Weekly press briefing

by NATO Spokesman James Appathurai

  • 24 Mar. 2010
  • |
  • Last updated: 25 Mar. 2010 14:44

JAMES APPATHURAI (NATO Spokesman): Colleagues, friends, why don't we get started. I have four issues or so and then I'm happy to take any questions that you have.

First, on the North Atlantic Council visit yesterday to Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was an important visit for the North Atlantic Council because of course we have a very important partnership with that country, but also because Bosnia and Herzegovina has made an application to join the Membership Action Plan. At the last ministerial meeting NATO Ministers in essence came to the conclusion "yes, when", the when being when certain conditions are met. And this visit by the North Atlantic Council, led by the Secretary General, was designed to do three things.

First, it was an opportunity for the Council, for NATO, to reaffirm its commitment to see Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Membership Action Plan and indeed, to stress their overall commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration for the entire region. So that commitment remains firm and they wanted to state it once again.

Second, they wanted to assess, with their own eyes, the progress that is being made in reform. That's the when part of the "yes, when". And the Secretary General, and I think most of the ambassadors were very clear in saying that with an eye to the Tallinn Foreign Ministers' Meeting where this issue will be discussed again, there is still room for more progress. They pointed, for example, specifically at moving forward on the destruction of what is, in essence, aging and unsafe military equipment; on agreeing where to send 100 or so soldiers which Bosnia and Herzegovina has agreed to send, but has not yet agreed on where to send; and more in general, the NATO ambassadors and the Secretary General stressed that what NATO wishes to see is Bosnia and Herzegovina demonstrate its capability to act as one country, to take difficult decisions as one country, which is a necessary prerequisite for moving closer to, and eventually into, the Alliance.

Finally, they wished also to thank Bosnia and Herzegovina for the contribution that it makes to international peace and security, certainly through NATO. They already have personnel in the ISAF mission. They have made this decision to send more, so they also want to recognize what Bosnia and Herzegovina has done.

That's the first issue... sorry, just to conclude, as I mentioned, in Tallinn, there will be another discussion amongst Foreign Ministers about whether or not sufficient progress has been made to invite Bosnia and Herzegovina not just to join the MAP. That decision, the yes, has already been taken, but to actually bring it into force, and have them formally walk over the doorstep and into the Membership Action Plan. Sorry to mix metaphors there. That was pretty ugly.

Next issue. Today, in fact, in 50 minutes - I'm sure you're all aware of this - Viktor Ivanov, the director of Russia's Federal Service for the Control of Narcotics - he is also the chairman of the State Anti-Narcotics Committee - will be briefing the NATO-Russia Council. The issue of narcotics, and in particular narcotics coming from Afghanistan, is obviously of significant interest to the Russian Federation, and we understand that.

Russia has, according to the information that we have, something like 30,000 people a year dying from morphine or heroin addiction or use anyway - morphine and heroin use - and 200,000-plus addicts. So this is a real social problem for Russia. And we understand that, not least because we know the problems that Russia is facing, but also because this problem, it's all of our countries, all of our schools, all of our back alleys across Western Europe and beyond.

So we understand the problem. We share the view that it has to be tackled. NATO is doing a lot. And I have to say there is - we can honestly say - a slight difference of views. Out of Moscow we hear a lot of calls for eradication. And the view of the Afghan government until now has been that eradication was not the way to go. Either through aerial spraying... in particular through aerial spraying.

And many of our military personnel are very concerned with uprooting the livelihood of very poor farmers without having in place alternatives for them.

What has NATO been doing until now? The most central way in which NATO is tackling the counternarcotics problem in Afghanistan is by tackling the insurgency. It is no coincidence that the centre of drug production is also the centre of the insurgency. And I might add, Marjah, the area which we have just cleared, was a centre in Afghanistan, and that's saying something, of drug production.

Now the conditions are in place for better governance, alternative livelihoods and a sustainable solution that does not just create more enemies to the problem of narcotics production in Afghanistan.

So we have a 120,000 personnel on the ground, fighting the insurgency and that's the most effective way to tackle the drug problem.

Secondly, our forces - and you all know this - our forces have a clear mission to go after the drug labs and the drug lords that support the insurgency. They do that.

Third, we provide support to Afghan counternarcotics personnel. Training, intelligence, transport and medical evacuation.

Finally, we work with the Russians already when it comes to training counternarcotics officials. Until now 1,050... around 1,050 counternarcotics officials have been trained through the NRC - NATO-Russia Council - counternarcotics training program, which offers training to Afghan and Central Asian counternarcotics officials.

According to our statistics the majority of drug intercepts that have taken place - of heroin or morphine leaving Afghanistan - have taken place by - have been carried out by - the personnel trained in this NRC program. It is very effective.

Which brings me to my next point. The Secretary General has asked the Russian Federation for increased support for the overall effort in Afghanistan. And two areas are relevant here. One is we have asked - he has asked - for more engagement by Russia in training counternarcotics officials - in other words, to step up the NRC project.

Secondly, he has asked for a package of capabilities, in particular helicopters, to support the overall effort to bring peace and security to Afghanistan.

We are still waiting for an answer on those two proposals. But I know the Russian Federation is working on them.

So I think that's that on that issue, though I understand that Mr. Ivanov will be giving a briefing later today, I think at five o'clock at NATO Headquarters, so I'm sure I'll see you there.

Visits. Travel. The Secretary General... oh yes, well not just... visits and travel. Tomorrow at around three o'clock - the exact timing is yet to be determined - Georgian President Saakashvili will meet with the Secretary General - around 3:00 - well, the meeting will begin. There should be a point de presse around 4:00, but we will send out the timing to you, exact timing. But there will be a point de presse, that's for sure, it should be around four o'clock.

We were not planning to broadcast it live, but just onto the website in about half an hour afterwards.

Q: (Inaudible...).

JAMES APPATHURAI: Oh, you're all going to be here for the EU. Okay, then we'll make sure it goes out live and I'm sure my colleagues are listening to this, so that will be done.

I'll just make a little note. Because you're all going to be stuck up here for the EU. Okay. Okay. That's fine. Thank you for that.

On Friday, Admiral Mullen, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, will be meeting with the Secretary General. There's no press appearance planned.

On Saturday the Secretary General will give a speech at the German Marshall Fund, and in essence what he wants to do in that speech is to set out his vision of the way forward when it comes to missile defence, when it comes to European security architecture, and the way in which NATO might engage with Russia in the context of those two subjects.

We will... he's still finalizing the speech, but it's close to finalization, so by tomorrow, I think, certainly by Friday morning, I'll be able to get whoever wants an embargoed copy, an embargoed copy.

Q: (Inaudible...).

JAMES APPATHURAI: Yes, just send me an e-mail so I have your e-mail and I'll e-mail you an embargoed copy. Of course, it has to be checked against delivery, as usual, but I'm happy to get it out to you as early as possible, because I think it's very close to completion.

Final point. Today is the one year anniversary - the first anniversary - of NATO ships in the Gulf of Aden to fight piracy. The first five NATO ships arrived in the Gulf of Aden on the 24th of March, 2009 as part of the counterpiracy mission, which was back then named Operation Allied Protector.

A year later our ships are still there. They have slightly broader ambit, but if we look at the big picture of how this is going, the total number - and we've discussed this already - the total number of pirate attacks in the entire region - this is Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin, and NATO forces are not in the Somali Basin - it is higher in 2009 than in 2008. The total number of successful hijackings in the Gulf of Aden, which is where we are, has fallen by about 40 percent, from 33 down to 19. It has gone up quite significantly in the Somali Basin. It's gone up 300 percent in the Somali Basin.

We have 28,000 ships passing through the Gulf of Aden every year, so this has real significant, real economic significance. I understand that the whole area of the Gulf of Aden and the Somali Basin covers over one million square miles so it is a big, big area.

And to give an example of the problem, yesterday a Turkish ship was hijacked more than 1,000 miles out to sea from Somalia. Closer to India than Africa, which represents a significant increase in the pirates' range. So this problem is not diminishing as we take it forward.

That's what I had to say and I'm happy to take any questions that you might have.

Q: Did Mrs. Ashton meet with Mr. Rasmussen today?

JAMES APPATHURAI: Ah yes. Sorry. Mrs. Ashton is meeting, indeed with Mr. Rasmussen right now.

Q: Right now.

JAMES APPATHURAI: Right now. They started at 1:30.

Q: What was the topic?

JAMES APPATHURAI: The general subject is... and this is their second, I think, meeting. The general subject is how to step up NATO-EU relations. You know the Secretary General made this one of his priorities when he took office. He has been in regular contact with EU leaders, with very specific ideas on how to take forward this relation, which he believes must be deepened and substantially deepened.

In Palma, where I think many of you were, he was quite clear - I'm being corrected by somebody - he was quite clear in saying that he believes that there are practical steps which can be taken to improve the practical cooperation on the ground and when it comes to capability development. Those are two areas that he's mentioned publicly, where without crossing any red lines for nations that have inhibited NATO-EU cooperation until now.

So that is the point of the discussion. I can't go into too much detail, I'm afraid. Or too much more detail.

I should also mention that he met on Monday with the president of the European Council, Mr. Van Rompuy.

Q: James, could you please give us some more details on the visit to NATO of the Georgian president? Would it be North Atlantic Council participation, what would be the topics?

JAMES APPATHURAI: There's no meeting planned with the North Atlantic Council. He will only be meeting with the Secretary General, so of course anybody's free to bring up whatever it is that they wish to bring up. We do have a NATO-Georgia Commission. It is not meeting, but we have a privileged partnership with... or we have a deep partnership with Georgia, an annual national plan. We support their reforms. And of course, there are strategic issues of which we are all aware.

I think the basics we all know - the commitment of NATO to supporting Georgia's reform, to Georgia's territorial integrity - I'm sure he will hear that, again, from the Secretary General. But of course there's a lot going on in the country and in the region. So we'll see. I'll give you a report on it when it's finished.

Take these three. Please.

Q: James, on the anti-piracy operation, you said that the problem is not diminishing. So tell us how many ships are there today and what do you intend to do to diminish the problem? Thank you.

JAMES APPATHURAI: We have five ships. We - I can only speak for NATO - we have five ships there now. This is SNMG 2. The flag ship is U.K. There is a U.S. navy ship, a Turkish navy ship, a Greek navy ship and an Italian navy ship.

And this mandate has been extended through 2011, as you know, so we will keep our ships there.

A number of things have happened or are happening. One is that in essence a transit corridor has been set up and we group... - we…, the international maritime forces that are there - group commercial ships into convoys and take them through this transit corridor. That works very well.

Secondly, advice has been given to commercial ships as to how to better defend themselves, and that is happening as well.

Thirdly, all of the counterpiracy task forces have taken on new tactics to intercept pirates closer to the shore before they reach deep waters, and international shipping lanes. And there have been some prominent examples of this as well. We've moved more resources, including maritime patrol resources, into the area.

So a lot is being done, and there are regular meetings to exchange best practices and come out with new solutions. But it doesn't mean that we've solved the problem. That's quite clear.

Q: On the Georgian visit, do you expect the Secretary General to raise the issue of the hoax broadcast about the Russian invasion? Any expressions of concern about that?

JAMES APPATHURAI: I don't know what he intends to raise, but I do know that from NATO's point of view this hoax television broadcast was unwise, unhelpful and - let's say - not seen positively within NATO.

Q: Just a follow-up. I mean, not seen positively in the context of Georgia's possible eventual membership. Can it have any effect on that?

JAMES APPATHURAI: Yes, I don't think we should - how do I put this? -we should link the two. Georgia's membership in NATO is certainly not for tomorrow. There are fundamental, and I think, long-term reforms that would need to take place before that were to happen.

This issue - this television broadcast has taken place. It is nos finished. But if you were to ask what NATO thinks of it, the answer would not be approval.

Q: Two questions, one on Afghanistan and the drug production. Right around Marjah now, apparently they're starting to harvest the poppies. Is NATO doing anything to prevent that? Because from what our people have seen, there's been no effort to prevent that and obviously if there is an effort, there will be problems with the townspeople who depend on that for their livelihood. So that's one question.

And the other is on Geoff Hoon. He's in trouble politically in the U.K., but he's a member of this experts committee headed by Madeleine Albright, discussing the New Strategic Concept. Will he remain on that committee now that he's been kicked out of Labour or suspended or whatever, I'm not sure?

JAMES APPATHURAI: Okay, thank you. On Marjah, you - of course - come to the heart of what is the challenge in Afghanistan. But the NATO perspective on this, and the ISAF perspective on this, is clear. We are in a counterinsurgency situation and the priority in Marjah and throughout Afghanistan is to create the conditions in which the average Afghan at the very least does not support the Taliban or other insurgents, and to a greater and greater extent, places his confidence in the government - his or her elected government - to provide a better future for him and her and their children.

So we cannot be in a situation where we remove the only, and in most cases, only source of income for people who live in the second poorest country in the world, without being able to provide them an alternative. That is simply not possible.

I think we have to also keep in mind that there are supplies stocked away by the Taliban and others for years to come. So this one harvest - while important - is not going to change that fact. Soldiers and other... sorry, not soldiers. First, the Afghan government has already shipped in - I believe, it's... no, I can't remember the figures - tons of seeds - can't remember how many tons, and I can get that for you - but tons of seeds. Half of what would be required to replace the opium has been brought in. They're bringing in the next half of the shipment, I understand, in the coming weeks or months, and working with the locals to encourage them to take up an alternative crop.

Q: Seeds?

JAMES APPATHURAI: I don't know which... I was not told which seeds they were. That was not in the document. I didn't just forget that, it wasn't there. But the Afghan government is working to provide them with a sustainable alternative livelihood and that is what we will support as NATO.

With regards to Mr. Hoon. You will recall that it was the British government that nominated Mr. Hoon to be one of the group of 12 experts. And he has served there with distinction. However, given that it's clear that the British government no longer supports Mr. Hoon's participation, the Secretary General has decided to ask Mr. Hoon to end his participation in the group of 12.

We thank Mr. Hoon for his valuable input to the work of the experts, which is nearing completion.

Q: James, following on from that, will the SecGen now be asking the British government to nominate somebody else to finish off the work? And on the piracy question, is there any talk within NATO of extending either the range ort he numbers of the ships involved given that the piracy itself is spreading so much?

JAMES APPATHURAI: Well, I don't... let me put it this way, until now I have not heard that the Secretary General will ask the U.K. to provide someone else, but the reason I mentioned the words “nearing completion” is because they are basically in the final drafting stage now. The Secretary General will meet with Madeleine Albright this weekend at the Brussels Forum, but he's expecting to get the report from her in the coming weeks. So in essence the viewpoints of Mr. Hoon, which by the way... which we thank him, have been incorporated into the document.

The individuals were acting as individuals and not simply to convey the policies or wishes of the individual governments. They were experts. They were supposed to take into account all issues and that is what has happened until now. But of course without the support of his government it became impossible to continue, for Mr. Hoon to continue.

So I don't know the answer to that, but my inclination is to say we're at such a late stage, the input is already there, that it might not happen.

The current deployment of the five ships is for four months. It could be extended a little bit, but for the moment, it's for four months. If the decision is taken, or if the assessment is that more is required, then that would go to the North Atlantic Council and they would take that decision.

As I mentioned the area of operations for NATO's counterpiracy mission has already expanded to engage closer to the shore before they hit deep water. If more adjustments are necessary, I'm sure they will be made.

Q: James, could we expect joint NATO-Russian anti-narcotics actions in Afghanistan in the nearest future?


Q: Yes.

JAMES APPATHURAI: Until now... well, let me say this. We have a working group - an NRC working group- on Afghanistan, and any issue can be raised there. Until now the cooperation in the NRC context on counternarcotics has not included any activity within Afghanistan. And I have not, until now, heard any proposal to do joint counternarcotics work inside the country.

It may come up. It may even come up in 30 minutes at the NRC, but until now I don't think it has come up.

Q: My question is a technical one. Do you expect some kind of meeting with third countries in Tallinn ministerial, I mean, Russia, Ukraine and Georgia, some others maybe?

JAMES APPATHURAI: For the moment I think what is clear in terms of third countries for Tallinn - the first day would be NATO only; the second day - what it looks like, what it looks like, but it has not yet been decided - is an ISAF meeting - I think that will certainly happen; there is the possibility, though not yet decided on either side, of a NATO-Russia Council; and I don't, for the moment, believe there will be any other... or at least there is no planning for the moment for any other meetings with third parties, either Georgia or Ukraine in this case.

Q: You said about this EU-NATO relation that it should be improved, or could be improved practically on the ground without crossing red lines. Have I understood well or not?


Q: And that there will be no effort also to move those red lines?

JAMES APPATHURAI: Yes, mais ça dépend où se trouvent les lignes rouges évidemment. Et nous avons par exemple évidemment eu des difficultés à avoir des réunions formelles entre les deux conseils sur des sujets qui dépassent le Berlin plus, c'est clair. Mais on a pu avoir des réunions informelles, des réunions de discussion entre les chefs des deux organisations. Nous n’avons par exemple pas eu l'occasion d'avoir des accords formels entre les organisations pour, par exemple, un soutien mutuel, si c'est le bon mot, entre nos forces sur le terrain, y compris au Koso... par exemple au Kosovo et le personnel de l'Union européenne. Mais est-ce qu'il y a des arrangements entre les gens, le personnel sur le terrain, informels, mais ils se téléphonent pour un soutien au cas où? Oui. Alors, il y a toujours des moyens de trouver des formules informelles qui ne dépassent pas les lignes rouges formelles. Le Secrétaire Général aimerait évidemment explorer au maximum ce qui est possible en ce qui concerne la coopération pratique, sur le terrain, sans que nous nous trouvions - il y a un mot en anglais qui est parfait, "hobbled" - attaché... les jambes attachées par les menottes formelles.

That was good! (Laughs). Please.

Q: (Inaudible...) ligotées.

JAMES APPATHURAI: Ligotées. I did not know that word, thank you.

Q: James, don't you think for the question of Afghanistan, for the counternarcotics, that there is, first of all, I remember, long time ago, since NATO was implicated in Afghanistan, that it was among the priorities.


Q: And now we are saying the same things about - we cannot for the time being do it because of... so… Do you have a sort of target when exactly it won't be a problem? The narcotics in Afghanistan? Do you think in two years time, in one year time, especially with the transition period? So this is, I think, one of the main issues and this is my first one.

JAMES APPATHURAI: Sorry, go ahead.

Q: And my second one is about Somalia. When we will say 40 percent reduction, is it due only to NATO or for all the EU present, Russia, China, and if there is a sort of coordination among those? Why still there is a problem of...? And why the NATO is not reconsidering to tackle the problem from Somalia itself, by cooperating with the transitional government to train and to equip for a Somali, let us say...


Q: Yes, I'm sorry.

JAMES APPATHURAI: No no no, I totally understand the question. It's a good question.

Q: A Coast Guard.

JAMES APPATHURAI: Yes. Okay, on the narcotics issue, maybe I haven't been clear. A, we believe that the narcotics issue is a problem and B, we do a lot to tackle it. And I mentioned all of these things that are being done.

What we don't do is eradication. We do not do crop spraying or having NATO soldiers pulling poppy out of the ground.

Afghan counternarcotics officials do do that, by the way, but NATO forces do not do that. We provide support for the overall Afghan counternarcotics effort. We interdict drug lords' drug labs. And by the way, we help the Afghan government fight the insurgency, which as I mentioned, is probably the most effective way to do this. But there is no intention to engage, or have our soldiers engage directly in eradication for the reasons that I mentioned, but we consider the overall counternarcotics effort a priority and that is why we are so heavily engaged in it.

Second, on Somalia, yes, I hope I was...

Q: (Inaudible...) begin the transition from next year.


Q: So the problem will remain.

JAMES APPATHURAI: Yes, we have to understand what transition means. Transition means where conditions allow, or... Afghan forces get lead security responsibility. Transition does not mean that next year we all go home. We are surging up now to quite high levels of forces. Transition will take place and we will create the conditions for that to take place. Late this year or next year, and as Afghan forces take the lead, we will move into a supporting role. And that will include supporting them in their counternarcotics efforts as we already do.

And I think we should remember that we will be, at that point, at very, very high levels of forces and one country, maybe two or three will be drawing down, begin drawing down, but there will certainly not be any kind of departure of the overall NATO force.

Somalia, first and there I clearly wasn't clear. Yes, this 40 percent reduction in the success rate in the Gulf of Aden is due to everybody's participation, all of the different configurations. So certainly not NATO alone, and we don't try to claim that it's NATO alone. On the contrary. This is a true team effort and there is excellent coordination at sea. Another example of where - practically speaking - the forces in the field can do what they need to do without crossing any political red lines.

There has been no real discussion within NATO of going beyond this role. I know the European Union has taken on a role of training Somali officials and, I think, Coast Guard as well, but there has been no discussion within NATO of doing that. It simply has not come to the NATO table. If it is brought to the NATO table, I'm sure there'll be a discussion, but until now our role has focused on the sea. I might add, we have our hands full in Afghanistan and I think that that's taking up a lot of our effort and our time.

Q: A small question. This NRC counternarcotics programs, first, can you precise where this training took place?


Q: And since when and perhaps NATO... I don't see how this practical cooperation can be translated... Comment pourrait se traduire cette coopération pratique entre l'UE et l'OTAN? Est-ce qu'il s'agit effectivement de tous les axes? Comment cette exploration de coopération pratique où l'OTAN pourrait se traduire effectivement? Quel domaine concerné? Est-ce c'est effectivement unique le théâtre?

JAMES APPATHURAI: Tu me perds là. Je ne t'entends pas. Comment la Coopération européenne...?

Q: Comment pourrait se... concrètement traduire cette exploration de... plus concrètement cette exploration de coopération pratique entre l'UE et l'OTAN?

JAMES APPATHURAI: Alors, le NRC, je ne peux pas dire où, quand on a commencé, mais peut-être ça se trouve facilement sur le site web. Mais je ne l'ai pas en tête. Ceci dit, il y a du "training" dans l'Afghanistan elle-même mais sans Russes. Ça, c'est l'OTAN qui le fait, je pense. Et à Domodedovo, il y a un centre juste en dehors de Moscou où il y a beaucoup d'entraînement qui a lieu. Je pense qu'il y a aussi… - non, non, je pense que ce sont là les deux endroits.

En ce qui concerne l'Union européenne, je pense qu'on a eu beaucoup d'exemples. J'ai donné beaucoup d'exemples, je ne veux pas aller en avant des discussions d'aujourd'hui. Mais j'ai donné, je pense, beaucoup d'exemples où ça se concrétise: la piraterie; en Afghanistan; au Kosovo. Mais le Secrétaire-Général aimerait certainement avoir plus quand nous regardons la coopération dans le développement des capacités, y compris par exemple les hélicoptères, la technologie contre les bombes artisanales, voilà un autre exemple. Alors, bon, on verra.

Q: Question. What is the transit situation with Russia, across the northern part of Afghanistan? I don't care about the southern. What's going on there? Anything?

JAMES APPATHURAI: My understanding is that all the necessary links in the chain have now been completed. In other words, the Russian offer had been accepted. What was necessary, very frankly, was to complete arrangements with Kazakhstan. That has been done. So the northern line is now open. A number of countries are using it, and NATO either has begun or will begin in the coming weeks to use it.

As of the last time I was informed of this, which was a few weeks ago, it was going to be in the coming weeks, so I don't know exactly when it will be. I have not been told that it has happened, but NATO as an organization can now also have from Europe to Afghanistan transit. So that's done.

Q: Is this for non-lethal supplies only?

JAMES APPATHURAI: It's for non-lethal supplies only. So no bullets or bombs. Everything else can go.

Thank you.