're certainly on, we have the trends or the trajectory going in the right direction. And that's a significant accomplishment in and of itself. There is still a violent country. It's a lot less violent than it was in December of 2006. But I think the most noticeable issue here is the trends are starting to go in a positive direction.

Q What do you think about the surge strategy has worked in particular? What is it that really has made a difference from pre-surge days?

GEN. BERGNER: Well the offensive nature of our operations is putting a level of pressure on al-Qaeda networks and on the special groups, extremists networks as well. And that pressure is causing them to lose their balance. It's taking the initiative away from these terrorists and insurgent organizations. The second thing I would point to is the presence of our forces and more Iraqi forces in the neighborhoods working directly with the Iraqi people has significantly changed the level of confidence of the Iraqi people. More tips, more work with their security forces and ours, and that's a fundamental change in the whole security atmosphere. Much more confidence on their level to step forward and separate themselves from the enemy.

Q Because they know you're staying in the areas you're moving into?

GEN. BERGNER: Because we're there with them. We're living with them everyday. We're not commuting to the fight and because that relationship that evolves is one that is the basis of trust and their confidence.

Q One hundred and sixty-eight thousand (168,000) troops you talk about pressure on the insurgent groups, 168,000 troops puts pressure on Washington I would have thought. How long can you maintain your current troop levels? And I ask that particularly because some analyst have been suggesting beyond about April of next year this is simply not sustainable at its current level. Your comment?

GEN. BERGNER: Well we've said all along and we've known all along that the surge by its very nature is temporary. We know that it will run its course and so we are looking at the different courses of action and the risks associated with that to adjust our battlefield geometry in such a way that we can preserve the hard fought gains troops have achieved and at the same time give the results of the surge the best chance to have enduring results. And so we accept that and that's what we're focused on in terms of the key element of those transitions has to be preserving its hard fought gains.

Q Is that next April date a reasonable one to look at a point at which the US does have to significantly drawdown on the current level of troops?

GEN. BERGNER: Well the significance of next spring is that's when the first units that deployed here as part of the surge of forces will hit the 15 month mark. And so we know that that's a definitive point on the horizon that we have to look at. There are other important considerations between now and then that also have to be considered.

Q One of which presumably is the performance of the Iraqi government. You're obviously delighted with the performance of the security forces on the ground. How do you feel at the moment about Prime Minister Maliki and his charges and how they are getting on with the job?

GEN. BERGNER: Well the first thing I would point to is the Iraqi people and the Iraqi leaders that you mentioned want to see progress take place at a faster clip as well. I mean they would like this to go forward at a more accelerated rate. The issues they're wrestling with, Tim, are the foundational issues of any country. These are the basic elements that knit a society together. How it shares its wealth, how it distributes power from the central government to provincial governments, how it organizes itself and it's legislative agendas and so these are really difficult issues for a country to sort out. And so while we want to see progress go at a higher pace, we also understand the difficulty associated with these foundational issues.

Q But you're matching two different paces here that or two different demands. There is the rundown time for troops, how long you can sustain the surge and the pace of political reform. Is reform going too slow?

GEN. BERGNER: Well we would certainly like to see it go faster, absolutely.

Q That sounds like it's going too slowly.

GEN. BERGNER: You know, it's hard for me to impose that judgment on the political leaders of Iraq. We have our focus as the Multi-National force on our responsibilities to help improve the security situation here. And we know what the limitations are and we know how important the important political decisions are to sustain the results of the security improvements. And so we understand, we encourage, and we would very much like to see things happen at a faster pace.

Q Do they need to happen at a faster pace do you think?

GEN. BERGNER: Well that depends. You know, I would point out that one of the things that's not as visible to observers is what's happening at the local level even as the national level leaders struggle with these difficult issues we described. At the local level, as the security has improved, you have seen sheiks, government leaders, security force leaders, and local populations step forward and start reaching accommodations, accommodations to work together, to step away from al-Qaeda in certain provinces, and to start the basis for what could become a broader national reconciliation. So even as the difficult legislative issues are taken at the national level we see significant progress at the local levels in Anbar, in Diyala Province, in Nineveh Province, and south of here in Babil and other provinces.

Q If it is likely that troop numbers, US troop numbers will drawdown somewhat around April or May next year, if that's where we're heading, do you think that it's reasonable that other Coalition members should also perhaps drawdown their troop numbers at a similar rate to the Coalition leader?

GEN. BERGNER: Well I think the most important part of this discussion is not so much centered on a date certain in the future as much as it is conditions. And our Coalition partners have been very consistent and very committed to a conditions based approach to the changes in mission, the changes of force posture and that's a good model for the future as well. It really does need to be a conditions based approach that's driven largely by improvements in security, the necessary political progress that needs to be made, and the development of the Iraqi security forces and their ability to sustain these hard fought gains.

Q General just back on what you have said about the security and the politic sort of things what in your mind is the single biggest impediment to, as you've said it's moving too slowly. You'd like to see it move faster and so forth. Is the security the biggest issue or is the politics the biggest issue, the slowness in the reform of the politics or the slowness in getting the country secure?

GEN. BERGNER: They're both important. And you probably won't like this as a very fulfilling answer because I am not going to plant the flag on either one. They really are very much related and I will tell you that when you look at the government of Iraq and the progress it's able to make, they do a lot better when there aren't a lot of car bombs going off in Baghdad and indirect fire landing in the international zone. And so their capacity to work and sort these things out does improve as security improves. And so they are very much related.

Q If troop numbers are being drawdown by the US, from what you say, early next year that would be because the conditions allow for it to happen. In those circumstances, wouldn't you expect other Coalition partners to be doing the same?

GEN. BERGNER: I think it's goes back to the whole point that Iraq is very much a mosaic. If you go to Mosul and you look at the northern part of Iraq, it's different in terms of both its demographics and the security challenges and the level of progress and speed of that progress than it is in Anbar for example. And that's different yet again than southern Iraq and on down to Basrah which is different yet again. So there isn't a one size fits all or a universal approach. Each of our decisions has to be really taken in the context of the specific area that we're talking about. And each of those regions has a different pace and a different focus of security challenges.

Q They do and in Al-Muthanna or at least in DhiQar and Al-Muthanna Province forces in their over-watch role demand have not been called out once to perform any significant backup that we were told they would be doing when they went there. Or at least that that was their role. After a year of not being needed in any significant way once, do you think it's time that the Coalition looked at a more active role for the Aussie's?

GEN. BERGNER: Well I think that the MND southeast commander and the Coalition force commanders do look at exactly those kinds of questions all the time. They are continuously assessing the circumstances, the mission profile that is appropriate for those circumstances. I would also point out Tim that the stability that's been achieved there in some of those provinces is a result of that presence and it's a result of that partnership and the continued presence of an effective over-watch force. And so it's not insignificant that that level of stability has been achieved and it's more a function of the importance that the partnership has and the presence your forces has in maintaining that stability. Q Do you think the Aussie's have placed a big role in those provinces in terms of keeping them safe?

GEN. BERGNER: I think that their presence and the over-watch relationship that they have continues to be very important not only to the security situation but to the confidence of the Iraqi forces and knowing that they are they to work with them.

Q There is now a lot of talk about a change in role for the Australians, perhaps a greater emphasis on training if training opportunities arise. Our prime minister has even said in effect they are looking for training opportunities for the Australians to be more active. Do you think it's likely we'll see in the short-to-medium term new training opportunities emerge that would suit the Australian forces?

GEN. BERGNER: Well that is the normal progression. As the Iraqi forces become more capable and they become more involved in the direct security role, the Coalition will look for opportunities to focus our efforts more on the training aspect and the sustained institutional development that's necessary for both the forces and the sustaining base for the Iraqi security forces. So it's a logical progression.

Q And you would expect that that would happen in the south given the relative peace and stability there?

GEN. BERGNER: That is something that we have seen actually. We have seen an increasing focus on training in support of forces there. But there is still a lot challenge there. There is still a mixed security environment and so we've got to be mindful of the fact that progress in Iraq is not like flipping a light switch. It's uneven and progress comes even amidst setbacks. And so as you see the progress unfold, it's important to make sure the enduring changes are there before you fundamentally change the nature of our support.

Q General might it be too soon then perhaps to be pulling Australians off the training roles and letting the over-watch function go?

GEN. BERGNER: Well, I'd leave that to the MND southeast commander and the core commander to assess and as I said, it is something that they watch very closely. And it will be something that they will have to continue to assess over time.

Q How do you measure the involvement, how do you judge the involvement of Iran at the moment to be in terms of fueling the insurgency? Do you think Iran has backed off in terms of its role or perhaps is increasing its role?

GEN. BERGNER: Well they've certainly made commitments as other neighbors have to work with the government of Iraq to improve the security situation here. We have not seen tangible proof that they are fulfilling those commitments to the government of Iraq. And I emphasize that those commitments were to the government of Iraq to help improve the security situation. We have seen the flow of Iranian weapons. We have seen funding. We have seen training activities taking place in Iran that were designed to improve extremists skills and then send them back into Iraq. And that has had a very negative effect on the security situation here.

Q And that's been ongoing, perhaps getting worse? How would you characterize it over recent months?

GEN. BERGNER: Our sense is that that has intensified since the beginning of this year. And when we detained the former commander of the special groups, as they're referred to, Kais Kazali in March of this year, one of the things we have learned from him is that without the Iranian support these special groups would have very little capability to do what they are now involved in. We also detained a Lebanese Hizballah operative who was being used as a surrogate for Iranian Quds force officers here in Iraq. And he has said the same thing that their presence and the flow of support from Iran is uniquely enabling these special groups to take the indirect fire, explosively formed penetrators and other support that's so necessary to them.

Q So the surge is working in spite of Iran not because of it?

GEN. BERGNER: It is working in spite of unhelpful influences. It absolutely is.

Q General we're heading into a federal election and I know you might not look to buy directly into that. The issue with Iraq is very much an issue in that federal election. What would you say to Australians tempted to vote for a party that supports a fixed withdrawal date of combat troops from Iraq cause that runs pretty counter to the argument you were making earlier doesn't it?

GEN. BERGNER: Well I think the first thing I'd say is I have great respect for the Australians and your country and the support and the sacrifice that has been committed from your country in support of operations here. And I would not even begin to suggest how someone should consider the issues here. That's a personal and a national decision by all of your countrymen and I won't disrespect that.

Q How important are the Australians to the reconstruction? I mean we don't have that many numbers but how important is it that we still there?

GEN. BERGNER: I'm sorry Susan. Are we still taping or. . . Yep.

GEN. BERGNER: Do you still want to keep taping?Yeah. GEN. BERGNER: Okay. I just wasn't sure if what she was saying was going to be picked up on your microphone sufficiently.

We're on a clip-on with the cell phone.

GEN. BERGNER: Okay, all right. Good. Go ahead.

Q Okay. So how important are the Australians to the reconstruction effort?

GEN. BERGNER: Um, what the Australians are doing as part of Multi-National Division Southeast is very important. And as we've talked about the breadth of your support is inclusive of both over-watch forces. It's inclusive of embedded staff that actually I enjoy the benefit of in my own organization here. And it's also a function of the partnership and the training activities that are underway with the Iraqi forces. And so, it's a broad level of support actually that Australia is contributing. And I would say it even extends obviously to the air forces and naval forces that are part of this effort.

Q Hum. It is interesting we have such cultural differences in lots of ways, the Americans and the Australians, but while they have different training methods in lots of ways, they seem to be getting on extremely well.

GEN. BERGNER: We have a great collaboration and you'll see Australian operations officers as the deputy operations officer for the entire Multi-National force. You'll see your public affairs experts who are part of my [inaudible] organization here. You'll see planners. You'll see training teams and I think there is enormous respect on the part of certainly the American military for the technical competence and the commitment that all of them bring to this effort.

Q I think the Australians while they try to encourage more women into the forces too and obviously to bring more women over here because we only have maybe thirteen percent women in our forces. We're trying to retain them because after a certain age a lot of them leave to go and have families. You've obviously faced and dealt with those kinds of problems in the American military as well. Do you see women as having a really constant contribution to make in these kind of situations?

GEN. BERGNER: Absolutely. No they absolutely do. And it covers a variety of roles as well. We have them as part of our staff within the strategic effects as I mentioned. I had women serving as platoon leaders in Mosul during my experience here in 2005. We were in the same kinds of challenging environments as any other soldier, in combat situations. They're serving important roles in helping train Iraqi forces. And so, they are engaged and important in every facet of our operations here.

Q I guess especially in the middle east they may have a role to play because you know culturally it can be very different here so.. . .

GEN. BERGNER: It is different and so their presence and the way that they are perceived by the host country does open eyes and it has to be done though, it has to be understood though in a sense that this is a - it's not just an experience but it's also a, we're sensitive to the cultural implications with that. But it is important to our operations for sure.

Q General just back on given the political environment situation with based in both countries where the public opinion is basically turning against the Iraqi situation involvement of both countries on the public side of things. How do you feel from a military point of view that that sort [inaudible] knowing that that's the feeling at home?

GEN. BERGNER: Well I think first of all you have to accept the fact that all of our countries give sacrifice in an enormous amount. We should also note though that the people of Iraq have and continue to sacrifice a great deal as well. As an American soldier, I have never questioned for a moment whether or not the American people supported us and supported our forces here. They do. And despite the intense political fate that's underway that has to be understood separate from the commitment that we all feel as American soldiers. You can't walk through an airport in my country in this uniform without people coming up to you and saying "thank you for your service". And I don't know how many boxes we get per week from anonymous people sending things because they want to do something for the deployed forces. And so even in a very contentious political environment I think all of us feel very, very well supported by our country.

Q Does it require anything now to keep morale of troops up and so forth when they hear what the situation is at home? Do they feel any of it at all or do they - or does it just simply become [inaudible]?

GEN. BERGNER: I was driving around Yusufiyah the other day and the Kargoli(sp) tribal area with a couple of soldiers from the 2nd Brigade in the 10th Mountain Division and the young man driving was on his second tour here like me and his gunner was on his first tour, and they were just absolutely inspiring in terms of their confidence and in terms of their sense of accomplishment. That's what struck me the most. I asked them, they have been here since November on this tour. And I asked them what's your overall impression? And he said, "Hey sir we couldn't drive down this road in January of this year. We would have to fight our way down this road. Now I'm not only driving down this road but there are concerned citizens manning checkpoints at about every half a mile on this road." And so their sense of accomplishment in what they have seen changed during their tour here is I think what they would probably point to the most. Now having said that, this is a tough fight. This is a violent country that still has a lot of reconciliation to achieve. But our soldiers, I think universally, will point to some pride in the progress that they're achieving. And that's what you hear most as least from when I go out and go on patrols with these guys.

Q Do you think that the length of tours are an issue specifically from your point of view, like the Australians do a six month rotation generally and your fifteen months?

GEN. BERGNER: Sure.

Q Is it a hard slog?

GEN. BERGNER: It's a hard slog. It's a hard slog for a soldier. It's a hard slog for a Sargent and it's gonna be a hard slog for a general. So yeah it is difficult. It's a burden that our troops bear and our country owes them an enormous debt of gratitude because in many cases, as I've said, this is their second and in some cases third tour. And it's a difficult challenge for their families to sustain that as well. So . . .

Q Given that, with the family situation and so forth, do you find it difficult that the Australian soldiers and so forth might be pretty much, 99.9 percent professional soldiers fully enlisted and so forth. Actually there is a fair few um on the national gallop talk shows and so forth called up to come and do tours here. Do that it make it difficult to explain that to the families when they're not what you would call professional soldiers who are who aren't regular line and so forth? Do that make a difference to the perception at home do you think?

GEN. BERGNER: I'm not sure I follow you. In terms of . . . .

Q What we, like our soldiers, I have. . .

GEN. BERGNER: Well your troopers are all regular army.

Q All regular army and so forth that sort of thing whereas some of yours are, I had a chat with a few of yours soldiers that are like what we would call our reservist that sort of thing. Does that make it difficult to explain when some of those people are being killed over here and so forth?

GEN. BERGNER: I think what our national guard troopers experience is certainly the same level of sacrifice, the same level of family commitment. The particular difficulty they have is many of them are civilians in another capacity. And so we place a burden on them professionally that is more acute than the regular army soldier deals with. And we also depend a great deal on their employers in the United States to stay with them and support them. So and that my own sense is that's something that our employers in the United States deserve a great deal of credit for. Because they have supported our national guard troopers even in these multiple deployments. They have protected their jobs and they have made sure they have a place to come back to. And that's matters an enormous amount as you would expect.

Q In the overall long-term scheme of things, what do you see as endpoint? Forget timeframe and so forth. What do you see as an endpoint for Iraq as far as presence of Coalition forces what's endpoint?

GEN. BERGNER: Well the most important thing here is to help the Iraqi government and their security forces get to a point where they can sustain security on their own over time. And so it's a result, that will be a result of institution building. It will be a result of professionalization of their security forces both police and army. It will be a result of the political progress that's going to be necessary for the Iraqi government to accomplish the important legislative issues it has to undertake. And so, and it will be a result of their re-engineering of the economy because as you know this is an economy that was command directed, it was one that was not very competitive. And so they're going through all of those transitions simultaneously political, economic and security. As they get through those, it will create the conditions where they are able to take care of their own security challenges increasingly on their own.

Q That's, realistically that's not feasible in a matter of months. We're talking still, we're still in a long-term commitment still.

GEN. BERGNER: That's a long-term evolution for this country or any country coming out of the circumstances that it has been in sure.

Q And respected military analyst, Tony Cortisman, suggested in a report last month I think he said we would be a decade or thereabouts before he thought Iraq could survive without a US troop involvement. And I know you're going to be shy about putting a definite number of years on it general but he is in the ballpark? Is that the kind of expectation we as Coalition members ought to be putting to our people that they may need to still themselves for, something like a decade commitment here?

GEN. BERGNER: Well what's not very clear in that kind of a projection is what's the balance in terms of the kinds of support we provide over that period of time. Depending on the political progress and depending on the tangible improvements in the lives of Iraqis, the economic development might provide and job expansion, job development programs that could change the level of security challenge that the Iraqi people have to have help with. And so within that kind of long-term commitment I think the assumption is our mission, our profile, those things will certainly evolve within that time. And it's difficult to say how much until you get further down the road.

Q So it could shift to an infrastructure rebuild type role, that sort of thing with engineering support, blah, blah, blah along those lines stuff?

GEN. BERGNER: Well and continued training, continued security assistance to Iraqi forces, continued over-watch in some cases. And it will be different, as I said before, based on each of the different areas of Iraq. It is- you'll see as you visit different parts here. It's very much a mosaic where there is no one size fits all solution.

Q Not withstanding all of that, could you expect us to come back in a decade and see some troops on the ground here from the US, Australia and other Coalition members?

GEN. BERGNER: I think that those are questions that are still very much up to the government of Iraq as well, is what kind of future relationship they intend to have down the road and so I think the important part on all of our - for all of us as Coalition countries is we want to continue to be good partners to them and to support the progress. But there are some important discussions that have to take place still. And those I would not presume to speak on before the government of Iraq does.

TIM: You've been generous with your time general. Thank you very much.

GEN. BERGNER: Well it's a pleasure to talk with you guys. Thank you. I hope it's a very interesting visit for you.

Q What's the latest on the date for the delivery of General Petraeus' report to congress by the way? Is it September 10th?

GEN. BERGNER: It will be next week.

Q Do you know which day?

GEN. BERGNER: I think it begins on Monday.

Right, right. Okay. Thank you very much.

GEN. BERGNER: My pleasure.

END.



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