04 Oct 2007

ISAF Video Tele Conference

Interview with Brigadier General Pavel Macko, Director, Combined Joint Operations Centre (HQ ISAF)

BRIGADIER GENERAL PAVEL MACKO (ISAF Headquarters): Good morning, gentlemen. I am Brigadier General Pavel Macko of Slovak Armed Forces. I arrived into ISAF Headquarters two months ago with approximately 200 colleagues from NATO Headquarters Allied Land Component Command Heidelberg which replaced here at ISAF Headquarters so-called Core Staff Element provided by  Multinational Corps Northeast  in previous period.

I'm responsible for operational branch in ISAF Headquarters traditionally named as Combined Joint 3 Staff. Formally my title here is Combined Joint Operations Centre Director.
Together with my staff I'm responsible for co-ordination of ongoing ISAF operations, including co-ordination and deconfliction of ISAF operation with Operation Enduring Freedom at the operational level.

As we are approaching the end of what we call the main operational or fighting season, we will soon conclude operations conducted within the framework of Operation Now Ruz which started early this spring. Although we have not finished all key individual operations and we have not finished either comprehensive assessment of results of Operation Now Ruz, we can see some basic trends. We can see some basic factors which are influencing our operations, as well as effects we have achieved so far.

We will not wind down our activities as we approach winter period with less favourable climatic conditions. Rather, we will continue our activities and we will transition to the new operational framework within Operation Pamir.
Although there has been reporting on increased number of incidents during last season, we don't see dramatic deterioration of operational situation as sometimes claimed by insurgents or reported. Just opposite; we believe we have achieved some progress in Operation Now Ruz, as well as gained some experience we need to further analyze in order to further progress in our campaign. The Taleban and the insurgents have not achieved what they so loudly advertised early this year and instead, by resorting to unacceptable methods resulting in unnecessary suffering of Afghan people, they revealed their true nature and goals. With this I would conclude my opening remarks and I'm awaiting your questions.

MODERATOR: General, thanks for that introduction. I'll pass the floor to Nick Fiorenza first.

Q: I was wondering if you might be able to give us some details on Operation Pamir; the number of troops on the Afghan side and on the ISAF side and perhaps what units are involved. Thanks.

MACKO: Nick, thank you for the question. First of all I would like to express that Operation Pamir, similar to Operation Now Ruz, is not an operation in the technical sense. That this is not a few formations or units in time and space and manoeuvring in the space. It's an operational framework. So Pamir, similarly to Now Ruz, is Afghanistan-wide activities which we are going to conduct within the next month until next spring.

From this point of view I can say that generally all ISAF units or ISAF forces, as well as Afghanistan's security forces, will be involved in it. We use this name Operation Pamir, but it's really framework and it give a focus for our further activities and I stress the word activities. I'm not talking only operations. I'm talking activities, what we are going to conduct.

So Pamir, as a framework, will focus on further progress in what we were doing the whole summer. We will continue to focus on the reconstruction and development. We will continue on providing basic security for reconstruction and development and for government of Afghanistan in order to allow it to exercise its authority in the various regions of Afghanistan. We will conduct and focus on training activities of Afghanistan's security forces. Simply said, we will not stop our activities as the conditions deteriorate, but we will focus on these two key areas and we will conduct operations as necessary, practicable and feasible.

Q: General it's Jim Neuger from Bloomberg. Can you update us on where we stand with filling some of the requirements which were discussed by the Defence Ministers back in June? In particular, there was the issue of transport helicopters. Can you tell us how many were needed and how many have been provided, and perhaps give us some more background on where we stand with other as yet un-met requirements?

MACKO: Thank you for the question. First of all, as every soldier being in Afghanistan and facing the geography, and it's a big country, it's a huge country, and all the challenges with the infrastructure network here, you would wish to have as many as possible - helicopters, but also fixed-wing aircrafts. That's clear. It gives you flexibility to move your logistics around, but it gives you also flexibility to move your troops around. So from this point of view we are grateful for every air asset we can get here.

Specifically to your question, we have from ISAF Headquarters requested for additional support in these assets and I believe that at the moment the answer to the question what and when is at NATO Headquarters. We will be grateful for any assistance I said.

Q: Yes General. Constant Brand from AP again. I was wondering if you could describe for me how many operations you would conduct on a seasonal basis usually over the last three or four years that you've been there and has there been any change in the last year... season. We've seen, of course, added activity in the south.

MACKO: Thank you. Very complex question. I would wrap up just what we have done during this summer, during Operation Now Ruz, just to make it easier if you want.

First of all, Operation Now Ruz in general terms was a theatre-wide or Afghanistan-wide activity. We focused on a key road network - highway one - and then key connectors of this main road which is connecting the key economic route and population centres. Just for imagination, it's 2,400 kilometres of the road network which we were trying to keep the freedom of movement on it, I believe successfully, not only for us, but particularly for government of Afghanistan, particularly for economic flow in the country. The economy of the country is doing well from this point of view.

In addition to that, we're conducting specific operations in areas where it was needed. These operations are different in nature as also the conditions are different throughout Afghanistan. We have different kinds of operations in the northern part and in the south, and if I say operations I include here not only in conventional sense what you believe the kinetic actions that you manoeuvre in the terrain, but definitely part of our operations is reconstruction and development support.

So there were some key, like Operation Achilles you heard, you heard Operation Balkh, but there are dozens of them and it's always depending on how the situation develops in every particular region. But the whole focus was to provide stability for reconstruction and development.

So if I can wrap up to Now Ruz or the whole season, and as I said there are still ongoing operations in some areas and there will be some new possibly if situations will develop that way. We have, first of all, achieved that the government of Afghanistan was able to project to the various regions. I would just highlight that we had a very successful so-called sub-national consultations that was main effort of government of Afghanistan on all levels starting from the top and going down to the district level to put together something which is called "Afghan National Development Strategy." 

ISAF was directly supporting it and we were able to provide conditions that government was able to go to provinces and collect first time ever country-wide requirements - what needs to be done in terms of infrastructure, in terms of development, and at the moment they are consolidating this plan.

You've seen a lot of projects we were able to start and in many cases also finish or are still ongoing, hundreds of projects. Some of these projects in small scale are done by ISAF troops, but the vast majority are by other players. So we were trying to—and I believe successfully—enabling them to do their portion. So you see significant progress in this.

From operational point of view I believe that we were able to, first of all, to counter any potential attempts of insurgents to mount something which would be called operationally significant activities. So whether by conventional means not successful or until now and we were able to push them. Yes, there were attempts to mount more consolidated attacks on us, but we were able to push them back. We were able to decrease their freedom of movement. We were able to degrade to some extent their mid-level leadership of command and control capabilities and disrupt their lines of communications and lines of supplies.
So despite the fact of high numbers of reported contacts, I believe that the situation actually has progressed in Afghanistan at the moment and we have created good conditions for work of government of Afghanistan in which support we are here.

Q: Good morning, General. I am Frans Boogaard from the Dutch daily newspaper Algemeen Dagblad and apologies that I came in later. My question is what do you expect from the Nepalese warriors that are going to assist the Dutch troops in Uruzgan? And aren't you afraid that the two operations, ISAF and OEF, are going to be mixed up even further than is the case already?

MACKO: I apologize. I have missed the first part of your question on the warriors. Could you repeat it please for me?

MODERATOR: General, I think the question was what do you expect from the Nepalese soldiers supporting the Dutch troops in Uruzgan? I suspect that might be a difficult question to answer because—and I can explain that to you off-line— that Nepal is not, as a nation, part of the ISAF mission. So it might be difficult to ask ISAF Headquarters that question.

If the journalist agrees, then we'll try and handle that particular question up here because I would not expect ISAF Headquarters to have visibility on that particular issue because Nepal is not formally part of the ISAF mission as a nation. So with your permission, I will deal with that off-line later. But if you're okay to carry on with the second question, General?

MACKO: The second question. Yes, ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom we are operating in the same space, although we have different focus, but it's complementary. So you cannot avoid co-ordination and I said we try to co-ordinate in the conflict all our operations for the good of the whole campaign here in Afghanistan. So there is no major problem in this.

And as regards to, as you say, the further amalgamation, I would not speculate at this level. This is... I reflect the reality which we are in. We have here ISAF troops and ISAF operations and we have here in the same space Operation Enduring Freedom which is complimentary to ISAF operations. So I would not speculate where it will lead in the future to the amalgamation. I think this is not on our level, on tactical level decision.

Q: Nick Fiorenza. The Chief of Staff of the Netherlands did an interview on Dutch TV last night in which he was talking about a change, and actually an improvement, in Taleban conduct of operations. They are able to use longer range weapons, they're more disciplined. How is ISAF adapting to that improvement in Taleban tactics and weapons I suppose?

MACKO: Thank you Nick. Yes, we see two trends actually. We are talking about the Taleban tactics. Yes, it's correct. They try to do more co-ordinated and focused attacks at tactical level. Thus far we were able to push them back and really they were not successful in military terms. They were not able to achieve any measurable military success in this line.

And that leads also to the second trend which you see with Taleban being not successful to launch military sound operation, although they have improved their tactics I must admit and they try to launch a more consolidated attack. They reached to, from our point of view, unacceptable tactics and methods such as kidnapping, such as terrorist, major terrorist attacks, indiscriminate terrorist attacks in the populated areas, such as using civilian compounds and conducting operations and fire from the civilian compounds and without making sure the civilians are actually protected and not exposed to military operations.

So there is a problem between... or there is a difference the way we conduct our operations. We try to be very careful and any time we launch operations, we try to avoid any collateral damage and at the same time we try to avoid any unnecessary losses or impacts on civilians while Taleban is not restricted in this.

In terms of their capability to do better operations, yes they are improving. They are learning as we are, but I believe we are learning still faster than they are and we can prevail in this. So at the moment I do not see it as a major problem, but on the other hand we must not underestimate the capability of insurgents to launch attacks and do actions any time, anywhere. So we must be really alert and in a flexible posture.

Q: Jim Neuger from Bloomberg again. Can you give us your assessment of the performance of the German Tornadoes since they arrived in the theatre, especially what role they've played in providing intelligence for ground operations? And then, what would you expect of the French Mirages when they become operational?

MACKO: Thank you very much. Both are extremely capable assets and extremely valuable for us. I have been able to twice visit the Tornado wing up in north and I visited also their I would say in-house... the procedures, how they do it, and I must really complement on the capabilities which these assets are providing. It's important for us to have this capability for conduct of our operation and again, good intelligence, good imagery, it's key for... or it's one of the key factors for our success. So we really appreciate it. This capability is working very well and we are fortunate to have them here and the same would be the expectation to Mirages.

It's an invaluable tool because we can see also after when we conduct operations and there is a contact, we can use these tools also to assess the results of our operations. So it's a very good and capable tool here and I hope that it will stay here for a long time.

Q: This is Nick again. Just as a follow-up. How do UAVs fit in to the picture? I mean you have manned aircraft like the Tornadoes and soon the Mirages, but what is the difference in the roles? In fact, why do you need manned aircraft?

MACKO: Well without going into specific technical details... I really do not want to go into that. These are complimentary. You need both. You need all these various assets because each of them has a capability in some spectre of the whole range of capabilities. So you need them all. It's not that you just take the Tornadoes or you just have Predators. You need all of these tools and they complement each other. So it's extremely important for us to keep this capability here in theatre, to get more if possible.

Q: It's Constant Brand again from AP. I was wondering, considering the recent attacks in Kabul, what extra ISAF measures have been taken or to work with the Afghani security forces there to beef up security in and around the capital city?

MACKO: First of all, what happened recently were clear terrorist attacks. We are working closely with Afghanistan security forces. We are providing them necessary training and we work also very closely with them on special topics and giving them a chance to develop their own capability in countering IEDs, improvised explosive devices, and of course other issues, but specifically in this case. So yes, we are working hard with them.
On the other hand, what happened were terrorist attacks and as you know it's very hard to have 100 percent proof solution which would counter all possible terrorist attacks in populated areas as in this case. And you know that even in our countries, we are not able to prevent 100 percent... protect ourselves against terrorist attacks. But the capability of the Afghan National security forces is growing. I can say that. It's growing and they are learning not only how to protect the force, but also how to study and analyze what's going on, analyze what kind of threats are facing us. They are developing significantly these capabilities, however it takes time.

Q: Frans Boogaard again from the Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad. My colleague Nick referred already to General Berlijn, the Dutch Commander. He was expecting more Taleban activity in a few weeks I suppose we have before it's winter time. Do you agree with him?

MACKO: First of all, I don't know what the Taleban has as an intent, what he has in his plan. We can see some indicators and we can analyze the intel, but at the end it's them and they are very unpredictable. So that's a key factor with insurgents. You cannot predict and you cannot plan. And second, they don't share their plan with us.

However, what it means for us... I already in my opening remarks said we will not sit down and wait. We need to be flexible enough and we must not underestimate them. So we must keep our flexibility and freedom of action in order to counter this and as I said, when necessary, practicable and feasible to conduct our own deliberate operations to counter their capability.

Q: This is Nick again. I understand that one of the possibilities being examined for filling the gap in helicopters is leasing helicopters. I just wanted to ask is ISAF leasing helicopters currently or does anyone in Afghanistan lease helicopters, or would that be new?

MACKO: Yes Nick. I wouldn't see a major problem in leasing helicopters. If you ask me whether we have at the moment leased, I cannot exactly answer you. I would have to really ask my colleagues from support branch, from logistics. As you know, I am here as an operator and I may not necessarily know all details about every single asset. But in general terms, I don't see any problem with leasing helicopters for ISAF. If we can get assets here, which is able to provide us lift and lift... or relieve our assets which are tied up for our own logistics, we can use them somewhere else.

So yes, there is a request and I think the staff in NATO Headquarters are working on the solution; whether we will have them or not I cannot say at the moment, but I wouldn't see any problem and it would be more than welcome to have helicopters to do some basic logistics support to our troops and we can keep our helicopters for further use in our operations as we need.

Q: Jim Neuger again. A question about civilian casualties, which certainly became a bigger issue this year with the increase in civilian casualties, partly due to the change in tactics by the insurgents. In the summer there's understanding that there would be an adjustment in tactics in order to minimize civilian casualties. Could you give us a sense of operationally what has been done and do you have any initial assessment of whether you've been successful in reducing the number of civilian deaths?

MACKO: Yes. Thank you. Very good question to consider. We did our measures, and I must say upfront, that we very carefully plan every single operation and every single action and if there is whatsoever, if it is deliberate action, if it is whatsoever chance that we might be affecting civilians, we don't go for action. So yes, we have adapted our tactics and procedures. We are more... we are respectful for the traditions here and at the same time we try to avoid to possible extent civilian casualties.

It's not the same way how Taleban reacts. So I can say that... you cannot avoid absolutely to 100 percent that we will not have any civilian casualties, but in our deliberate operations, pre-planned operations, we always try to avoid and minimize. If we do operations, when we manoeuvre the forces, we always work also with local leaders. We always discuss with them; population is warned if there is a potential risk.

However, there is one problem on the Taleban side. That is that if they fight, if we get under severe attack from the compound and there is no other change how to disengage, only to respond fire, we never can be 100 percent sure that they don't hold someone inside because they simply, quote/unquote, visited the house and asked for shelter and used it for operations from the house. We would like to avoid it, but sometimes you simply cannot. If you don't have other chance of how to disengage, you must repeat fire.

But normally we don't plan operations this way and again this goes back to our strategy here. We are not fighting here war. We are supporting here legal government of Afghanistan and we are helping it to provide basic security and stability. Our strategy is minimize civilian casualties, our strategy is really to give this country a chance for reconstruction development and for better conditions. So we are completely aware that any civilian casualty which we may cause is undermining our strategy.

As opposed to our strategy, the strategy of insurgents is unrest and violence because they want to undermine legal government and from this point of view you see the different tactics on both sides.

MODERATOR: General I think we've had all the questions we've got from the journalists today. I'd just like to take this opportunity to thank you for joining us once again and thank you for your efforts to answer some very tricky questions there. I wish you all the best from NATO Headquarters and I'll pop into your office next time I'm in Kabul and buy you a cup of coffee.
So thanks again General.

MACKO: Thank you very much and I wish you all in Brussels nice day and see you somewhere around.