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U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
News Transcript

Presenter: Commander, Regional Command Southwest Maj. Gen. John Toolan Jr., and Michael O’Neill, Head of the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team and UK Senior Civilian Representative in Southern Afghanistan October 06, 2011

DOD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Toolan and Michael O’Neill via Teleconference from Afghanistan

CAPT JOHN KIRBY (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Media Operations): Well, good morning here in Washington and good evening in Afghanistan. I'd like to welcome back to our briefing room Marine Corps Major General John Toolan Jr., commanding general of Regional Command Southwest. General Toolan assumed responsibility for RC Southwest on March 26th of this year. He commands a multinational coalition of 30,000 service members drawn from the United States, United Kingdom, Estonia, Denmark, Georgia, Bahrain and Tonga. In partnership with the Afghan National Army's 215th Corps, his troops operate in the provinces of Helmand and Nimroz.

The general last briefed us in June of this year, and he joins us again from his headquarters at Camp Leatherneck. He will be joined today by Mr. Michael O'Neill, Britain's senior representative in southern Afghanistan. He is also head of the Civil- Military Mission and Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand.

Mr. O'Neill assumed his position in October of last year, and he leads a multinational team of specialists with expertise in development, diplomacy, policing, law, local government, education, agriculture and many other fields. The U.K.-led multinational PRT works with Regional Command Southwest to assist the local Afghan government to deliver governance and security across the province. Mr. O'Neill last briefed us in January of this year.

After some opening comments, then we'll be glad to take your questions. And with that, General, sir, I'll turn it over to you for anything you want to open up with.

GEN. TOOLAN: Well, that's great. Well, good morning to everyone back there in Washington. At this stage, we've now been -- I've now been in command for about seven months. And I've watched the progress move along pretty well, and I'm pretty content with what I'm seeing.

But I thought what I would do tonight is -- or -- is just tell you a little bit about my day today. I think it'll be a good story and will give you enough background information on what's going on here to maybe ask some good questions and get a feel for what's happening in Afghanistan.

I just returned, really, just in a couple hours ago from a -- what we call a reintegration shura. As you know, the shuras are opportunities where the elders get together in their villages and they discuss items. We use the same term basically to mean a conference where we've brought together, in this case today in Helmand province, all the district governors as well as all the Afghan National Security Force leadership, so the army, the police, the national defense -- NDS representatives.

And this shura was run by the governor, the governor of Helmand province, whose name is Gulab Mangal, and he's been a governor now for about three years.

What I thought was interesting about today was the fact that reintegration is a concept and a practice that -- really it goes back to other case studies in counterinsurgency where we try to bring the -- those individuals who have actually turned against the government -- to bring them back into the government. And you know, it becomes a very powerful tool when it's used properly and when it actually brings back legitimate insurgents back into the fold.

So this reintegration shura was run by the governor, and reintegration in itself is a government process. So the effort today was to convince all the district governors and the leadership across the security spectrum that we needed to put a very concerted effort on convincing those insurgents, now Taliban, who have gone against the government we want to bring them back into the fold, we want to offer them basically impunity [sic; immunity] in -- from any prosecution or anything later on.

So this conference was run, and the speakers today were the governor, and then there were all the security leaders across the spectrum, army, police. And then when they brought in the mullahs from the Helmand province -- very powerful speeches from the mullahs about what exactly should be expected of good Muslims and really trying to give a powerful talk to the district governors so that they can use their mullahs to spread that word out to their communities.

So as the day went by, I think, you know, the point got across that reintegration here in Afghanistan and particularly in Helmand province was going to get a renewed effort. Now the reason why I bring that up is because reintegration in and of itself, without any pressures, is not going to work. Reintegration without having concerted pressure on the Taliban that they now realize this is not going well for them anymore; that the way the situation is developing in Helmand province, for example, these Taliban are realizing that they probably need to come back and join the Afghan government, because they see positive results.

What was interesting about my day today is that after the conference I had a meeting with the Taliban commander out of Sangin province. And this individual came to me on his own volition, knowing that this reintegration offer was now being pushed very heavily by myself and my colleagues here in Helmand province. And he offered to reintegrate. He also offered to lend, to give over right now -- starting with 30 fighters and onwards of up to 300 within a month's time -- to the Afghan local police, which is an initiative where we bring the local elders come in and they swear that their sons, nephews or whatever will be good stewards of the community's law and order, and that they will help protect the community.

So this Taliban commander offered in a few days 30 fighters, with the promise of up to 300 by the end of the month. Now he did this because he understands that at this stage in Helmand province, he sees the writing on the wall. He understands that we're making progress. He understands, for example, that in Sangin today, there is very, very little violence. And when you compare it with six months, five months, a year ago, he realizes that now is the time. And that actually has become sort of the motto, is that now's the time, Taliban, to come back and join the government.

He also realizes and he knows that currently here in Helmand province, at RC Southwest, we're in the process of putting on some major offensive operations to assume control of the Kajaki region and to begin what we hope will be a long-term effort for re-establishing the dam and the power projects and irrigation projects that are needed at the dam.

So I think this is -- it's -- the reason why I bring this story up is because it's just indicative of the fact that what you really need in a counterinsurgency is, you need relentless pressure on the enemy. You know, you can't be standing by. You can't be sitting by. You've got to be constantly putting pressure on him. And that comes easy to us, particularly to the Marines out here in RC Southwest. We don't have a problem keeping the pressure on.

And they feel it. And they know that the Taliban leadership that's sponsored out of Quetta -- number one, the Taliban senior leadership is not coming to Helmand province, because when they do, they get captured or killed.

And that sends a powerful message to the mid-level managers, the mid-level Taliban, who are operating in Helmand province. So their leadership's not there.

There's also significant problems for the Taliban currently with the shortage of materials. We're constantly interdicting materials for IED making. We've captured hundreds of thousands of gallons of precursor chemicals that they're using to convert opium to heroin. We're just -- we're taking -- we're hurting them in the pocketbook, and we're hurting them physically when they try to move into Helmand province.

We're very aggressive in getting that message across that there is many splits in the Taliban hierarchy. There's arguments going on, et cetera. What that does is, it's really created an environment, again, where the Taliban leaders that are here living in the province are saying: It's time for me to go home.

When I asked a Taliban commander (this last afternoon ?), I asked him, I said: Why are you changing your mind? What's the reason? Why are you willing to give up your Taliban ways? And he told me, he said: You know, I never really wanted to be a Taliban, but I was forced into being a Taliban by the abusive nature in which I was treated during the years when Afghanistan was run by a very authoritarian government. He explained to me -- he told me of times when he was beaten. He gave me names of people -- Daoud Mohammed Khan, for example -- and there are others who forced them to become Taliban, because he said: I'm not going to take that kind of treatment; and if the Taliban are going to offer me an opportunity to join them so that I can get rid of this government, I'm going to do that.

And when you understand that environment and you understand that many of the Taliban that we're fighting or have been fighting are local -- they're now turning their backs against the outsiders, the Taliban that are coming in from Quetta and other places. They're turning their backs on them. They're ready to fight them off, and they're ready to re-engage with the government of Afghanistan.

So this reintegration effort is extremely important. And as it progresses, we'll find that it'll just -- it'll -- the momentum will just take off.

I think with that story that I just shared with you, I will turn it over to Mr. O'Neill so he can explain a little bit more about what we're doing on the governance and development side. And then we'll answer any questions you might have. Thank you.

MICHAEL O'NEILL: Well, good morning to everybody there. And I'm very glad to join General Toolan here in briefing you today.

Let me just say that the PRT, as the opening speaker said, is a multinational effort -- civilians, military officers, police from several countries, including the U.S., U.K., Denmark and others -- and we work as part of a combined team with RC Southwest and General Toolan, and with the U.S. Embassy regional platform and Paul Reid from the State Department.

The reason it has to be a combined team is because all the work we do is closely integrated in security and governance and development. And across all those lines of operation, what we're all working here to do is help the Afghan authorities get into a position where they can run their own affairs, in governance, but in security and in economic development.

So that's really the task we're working to. And we need to do that so the Afghan government can win back the confidence of people like the former Taliban fighters that John Toolan was describing. They need to win the confidence of ordinary people to put their trust in the government and not drift towards the insurgency.

Now, in the 12 months that I've been here in Helmand, I think we've seen real progress on all of those areas. I'll leave it to John to talk about security, but as a result of the improvements in security and freedom of movement that ISAF has achieved -- U.S. Marines, British and other troops, with their Afghan partners -- we've been able to see governance and development spread steadily across this province.

I'll just give you a couple of examples of that. You now have effective functioning bodies at the provincial level, a strong governor in Gulab Mangal, an elected provincial council of 15 members that includes four women. You have elected councils in seven of the districts, an interim council even in Sangin up in the north. You've also got 32 of the national line ministries now present in Helmand province in areas like health, education, agriculture, the other areas of business; got more judges and prosecutors and courthouses functioning, not only in Lashkar Gah, but in other districts.

I'll give you a second example: education and vocational training, big areas for us. There are now more than double the number of schools that there were here in 2006. It's gone up from 47 to about 113. A huge increase in the numbers of kids in school, including girls. There were no girls in school at all here 10 years ago. There are now over 20,000.

Vocational training -- we've got a big program that we're funding through an NGO called Mercy Corps. I went along two weeks ago to a graduation for a thousand young people -- completed a three-month training. Thirty-five percent of those young people already had new jobs to go to.

And that vocational training is being expanded. It's opened up this week in Gereshk, which is the main economic hub here. It's going to open in the next few weeks in Marjah, in Garmsir, in other parts of Helmand.

So there's been a lot of progress. A third example I'll give you: counternarcotics. It's been a big focus for Governor Mangal. He is very much leading that effort. We work to support that in very close liaison with RC-Southwest, and we've seen over the last three years in Helmand probably a 40 percent reduction in poppy production, which is important because Helmand is the single biggest source of the poppy that produces heroin in the U.S. and Europe and in this country. So a 40 percent reduction is a huge step forward. We're continuing that effort this year, and the program is going well. We've also seen, and we've been able to help mentor, a much more effective Afghan counternarcotics police. And they've had multiple increases in seizures of heroin, of opium and in arrests of drug traffickers.

So there's been a lot of progress. Probably the single most important evidence of that was the beginning of transition for Lashkar Gah here in July of this year, with the Afghans now formally taking control, running their own affairs. And that was a great step forward and a great symbol of progress.

So for us in the PRT and, I think, all of us as coalition partners, we're looking out over the next three years to a new phase, which is about transition, putting the Afghans in the lead and helping them take control. So our task really now in the last two or three years that we're here is to make the progress that's been achieved more durable, to make it lasting and help the Afghans take that forward. And that will include, in governance, helping them make their own systems of government stronger, with better connections between Kabul and the province, between Lashkar Gah and the districts.

I think secondly it means more investment in economic infrastructure. There's a lot of work going on by the U.S. Marines, the PRT, USAID in roads, irrigation, power, all the things that are necessary for the economy to function, which takes me to the third bit, which is about getting the private sector moving because people here want security, obviously.

They want health care and schools. Those things look much better now. But just like any other country in the world, they want jobs. And that isn't going to come from us or from the government of Afghanistan. I'll come from the private sector.

So those are some of the challenges as we look forward. There's still a lot of work to do. We need to maintain that effort as we begin to draw down. But putting the Afghans in the lead is working in security, in governance, in development. And that's what we need to consolidate.

GEN. TOOLAN: If I could just add two points that I failed to mention, and that is, one, the reintegration program is all about creating opportunities for the returning insurgent. When an individual reintegrates, they're offered opportunities -- first of all, they're offered some cash in the first couple of months for pay -- pay for work. But additionally, they're offered the opportunity, as Michael just described -- is going to some vocational training and getting a skill. It's critically important that as they come back in society, that we make them a worthy citizen that can produce and provide something to the community. So that's an important aspect, and I think that gives them hope.

The other thing I wanted to mention in regards to this shura today is -- and a positive change is the fact that, as I discussed that authoritarian government earlier and the abuse, the abusive way that some of the citizens of Helmand province or Afghanistan were treated in the early days, that the police force, which is really the bridge between the country, the organization, the state itself and the people.

And when the police during that authoritarian period were extremely corrupt and extremely abusive, and it turned the people against them.

What we're seeing today is, we're seeing a police force that's much improved. The police chief spoke today at the conference. And what was interesting in his comments, and something I took away from it, was the fact that he said: You know, this is the first time in a long time that I even have a uniform that I could wear and a uniform that I could be proud of wearing. He said in the days -- in the early days as a policeman, they didn't have uniforms, they didn't have equipment. It was a total mess.

And he reiterated the fact that, thanks to the organization and the structure that's been provided by NTM-A and other organizations and by the regional commands themselves, they now have a sense of pride, they have a sense of mission, and they're not predatory in their corruption. And the people are starting to trust them.

So all of these things are contributing to this positive trend of reintegration and getting back -- coming out of the cold, and joining back with their friends and families in Afghanistan. So I just wanted to add that.

I think we're finished with our statements, and we're open to questions.

CAPT KIRBY: Thank you both, gentlemen, very much. I'll go ahead and make -- I'll call on the reporters here in the room, and they'll identify who they are and what's their question.


Q: General, it's Mike Evans, from the London Times. Can I just check with you, did you say it was the commander in Sangin, or a commander in Sangin? In other words, is he the guy in charge of that whole area? And are you able to give us his name, or is that too sensitive at this stage?

GEN. TOOLAN: I don't want to give you his name right now, but I think in probably 30 days time, I'll be able to give you the name.

I will tell you that there are several Taliban commanders, but the ones that are most important, the ones that will do the reintegration, the ones that have the influence in the community, the ones that can convince the local people to mobilize and support the government, are the Taliban commanders who are homegrown. There are Taliban commanders that are from outside the area, and they're resented. And in my discussion with the Taliban commander today -- you know, to be quite frank, he offered -- he offered to kill him, the outsider, the one that's sort of the connection between the senior leadership in Quetta and the insurgents that come from the Sangin area. So there are differences. But the one that I'm talking about is an insurgent who is from the area of Sangin, has a lot of influence. And he's the one that's going to make the difference.


Q: General, Otto Kreisher, with Sea Power Magazine. You said you were going to start a significant offensive operation. But aren't you facing some reduction in your -- in your forces, both the U.S. and coalition, in the near future?

GEN. TOOLAN: Well, right now, I am at maximum capacity. I have all of my forces, and I'm making maximum use of all of the assets that I have. We're in the process right now of making some major offensive pushes in a variety of different directions, specifically because we know we -- as I said earlier, we've figured out that you need to tip the scales by being relentless in the pursuit of the Taliban. And that's what we're doing right now.

Yes, there are going to be some drawdowns. There will be a drawdown over the next 12 months. But right now it has -- besides the planning, it has no effect on our operations.


Q: Hi, General. It's Courtney Kube from NBC News. If we can go back to the Taliban commander who you spoke to today in -- from Sangin, first off, how common is it that someone like this would come to you? I was always sort of under the impression that these guys would go to an Afghan and that it was more of an Afghan-led -- the reintegration. But how common is that?

And then also, I mean, when he offered to kill this other guy, this other intermediary, what did you say? The U.S. and the -- the ISAF is trying to capture or kill, presumably, this individual, so what was your response?

GEN. TOOLAN: Great questions. On the first question, I failed to mention this -- and this is very important -- that it -- and actually I was with the governor. The governor of Helmand and I went to go see this Taliban commander. And I really turned the conversation completely over to the governor. I was really just a listener. And the governor was the one who discussed with the Taliban commander, you know, how they would contribute the personnel to join the ALP and what was meant by the ALP providing some financial support to the -- to the -- to the individuals that join the ALP. He did all that discussion.

I just listened, and then the governor looked at me, and I said yes, I'm more than willing to work with this Taliban commander, because we do the mentoring on the Afghan Local Police.

We're the ones that work with them, put them through the training, et cetera. So the governor is what -- did take the lead, and the Afghans are the ones that -- this is an Afghan program, reintegration. We are just -- we are helping. We are helping, supporting it financially, and we are helping support it from a training perspective.

Your second question -- and you'll have to remind me.

Q: How did you respond -- (off mic).

GEN. TOOLAN: Oh. Again, when he -- when he made that statement, he was actually talking to the governor. And the governor told him that his efforts -- whatever efforts he contributed would be just fine. The Taliban -- the Taliban leader that he was referring to is living in and around the Sangin area. And we realize that as soon as reintegration is made public, this individual will become a target. And so the governor realizes that's probably in everybody's best interest that this individual goes away. And so we're not giving up on our targeting of that particular individual. And now, of course, he's going to have to run scared because he's going to have the locals looking for him as well.

Q: Just one more follow-up, General Toolan. How would -- how do you vet someone like this before you bring him and any of these fighters in? You know, we saw President Rabbani was assassinated by someone who was allegedly coming in to reconcile. How do you vet them to make sure that they're not infiltrating?

GEN. TOOLAN: Well, as you probably know, I mean, this business that we're in is all about risk and managing risk and mitigating risk.

And so there's risk. There's risk associated with bringing anybody in from the Taliban and bringing them into society and then trying to reintegrate them and give them jobs and make them responsible people. So there's risks associated.

That's probably why it's a good reason that this is an Afghan program, because I think in many ways that Governor Mangal, in his conversation -- his conversation with me after the fact, we talked about the level of sincerity. And this individual, particular individual was known to the governor before. So there is a certain feel.

There are other ways of making sure that their past record is -- is at least documented. We have a system -- I'm sure many of you heard of the BAT and HIIDE system, where we take their fingerprints, we take their retinal scan, and then we have a database. It's not like our FBI records and files, but it's getting pretty good. And it gives us some insights as to what that person has done in the past and what can be attributed to that person. But that's really the extent.

The reality is, also, too, that the people that reintegrate, there is a very detailed process that the governor will begin in Helmand province, but it actually -- that whole package takes about three months for it to come back down through the system and be finally approved.

It actually goes through some processes with what we call the joint secretariat, which is a group of elders from the province, and then there's the High Peace Council up in Kabul that goes through the government process, and then comes back down. So it gets a pretty good vetting, but you can't eliminate all risk.

Q: Jim Michaels, USA Today. General, how many people in Helmand have been reintegrated so far? And how many are in the pipeline? And do you anticipate this program as increasing dramatically in coming months?

GEN. TOOLAN: Unfortunately, in Helmand province, we have not had very many reintegrates. And the process, as I mentioned earlier, is that, you know, we've got to keep the pressure on. And in the past six months, we've been able to maintain a pretty good security bubble in the populated centers, and we're making this concerted effort to really close the last bastion of insurgent activity in Helmand province up there in Kajaki -- so with all that pressure going on, on top of the fact that really our commander, General Allen, about two months ago made reintegration a major effort. And he stressed that the time was now, that we need to push the reintegration effort. So in Helmand province, we don't have too many.

Today was really, in my mind, a very -- a big success story. We've got -- we've brought all the local government figures in.

We've got the governor firmly behind the program, the security leadership, and we've got a Taliban commander who is willing to come in from the cold.

MR. O'NEILL: Can I add one thing? If I may, I'm just going to add one thing to what General Toolan has said. The process of formal reintegration in Helmand has been slow, for the reason that John described; the process still quite slow. We hope it's going to move forward after today's event. But I think if you were to talk to Governor Mangal, he would also talk to you about what he describes as informal reintegration, or quiet reintegration, which is where fighters decide to stop fighting, and they don't necessarily come in through some formal program, but they stop fighting, which achieves the same effect.

And so Governor Mangal has spent a lot of time -- and I think increasingly General Toolan, with me and other colleagues, Paul Reid, spending a lot of time engaged in political dialogue with community leaders, tribal leaders from northern Helmand, places like the Upper Sangin Valley, the Upper Gereshk Valley, Kajaki; and with the key tribes up there, who've often been alienated, like the Alizai, the Ishaqzai. And the purpose of Governor Mangal in that effort, which we're supporting, is really to try and push forward local peace deals, local agreements, which mean that people stop fighting. And some of those young people who stop fighting might join the Afghan Local Police, and there's a pretty good vetting system for that, which is under the control of district authorities, police chiefs.

So the formal process is still too slow and needs to move forward. But there has been progress in that informal track, and we want to continue on that, as well.

Q: Richard Sisk, The War Report Online. The Taliban leader that you met with today, was he promised immunity for what he may or may not have done in the past? And the 30 or 300 that he promised to bring in, would they also be given immunity? And were there any offers of money to any or all of these individuals?

GEN. TOOLAN: The process of reintegration, when they -- when they formally are vetted through the process, it takes a couple of months. When that finally comes back, during that interim while they're waiting, they do receive a small amount of money -- I believe it's $100 a month -- which basically allows them the opportunity -- and during that same time frame, we offer vocational training. We're trying to get them to find a job, find employment, become a productive member of society. So that's how that particular case is handled.

As far as the fighters, the initial 30 fighters that are going to come and join the Afghan Local Police, I mean, they actually will get a job right away. And they'll get training and work for the Afghan Local Police.

Q: It's Justin from Fox with two bigger-picture questions. Every six months or so, you hear about this trend that the Taliban has resurged and gained strength in the north, and we're hearing that particularly because of your efforts in the south to crack down. Is that happening now? And how do you stop that? And I do have a second question.

GEN. TOOLAN: Well, I think as far as the Taliban effort, what we're finding, I think, in Afghanistan right now is that in the south the Taliban are pretty much being kept under close wraps. They're not able to expand. And as I mentioned earlier, they're having internal problems that are creating dysfunction among the Taliban.

There are increased efforts -- I'm sure you've read about the Haqqani Network and some of the activities that are being conducted on the east -- on the -- our Regional Command East area and into Kabul. There appears to be increased effort in that area, but generally speaking, I think what you'll find is that as the effort in the south has done a pretty good job of maintaining -- of squashing the Taliban, it's having an impact on the rest of the country.

Yes, it's pushed some Taliban out to some of the periphery -- peripheral areas. But they're so spread out that it's not having the kind of impact that it had, for example, here in the south a couple of years ago.

Q: And to follow up, I'd love for you to expand -- and you may have talked about it a little bit already, but if you want to expand on the internal problems that the Taliban is having, I'd like to hear more about that.

And then, finally, as you probably know, tomorrow is 10 years since the invasion of Afghanistan. Just, you know, where have we made the most progress? And where do we have the most progress to make?

GEN. TOOLAN: The fissures that I discussed in regards to the Taliban is really a direct result of a couple of things.

As Mr. O'Neill brought up earlier, you know, we've had a counternarcotic effort. That has really been very effective at taking away the drug labs and some of the large stores of drugs. But really what it's done is it's taken money out of the Taliban's purse.

And so therefore, they haven't been able to buy the materials that they need to supply to the Taliban in the area. So the IEDs, for example, which are the most prevalent -- is the most prevalent tactic of the -- of the Taliban -- they really no longer can face us mano y mano [sic; mano a mano, hand to hand].

So that effort has really hurt them in the purse, hurt them in the pocketbook, and so what it's done is it's taken the Taliban, who are operating in these areas in Afghanistan, who are not getting supplies -- they're not getting guidance from the senior leadership who won't leave Quetta because when they leave Quetta, they get themselves either captured or killed. So it's just gotten inside their decision cycle, and it's really made the Taliban -- local Taliban think twice about whether or not it's better to join the government of Afghanistan, which looks like it's on an upward trend. It's got decent cops, it's got a decent army, and it's got projects, potential for jobs if they reintegrate, et cetera.

As far as the second question is concerned, we really celebrated the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and we were out here in Afghanistan. I think that to us was a far more significant date than 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan because, really, when you look at the 10 years, you're looking at different levels of forces, different levels of attention given to Afghanistan.

If you really look at the problem and you look at the effort that's been put into Afghanistan, when we surged about a year and a half ago, it changed everything. And I think that change is going to be lasting.

And I'll turn it over to Michael, if you've got any --

MR. O'NEILL: Yeah, well, I agree. I think the progress that I've seen in the 12 months I've been here, but which started before that, was hugely pushed forward by the U.S. military surge, the better troop numbers there now are, but also the better capacity to train Afghan forces.

You have a lot more Afghan army, police. They're better trained. All those things have come about as a result of the surge, and they've made other progress possible. And I think you can measure that progress in lots of ways in Helmand. The key challenge now is not so much, has there been progress, but, how do we all make sure that is lasting?

And I would say, as my closing comments, the tone for all of us now -- and this is going to increase over the next couple of years -- is about putting the Afghans in the lead. And that's happening. You know, it's happening in governance. They're making their own plans; they're approving their own projects.

On reintegration, which General Toolan was describing earlier, you know, the key decisions around all of that are made by the Afghans. You see security in Lashkar Gah provided by the Afghans. So putting them in front is the key task.

And the other thing, in my view, what's more important than what we think about progress, you know, in Washington or in London, is what the Afghans think. And, you know, we just got the latest set of data from polling that we do every three months, several thousand people in Helmand. And what that showed -- we got this last week -- is most people in Helmand think security has got better in their area, they've got more confidence in the Afghan army and police. And in the end, that's the key test, really. That matters more than what they think about us. They've got more confidence in their own army and police, and they've got more confidence in their own government at local and provincial level. So, really, consolidating all of that is the key task now, which we'll work towards. Thank you.

CAPT KIRBY: No, Justin, I’m sorry -- we're going to have time for just one more question. Barb, you get the last question, and then we're going to give it over to the general and Mr. O'Neill, if they have any closing comments.

Q: General, Barbara Starr from CNN. I'm not sure I heard an answer to the immunity question. So my question is, was this man -- this Taliban commander and his fighters responsible for the deaths of any American U.S. Marines, any coalition forces? Are they getting immunity for it?

And now that you've identified him relatively publicly and -- except for his name -- do you have any concerns about his security? Are you providing any security for him?

GEN. TOOLAN: Well, as -- one of the questions earlier brought up the fact that, you know, they wanted to know the name. And, obviously, I'm not going to give the name right now.

But, yes, I'm concerned about their security. And it certainly takes -- it takes a very brave and courageous person to step up and want to reintegrate. And this individual is one of those -- those people.

So, yes, I will protect him as much as we possibly can. And part of that protection is to go after the Taliban that are not going to reintegrate, the Taliban that are from out of the area, and try to assist them.

Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, we're in a major move, major offensive move. We -- one of the reasons why that reintegration is timed so well is that we're already closed in on Sangin, and we have that place pretty well under wraps.

So I'm concerned about his safety, but, you know, the -- this individual knew what he was doing. And I think he's got a pretty good handle on the situation.

In regards to immunity, the reintegration is a process that brings people like the story I expressed about why they turned Taliban in the first place, because now they realize they want to come back home, they want to join their society, they want to come back and live a normal life. And so when they reintegrate, there's no going back and trying to determine the evidence based on what this person did, et cetera. That person's reintegrated into the system after he's vetted through the process, through province up, to the national level and then back down. And that's a government of Afghanistan process. They do that vetting, and they make the final decision. So it's not really for us to decide at that point.

Q: Can I just follow up very quickly and ask, do you have any information -- if he controls 300 fighters, that's not insignificant. Is his network -- do you believe his network has been responsible for the deaths of coalition forces, including U.S. Marines?

GEN. TOOLAN: If anybody is a Taliban, they're responsible for doing damage to the coalition forces in this region as well as other regions. I wouldn't doubt that at all.

CAPT KIRBY: Thank you very much for your time. I'm going to toss it over to you, sir, if you have any closing comments and as -- you as well, Mr. O'Neill.

GEN. TOOLAN: I just wanted to say -- just close with the fact that, you know, this whole effort over here is done one individual at a time.

And I have two just quick stories. One is about a seaman apprentice, Brian McGill, who is from Petal, Mississippi, a native of the Navy corpsmen and works with us here in RC-Southwest.

The kind of work that's done out here is done in a variety of different ways. And Seaman Apprentice McGill's case, it was just recently, on September 11th, actually -- he's revived -- saved a little Afghan toddler who was actually drowning in a canal. He went in, saved the girl, gave her CPR, restored her breathing, and sort of a heroic little effort on his part, but the kinds of things that go on all the time that sort of build that bond and trust between people.

And then I really need to mention one of our sergeants, Ricardo Ramirez, who just came back -- is just going back home, who's from 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, one of the first Marines to be allowed to re-enlist. He's got a hook for a right arm -- lost it when he was in one fight back out here in Afghanistan. And he's out there doing the same infantry grunt things he was doing with two hands, he's now doing with one and a hook.

These are the kinds of people that we have over here. And that's the reason why we're making such a significant difference. Thank you.

MR. O'NEILL: Maybe I could just close with two quick comments. One, just to illustrate, I think, some of the progress that's been made over the last year or 18 months here, I'm going to take Marjah, which, as you know, for most of 2010 was the center of Operation Moshtarak, a difficult operation that involved a lot of sacrifice. And, you know, I came out here on -- (inaudible) -- visit in July last year, went to Marjah, and I was not able to leave the base because of the security concerns.

In December, when I started my job here, I went back, and we were walking around the center of town, talking to local people. We visited a restaurant that had just opened.

Then in the beginning of March this year, Marjah had elections for the first time. They've now got an elected district council, which is a great sign of the extension of governance. And just in the last couple of weeks, there's now an Internet cafe in Marjah.

Now, those are just anecdotal things, but I think they give an illustration of the kind of progress and the transformation that we've seen down here. And we get a lot of Afghan visitors who come down from Kabul, senior ministers and others, who go away saying they can't believe the transformation that's happened here in Helmand.

And the very last point I would make is, you know, for all of us, U.S. Marines, the PRT, the British military and others, you know, we're all looking now at moving into transition, beginning to draw down over the next couple of years. All I would say about that is, you know, that is a necessary and healthy process, because for the efforts that we've all been making here to last, to be successful in the long term, it's got to be the Afghans in the lead. And the only way we're going to get there is by putting them forward, us drawing back.

So we need to manage that in an orderly way. It needs to be carefully planned, and it is being planned. But as we go forward, I think transition, our drawdown, putting the Afghans in the lead, you know, that is the way forward, and that is the sign to achieving what we all came here to achieve.

CAPT KIRBY: Gentlemen, thank you very, very much for your time this evening. We know how very busy you are. We appreciate it. Thank you so much.

GEN. TOOLAN: Thank you.

MR. O'NEILL: Thank you.


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