Weekly press briefing

by NATO Spokesman James Appathurai

  • 10 Feb. 2010
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  • Last updated: 11 Feb. 2010 11:23

JAMES APPATHURAI (NATO Spokesman): Colleagues, thank you for coming. I'd like to make five points and then I'm happy to take your questions.

First, Ambassadors began today in the North Atlantic Council with a briefing on the operation which is now beginning in Central Helmand. You have seen quite a bit of coverage on that. It is called Moshtarak is the Afghan name for it. It means "together” and it centres around Marjah. Marjah in Central Helmand is an insurgent stronghold and a centre of production of improvised explosive devices and narcotics. The aim of the operation being launched is to deny insurgents a safe haven and to re-establish government control in a strategically important area.

This is an Afghan-led operation, with ISAF support. It is a demonstration of the will and the growing capability of the Afghan government to assume responsibility for security in Afghanistan. The operations will be challenging and we should expect Afghan and NATO and ISAF casualties.

The success of this operation will not be in the military phase. It will be in the weeks and months to come as the people of Central Helmand feel the benefits of security, better governance, justice and economic opportunities.

The government of Afghanistan, with ISAF support, has made preparations to provide immediate support and help to civilians affected by the operation, as well as long-term economic development. Twenty-nine government officials for different ministries led by the director of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, the IDLG—his name is Mr. Popal—have already arrived in Helmand in order to coordinate support as the operation progresses.

So that on Moshtarak.

At the same time, Afghanistan is facing two other challenges: floods in the south and avalanches in the north. The avalanches have had already a serious human toll. The latest reports I've seen are over a 150 dead and hundreds injured. The Afghans are coordinating and carrying out rescue and relief operations, including flying helicopters, Afghan Air Force helicopters. ISAF is providing support as well, with some Chinook helicopters and medical support, but this is, again, an Afghan-led effort and NATO expresses its condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives in this incident, in this disaster.

It's also worth noting that the Afghan government is, at the same time, coordinating a relief operation to manage floods in the south. A very difficult relief operation after the avalanche in the north, and they're preparing for the biggest operation in modern Afghan military history. It is a demonstration that this government is much, much more capable, as time goes on and is managing some very, very important challenges, concurrently, with the capability that they've developed.

Next issue. And I see my Dutch colleague's here so I'll just get straight to it. I can confirm that the Secretary General has sent a letter to Prime Minister Balkenende asking the Netherlands to consider making a new smaller contribution to the ISAF mission, which focuses more on training and a managed transition to Afghan lead.

This new smaller mission would be in place from August 2010 to August 2011, in order to secure the Dutch accomplishments in Afghanistan. This request is based on a clear assessment by NATO military and civilian personnel that the Dutch mission in Uruzgan is doing an exemplary job and is a benchmark for others.

This would not involve maintaining a lead role in Uruzgan, but would involve maintaining the Dutch-led civilian Provincial Reconstruction Team in Uruzgan.

That's what I wanted to say on that. I'm happy to take questions on it. I'm sure there would be more than one.

To note that also in the NAC there was a briefing on the post START Treaty negotiations by Ellen Tauscher, who is the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. She offered a U.S. briefing with regards to bilateral negotiations between the United States and Russia on a Strategic Arms Reductions Follow-On Treaty, START. Missile defence, as a separate issue, was also discussed relatively briefly. Obviously, I can't give you too much in the way of details, except to say that Ms. Tauscher indicated that, as you have read in the media, they are close to agreement with the Russian Federation on START talks. And yes, that's about what I can say in public.

Two more points, I think. No, just one. To mention that the group of twelve experts led by Madeleine Albright and Jeroen van der Veer are now in Moscow. This is the first non-NATO country where such extensive consultations have taken place. They're staying for two days. The Secretary General encouraged them to go, though it was their decision to go, of course. I believe Madam Albright has already met with Foreign Minister Lavrov. The group will be meeting with Mr. Patrushev, members of the Duma, going to think tanks, meeting with students and the group members will, of course, be in listening mode as well as explaining their thoughts, I imagine, to the Russian audience.

That's what I had and I'm happy to take your questions.

Q: About the Dutch situation, can you tell a little bit more about the reasons behind the request? It's obvious that the Dutch government is very divided on this issue and there's a big political debate going on in the Netherlands. Why is the Secretary General writing this letter and isn't there the danger that he's interfering in Dutch affairs?

JAMES APPATHURAI: I think everyone would expect that the Secretary General of NATO would want to offer his views, and the views of the organization, on the very important contribution by one NATO member, precisely at a time when the leaders in the Netherlands are exchanging views on the best way forward.

It would be, I think. it is completely normal that the head of the international organization that is running this mission should also offer his views on the way forward so that they can help shape the discussion in the Netherlands.

But what's important is the Secretary General understands full well and respects fully that this is ultimately a Dutch decision. He is not trying to assume responsibility for a Dutch decision. He is trying to inform a Dutch decision with his views on the way forward.

Q: You were talking about a smaller mission focused on training and transition. You didn't say where that mission should be deployed. You talk about Uruzgan as a PRT, but does that mean that the new smaller mission will be confined to Uruzgan, or can it also be deployed elsewhere in Afghanistan?

JAMES APPATHURAI: I don't have any specifics on that. What I know you know. PRT in Uruzgan, increased focus on training, but I don't know what other conditions could be applied to that. I have no other information.

Q: Would you say something about the size of that new Dutch mission?

JAMES APPATHURAI: I think the size of the new Dutch mission, if and when there is a new Dutch mission, will be for the Dutch to decide. There are no specifics in the Secretary General's request.

We'll do this, and that will give me a break from...

Q:( Brooks Tigner, Jane’s Defence Weekly) Yes, I mean, this is a really minor question, but on this flooding, et cetera, couldn't they foresee this, because there was this flood map that we were given a briefing about a year ago, so didn't they see this coming and rush things down there beforehand, or at least warn the villagers?

JAMES APPATHURAI: Good question. I don't know the answer. There may well have been a warning. Sometimes even though you have a warning you can't do anything about it, or at least you can't stop it from happening. But I don't know whether this flood map was in any way involved. I would have to go and check that. But I will check it, because actually it's a very good question. Like all your questions, of course.


Q: Actually two questions. If you say that the smaller mission is there to manage a smooth transition with the successor, now you're talking about the mission in Uruzgan. There's no other way you can organize a smooth transition than by being in Uruzgan. And the second question is, is there already a successor for the Dutch in Uruzgan and is it mentioned in the letter?

JAMES APPATHURAI: What I said was a managed transition or maybe I didn't say it, but I should be clear. A managed transition to Afghan lead. That's the point. It's not intended to refer specifically to the geographical area, in which the Dutch are, at least, that's not the way I'm conveying it now.

Managed transition to Afghan lead is the aim of the overall mission. A number of steps have been taken over the past few months which I think in the mid of the Secretary General changed the context in which these decisions are being taken, or affect the context in which these decisions are being taken.

There has been now agreement in recent months to begin, or at least to set out the road map for transition to Afghan lead. There has been the London conference, which set out a whole civilian element, again focused on transition to Afghan lead. We are now awaiting advice from COMISAF and the Senior Civilian Representative on where the political and military conditions will be in place to launch the formal process of transitioning to Afghan lead with NATO forces and supports. So it is a broad political aim, which the entire international community has signed up to. That is the context which the Secretary General wished to draw to the attention of Dutch decision makers, as they take their decision on what the future of the Dutch mission might be.

Is that clear? (Laughs).

Q: (Inaudible...) Dutch in Uruzgan.

JAMES APPATHURAI: In terms of...

Q: Is there something in the letter about it?

JAMES APPATHURAI: In terms of the PRT or the overall leader you mean?

Q: The overall lead, military lead.

JAMES APPATHURAI: Well, how do I put this? I'll put it this way: There will be a lead nation in Uruzgan.

Q: (Inaudible...).

JAMES APPATHURAI: (Laughs). That's all I got on that.

Q: (Inaudible...).

JAMES APPATHURAI: There will be a lead nation in Uruzgan. That's all I can say.

Q: (Pascal Mallet, AFP) So my question is about START and defence, missile defence.

Ce matin, Mme Tauscher nous a dit que l'installation de missiles américains en Roumanie faisait partie du système NATO. Je croyais que la discussion aurait lieu à Lisbonne. Donc, ça ne peut pas être vrai.

Deuxièmement, les Russes font un lien entre les missiles américains en Roumanie et les conclusions de START. Tu as pris la grande précaution de nous expliquer que les deux discussions, un, ont totalement séparées...


: (Pascal Mallet, AFP...comme ils étaient tous dans la même pièce au même moment, est-ce que quelqu'un a fait un lien? Did anyone make a link between the two topics START and missile defence? Voilà.

JAMES APPATHURAI: Merci. Pour être clair, moi, je n'étais pas.la. Je n'ai même pas su que Mme Tauscher a parlé à la presse. Mais il n'y a pas de système otanien de défense anti-missile pour l'Europe, ni une décision de le bâtir.

L'accord de la Roumanie d'accepter des missiles défensifs SM-3 est un accord avec les États-Unis avec l'OTAN en tant qu'organisation. Ceci dit, l'OTAN est en train d'étudier la possibilité de construire un système anti-missile pour l'Europe où le système américain aurait une place évidemment centrale. Mais aucune décision n’a été prise. C'est là où on en est.

En ce qui concerne START, non, personne n'a fait le lien entre START et la défense anti-missile au conseil. Pour moi, il n'y a que le général Makarov qui a fait ce lien, en public de toute façon.

Q: (David Brunnstrom, Reuters) Yes, James, I just wondered if you got a response to the French plan to sell an assault ship to the Russians, especially as this comes just after the announcement of a new military doctrine, which identifies NATO as a key threat.

JAMES APPATHURAI: Yes. Let me say this, first on the military doctrine. The Secretary General spoke to Minister Lavrov on this subject and expressed his surprise that the military doctrine seemed to identify NATO, or at least NATO enlargement, as in the first rank of threats to Russia. He also made it clear that he doesn't believe that this reflects the reality of the deepening partnership between NATO and Russia. And in that context I've mentioned Madam Albright and the rest of the group of twelve, the joint review of 21st Century security challenges is proceeding well. They've already discussed Afghanistan, terrorism. There will be another discussion next week in the context of the joint review on piracy, on proliferation. Of course, our cooperation on Afghanistan is deepening.

All this to say from NATO's point of view the relationship is proceeding in the right direction and we certainly don't consider either ourselves a threat to Russia or Russia a threat to us.

When it comes to the Mistral - the possibility of the Mistral sale. First the point I just made is relevant. The Secretary General has said he does not consider Russia a threat and he hopes Russians don't think of NATO as a threat. He takes it for granted, of course, that any arms sale would fully respect international rules and conventions, but the anxieties of some allies are, of course, real and they are understandable for historical reasons, geographic reasons and so this is the context which has to be taken into account.

So these are the things that he has said. A, he doesn't consider Russia a threat; hopes Russians don't think of NATO as a threat; B, takes for granted this arms sale would fully respect international rules and conventions, but also understands the anxieties of some allies about it.

Okay, that's what I got on that.

Here and here.

Q: James, I would like to come back to the Moshtarak operation. It's still... I really don't see the reason why ISAF and NATO started telling next week about the incoming operation. I mean, in military history I don't see any other timing which one part of the conflict tells the other when, where and with how many troops it is going to attack?

JAMES APPATHURAI: Well, I'm not an expert on military history, but the aims of this operation are very clear, and there's no reason to hide them. The area which is now the focus of this operation has been known for years as an insurgent stronghold. It is actively defended. It will require a large military operation to clear, not an operation that could be particularly well hidden anyway. The preparations for it are very large.

Secondly, the aim of this operation is also to make a point and the point is that the Afghan government can establish its authority wherever it wishes to establish its authority inside its own country and they are not hiding that and they don't intend to hide that.

The third point, of course, is to communicate with civilians. The civilians needed to be warned, before this operation began, that an operation was going to begin, of a magnitude serious enough that they needed to take precautions for their own safety.

And an extensive information campaign has been conducted to warn them of what is coming and to ask them to take the necessary precautions.

Finally, they have also needed to be told, and have been told, that the military operation is not the ending of itself. That was perhaps a mistake that we had made both as Afghans and as ISAF in the past, of clearing areas and then leaving. So this has been clearly communicated that the Afghans, that we will be staying once we arrive. The Afghans will be staying once they arrive and the Afghan government, and establishing a better life for the people who are there. That is an important part of the success of the operation, will be communicating this from the beginning.

So there are many reasons why they said what they said.

Q: (Inaudible...).

JAMES APPATHURAI: There has been no ultimatum to the Taliban. Well, they can put down their guns, they can leave, or they fight. Those are their options. They're well advised to take options one or two.

Q: Thank you. It's a Romanian question with the SM-3.


Q: Can I consider this as purely arrangement between United States and Romania bilaterally. Or is it considered to be a part of future NATO missile defence architect?

JAMES APPATHURAI: It is purely, at present, and until now, a bilateral arrangement, but it is also true that if, and I repeat if, a decision is taken to move the U.S.-European missile defence architecture more into a NATO context, and that is one of the options that is clearly on the table, then it could form part of a system which has, again I'll use this expression because it's the one that we have, a NATO context, integrated into a system that in some way engages NATO for European missile defence. But that's not now, and for the moment it is simply bilateral.

Q: James, je voudrais revenir sur cette considération du Secrétaire Général le weekend dernier sur transformer l'OTAN en un forum de sécurité mondiale. Quelles sont ses réactions aux critiques immédiates qui ont été portées contre ce projet? Et comment ça va se passer? Qu'est-ce qui va se dérouler maintenant? Il lance une réflexion. Il y a un groupe d'étude. Quelle est la finalité de tout ça?

JAMES APPATHURAI: Il est en train d'étudier avec ses collègues, ses collaborateurs comment maintenant élaborer ce projet. Il a des idées. Il y a une base déjà. Parce que nous avons des relations déjà informelles avec l'Inde et la Chine. Et son idée, en gros, c'est de renforcer ces liens sans nécessairement les formaliser. Et comme première étape de les viser particulièrement sur l'Afghanistan où nous avons un intérêt en commun.

J'ai vu des commentaires déjà du gouvernement de la Chine qui disait, si j'ai bien compris la traduction, qu'ils n'étaient pas contre. Alors, on verra où ça va aller. Mais il faut être clair que le Secrétaire Général a proposé que l'OTAN devienne, je ne sais pas le traduire, bien comme tu dis un forum, pour la consultation sur des questions de sécurité internationale. Pas que l'OTAN avait l'intention de partir dans toutes les directions sur toutes les questions. Non, forum de consultation. Et si les alliés et les partenaires mais les alliés en particulier étaient d'accord qu'il y avait un rôle pour l'OTAN là on pourrait parler de l'action; mais qu'il y avait un intérêt de considérer la consultation sur les questions purement sécuritaires comme un atout que l'OTAN pourrait offrir à ses partenaires. Voilà.


Q: Can you tell us this in Helmand, how many unit from Helmand proper are engaged there, and what is the formation of ANAs. It is Pashtun oriented or Tajik or who is the majority in that units.

JAMES APPATHURAI: Thank you. I can't answer those questions. Sorry. ISAF has to answer those questions. (Laughs). That's the line into operational briefing that I can't- I don't want to go into.

Q: (Inaudible...).

JAMES APPATHURAI: I'm not even going to talk about that. But U.S. and U.K. is obvious.

Q: Le Secrétaire Général a-t-il envoyé d'autres lettres, à d'autres pays que les Pays-Bas ou bien c'est parce que le débat est lancé aux Pays-Bas? Et envisage-t-il de faire de même au moment où le débat apparaîtra dans d'autres pays?

JAMES APPATHURAI: Le Secrétaire Général prend contact avec tous les pays de l'OTAN et d'ailleurs je pense tous les partenaires aussi, en particulier pour leur encourager de contribuer plus à la formation des forces de sécurité afghane. Alors, tous les pays membres de l'OTAN et tous les partenaires vont recevoir une lettre du Secrétaire Général. Il a déjà commencé avec des appels ou des bilatérals directs avec certains pays pour les encourager, comme j'ai dit, de contribuer plus à la mission de formation.

Oh, il y avait une deuxième question. Oh, est-ce qu'il va envoyer une lettre? Je ne peux pas prévoir qu'est-ce qu'il va faire.


Q: James, on Ukraine, do you expect that after the presidential election in the Ukraine the relations between Kiev and NATO will change somehow, specifically in the area of the eventual integration of Ukraine to NATO?

And about the possible or should I say, apparently participation of the Ukrainian forces in NATO Response Forces.

And my second question, can you tell us something about the agenda of the visit of Moldovan Foreign Minister to NATO? Thank you.

JAMES APPATHURAI: Sure. On Ukraine, it's very simple. Our policy towards Ukraine will not change, and that is that they are an important partner. We will continue to offer, no matter what government Ukrainians choose, our support for their reform efforts. We will continue to look forward to strategic dialogue with them on questions of European security and the pace at which Ukraine wishes to come closer to NATO or not is for Ukraine to choose. It's as simple as that. Regardless of which government they choose and we will support their reform efforts, as I mentioned. It's Ukraine to decide whether they're in the NRF or not, of course.

The visit of the Moldovan Foreign Minister, he was accompanied also by the Defence Minister. He met with the Secretary General and then briefed the North Atlantic Council. Moldova has, as I'm sure you know, a new government, relatively new government, facing enormous challenges, including great financial challenges. It also has what some have called a frozen conflict on its own territory in Transnistria. There was a discussion of, of course the situation inside the country. How NATO can support Moldovan reform efforts through the Individual Partnership Action Plan, which we have with them and I think a general sense of support amongst all the allies, and certainly the Secretary General for the reform, the very difficult reform efforts that the Moldovan government is trying to put forward.

NATO does not play an active role in the Transnistria issue, but of course observes it very carefully and supports international efforts to bring a satisfactory solution to this.

Of course this has CFE implications, but we all know the situation in which the CFE treaty finds itself.

Q: Lorne Cook, AFP, returning to Afghanistan just briefly, President Karzai raised the issue of philosophy, I think was the word he used, of conscription that he's reconsidering and as NATO moves to help Afghanistan build the police and the army to 300,000 next year does NATO believe that's a particularly good approach?

JAMES APPATHURAI: That's a really good question. I have asked it, but I haven't gotten a good answer. Right now the model is not conscription, as you know. There's a system designed around recruitment and retention and all the issues on which we are trying to make improvements. But Afghanistan is a sovereign country, so I don't know what discussions are under way, and I really don't have a good answer for you because I asked the question. Yes... I could talk more, but it wouldn't say anything, so I'll just stop. (Laughs).

Q: (Brooks Tigner, Jane’s Defence Weekly). I mean this appeal to the Netherlands and others to do training and to transition, I mean, first of all, it seems to me training is the heart of the whole transition policy to a certain extent, certainly on the military side. So my question is, aside from training of security forces in each Afghan province, is there going to be a set formula or are the military and civil... and NATO, political authorities mapping out what needs to be done in each, or are you going to leave it to each donor nation who might be in a given province to decide what they're going to do for this transition to an Afghan lead? I know that's a very broad question, but...

JAMES APPATHURAI: No, it's not...

Q: ...it's not clear in my mind how this is going to unroll.

JAMES APPATHURAI: If I understand correctly, and it hasn't yet been fully formalized, but the way I understand it is there will be general conditions set and then the way in which they are met will be up to the local...

Q: Sponsor...

JAMES APPATHURAI: ...sponsoring nation, exactly. In other words, the way you get to the goal in Kandahar may not be the same way you get to the goal in Kunduz, but there will be standards, benchmarks, which both COMISAF and the Senior Civilian Representative will want to assess. I'm probably being corrected here. Right.

So how they get to the standard is obviously local forces will have to decide. The NAC will launch the transition process. In other words, the COMISAF and the SCR will make their assessments and it will be up to the North Atlantic Council to say okay, go. Then it can happen. After that COMISAF and the SCR will piece by piece say here, here, here, here but the implementation of the training and how you get to the standards that are necessary before transition can take place obviously if you're in the Canadian area the Canadians will take a lead role.

Colleagues, unless there's a burning one, I need to get back. Is there... one last one or are we okay? Great, thanks.