From the event


12 Sep 2007

Joint press conference

with General Dan McNeill, Commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, and Ambassador Daan Everts, NATO Senior Civilian Representative


James Appathurai (NATO Spokesman): Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming. We have today our usual Wednesday press briefing, but with two special guest stars: General Dan McNeill, the Commander of the NATO ISAF force in Afghanistan, who's come up here to speak both to the NAC and to the NAC including ISAF... other ISAF contributors; and our Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan, Daan Everts. Both have agreed to come here and make a few opening remarks and then take your questions.

Let me turn the floor over first to General McNeill.

McNeill: Thank you so much, James, and it's indeed a pleasure for me to be at NATO Headquarters and SHAPE as I have been for the last couple of days, talking to a number of audiences. And I appreciate not only the chance to do this, but the attention or attentiveness people have given to me, because what I mostly wanted to do for the few days I was here, to try to make people better informed, certainly the Military Committee and the North Atlantic Council, and I think we've accomplished those tasks.

We have had thus far in our operational concept in Afghanistan, this fighting season—fighting season typically begins around March—we've had quite a bit of success, especially in the south. We expect to keep moving forward. We expect to keep that string of successes going and we hope by the time we get to what is typically called the winter lull we'll be in pretty shape and set ourselves for resuming the fight next year, and hopefully, with a lot more Afghan units out in front and taking the fighting on their own homeland to the insurgent.

So, again, I'm delighted to be with you today and to share my thoughts with you, if indeed you have questions, and I will now pass the microphone over to my friend and colleague, Daan Everts. 

Everts: This one? It works, yes. I'm equally pleased as the General to be here and to field some questions if you like.
Let me just stress that whenever you look at Afghanistan and write about it and try to analyze it, the immense complexity of the problem has to be recognized. After all, we are only seven years after a three-decade dark period of civil strife and anarchy and total destruction. I haven't seen in my long existence, professional existence in post-conflict societies, I haven't seen the scratch from where you have to start, as we witness in Afghanistan.

So the progress obviously is also not easy to achieve. It's a difficult... call it a two steps forward, one step backward process, but there is a forward movement, that is reflected, I think, by any credible polling of Afghan opinions, and they are regularly held, where consistently the presence of international... the international presence, military and civilian, is seen as absolutely necessary to avoid sliding back in civil war. I think that's a most compelling argument, probably for Afghans to want us there.
On the other hand, it's also clear that if they can do without the international military at one point they would like to see us go. No population, no nation would like to see foreign military on their soil forever.

In the triptych of security, governance and development possibly governance is the most difficult one to improve on, given the history. There are new initiatives ongoing right now by the president also to revamp governance, to pay more attention to national governance. It is overdue for sure. And the other part of governance which is critical for ultimate success is, of course, the build-up of the Afghan National Security Forces, and here we have, particularly the police, to be repaired, built up, and guided to strength and quality.

So it's an enormous challenge, but I think we are very much prepared for it. I think there is very basic popular support for the efforts and the question is to stay the course and complete the job.

Q: Mark John from Reuters. General McNeill, given the successes against the Taliban you talked about, and given the Afghan training effort that you've also talked about, is it therefore logical to assume that in coming months there will be fewer ISAF forces needed in direct combat against the Taliban?

And the second question, there've been numerous accusations made in the media about a lack of NATO support for the EU as it sets up its police training mission. Can you answer those accusations and tell us where NATO is helping the EU and where it has been unable to help the EU?

McNeill: First, I'd like to point out that there is significant progress in the forward move of the Afghan National Army. If I can just give you a few points to validate that statement. Last year, I believe the Afghans were committing about 600 recruits per month to go through training and become part of the army. I think the figures each month thus far this year have been between 2,000 and 3,000. So they've up-gone their effort to produce any army.

There've been several combined operations between the ISAF forces and the Afghan forces out in the field. By combined I mean in several cases we actually juxtaposed two headquarters, an ISAF brigade and an Afghan brigade. We did it for several reasons. One, it makes for a better operation, but two, it is also part of the learning and training process for the Afghan National Army.

One, in fact, is ongoing now in the U.S. sector in the east, and we are very pleased with the results that we see, as has the Minister of Defence of Afghanistan commented he's happy with what he sees there.

There is slower development in the Afghan National Police, and you might ask why that's important. There are several reasons it's important. One, we find that the type of operation we're in Afghanistan is an insurgency and the counterinsurgency operations that we run, most modern militaries who have a body of lower knowledge called doctrine as to how the wage a counterinsurgency hold that the best force to use against the insurgent is indigenous security force.

I've mentioned that we have great progress and significant gains in the Afghan National Army. It's less so in police, but curiously this doctrine also says that of the indigenous security force the best to use is police.

We probably have 60 percent of that country, on a weekly basis, reporting on the average of one significant event or less a week. That's a sign of relatively good security and stability. What you need in those areas or effective police; well-trained, well-manned, well-equipped, well-led and respectful of the people to whom they have a duty. In turn they will be respected by the people to whom they give that duty.

There's much work to be done there, and I believe it's in the best interests of all the international community to get behind this effort to see it move forward.

I'm not in a real good position to comment on the EUPOL piece because they have been working more closely with the American-led training and equipping coalition, (inaudible) Alpha, it's called, then they have been with me. But I can see the value in anybody who has both capacity and will to come in and help the Afghans stand up their national police and what it will do for the international community at large that I say any effort like that ought to be applauded, and should be encouraged and we all ought to be behind it.

Q: So (inaudible)... you haven't actually answered either question. The first question was the impact of the two points we mentioned, successes against the Taliban and increased training on the number of ISAF troops in combat and where you see that going. That's the first question.

McNeill: Okay.

Q: And the second question was on NATO support for the EUPOL mission, where it is offering support and where it's unable to offer support.

McNeill: Okay. I got it. NATO's an interim force in Afghanistan. And it's a force to buy time and space to build the Afghan National Security Forces, and as I've mistakenly answered your question before, I stand by those responses. We've done very well with the Afghan National Army. We've done less well with the Afghan National Police and we're going to need them both to satisfy this.

But I don't think we're at a juncture in this effort over time that we can say it's time for NATO forces to be supplanted by the Afghan forces. I don't think they're at a level of operations that could be considered fully independent now. They're improving for sure, and I expect that some... where over time you will see Afghan forces in the lead and showing a lot more independence, but I think that time is simply not here.

The EUPOL part, again, I think it's well known, because both the Secretary General, SACEUR and more recently the head of the NATO Military Committee, when he was in Ottawa some days ago, have expressed a view that we haven't completely filled the force we have prescribed in Afghanistan.

I think first and foremost that, essentially, we need to get up to the force levels that we think is correct. And then perhaps we can see a faster progress, a faster rate of progress, which is what I think we all need.

Appathurai: Can I jump in. Mark, to complement what the General has said on EUPOL, you may have already seen this quote in the Herald, but I'll say it again. NATO has been providing support to European Police in Afghanistan. I cannot imagine... we cannot imagine that NATO will provide any less support to EU Police than it does to representatives from other international organization such as the United Nations, in future.

Q: Martinez de Rituerto, with El País, Spain. Two questions, one for the Ambassador, again dealing with the police. Today there is this story about some... at this disarray and lack of communication and probably distrust on everything not going well and the American... and the German general giving up because it's impossible to a proper job in dealing with the formation of police in Afghanistan.

You have just said, Ambassador, that is critical to have the police in Afghanistan.

Are you aware that this disconnection, this disarray, exists in the police from our side of the operation in the international community forces there is no agreement in how to deal with the situation and there are mistrusts and money is not coming in and political differences.

And for the General, last week here in this... Headquarters, someone from NATO said that the situation building relation with narcotics is an alarming problem. If we, NATO, see it as alarming shouldn't we, NATO be doing something else done what we are doing? Should we as NATO soldiers be intervening in the fight against the industry of narcotics?

Thank you.

Everts: Let me take the first one on the police. I stand by my earlier comment that getting the police in shape and responsive to needs, both in terms of law enforcement, as well as in terms of protection against those who threaten lives, is of the utmost priority. I think it's the critical factor for lasting solutions in Afghanistan. So police is crucial importance.

I don't think there's disarray, as you suggest, but what there is still a great unevenness in efforts, mainly between the two main actors in this area. This is the U.S. and the EU. And I think on the EU side, if I may permit myself this comment, I'm a European, after all, but there the response must be more and better. There has to be a more commensurate effort on the part of Europe, a more matching effort to what the U.S. is putting in.

Right now the police, what is there, and that's far from perfect, it's quite inadequate, and still ridden with incompetence and corruption, but that has to be addressed in a more concerted and a more forceful manner.

There is a discrepancy, as I've mentioned in the council this morning, between our military efforts and our police/law enforcement efforts. That is police, the courts, prosecution and prisons, for that matter. That has to be rebalanced. Not by reducing military efforts, but by vastly increasing the police investments.

McNeill: The question to me was about counter narcotics. First, let me say I'm well aware that Antonio María Costa from the UN was here some days ago to speak about it. And I'm not privy to what he said, but I have had conversations with him before, and I know, more or less, where we are.

The first point I'd made is the increase in the growth of property, from my perspective, has been dramatic, in Afghanistan this year. There are probably several reasons for that that is quite obvious. One is, prices are still good and it is a way for people who think they have no other livelihood, a way for them to make a living and take care of their families. Not a good rationalization for why you should grow illicit narcotic crops, but it likely enters into the picture.

Secondly, Afghanistan is enjoying its best year of moisture in 50-some years by the accounts of most meteorologists. They get their moisture from the snow melt from the Hindu Kush and from spring rains, both of which were very good this year. In fact, the spring rains were too good. At one time back about the latter part of March 1st, part of February, we found ourselves in some pretty good fighting in North Helmand, yet I get a call from President Karzai, would we help with disaster relief. The floods were affecting some people in the Helmand River, in Uruzgan just outside of Helmand province and he asked if we would fish them out of the river. Which we did, with tactical helicopters, about 350, 400 people, we saved them from drowning.

So this moisture goes to the growth in a number of provinces, especially Helmand, the poppy, if I understand the civil culture correctly, the poppy requires moisture once in every five days and it's getting plenty of moisture these days.

Having said that, the NATO mandate to me is very clear on what we will do in the counter narcotics line. We have worked that, as we have been directed, by the NATO Headquarters and JCF Brunssum to do it and we will continue to do it.

Poppy undermines each of the three lines of operation we try to run. First it makes security tougher. It's been our experience that around poppy fields fighting the insurgent... the fighting is more intense. Secondly, it causes the Afghan people who are in the poppy business, to be distracted from the major reconstruction efforts that NATO ISAF helps them. A good example would be the Kajaki project, a refurbishment, $300 million U.S. equivalent of a hydroelectric dam along the Helmand River north of Helmand province.

And lastly, it corrupts governance. So just from a moral stand we should do what we can in counter narcotics. The Afghan people have a counter narcotics strategy. It has eight pillars. There are some that clearly fit within the NATO mandate, and some that do not. And as I said, Supreme Allied Commander Europe has told us to work within the mandate and do everything we can for them.

Largely, I think the Afghans have to see to this problem. And because they don't have fully developed institutions and capacity they need international help, but before it is all said and done we have to help the Afghans get this problem of counter narcotics settled.

There's no question it is poisoning portions of their society. It's my estimate that in some areas, perhaps some of the urban areas, addiction to hashish and heroin could be as high as 30 percent. The chief of defence there has said that he has military units that have a problem with narcotics. It's in our best interest to help the Afghans with this, but by and large I think the Afghans have to do it themselves.

Everts: If I could just briefly add, because narcotics is, of course, a hugely pervasive problem as the General indicates, the good thing about the UNODC report is, of course, that it does away with the myth that poppy production has to do with poverty and dire needs. It's largely greed that makes for the bulk of the poppy production more than need.

The other issue is that also the UN document makes very clear this is direct link with not only insurgency, and hence it is an issue for all of us, but it's also very much connected to the big C, the C of corruption. It's corruption that creates also the permissive environment that makes it possible for the narcotics business to flourish.

Third observation to make is that it remains a nation-wide problem. Although there are poppy-free provinces that doesn't mean they're free of narcotics business. There is labs, there is processing taking place, there is trafficking taking place. Very much also in the north and the west, so it remains a nation-wide problem and for all of us to be aware of.

The past approaches have, by all accounts, and by all observers, been too much bottom-up, starting with eradication with fields, with the cultivation. I think there is a shift in emphasis or at least a perceived need to shift the emphasis to more top-down, and take on the big fish in the business, both in the cultivation, in the processing, in the trafficking, and have more of a top-down approach than the traditional bottom-up.

Q: Fidelius Schmid, Financial Times Deutschland. General, just to make clear, when you say ISAF or NATO should do what it can in counter narcotics, what should it do more and should it do more? And secondly, you said before that the time hasn't come yet when ISAF can reduce combat troops and take Afghan troops into the lead? Can you maybe give a timeframe until when or when do you estimate that the Afghan National Army will be in a position to give greater relief to ISAF troops?

McNeill: Thank you. As to what we should be doing in the way of doing more in counter narcotics there is dialogue ongoing, and mostly I'd like to leave that SACEUR and the Secretary General. I understand the NATO mandate now, it's very clear to me and I can work within those parameters, and have some effect.

You could make the debate that there could be other things the ISAF force could be doing and have more effect, and if indeed, the members of the Alliance, Secretary General and SACEUR agree, then we're likely to do it.

I would make one point with you. I'm not desirous that this force become an eradication force. We're not manned, we're not trained, we're not equipped. It's a different parameter, and I'm not interested in being in it.

But other... there are other ways we can help. At his request I've suggested these to SACEUR as well today in conversation to SecGen and I am satisfied that talking to the members of the Alliance, they will come to some position that will say mandate stands as it is, or there will be some adjustments, and if there are adjustments within our capability and capacity, we will have the desired effect.

Back to the timeline, that you would like me to speak to with the Afghan National Army. There's one timeline right now that I do have some reasonable certainty of. There has been for some time an agreement to train 70,000 soldiers for the Afghan National Army. It does appear that we're well on track to complete that by the end of next year.

Having trained 70,000 Afghan soldiers does not imply complete independence. I think there'll be some time after that. They have to grow other processes, other systems, before they look to be an independent force.

In the interim we will be working with them, we will be helping them in operations. We will be doing everything we can to move them faster to independent operation. You have to believe me, I talk to the Afghans everyday. There's nothing they want more than to provide for their own security and take care of themselves. They simply know they can't do it now. They need international help.

Q: In other words, ISAF cannot reduce combat troops before the end of next year.

McNeill: I think I answered that in an earlier question, but that's not what I said. I said we're not at a juncture yet for ISAF to reduce troops.

Q: Not until end of 2007, that's implied.

McNeill: No, I didn't say that either. Those are your words. I said, we will have trained out 70,000 Afghan soldiers by the end of next year, but that does not mean independence.

Q: Jim Neuger from Bloomberg. To take just the flipside of this, you said in response to my colleague's earlier question that you're not... that you need to get up to the force level deemed to be correct. Could you say how far short you currently are, both in numbers of troops and in equipment and in the role they would play?

Then to ask my actual question, if you can give us your assessment of Pakistan's current cooperation in pacifying the tribal areas and preventing incursions.

McNeill: Thank you. Two very good questions. First one is, I could mention a lot of things, but I would simply be repeating things that you have already printed or aired. I think the Secretary General several times, most recently at the conference in Geneva, has been very eloquent in pointing out where the force is short. SACEUR himself has also been very eloquent and fervent in his pleas about filling the (inaudible)... and certain things that are needed.

More recently in Ottawa the chairman of the Military Committee laid to the same market, so at the risk of not being... to not be redundant I simply will say their words were very eloquent and I agree with them completely.

You ask about Pakistan, and I'd like you to know that indeed, when you consider Afghanistan, although the NATO mandate goes to the borders of Afghanistan there's a regional issue here, and Pakistan has a big role in it. You perhaps also know that under the NATO mandate we have a Tripartite Commission. It's meetings of some frequency between myself, as the NATO ISAF representative, General Bismullah Khan, that's the Chief of Defence of Afghanistan, and General Ahsan Hayat, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Army.

Those meetings typically have revolved around what we can do on either side of the border, to make the border less porous and to make it more secure. They have revolved also around the building of security force capacity, mostly in Afghanistan.

So some comments about General Ahsan Hayat, the other day in which he expressed how much he valued the tripartite committee meetings. I expect these will continue. There is the mil-to-mil relationship. They, in my view, have produced some excellent results at the tactical level on the border, primarily on the U.S. eastern sector, between the Pakistanis and the U.S. ISAF forces, but they're also gaining momentum in the southern borders where the dialogue is between the British commander of Regional Command South and the Pakistani division commander on the other side of the border.

My guess is they will continue. They'll be fruitful and they're likely to evolve into other things, perhaps an ISAF Headquarters that today has both Afghan and Pakistani officers present in that Headquarters and perhaps there will be more sometime next year.

Thank you.

Q: Paul Ames from the Associated Press. I have two questions, General. First of all, I'd like to know if you've made any progress in the past few weeks on procedures to reduce the risk of civilian causalities from allied air strikes. And I'm wondering if perhaps a review of the ordinance levels used in those strikes is one of the aspects that you're considering. 

And secondly, you talked about the winter lull in fighting. Last year when we were expecting the winter lull we had Operation Medusa and quite a lot of fighting going on. Is it your assessment that perhaps the military situation has changed now and we should not expect something of that like this winter?

McNeill: Thank you, and if I might correct you, and I'm not trying to fence words with you, but winter typically begins on the 21st of December, I think that's the winter solstice and Medusa was in operation the last few days in August and September. So I would deem it to be still in summer fighting. Summing ending about the 21st of September, and again, I'm not trying to fence words with you, but I think my statement was correct.

The insurgent typically lulls in the winter, and he lulls because he lives up in the high ground and he loves to use the mountain passes. Snows begin to fall sometimes as early as the third week in October, passes begin to close, life in the mountains begins to become difficult, he finds a cave, he goes to ground.

And he's likely to do that again this year. Without betraying my operational concepts, let me just simply say I don't recognize a winter lull. We'll keep... we've had good tactical progress. Make no mistake about it. And it's a military adage, reinforce your success and operations will reinforce its success and we expect to keep going.

Reducing civilian casualties, as you might imagine, is a key piece for me. Some of you have heard of a tactical directive that I issued several months ago about how we could operate and conduct ourselves. And I'm not going to lay that out to you open in public here, primarily because it has a classification to it and some members of the Alliance would be sensitive to me laying out classified data. I'm sensitive to it. I'm not going to lay out in open forum to my enemy exactly what I'm doing, because he'll find a seam in it and he will leverage it.

I will simply say this: It has had a desired effect. The Afghans appreciate it. The members of the Alliance appreciate it. And it's indicative of what we do every day. We go to great lengths and to extraordinary measures to ensure that our operations minimize the impact on non-combatants and their property and we are fairly successful at it.

You mentioned specifically a technical dimension to that, the types of munitions used and I think you were specifically alluding to aerial-delivered ordinance. We are pretty particular about that and we generally use precision-guided munitions. We weaponeer, and that's a military lexicon for we consider all dimensions of target delivery, location, collateral damage estimates and whatnot to select the right munitions to go in the right place.

Not only do we give it precision terminal guidance, but we select the ordinance that will produce desired effect without undue risk to non-combatants and their property. And we look to be doing pretty good with that right now. Thank you, sir.

Q: A question to the General. Chris Dickson, Agence Europe. Specifically, coming back to the problem of poppy cultivation in the south and the effect that's having on your mandate, I understand that there are restrictions on what you can do and that there are other measures which perhaps should be undertaken by the Afghan forces, authorities. Are you getting the support you need from them, given the way that your hands are tied?

McNeill: I expect you're alluding to one of several counter narcotics forces that... or western-advised and western-equipped, in some cases, or Afghan. And I have found that these are capable forces, so the answer to your question is, tactically, at the lowest level they're pretty good right now and they have the ability to make a little bit of a difference.

Poppy is so huge we need to affect it strategically. I think there has to be more coming from the national level, the Afghan national level, and I think it' SIN the best interests of the international community to back that. It's not, in my view that the Afghans don't want to do it. We have to remember 25 years of war, five years of an insurgency, processes have been destroyed, infrastructure has not seen investments or has been destroyed in the fighting and whatnot, and it's not as though we were looking at some advanced government in the West saying you should do this. I think the Afghans know that narcotics are poisoning some of their society and I think they know they must do something about it.

I think that they need help to do it, simply from their lack of resources and lack of processes, and I think if we stand firmly behind them and we help where we can, that they will come to grips with it.

Having said that, I've already commented that the NATO mandate is very clear to me. There are things I can do. We are doing those things. Perhaps there are things we should be doing, and there have been conversations between SACEUR, SecGen and myself, and I suspect they will consult with other members of the Alliance, if we want to make adjustments to it, if we want to change the mandate.

Thank you.

Q: Two questions. (Inaudible)... Italian Defence Review. The first question is for Ambassador Everts. Please, can you characterize the NATO's relationship with Iran, especially in counter narcotics prospective?

And second one is to General McNeill, please can you elaborate on the Panjwaii district situation, because it was considered a success story but recently New York Times raised some doubt about the situation. Thank you.

Everts: Briefly on the Iran situation, clearly the government is, the Afghan government is speaking highly of the cooperation with the Iranian counterparts, certainly in terms of the counter narcotics policies. They see very much eye-to-eye. I think there's very little to take offence with.

Iran is suffering hugely from the trade. It has an enormous addiction problem. I mean, its own population has as many as three million are being cited, and it is a problem that it clearly has in common with Afghanistan and so there is interest... common interest in finding solutions here.

So on this issue I think the verdict is pretty clear that there is cooperation, which no doubt can be further enhanced, but it's very much there in the villas on both sides of the border.

McNeill: Panjwaii district is in Kandahar, the western part of Kandahar and often one of the more troubled districts next to Zhari and Maywand. Troubled because there is often tribal friction there. They're all Pashtus, but they're from different tribes. This friction allows seams for the insurgents sometimes to get in between it. There was pretty intense fighting there last year, and our Canadian brothers did an excellent job of holding forth on that.

This year we decided not to let it go bad before we did something about it, and so we have been working steadily on Panjwaii, and we've had, to be sure, some chequered results. We went in early on in the spring, did some good operations, came back out, the Afghans put a lot of their police in there.

As happens from time to time, again, this is about that you've got to have the right kind of process; their Minister of the Interior was unable, on a frequent basis, to get their pay to them. Some of the police abandoned their posts. When they abandoned their posts, their numbers were down, making vulnerable those who were left behind. The insurgent picked up on this immediately and began attacking police. We've been back and forth in there a number of times.

Right now it looks fairly good relatively to what it looked this time last year. What we need is for it to look very good, but we need the Afghans to make it look good. And it's going to require the continued effort by both of us. It's going to require some time before the Afghan National Security Forces, especially the police, are fully up to being a whole force.

We do a good job, we being ISAF, we being NATO, of clearing an area out, but we're not a big enough force to clear all the areas out and hold them all. The Afghans are going to have to come in behind us and be a hold and there have been a couple of times this fighting season that I wish they would have done better as a whole for us. I'm hopeful that next fighting season they will be better for a whole for us. At least during the winter months we're going to try to be working with them so they get just a tad better at that.

But I think that what you should really take note of here, is much of the trouble in Panjwaii is because of tribal differences which allow the seams that the insurgent can exploit, and the second piece is that our Canadian brothers have done a good job there this spring.

Thank you.