13 Dec 2007

ISAF Press Conference

MODERATOR:  (...) Good afternoon and thank you for coming.  Before we begin, I would like to remind everyone please turn off your cell phone or pager.  This afternoon...


MODERATOR:  There we go. 

This afternoon, General McNEILL will provide opening remarks and afterwards he'll take your questions.  As a reminder, before you ask your question, if you please identify yourself and if we could keep... limit our questions to one per reporter so that everyone has an opportunity to ask General McNEILL. Then, (INAUDIBLE) General McNEILL.

GENERAL McNEILL (Commander ISAF):  Good afternoon, nice to be with you again today.  I'm not going to start with a long preface because I suspect you have questions.  And it's fine with me if we focus on what you have interest in and what your questions are.

We'll start...  And there is some feedback in here somewhere.  I'm not quite sure what it is but I guess we can live with it, but maybe it's just in my ears... 61 years perhaps of abuse and what not.

I'll simply start by saying, let's consider the headlines of 12 months this day, last year, and the headlines swung back and forth between two significant themes at least as it relates to Afghanistan, the Alliance and Coalition effort here.  One of them was a resurgent Taliban.  They're coming back.  They're going to sweep across the battlefield.  That has not occurred. 

In fact, I'd say the insurgent has not accomplished a great deal of his objectives on the battlefield.  But he did accomplish one thing:  he has remained in your writings and in your broadcasting.  He certainly remained a darling of the press. I don't quite understand that but.. but he has. 

The other thing was the predictions of the fracturing throughout the Alliance and the fact that NATO couldn't get the job done and that NATO would come apart.  And the members of the Alliance would start backing out.  I'll simply point out that the Alliance is some 67,000 soldiers, airmen and marines stronger than it was this time last year. It has far more capability, capacity to work.

To finish along that line, I think the Alliance is holding together quite well.  There have been several governments who have extended their mandates and I think you can expect it to continue to have strength and that the members of the Alliance will stand together through this year for sure.

What else has occurred?  The Alliance says certainly I think ...the contributions to some facts that are evident today.  First, there are more Afghan children in school I'm told right now than ever in the history of the country.  There are more roads constructed and reconstructed than the history of the country has known.  The World Bank reports last year, 2007, the economy grew; that's not considering the narcotics dimension to the sub-economy around here.  And they predict it will grow yet again this year.  President Karzai made a speech about two months ago noting that 89,000 Afghan infants will live next year that would not have lived this year simply because of health gains and the ability to take down the rate of infant mortality.  And I could go on...

What has not...  And I should also add that the capacity of the Afghan national security forces notably the army but we're seeing increasing good news in the police has also moved forward.  (....)

So I will stop there and make myself available to questions.  (...)

Q:  (INAUDIBLE) Radio.  (INAUDIBLE)  What do you think are the reasons for the growing violence and (INAUDIBLE) on national countries?  What do you think is the problem in this country?

GENERAL McNEILL:  We've gone back and taken a look here because there's much press about how the level of violence has increased.  And indeed it has.  And there was a prediction of increasing violence as you gain greater capacity in action in the Afghan National Army and they populated themselves in greater pieces of battle space.  You have a bigger Alliance in terms of numbers and forces to advance against the enemy this year.  We find that the Alliance is in places that it was not in, in the past, spaces inside of Afghanistan. So increased contacts were indeed predictable. 

We also knew as early as February of this past year that we not only had a bigger force, we had a more capable force and that the insurgent likely could not go toe-to-toe with this force on the battlefield. (...)

So we predict that the insurgent would turn to what we call in military lexicon asymmetric techniques, that we likely will see increases in suicide bombers and IEDs.  Indeed, those have increased.  We also have increased our ability to try to defeat these things.  There have been some spectacular events, especially in Kabul, of suicide bombers causing rather extensive damage and often against innocents and non-combatants. 

But we have had some success in that area too.  We have had quite a number of "finds" of IEDs.  By "finds" we mean locating them through the help of indigenous people, Afghan National Security Forces, our own technique before the blast occurred. 

It's something that we're focussed on and we intend to do even better next year.  But we had indeed said there likely would be increased levels of violence not so much the insurgent had increased his numbers in capacity, simply because we were going to places where we had not gone before and we're taking them on.  (....)

We have gone back and looked at all the things that we reported by Afghan National Forces, by our own forces, by OEF forces, by the UN or other entities here.  And we come up with some statistics that we sort of knew intuitively but we have some empirical data to support it right now.  The raw data ... and I want to point out this is raw data... says that during the course of 2007 roughly 70% of those events occurred in 10% of the 369 districts in Afghanistan.  That will allow us, next year, to focus more on where we think the significant problems are. Much of this country I should point out...and due to ISAF...in fairly good degree of stability and security.  (....)

GENERAL McNEILL:  I'm sorry your name...

Q:  (INAUDIBLE) I'm just wondering in 2008, you had two task ISAF forces in Helmand to support throughout eradication that you'll provide force protection for the ....(INAUDIBLE)

GENERAL McNEILL:  Thank you, narcotics is a huge challenge for the people of Afghanistan and an equally huge challenge for the Alliance.  And Helmand as we know by UN data is the world second largest opiate producing area, second only by the entire country of Afghanistan.  Poppy poisons the youth of this country.

GENERAL McNEILL:  Poppy is a problem that the government of Afghanistan must take on.  But it needs help to do it.  And it will need international help.

GENERAL McNEILL:  The NATO mandate for ISAF is very clear in what the NATO Alliance wants ISAF to do relative to the eight pillars of the Afghan counter-narcotic strategy.

GENERAL McNEILL:  ISAF is neither trained, manned nor equipped to be an eradication force.  And the NATO mandate says it will not be an eradication force. 

GENERAL McNEILL: But the Secretary General of NATO as well as the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe had been very clear to me as to use that current NATO mandate to the great stability I'm able to use it to help the people of Afghanistan rid themselves of this scourge.  And that will be our intent.

GENERAL McNEILL:  If indeed the government of Afghanistan asks for our help and support  in certain operations that they run in counter-narcotics we'll evaluate each request on its merits and we will do the best within the NATO mandate to support in ways in which we're able.


Q:  Your commander (INAUDIBLE) saying they're in a current... current counterinsurgency doctrine that you cannot be a rear base for...  fight to win. And I'm wondering if you could talk about what effect you're expecting on increasing unrest and violence in Pakistan will have on your ability to fight here in overall numbers.

GENERAL McNEILL:  Jason, let me begin by offering the same kind of condolence that I offered to the Chief-of-Staff of the Pakistani Army two days ago as did General Bismullah Khan when we were in yet in the latest iteration of our current tripartite committee means.  And we extend to the Pakistani people our condolences for the lost of their former prime minister.  We also extend our heartfelt sympathy to her children and her husband at this loss. 

Certainly, when you consider bringing long-term security and stability to Afghanistan, you are very near-sighted if you don't consider it as a regional issue.  It's not just about Afghanistan.  It's about the region.

GENERAL McNEILL:  I see two issues here: one as a political context; one as a security context.  And I'm not saying that they are divorced.  They're closely intertwined.  But because I operate in the security dimension not in the politics, I'll leave the politics.  And I'll talk a little bit about the security dimension. 

All one has to do is read and follow Pakistani news media for the last six months.  And you know that the Pakistani people, their government, their military acknowledge very clearly they have a problem with an insurgency and the FATA.  They have a problem with extremism.  And they're beginning to taking it on.  And we should point out that the Pakistanis have been good partners in this Alliance in digging with terrorists and extremists over the last six or so years. 

GENERAL McNEILL: Fighting extremists, fighting insurgents is a very difficult business. From where I see the Pakistanis making adjustments to their military in terms of training and equipping and techniques, tactics of procedures to accommodate the fact that they must take on these extremists and insurgents.

GENERAL McNEILL:  The discussion between General Karimi and General Bismullah Khan two days ago was of all the fight appartheid committe mean that they have been some of the most frank and candid discussion.  And it mostly revolves around techniques they use on either side of the border, coordination and planning to use so that operations for... supported on either side of the border and they enjoy a certain amount of synergy from operations going on simultaneously on both sides of the border.

I'm optimistic that at least in a security perspective we will see some very good forward movement in what is typically considered the fighting season on both sides of the border this coming spring and summer. 

GENERAL McNEILL:  I think you travelled quite a bit with US Forces over the last year, eleven or twelve months in...  I suspect you've been amongst them enough to know how they view regional command base and the fact that the contacts along the border are dramatically down from what they were as far back as early 2006. 

You can likely make an argument for... that's for anyone of the number of reasons.  What the insurgents doing on the Pakistani side of the border, the fact that the US forces here is double what it was last year, the fact that the... two of first and two of third course of the Afghan National Army have increased  dramatically in the last eight months in their capacity and their operations have been very successful.  It's probably a combination of all of these things. So I think there is ample evidence to say at least along the security lines that there is pretty good progress and I look forward to it continuing and getting a lot of traction come spring and summer of next year. 

The political piece, I'm just amazed by what I read in some media sources.  I saw in the New York Times...  Before I get into the political piece, just keep me reminding...

UNIDENTIFIED:  I'm sorry Sir. Ok, last year, your government took (INAUDIBLE) about yourself or about...?

GENERAL McNEILL:  I talk about two days ago with General Bismulhan.

UNIDENTIFIED:  (SPEAKS IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE) Sir, go ahead, in the political, Sir.

GENERAL McNEILL: Just to make a couple of comments.  I've read, just like you have the past few days what's occurring, the political context in Pakistan.  And I'm amazed the wide variance that I see in reporting.  (...)  I put a question back in a political context.  What do you think is worse today?  Kenya or Pakistan?

GENERAL McNEILL: I think you know the answer to that.  There have been far greater problems in Kenya in the past so many days likely than they are in Pakistan.  The New York Times has an excellent photo journal has said online today one called "Karachi after Bhutto"; the other call "Crisis in Kenya" and the contrast to me are extraordinary.  Just...  I read a few things that I saw on this thing.  Very interesting.  I'll just read to you.

GENERAL McNEILL: The catch is on the first three pictures and slogan in "Karachi after Bhutto" are very telling.  The first one says "Traffic return to the streets on Monday and normal business began to resume".  Second one, markets and restaurants reopen on Monday.  The sense of normality was fragile.  Shops closed after a few hours that day in the mid of other rumours of another assassination.  The rumour proved to be false.  Third one, children out flying kites on Thursday in Karachi, the city hardest hit by post-assassination violence.  And then, yet, there was a fourth one "Karachi stock exchange back in business on Monday". 

GENERAL McNEILL: And I can't trust that with the pictures and the captions from Kenya, said to be a bastion of democracy within Africa, since the sixties decade, and it was far more dire and 240, 250 people killed and those kinds of things. I just say in the political context maybe we should slow down a little bit, be more intuitive and less judgemental and try to figure out exactly what's going on.

But again, I emphasize the politics of it. Not my thing. I'm a soldier first and foremost and only. I just try to read as much stuff as I can, that you guys produce and try to make judgements about it.

Thank you.

Q: General, David Fox from Voices. As you pointed out earlier on this time of the year when journalists sit and write about how bad things were last year, but you know, having covered this country for the last six, seven years, often that has proven to be the case. You touched on it briefly earlier on, but can you tell us more about what you expect for 2008 then. You said how the insurgency will take more of an asymmetrical role in the last four months. Do you see a continuation of that? So do you see... if that is the case then it's an expectation that there's bound to be more civilian causalities (inaudible)... caught up in. Where do you see successes on the military field direct sort of compensation coming from? And do you see more of a role back in areas that are sort of Taliban badlands, if you like, you know, sort of the no-go areas? 

GENERAL McNEILL: Thank you, David. And I've got some previous experience here to, was here early on, early in 2002, and one of the benefits that gives me is the ability to see the very obvious signs of progress, both in the security sector, in reconstruction, and although I wish it would go at a faster pace, some improvements in governance.

What do I expect to see the insurgent do next year? I think he will stay on the IED piece. I think he will try to increase the number of suicide bombers. I think he's less likely to try to move big formations and to take on the Alliance toe-to-toe. If there are not improvements in the Afghan National Police and their ability I think he will continue to go at them hard and fast as he has this year.

I expect to see yet another year of explosive growth in poppy. And I think that will, again, complicate the security sector. I see increased Afghan National Army capacity and I suspect that at least in the east and south sectors you will see a bit more Afghan National Army in the lead and operations much like the Musa Qala operation of a few weeks ago.

I think the increased capacity in the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police will offset some of the underresourcing that ISAF has and that underresourcing has been made very clear by the Secretary General and SACEUR.

And I expect to see members of the Alliance, members of the coalition and our Afghan partners and their security forces, just like they were this year, out advancing against the insurgent. I expect the pressure on him to continue and to be even more significant next year than it was this past year.

Q: General, (inaudible)... from Al Jazeera. Happy New Year by the way.

GENERAL McNEILL: And the same to you, sir.

Q: You said in your opening remarks that the Alliance would (inaudible)... Does that mean that you are getting everything that they promised you from the international community? And if not, are you in a position to name names and say (inaudible)...?

GENERAL McNEILL: The Alliance, as I said, is bigger and more capable over this past year than it was the previous year. As I also said, Secretary General, SACEUR, head of the NATO Military Committee, they've all been very clear that it's an underresourced force. I don't expect that members of the Alliance can offer up great numbers more than what they're presenting offering, and from that perspective I don't see that it will be dramatically changed in terms of number.

If we're smart about how we use our tactics, and I think we were this year, we can still go a fairly credible job with what we have. I'm optimistic about the increasing capacity of the Afghan National Army and I have a lot of optimism about the opportunity and U.S.-led coalition CSTC-A, training and equipping of the police and their focus district development.

As to what members of the Alliance could and should do more I'll leave that to policy makers and diplomats and of late they've seen to enjoyed arguing that out in open sources and so I'll just refer you back to what's been said and there's nothing that needs to be said by this soldier to amplify that.

In fact, I think you might have an article the other day, a former colleague who's now moved on to other things, Daan Everts,  had an interview with your organization. He might have been very explicit in that. I don't know. I'll leave that to those kind of policy makers.

Q: Hi, (inaudible)... from BBC. You said that... you expressed some... for 2008, some (inaudible)... So do you have any (inaudible)... to avoid the (inaudible) of those things which happened in 2007? Thank you.

GENERAL McNEILL: Yes. We expect to have some increased technology pushed over to us, much of it coming from the U.S. We have some increased amount of training, not only for forces in the Alliance, but the Afghan National Security Forces as well. We've had some reasonable degrees of success this year of stopping suicide bombers before they were able to detonate their explosives. We've had some reasonable degrees of success in finding IEDs before they were detonated. And we expect to increase our success next year.

INTERPRETER: Okay, Mr. (inaudible)... from (inaudible)... and he's saying to talk about some changes, we're changing some of our tactics, and also what kind of change you want to bring it in respective to be in an Afghan security forces and ISAF forces, what kind of tactics, change of tactic you're saying for next year, sir.

GENERAL McNEILL: Okay, I think you clearly can understand that I'm not likely to go into specifics as to how we're going to operate.

I think if you have done any studies or research on counterinsurgency operations you'd know that most doctrines about counterinsurgency say that the best force to use in a counterinsurgency is indigenous security force.

So I think you can expect to see the faces of Afghan soldiers and Afghan National Police more frequently next year than perhaps you did this year.

And why is this important, you might ask? Well, imagine me, and I've got quite a bit of experience in Afghanistan, between two tours on, and about 23 months of service here, but I... if I stand in a crowd of Afghans I do not know who is a stranger to that neighbourhood.

But an Afghan citizen knows right away, to use an American slang expression, this person is not from around here.

So I suspect you should expect us to make better use in our operations, even moreso than we did this year, and we've done quite well this year, make better use of Afghan National Security Forces.

And I would imagine, not speaking for my friend the Minister of Defence, you should expect that with our help he will apply his own forces in areas that are of great interest to him and in operations that he believes will be beneficial in those areas.

The Afghan people appear to have ever-increasing confidence for their army and their growing police capacity and I believe that all of us should take advantage of that relationship.

But if we're able to get from the members of the NATO Alliance more intelligence platforms and capacity, more surveillance platforms and capacity, more reconnaissance platforms and capacity we will certainly use those to our advantage and we will certainly help the Afghan National Security Forces avail themselves to that kind of support to make their operations even more effective.

MODERATOR: And we have time for one more question.

GENERAL McNEILL: We'll do a few more questions. It takes a long time to translate.

Q: General, my question is regarding...

GENERAL McNEILL: I'm sorry, what news agency?

Q: (inaudible)... Yes, the issue of negotiations between Afghan government and Taliban raised several times by Afghan government. However, if this issue, raised again by Afghan government, if Afghan government (inaudible)... Taliban for negotiations in the year 2008 will ISAF and NATO support (inaudible)... of Afghan government?

GENERAL McNEILL: I don't think that's something for me to comment on. I believe that's up to the Afghan government and those who are within NATO in a policy or political dimension. I have some observations about negotiations with insurgents, and here are my observations.

First, the insurgent is not an homogenous organization. It's a fractured loosely-allied crowd of radicals and extremists. So the first question should be if you're talking to people you should ask the question, with whom am I speaking?

Secondly, if you negotiate at any time, and I'm not talking about fighting counterinsurgency. Even if you're a lawyer in a court room trying to settle something never negotiate except from a position of strength.

So the bottom line is I will leave negotiations to diplomats, politicians and others.

Jason Edwin Q: In an early answer you said you expect to see yet another year of explosive growth in poppy.


Q: I wonder if you could tell us where you expect to see that? Is it even more growth in Helmand, or is that outside of Helmand in other areas? And if this is our expectation, are you or is... is there frustration on your part that you can't do more about that given that there's obviously ties that Musa Qala laid bare between the drug growers and the insurgents?

GENERAL McNEILL: I think Afghanistan this year will enjoy another good year of moisture, and as I understand it from most meteorologists last year was the best moisture Afghanistan has had in 50-some years.

As I understand the civil culture of poppy the plant needs water only once in every five days to be viable.

Afghan soil, when it has water, is very fertile. The money associated with poppy and opiate production appears to continue to be very good. So without pressure or incentives or dissuasion to keep people from growing it, I expect the amount grown next year to increase.

Does that frustrate me? Frankly, Jason, I try not to let things frustrate me. I know what I can control in the world and what I cannot.

So if you changed your question to me, does it concern me? Then I will answer that question greatly. It concerns me greatly.

It concerns me on these points: First, poppy is poisoning the children of Afghanistan. Literally and figuratively. I was given three pictures several months ago from a western province in Afghanistan that featured a man, who appeared to be a father, and two small boys. One I would guess to be five or six, the other six or seven, maybe eight tops.