Press conference

by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the incoming Commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), General David Petraeus

  • Last updated: 01 Jul. 2010 19:05

(left to right)  General David H. Petraeus (new Commander of ISAF) and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen during their meeting with the press

Moderator: Good morning everybody. We will first have some introductory remarks by the Secretary General and general Petraeus and then we have time for three questions.

Secretary General: Good morning, and first of all a warm welcome to General Petraeus. We appreciate that you visit NATO HQ so quickly after your confirmation in the US Senate. We want to congratulate you on a unanimous confirmation; it is a very good point of departure. You are well known to the Alliance. You have a strong NATO background already. You are experienced and widely respected. You also know Afghanistan very well. Actually, you have been one of the designers of the current strategy in Afghanistan so we look very much forward to cooperating with you. We just had a meeting with 46 ISAF partners and General Petraeus got three very clear messages: first the general has our full support.

As I said, well-known, experienced and widely respected and Gen Petraeus will be part of a united civilian-military team, a NATO team, on the military side the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral Stavridis and the civilian side the NATO civilian rep in Kabul, Ambassador Mark Sedwill. They will work closely together. Secondly, the strategy has our full support. This has been a change of command but it is not a change of strategy. We will continue the current strategy and the strategy is to take on the Taliban politically and militarily in their heartland, the strategy is to gradually transfer lead responsibility to the Afghans themselves when conditions permit and the strategy is to help the Afghan government in providing good governance and delivering basic services to the Afghan people. And thirdly, the mission has our full support- allies and partners will stay committed as long as it takes to finish our job.

Obviously that is not forever. Our mission will end when the Afghans are capable to secure and govern the country themselves and this is the reason why a key element in our strategy is to train and educate Afghan soldiers and Afghan police so that the Afghan security forces eventually can take responsibility for the security themselves.

General, you are the right man to carry our mission forward. We welcome you, we look forward to cooperating with you, and you can count on our full support.

General Petraeus: Thank you Secretary General and thanks to all of you. As I noted this morning to the assembled group, I am a NATO guy through and through. I have served with NATO since I was a lieutenant and all the way to the rank of LtGeneral prior to now, beginning as an airborne platoon leader with the Allied Command Europe Mobile Force, an airborne battalion in Italy.

Later I served at SHAPE Headquarters as a Military Assistant to the then Supreme Allied Commander, General Galvin, as all US officers did with various US units that were a part of NATO in Germany. Lots of Reforger Exercises. Then as a Brigadier General with SFOR in Bosnia, and then as an LtGeneral, a three star, as the first Commander of the NATO training mission in Iraq. I was privileged in a couple of those assignments to brief the NAC and it was a privilege to be back and to brief them today and also to have them joined by all of the contributing nations of the greater ISAF mission.

As I mentioned to the group up front, it is important to remember the enormous contributions that General McCHrystal made to this mission. Over the past year, he, with the support of all of the NATO nations, has worked hard to get the inputs right in Afghanistan to ensure that the right organisations exist, led by the right people, guided by the right concepts and civil/military plans with the sufficient resources to enable the implementation of those plans. There has been an enormous effort to do that over the last 12 or 18 months. When you look at the US contribution for example, a contribution that by the end of August will be nearly 100,000 US forces on the ground, more than tripling the number of some 30-31,000 that were there back at the beginning of 2009.

Similarly there has been a substantial build-up, the additional pledging of course of some well over 9000 – non US troops as part of this build-up – the pledge of additional funding from the US and other countries for the 100,000 additional Afghan national security force members and then also the substantial increases in the civilian effort in Afghanistan and of course on the NATO side, as represented by my future NATO diplomatic wing man, Ambassador Mark Sedwill.

I reaffirmed the importance of the civil-military partnership that is essential in the conduct of a comprehensive approach. That being the appropriate term – the NATO term for the strategy being pursued in Afghanistan. We must all work together, within the US structure we must work together, within the greater ISAF structure we must work together, and then with our Afghan partners, without question, we must work together. We must achieve unity of effort in what is clearly an effort to achieve mutual objectives. I reminded the group today as I reminded the Senate Armed Services Committee several days ago of the reasons why we are in Afghanistan.

It is important periodically for all of our populations to recall that the Coalition went into Afghanistan in late 2001 because the 9/11 attacks were planned in Southern Afghanistan, the initial training of the attackers was carried out in training camps in Afghanistan by Al Qaeda before they moved on to Western Europe and then ultimately to US flight schools to carry out their terrible attacks. Many of the other nations represented by Ambassadors around the table this morning have also suffered attacks that were originally planned or linked to Al Qaeda or other trans-national extremist elements that are still resident in that rugged border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan. And therefore there is a very important – as President Obama has put it – a vital national security interest in ensuring that these organisations not be allowed to re-establish a sanctuary or safe-haven in Afghanistan and that they be pursued wherever it is that they are located.

Over the course of the past week or so since the announcement of my nomination by President Obama, we have reached out very widely, have talked to the members of the Afghanistan Government, three phone calls with President Karzai alone, also with the Minister of Defense, Minister of the Interior, Ambassador and others, reached out to the NATO Headquarters, even prior to this to the NATO Secretary General, the Chairman of the Military Committee, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Commander of JFC Brunssum, and so forth, reached out to Chiefs of Defense Staff in a number of the different troop contributing countries and reached out to civilian colleagues across the board, again including Ambassador Sedwill, Special Representative, United Nations Special Representative Staffan de Mistura, the EU Senior Rep in Kabul and again obviously the various senior US civilians with whom I will partner in Kabul.

All of us again recognize the imperative of linking arms and of making way together, as we say in America, of achieving unity of effort and that is something that we are determined to accomplish as we carry out this comprehensive approach in a mission of such importance to all of our countries.

Finally I would just like to mention how appreciative I was to hear the pledges of support from country after country around that Council table today. Again, as someone who has long believed in the value of alliances and in particular of this Alliance, it was very heartening to hear the support that was voiced there. Even as we know the very difficult times that we have seen in Afghanistan, where there has been without question tough fighting and where there have been tough casualties, although where there have also been areas of progress in recent weeks and recent months and where we are determined to achieve further progress in the course of the months ahead. Thank you very much.

Moderator: First question to Reuters.

Q: yes, David Brunstrum from Reuters. This is a question for the general. Also for the Secretary General. NATO made a big play in the past about the previous revision of rules of engagement in order to cut civilian casualties. Does the prospect of a review of those rules that General Petraeus has mentioned in his testimony in order to cut rising NATO casualties mean that we could expect to see more civilian casualties in the future if more reliance is put back on airpower?

General Petraeus: In fact I have reaffirmed to President Karzai, to the other Afghan officials, to the Secretary General, to my US governmental leaders and to our forces that we must maintain the commitment to reducing the loss of innocent civilian life in the course of military operations to an absolute minimum. That is a counter-insurgenc ye imperative and one that I strongly supported as General McChrystal pursued it with his commanders. In a counter-insurgency, the human terrain is the decisive terrain and therefore you must do everything humanly possible to protect the population and indeed again to reduce the loss of innocent civilian lives. Now along with that, as I explained in my Senate testimony, was not the revision of the rules of engagement. It is rather to ensure that the application of the rules of engagement – which I believe are sound – and the application of the tactical directive which governs the use of close air support and other forms of support for our troopers when they are in a tough position, that the application of these is proper. And there are concerns among the ranks of some of our troopers on the ground that some of the processes have become a bit too bureaucratic.

Now, I have a moral imperative as a commander. Any commander has a moral imperative to bring all force that is available to bear when our troopers and by the way when our Afghan troopers are in a tough position. I discussed this again with President Karzai and the two ministers. They absolutely support the intent that I explained to them which was on the one hand to maintain the focus on the reduction of loss of innocent civilian lives in the course of military operations and also to ensure that our troopers – and ours means now Afghan as well as ISAF – are supported by all means when they are in a tough position.

I think that our commanders are more than experienced enough and more than tactically expert enough to be able to accomplish both of those elements of intent. Reduction of civilian casualties which by the way has in fact worked. The last twelve weeks, when you compare with the twelve weeks of the previous year, has seen a marked reduction in the loss of civilian lives in the course of military operations. Quite marked. In fact something like a 50% reduction in civilian lives lost in the course of those operations. And that is very important given that our force numbers have expanded so significantly and therefore our operations have expanded so significantly. And that is a result of commanders and troopers who understand the context within which they are operating.

But again we must also ensure that when they are in a tough spot, that we do what it is necessary to help them get out of it. And so in that state there is no intent to change rules of engagement. It is to look very hard in how the rules and the tactical directives are implemented and to ensure that there is even implementation across all units instead of perhaps some unevenness that has crept in in some.

Rasmussen: I’ll just echo that and say: the population-centric approach will be maintained.

Petraeus: Yeah.

Rasmussen: We will protect the Afghan people. We will do our utmost to minimize the number of civilian casualties and I’m pleased that the general has reaffirmed that. Of course this has to be implemented in such a way that we provide our soldiers with the best possible security.

Q: Ben Nimmo of DPA: for the general, we regularly hear, particularly in this building, that this year and with the new McChrystal strategy, NATO is turning the tide, regaining the initiative, NATO is now on the front foot, but what we see coming out of Afghanistan is rising casualty figures, more Taliban attacks, even on NATO bases. We hear the Taliban claiming that they’ve got the victory. So what has ISAF got to show for the rising casualties and the rising attacks? And how do you reconcile the fact that people here say: we’ve got the initiative and yet the casualties are going up so much? Thank you.

Petraeus: Well, I think that there is no question but that the Taliban had the momentum, had the initiative if you will coming into this year. And indeed, one of the real areas of focus has been to reverse that process and I think that has been reversed in certain areas of Afghanistan. Now, having said that, when you take away the enemies safe havens and sanctuaries, particularly ones that are as important as say those in central-Helmand province and in Marjah, Nawa, Nad-e-Ali, even Lashkar, when you take away his safe havens, the enemy fights back. You may recall that in Iraq, the highest level of violence ever recorded in Iraq were months into the surge. They were very, very high at the beginning of the surge, but they actually went up. Vastly, by the way, multiples of times higher than we see in Afghanistan, although I do not in anyway way want to diminish – needless to say – the levels of violence there, and they have indeed gone up in part because when we take away what the enemy values, the enemy fights back.

Now there are tough casualties and there have been tough casualties as I predicted it last fall in testimonies in the United States and again earlier this Spring: the going gets tougher. It gets harder before it gets easier in the conduct of a counter-insurgency operation. But again I can walk you around the map and show you locations beyond just central-Helmand province, also areas elsewhere in Regional Command South and Regional Command Southwest, in Regional Command North and in the East as well as in the Centre, in Kabul itself, where I think there are areas that reflect improvement, and reflect reversing the momentum that the Taliban enjoyed before the onset of this particular fighting season. And obviously what we are going to do is capitalize on the additional forces being deployed now to continue that process.

Let’s keep in mind that on the US side, the final 30.000 forces which we committed to President Obama would be on the ground by the end of August, they are actually ahead of schedule in terms of their deployment of personnel and equipment. Which is somewhat remarkable frankly given the volcanic eruptions, given the Haiti operation and a couple of other events that have forced the diversion of some of our airlift at various times. But we have managed to keep that on track and indeed to have it slightly ahead of schedule. We are approaching now 23.000 of those 30.000 on the ground and again they will all be on the ground with the exception of a division headquarter not need ed by the end of August and not deployed by then. But all the rest will be on the ground by the end of August.

Additionally some 60% of the over 9.000 additional non US NATO forces are now on the ground and those are steadily deploying as well. And so clearly what we will want to do is to capitalize on those additional forces and indeed on the additional Afghan forces that are coming in. As you may know for example, not only is there an additional US infantry brigade, air-assault infantry brigade from the great 101st Airborne Division I might add as well, going into the area of the Kandahar province that belts around the city. There is also a Afghan brigade that will go in as its partner. There are not only additional US military police companies going into the city itself, there are also additional Afghan police going into the city as well.

Moderator: last question for El Pais.

Q: Martin Reduarte with El Pais from Spain. General, where do you expect to be at the end of the year in terms of results in Afghanistan? And how will you define success in 2011? Thank you.

Petraeus: Well I think that the answer to both of those is pretty similar. Again success is achieving progress really at this stage of the counter-insurgency. Where we will be looking for progress is in the expansion of security and this will probably be more of a sub-district or district level of progress rather than say an entire province, given the size of some of the provinces and the challenges that some of the provinces face.

We will be looking at the performance of the Afghan National Security Forces at their growth, not just in terms of numbers but also in terms of quality and their contribution in the fighting and where they are in the lead. You look at Kabul for example. The Afghan forces actually are in the lead now in Kabul. Certainly supported magnificently by a tremendous Turkish contingent that is the major element there. But by and large they again are the ones .. that’s the face of security. They are the leaders of the security effort. We want obviously to see that more in other areas.

And then there are those areas where there has been a sufficient foundation of security established. We will be looking for the complimentary activities in term of Afghan governance being re-established or strengthened and improvements in the provision of basic security services to the people and also looking for two very important qualities in all of this. And those are inclusivity and transparency.

President Karzai has publicly recognized the importance of those, but if you look at the political challenges that are so often central to the difficulties in some of the areas you find that there are opportunities for greater inclusivity, for involvement of a broader spectrum of the population and transparency. The opportunity for explaining more clearly how decisions are being taken, how money is being distributed. And again President Karzai has made these qualities a centre piece of his efforts in Kandahar, where as you know, he has run two Jirga councils and in fact the inclusivity there was so substantial that when he did the Jirga council one and a half month or so ago, there were individuals willing to stand up with the microphone and the camera on and criticize the Afghan government and indeed the President himself, which he then did in self-criticism also.

That’s the kind of approach, that’s the kind of inclusivity and representation that is essential to achieve the support from all the people of an area and not leave some feeling that they don’t have a seat at the table.

Thank you very much.

Moderator: that’s all we have time for. Thank you very much.