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Diplomacy in Action

Afghanistan: Regimental Combat Team-7 Operational Update

Col. Randy Newman, Commander, 7th Marine Regiment
Washington, DC
December 6, 2010

Date: 12/06/2010 Location: Washington D.C.  Description: Col. Randy Newman, Commander, 7th Marine Regiment, holds a roundtable discussion on ''Afghanistan: Regimental Combat Team-7 Operational Update'' at the Washington Foreign Press Center. - State Dept Image

 3:00  P.M. EST

MODERATOR: Hello, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today we have Colonel Newman, who will deliver an Afghanistan update. Without further ado, here is the Colonel.

COL NEWMAN: My name's Colonel Randy Newman. I am the commanding officer of the 7th Marine Regiment out of Twenty-Nine Palms, California. I came back from Afghanistan about 30 days ago, a year in Southern Afghanistan with Regimental Combat Team 7. We conducted operations from Now Zad north of the Highway 1, the Ring Road in Afghanistan, down through Nawa District, Garmsir District and, most recently, in Marjah. So having just returned from a year of deployment there with about 12 infantry battalions working for the RCT and conducting full-spectrum counter-insurgency (COIN) operations throughout that area I just described, I'll provide a very brief update of where we were as I left about 30 days ago, and then I can respond to details on any of those areas as you see fit.

I'll start with the areas we've been in the longest - in Nawa and Garmsir. The Marines have been in Nawa and Garmsir now coming up on about two years. They went in in 2008 and then are coming up on two years in 2010. And in Nawa we've seen great progress. The Nawa District center is an area that the Afghans have been able to start to take some control over segments of Nawa District from a security standpoint and are doing quite well, with both the Afghan army and the Afghan national police able to come in and influence and take charge of security operations there.

In Garmsir: Garmsir is a long portion of the Helmand River Valley as it extends south from Nawa District. And there again, we find progress. In the southern reaches of Garmsir, we had just recently started to move into some areas as I left that we had not been in before. So in areas like that, there's still some conflict as we move the enemy out of that area and let the Afghan people take over. But in the northern portion of Garmsir, we've also been in there for over a year now with Marines there and seen progress with the Afghans being able to start to take control there as well.

Marjah, we went into in February. I was there in command of the operation to initially go into Marjah, and then we've had two Marine battalions in Marjah since, making great progress in Marjah. Again, there's still conflict in Marjah because we still have yet to move all of the people out of Marjah, the people who want to suppress what the Afghan people want. We've still got some work to do there. And so there'll continue to be some conflict there for a while, but it's not interfering with the ability of the people to go to the market, to take back control of the populated areas of Marjah, and also to pursue reestablishment of the government. All that seemed to be going on track. It's still going to take a while to complete but seems to be going on track.

So I would say overall, after our year there, I'm convinced that success is possible wherever the Marines go. The statistics out today in the Washington Post, I think, highlight that as well, that the Afghan people and the Marines feel that when we get together and go to work there, that we can give the Afghan people the ability to influence their future. I think that's in their interest and also is the key to ultimate success in Afghanistan.

So still lots of work to be done, but I see all indications that things are headed the way we'd like for them to. So, subject to your questions, I'll turn it back over to you.

QUESTION: That's good news, yes. Yes, but you know that for 2011the U.S. forces will come back to America.

So do you think that the situation will just stay the way that you described and Afghans can then hold on with that situation and the government will hold itself the way it is right now? Because the Karzai government is so shaky, and we know that Taliban is powerful. And the people say that the moment that American forces leave Afghanistan, Taliban will come and the government will just destroy and there is no government.

COL NEWMAN: There's always that risk. I can't speak at a national level. I can really only speak at the district level, which is what I had experience with. First of all, I think that we're going to be there partnered with the Afghan people longer than July of 2011. I think that we'll be there longer than that. I think it's necessary that we do that. Secondly, I think that the key to being sustainable is to allow the Afghan people to realize the benefit. I have faith in the Afghan people is the way I would put it.

I think that once the Afghan people know what's possible, with their interest, with their ability to influence what goes on locally for themselves, that they'll sustain that. If there's ever a doubt as to whether it's in their interests, in their families' interest, in their kids' interest, than it may be harder to get them to sustain it. But I believe everywhere that we were, anyway, that the Afghan people, once they get a chance to realize what's possible, they take full advantage of it and I think in the long term will be willing to do whatever it takes to sustain it.

I think there will obviously be risks at any point in time that we start to transition to another phase of this. But again, I have faith in the Afghan people and them wanting something other than the last three decades of conflict that they've had. And so I really think that the Afghan people are interested in trying to make a change.

QUESTION: You've been talking about Helmand Province and Garmsir. Helmand Province used to be a stronghold of Taliban.

Is it still? How safe it is for people to go in Garmsir and Helmand Province?

COL NEWMAN: I think that we are reaching a point in Garmsir specifically where people can go at will throughout the district with very minimal risk of there being any sort of conflict. That's not to say that everyone's who's got an interest in trying to tell the people what to do are out of there. There are still some areas in Garmsir where I think there are probably people trying to wait us out or people who still have the design to influence things with the [population].

I don't think that I would call any of the districts that we were in a Taliban stronghold any longer. I think if [the Taliban are] there, they don't have the ability to actively come out and, in the open, influence the people. I think they do try and threaten [the people], I think they do try to intimidate them and do things that are difficult for us to see, but I wouldn't call any of them a Taliban stronghold. I would still submit that there will be areas where the Taliban still are, but I think there is a big difference between simply being there and being able to influence what the people do in the future.

QUESTION: So to the point of what has happened to the insurgents.

What has happened to them? And the number two question would be to the extent that many people are just trying to wait you out.

What kind of perspective does that give you?

COL NEWMAN: Where the insurgents are now or where they went, I think that probably many of them are still there. So I think there's a difference between someone's who started in this effort with an idea of establishing some sort of government of their vision in all of Afghanistan and people who are just trying to, in their eyes, take control of their local neighborhood and ensure security there. And so I think many of the people who have been active in a way that we would see as being an insurgent are perhaps still there.

Our message to those people, though, is that anyone can participate in the decision as to what Afghanistan becomes in the future as long as [they] don't do it [by] force of arms. So if the Afghan people get together and they discuss their way forward and it includes elements that we would see as being Taliban or being involved in their future, then that's something for the Afghan people to decide. What I feel like we do is provide them the security bubble in order for them to make a decision as to where they go in the future, not to allow it to be decided by force of arms or threats.

And then people trying to wait us out, I think the challenges are going to be that they may wait us out, but they'll not wait the Afghan people out. So I think what we're working toward is the Afghan people being able to have a vision [of] a future that is of their design and of their choosing. And so I think that they're going to see out of that not something that aligns with the vision of the Taliban as had been pursued earlier. I think they're going to come up with a vision that allows them to have more freedom for their kids to go to school, then to have some sort of sustainable economy, all of the very basics of a society that we would see in all of our interests throughout the world, I think. And so there may be people who believe they'll wait me out, the U.S. military forces there. I just don't think they're ever going to be able to wait out the aspirations of the Afghan people.

QUESTION: Where [do] the Taliban go; where are they? We think or a lot of people think that the Taliban went to Pakistan. What is your opinion about Taliban? Are most of them Afghans or most of them Pakistani?

COL NEWMAN: It's difficult for me to say, only because it's hard for me as a man from outside to come in and say definitively who's Afghan and who's not.

Who's got what allegiances or where they've been. Now, the Afghan people whom I've partnered with will tell you that a large number of the people who cause their problems come from across the border. – So I'm kind of reliant upon them and their ability to understand who belongs in their midst and who doesn't. So they will submit that it very clearly comes from across the border.

Based on my personal observations, I would say that we do have contact with a number of people who are local Afghans who are resistant to perhaps their government becoming stronger. That may be because they have or are in pursuit [of] power or they're looking for a way to make money. Or maybe it's because they have an ideological reason for why they think the Taliban should govern. I'm not certain. Those people, I think, are still there, many of them. But again, I'd be fully satisfied with them remaining there as long as they don't choose to influence how this goes in the future by guns and explosives. So if they chose a reasonable way of talking about the future of Afghanistan, I think we can all accept that. And again, I believe in the Afghan people, that they'll find a way forward, as long as it's not left to someone to decide by threats and intimidation and force of arms.

QUESTION: Do you think Taliban retain the capability they used to have before, the amount of forces, [and] are they capable of still keeping on their momentum?

COL NEWMAN: The Afghan forces or the Taliban?

QUESTION: Taliban.

COL NEWMAN: My estimate would be that as long as [the Taliban] have support from outside of the areas that we can reach into, and that can be inside Afghanistan or outside, then there's always a possibility that they could try and reinforce themselves and come back and fight better. I don't believe they're doing that in the areas where the Marines are right now, where the Marines and Afghan forces are partnered. I think where we go and stay, they will eventually move outside the reach of us and hope to stay there. And then our job currently for us and the Afghan forces is to not give them those areas. And so we work very hard at trying to make sure that we deny them those areas where they can become stronger and more capable of fighting.

In the future, it's hard to say - if you were to ask me to look out into 2014 or so -- it would be difficult for me to say. I believe in, again, the Afghan people and the Afghan national security forces and that they'll be able to handle a great deal of these threats and do many of things that we're currently helping them do. Whether that will be effective or not is difficult to see right now, but I still believe that we're making progress. Their effectiveness is coming up every day, the Afghan national security forces, and I think we're headed in the right direction with them and the people.

QUESTION: Just to follow on that, from a military perspective, not political, in what ways have the military forces identified what kind of support Taliban gets from and what countries?

COL NEWMAN: I can only speak for my area and what I saw, and I would say that most of things that we saw anyone use against us there were impossible to link to any country, because the IEDs are made out of fertilizer and wire and batteries, and much of the ammunition is ammunition that's available from any number of sources. So I would say that out of the stuff that we encountered on the battlefield, I couldn't look at any of it, not do I think anyone could, and say that it came specifically from this or that country.

I think what we can say is that it comes from places outside of where we currently are. So like I would know what areas I've got forces in and I would know that that material wasn't there. It came from somewhere - it could be inside of Afghanistan, outside of, but it had to be moved in from somewhere.

QUESTION: As far as I know, the COIN strategy depends on quality and credibility in the system that is placed, the civilian system that is placed after the military has done their job.  And polls show that the credibility of Afghan Government on all levels is just down the drain in Afghanistan and that people spend more than one fourth on their annual income on bribes especially to officials.  So I wonder, since you're saying that there's really good news coming out of the area, what has happened in this, as I mentioned, of the things where you have been last year? Any hope that things are really going to be sustainable here?

COL NEWMAN: I think with governance, it's hard in the sense that - again, my appreciation, from the area that I was in, is that over the last 30 years many of what we would all see as the Afghan civil servants got used to seeing that as a job that they took for profit. So what we see as bribes and other ways are what they see as being what in their lifetime they've seen as people do in order to make a living as a servant.

What we've got to do is change that. And I think it's possible to change it. It's just that it's going to take time. So in the short term, I think that as we take Afghans and put them in positions of power there will abuses of power and there will be disappointments in how they do that. What we've got to do is make sure that we collectively, the Afghan people and coalition forces, are there to make sure that whatever we see that's not right, that we set it on the right path. That's what we've got to do with the time that we've got to ensure that it's sustainable.

And in the end I think it's, again, to the Afghan people; if they see the man who is currently there isn't the man they think should be, our question to them always was, "Well, then if not him, then who? So who from your community is the right man, the trustworthy man?" And I think that we'll work harder at building bottom-up governance that will eventually meet what the national government is pushing down. And so eventually we're going to figure out a way to integrate the local governments with what's coming down from the national government.

And again, unfortunately that's just going to take time. First, you've got to ensure the security that allows these people to step forward and take this great step. And then once they do, we've got to take time in letting them figure out how to do it right. And unfortunately, we as a coalition don't have much patience for time right now. We've got to accept the fact that these things take time. The Afghan people have put up with 30 years of violence, so we ought to be willing to go at least three to four years to allow them to figure out how they get out of it and get order.

QUESTION: Do we have an alternative for Karzai?

COL NEWMAN: That would be something entirely outside of my realm. I don't know. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: We trust people of Afghanistan, but we saw that election and what they did with that election, and we bought a lot of things. So we don't know if we trust the Afghan people. We have to let them to choose their men. We have to just create or just look for somebody as an alternative.  So I don't know if they have one because it's been eight years, nine years or I don't know.  Everybody is waiting and everybody knows WikiLeaks - a lot of things came from WikiLeaks report and all those things about Karzai and the government.


QUESTION: I don't know what's the idea for your government.

COL NEWMAN: Yeah, it's difficult. Again, outside of my lane. What I will tell you is I'm, again, encouraged by the fact that the Afghan people want to change for the future.

So any time a whole population wants to change their future, we all know from examples throughout the world that they can do this. And it's not always pretty getting there. But I really believe that the Afghan people want a better future for themselves and their kids. And that's a strong motivation.

So, again, I have faith in the fact that it may be messy along the way and there will be steps forward and back. But I think we all must just stand in support of them and let them go through the same thing all our countries have been through, good times and bad, and then find their own way forward.

From a military standpoint, what I feel is absolutely essential is that it not be decided by force of arms. So if the people have the freedom to vote and to choose, then we've provided - we, the coalition forces - have provided essentially what we've come there to provide, which is an ability for them to make decisions as to how their future goes, both from the government's standpoint, from a reconstruction standpoint, and an economic standpoint. And outside of that I don't know that we can do much more.

QUESTION: Since the surge began, have you seen a greater willingness among Afghans to come forward and provide you with intelligence or other assistance? And to what extent does Taliban intimidation still suppress that?

COL NEWMAN: Personally, I don't know it has anything to do with the surge. It has to do with presence. So what I would tell you is that there are any number of places in Afghanistan where there are currently no forces. So if you give me more forces, I'll go to more places, and wherever we go good things will happen. So if I send eight to 10 Marines there - if we stay there, the Marines are going to go there, they're going to partner with the people, and over time the people will trust them and then be willing to kind of take charge and cooperate in how we bring stability to their environment, their village, whatever it is.

And then your second question again was?

QUESTION: To what extent does Taliban intimidation -

COL NEWMAN: Oh, murder and intimidation

QUESTION: -- still affect -

COL NEWMAN: I think the Taliban - people - I won't even call them the Taliban, because I think, again, as I've stated before, I think there are people competing for money, power, and ideological influence in Afghanistan. All three of those people have to intimidate the people or try to. So before we got to a lot of places, like Marjah, they did it openly with arms in the open and open threats. Now that we're there, they have to do it discreetly, which means they've got to sneak around at night and try to threaten the people and get them to do their will based upon the threat of violence or the threat of retribution later on.

That still exists. The people working against us still use that tactic, but it's only because they can't do anything openly and they can't do anything very clearly designed to go against the people or they know that us and the Afghan national security forces would stop that.

So how do we defeat that? I think we defeat that by trust. , The people have got to begin to trust the security that's around of them, first of all perhaps provided by coalition forces, but then ultimately provided by their own Afghan forces and an effective Afghan government. Once they see that, then they have a sense of societal security that allows them to move forward in the way that they want their life to go. Murder and intimidation, I think, is a natural phase we should see ourselves go through. It's not easy to defeat, because the defeat mechanism in that is largely trust and action by the Afghan people.

QUESTION: I'm wondering if you could give a status on this campaign that is going on and also assess the reaction among the surviving commanders or insurgents on this campaign.

COL NEWMAN: Well, I'm not going to try to give an update current, because I'm not current any longer. I'm about 30-days dated. But I will say that while we were over there, going after the people who encourage others to work against what the Afghan people want is critical. Those men need to fear for their lives and their livelihood so that they stop doing what it is they're doing. And I think part of us hunting them, for them to know we're hunting them so that they don't feel at ease, either day or night, is important.

In the end, I don't know that that's how we win. We're in a population-focused COIN effort. We're not in an enemy-focused COIN effort. So it means not necessarily focusing on the number of men who can be killed. It's focusing on when the people over to our side, to their side, and letting them to take charge of kind of how things go in the future.

And so I think that the pursuit of leaders that are working against us, enemy leaders is key. And I think it's achieving some success right now. In the end, I do not believe it will be anything that'll ultimately win this for anyone. It will be an element of that, but in the larger context it comes back to our ability to put Afghan national security forces and the Afghan Government back on its feet so that it can handle those issues. Once we've done that, then I think we've truly undercut the ability of those people to continue to work against the Afghan peoples' desires.

QUESTION: Do you know more about the specifics, the psychological reaction, in the insurgency to this campaign to the fact that people don't feel -

COL NEWMAN: At ease?


COL NEWMAN: Well, I can only speak for the guys we worked against, and that is they were not at ease. There was no place we wouldn't go, and we made sure that they understood that. And there was no one who was untouchable. And so I'm certain from out interactions with the men who chose to fight against us that they would vacation often to places outside of our reach.

QUESTION: Could I have a related follow-up? You know now that most people say that the war cannot end in a military way; it has to end in a negotiated way.


QUESTION: I hear people worried that actually there is a chance that you could be killing the chances of a legal state of peace if you kill the people who should be negotiating.


QUESTION: What kind of precautions are you taking to avoid this?

COL NEWMAN: That's a great question. I'll put it this way - and I don't want to be too specific on this - but in Marjah, we made sure everyone understood that I would be willing to talk to anyone. Anyone who wanted to talk, no matter what they had done before, no matter what someone had labeled them, they could talk. And the only thing that was going to guarantee that they would be hunted was if they chose to use force of arms, explosives or weaponry to decide the future of the people of Marjah. It wasn't going to be allowed. So I think, again, that if we stay consistent with that message that says once we're there if you're a citizen living in this community then you have a vote like everyone else does. It just can't be won then with force of arms.

QUESTION: Amnesty for people?

COL NEWMAN: Well, I wouldn't say amnesty, because amnesty I don't think is something that the Afghans understand in the way that we understand it. I think, again, that what it involves is not amnesty. I'm not saying I forgive all your sins. I'm saying that today we can talk. Tomorrow, if you're planning an IED, or you're brandishing a weapon, or you're shooting at someone, tomorrow we can't talk. And just letting people know that they've got to pick the path. If they want to be a hunted man for the rest of their life in Afghanistan they can be. If they don't want to be, they've got that ability to determine their own future.

And I think that's the only way we can make sure that guys who truly are interested in the progress of Afghanistan get a chance to participate in that. But in the end, we've got to rely upon them to be willing to show that they're interested in doing it without force of arms.

QUESTION: I have a question about warlord commanders of Afghanistan, former ones which is a part of the problem, today's problem of Afghanistan, and they're watching all the events and they still want to just see what time is good for them to just cooperate or do something. Is there any way to just calm them down or just - I don't know. Is there any [option] to negotiate with them or do something about them to just stop doing those things and against the people of Afghanistan?

COL NEWMAN: Again, not an easy question -

QUESTION: Or kill them.

COL NEWMAN: Not an easy question for me to answer, because I didn't see that influence where I was. So I don't know whether that's because I just didn't see it or because it didn't exist. Nor did I notice the influence of particular men who were trying to influence us by force of arms, whether Afghan or from outside Afghanistan. That I did not see. So I don't have a good perspective to talk about what's being experienced elsewhere in Afghanistan, but I can say that in Southern Helmand River Valley, I didn't see the influence of any particular warlord.

QUESTION: Yeah. And the other one is the closeness of Pakistan and Afghanistan recently.


QUESTION: That's a big surprise for everybody, because once they were just talking against each other and today they are just buddies and they are saying good things about each other. Is this a new policy or there is something else between them, or what is it? How do you assess it?

COL NEWMAN: I can't.

QUESTION: Because the relations between United States and Afghanistan - not the United States and Afghanistan - Karzai and Obama is not good anymore after WikiLeaks. We know it. So can you talk about that?

COL NEWMAN: It would be something I don't know anything about.

I still believe that for Afghanistan, when we talk about Afghanistan and its neighbors - and I think that's important to talk about - at some point in time Afghanistan has to be able to - like any nation - be able to assure its borders and be confident that it has the ability to determine who's active and what they're doing inside their borders. That's the right I think of any nation, a real nation. And I think that's what the Afghans should pursue as they go forward in kind of reestablishing security of their own country.

How we do that? How they do that I think is still a little ways off because we're still resolving the issues internal to their country. Eventually, I think they need to go back to being confident that they can stand on their own two feet, control their borders, and all of the influences that come from outside the borders.

QUESTION: Can I follow up?


QUESTION: In your military assessment from the area you have been, how does 2014 sound - will the society be ready for you to pull out?

COL NEWMAN: Given the progress that I've seen over the last year, my estimate would be if the progress continues apace that, yes, we would be in good shape. Will it? That's more difficult for me to say, because unfortunately we often talk about these circumstances as if we're the only ones who get a vote. And we all know that there's someone actively working against us out there who also hears the dates and also has a vote in kind of how things go in the future. So I would say, if progress continues apace to what I've seen in the last year, then I have no doubts that the Afghan people will be largely, in my part of Afghanistan, Southern Helmand River Valley, in a good state to take care of themselves.

QUESTION: So what about the rest of Afghanistan?

COL NEWMAN: I don't know the other part of Afghanistan other than the Helmand River Valley, unfortunately. I do take encouragement about the fact that people say that's the place - that's the worst place.

QUESTION: Yeah, it is.

COL NEWMAN: So if I've been at the worst place and I can be encouraged by what I've seen in the worst place, then I've got to make assumptions that elsewhere we can also see the chance for progress. And I believe in that because I think that Southern Helmand River Valley is an area that has seen its share of difficulties. But I think - the Washington Post statistics today show that if we can achieve this in places that are supposedly the worst, then I think we can replicate it elsewhere.

QUESTION: Could you just really quickly repeat the areas where you were, the provinces in Afghanistan?

COL NEWMAN: When I started out we covered north of Highway 1 through Bakwa, Golestan, Now Zad. And then about midway through my time there I consolidated down south, which was Garmsir, Nawa, and Marjah.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay. If there are no further questions, that's it. Thank you.

COL NEWMAN: Thank you much.