09 July 2008

Press Conference

Opening Statement by 24 MEU Commanding Officer, Colonel Peter Petronzio

Good Morning and thank you all for coming. I want to open by bringing you all up to date on what the Marines have been doing in Garmsir.

As you know, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit has been conducting counterinsurgency operations in the Garmsir District of Helmand since April 28.  For most of May the Marines held a key route east of the Helmand River in the northern part of Garmsir District.  Insurgents occupied the area between the river and the Marine positions.  In late May, the Marines pushed south (from their northern position) and west to clear out the remaining insurgent strongholds in the area. 

Since the Marines have eliminated insurgent fighting positions and strongholds, the Marines are having regular contact with the Afghan citizens.  I wouldn’t say that Garmsir is secure, but it is stable.  We are continuing to clear the area.  Insurgents are still there but they are not engaging with us as they once did.  The Marines remain on high alert for asymmetric attacks – IEDs, suicide bombers, etc.  

The Marines are conducting security patrols in which they often come upon unexploded ordnance, IEDs, caches, etc.  They are also conducting census patrols where they are determining the make-up of the community – the leaders, the workers, the ones who don’t belong, etc. 

Being there for over two months, living in the community and interacting with the population, we have learned a lot.  Mainly, Garmsir benefits from three major assets: 

1.) A self reliant and resilient population who regularly reply to “what do you need?” with “Just security, we can do the rest.”   Together with the Brits we are trying to ensure that we offer assistance in a way that respects and supports this self-reliance.  This means offering sensible assistance to people whose property has been damaged.  Careful assessment of the local market ensures that we pay neither too much nor too little.  We are also working with the Brits to ensure that the systems for assessing damage in our adjacent areas of operation are as similar as possible.

2.) Fertile land irrigated by a complex irrigation system which was constructed by USAID in the 1950’s.  This has suffered some damage and USAID is undertaking some immediate and urgent repairs which will ensure that people have access to their livelihoods.  This is of course a key element of stability and self-reliance. 

3.) The district governor enjoys the respect of the tribal elders and the population because he stayed in Garmsir when others left.  He has held a number of shuras with local and tribal elders and has managed the distribution of humanitarian aid and some small cash-for-work projects very efficiently.  He is very clear about priorities.  First and foremost: security, followed by repairs to the irrigation system, health and education. 

When we eventually leave, our intent is for our departure to be transparent to the people of Garmsir in that the assistance in every form that we are providing is provided by another force, be it ISAF or Afghan. 

That said, I would be happy to take your questions and I encourage you to see the presentation we have included in the press packs.