17 Jan 2008

Video Tele Conference

with Brigadier General R. Anderson, Deputy COmmander, Support, RC(E)

ERIC POVEL (NATO Press Service): My name is Eric Povel. I work in the NATO Press Service in the Media Operations Centre on Afghanistan, on behalf of my colleague Peggy Beauplet, who normally shares this welcome. General, thank you very much for spending your time in this VTC with six Brussels-based journalists that we have here for you today.

Now I'll introduce them for you, starting on my left-hand side. It's Mr. Zhang Xinghui from the China Youth Daily. Then we have Mr. Tejinder Singh from the European Weekly. Then we have Ahto Lobjakas from Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty.

On my right-hand side Brooks Tigner from Jane's. Then it's Paul Ames from AP and on the outer right wing from me Chris Dickson from Agence Europe.

So we have six journalists and before going into questions, General, I'll give the floor to you to make your opening statement. Thank you very much.

BRIGADIER GENERAL R. ANDERSON (Deputy Commander, Support, RC(E)): Thank you. Good morning from Bagram, Afghanistan. I'm Brigadier General Rodney Anderson, the Deputy Commander General for Support for Regional Command East in Afghanistan.

Thank you for providing me the opportunity to talk to you today about development progress in Afghanistan.

The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan continues to make significant progress in advancing social and economic development. This progress is guided by a single unifying strategy, the Afghan National Development Strategy, or ANDS.

The ANDS ensures Afghanistan is on path to reach the UN Millennial Development Goals, which are focused on improving the lives of the citizens of Afghanistan.

I'd like to take a moment to highlight some of the progress in the social and economic development sector. First of all, education. Schools have increased from 1,000 to 9,000 in the last years. Six million boys and girls now attend school.  There is an 800 percent increase in teachers from 20,000 under the Taliban to over 160,000 today.

In the area of health care, basic health care access has increased from 8 percent six years ago, to 78 percent today. There's been a 25 percent reduction in the infant mortality rate. According to President Karzai this has saved some 89,000 lives.

Afghans are likewise taking the lead in providing health care advancement and building capability in this essential area. In the area of roads, the Ring Road is 100 percent complete in Regional Command East and 73 percent paved around the country.

In the area of agriculture there have been 440 irrigation canals built over the last five years. In addition to these specific examples we've seen the Ministry of Rural Reconstruction and Development greatly increase their capacity. They've provided provincial offices with assets to use at the district and community level. They've developed the local procurement resources and developed trusted contractors.

I can say with confidence that there's been significant progress made just in the 12 months since I have arrived here in Afghanistan. The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is taking the lead in improving the lives of the citizens of Afghanistan.

Every project completed is another step forward. This progress will not happen overnight, but Afghanistan, with international help, can meet the UN's Millennial Development Goals.

Now I would be happy to take your questions.

POVEL: Thank you very much, General. Okay, who wants to kick off, first question. Ahto?

Q: Ahto Lobjakas, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty. I'd like to start with something fairly specific and that is a reference I came across in, I think, the New York Times recently suggesting that part of the reason why the British... or why Musa Qala was retaken by the Taliban last year was that development and reconstruction money was unavailable, or was unavailable in sufficient quantities. I was wondering if this is something you could comment on? What was the problem there, and what might still be the problem there? Thank you.

ANDERSON: I am not familiar with the specifics of Musa Qala as that's in Regional Command South. I will tell you that the development  efforts in Regional Command East have made a significant difference. And so as Afghan National Security Forces, the army and the police, increase their capability and capacity, likewise the development activities associated with social and economic progress have made a significant difference in convincing the local villagers and at the district and provincial level, that the government has their best interests in mind.

So the most significant thing that I would say in terms of development is, development provides the clear evidence that the government is, in fact, doing something to assist the people, the citizens, and that's what we've seen in Regional Command East.

Q: Paul Ames from the Associated Press. You've listed a series of achievements there. What would you say are the main challenges that you still face in RC East in terms of the development, and could you tell us a little bit about how you manage to blend the reconstruction and development support work that ISAF is doing there with the counterinsurgency work? How do you manage to blend the two, because there've been some reports in the papers, yesterday for example, that some of the troops which are going down there don't have the training to do those two tasks, to do both counterinsurgency and supporting development and winning over hearts and minds?

ANDERSON: In terms of how we've integrated, built in security capacity with development, all aimed at improving the lives of the citizens, I would just say that the civilian experts are really best served to advance governance and development.

However, there simply aren't enough civilian experts and so the military has taken on to provide basic activities focused on social and economic development.

And so there is a definite linkage between building security capability and our focus in RC East is to partnership. We partner with the Afghan National Army at the company, battalion and division and corps level and likewise we have a relationship with the police.

And so as the Afghan Security Forces are able to provide security for the citizens, then that opens the door and provides the pathway for civilian, NGOs and et cetera, to be able to provide the health, education and other development activities.

And so the security and the development go hand-in-hand, but what we've seen is that in places where the Afghan National Security Forces, through our partnership, have taken the lead, then there've been significant improvements overall in the lives of the people and in their confidence in the government.

Q: Yes, Brooks Tigner, Jane's here. General, your title has me a little bit confused. I wonder if you could clarify what you and your team do? In other words, what does Support mean? Is this... are your tasks focused only on or mainly on providing support to the civilian reconstruction authorities in your region, or are you also providing support to the military units? I wish you could clarify that for me and then perhaps I'll have other questions to ask once I know. Thank you.

ANDERSON: Certainly. My title Support... my principal duties are to provide logistic support to the forces that are operating, the coalition forces that are operating in Regional Command East.

I also am responsible for managing our development and governance efforts in Regional Command East.

And so the three areas that I principally deal with have to do with governance and that is, you know, that is the district to provincial and then their linkage to the central government and the development activities.

POVEL: Next question.

Q: Hello, Chris Dickson for Agence Europe and European Diplomacy Defence here in Brussels. My question is related to some of the different approaches from the different allies that have been coming through the press recently in terms of contact with people who have been linked to the Taliban or part of the Taliban in the past.

The impression I'm getting is that there are different attitudes to whether or not you deal with these people at all. My question is, what is ISAF... what is the ISAF line in dealing with people who have historically been linked to the Taliban in one way or another. Is there a veto moratorium on that, or is it something that you're happy to do if it seems reasonably practical at the time?

ANDERSON: That's a good question. Our first thought in all that we do is to support the government and so we defer the government as it relates to dealing with various parties. The government, the Afghan government, has a program to accept and properly vet those who might want to come back, you know, into the country or to reconcile. And so we are not directly involved in any way ithe reconciliation. That's the government's decision. And when the government makes their decision about a specific individual then we honour that.

Q: This is Tejinder Singh from the European Weekly. General, how the situation in Pakistan is affecting day-to-day activities of your unit? Although NATO Secretary General last week termed it as an internal development, you being on the ground there cannot overlook the importance of this situation. So I would like to have your comments on the situation.

ANDERSON: Yes, I would hesitate to speculate on what is essentially a political matter in Pakistan. I would say that Regional Command East has a good relationship with the Pakistan military, who are our counterparts across the border. And in terms of the specific political activities I really would prefer not to comment or speculate on that at this time.

Q: This is Zhang Xinghui from China Youth Daily. It is a newspaper has certain person of the Chinese military, young military soldiers, so it is amazing that you said compared with the situation under the Taliban the schools, the number of schools has been increasing from 1,000 to 9,000. The number of teaches have been increasing from 2,000 to 126,000. So as soldiers, do you get ( (inaudible) directly to the education issue or you just help the local government of Afghanistan to do the education issues. This is the first question for me.

The second question is, there are a lot of disputes between American and NATO allies. The United States urged the western allies to dispatch more soldiers. But my question is, do you really in need of the military forces in Afghanistan? Thank you.

ANDERSON: I will take your first... your last question first. The ISAF commander General MacNeill has requested additional forces and so he has visibility over what the needs are in supporting the Afghan National Security Forces and Afghanistan overall. And so he is the one who makes those decisions.

As it relates to education, we support the education sector, and the Minister of Education's strategy as it relates to education. Minister Atmar has a very deliberate plan for improving education over the next several years. And so we are in communications with his office, and we assist by identifying throughout the Regional Command East areas that might be underserved.

And so we fully support the government and specifically the Minister of Education and where we can assist we do, but the improvement in schools and numbers of teachers have been principally managed, or exclusively managed by the Minister of Education and the support to provide that has been provided by the international community and a whole host of non-governmental agencies who are operating in Regional Command East.

Q: Yes, Brooks Tigner, Jane's. I have three logistics-related questions for you, General. How have logistics changed in the year that you have been there in terms of the kinds of equipment, of volume and kinds of equipment and weaponry demands by RC(E). That's one question.

Two, what are the strengths and weaknesses in your logistics chain across RC(E).

And number three, how is your Regional Command using its logistics to block movement... well, how are the forces there using the logistics that you provide to block movements of the Taliban to and from the Pakistan border.

Thank you.

ANDERSON: Those are good questions. I hesitate to provide details about the tactics, techniques, procedures, or capabilities of the logistics used for either the Afghan National Security Forces or our own forces. But let me just say that in our partnership with the Afghan National Army we have seen great progress in their ability to resupply their formations and to provide the sustainment that their troops need in order to maintain the security presences that's so vital to protecting the people.

And so that is an area that is growing and in my 12 months we've seen a significant progress in it.

Q: I hesitate to use that answer, because you essentially didn't say very much, General. That's a nice politically correct answer, but my questions I don't think are really going to give away any great military secrets if I ask you how are you working to block movements of the Taliban to and from the Pakistan border.

I also don't see any great strategic risk in identifying what your strengths and weaknesses are in your logistics chain into the RC(E). You've given us some good examples about how the Ring Road has been completed. That's fine. But surely there must be areas in your command that are still difficult to get equipment and goods into even your own troops.

So, we know there are problems with helicopter deployment et cetera, so I think it would be enlightening for us to know what some of these problems are. Thank you.

ANDERSON: I know that you have a good appreciation for the varied geography throughout the country and specifically in Regional Command East, and so I would say that the challenge for security forces is the same challenge faced by the government and everyone operating here. It's the challenge of the infrastructure in order to be able to move people and supplies.

And I would say that there's been significant progress in the Afghan trucking industry in that there are a multitude of start-up trucking firms that have over the last three to four years come online to support both the needs of the government, and the people, as well as coalition forces.

In terms of how we might be interdicting the insurgents, the Afghan National Security Forces, specifically the border police, man the border, and they, coupled with the Afghan National Army, are vigilant in identifying when there are movements that can be detected and or interdicted, then they do that and that's about all I'm at liberty to say at this point.

Q: General, you mentioned the Afghan trucking industry which prompts me to ask, where do you source your fuel? Because as I understand it, Regional Command South gets most of its fuel from Pakistan and that can be a hazardous business, sometimes. Do the same sorts of restrictions apply to you, or strictures? Thank you.

ANDERSON: Yes, our fuel comes from multiple sources. Some comes from the east. Some comes from the north, and so we are not tied to a single source of fuel.

Q: General, Tora Bora was in the news and the forces went down there after to hunt down Taliban and Osama bin Laden. What is the latest on Osama bin Laden? And you said... mentioned that there is a good cooperation between our unit and the Pakistani army, but yesterday 25 soldiers of Pakistani army were abducted or had been reported missing after an attack from Waziristan. How do you see that area being managed? Because Pakistani army has no control over that, and your side, so that buffer region, who is controlling that, and how you are having the cooperation in that area?

ANDERSON: We have no knowledge of the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. In the Tora Bora area the Afghan National Army has recently partnered with coalition forces, conducted some operations in the area. There are still Afghan National Army forces in the area. And this is all to provide a level of safety and security for the people of the province of Nangarhar. But there were really no major operations, so to speak, conducted there over the last several months.

In terms of your question regarding the Pakistan military, and I believe the FATA, the Federal Administered Tribal Area is what you were referring to, we... the coordination with Pakistani military that I'm referring to has to do with communications and coordination regarding illegal border crossings. And so where there is... where there are border crossings, even legal or illegal, there is good communications between the Pakistani forces and our own forces in monitoring and in managing the flow of insurgents, if you will, across the border.

The Federal Administered Tribal Area is a challenge. We recognize it as a challenge and the Pakistan military has responsibility for that area. We do not conduct any operations or the like across the border.

Q: General the success you mentioned with the various social and economic parameters that you listed, have you any evidence or any quantitative figures to show what kind of impact this has had on support for the Taliban? You said that these were making people realize that the government was working for them, but have you seen any decline in support for the Taliban over the recent months in response to those developments?

ANDERSON: Yes, we have. In the areas where the Afghan National Security Forces, initially the army, followed by the police, in cases where they have established a permanent presence, and partnered with development activities, then the local villages have really renounced the Taliban and really publicly and so forth, supported the government. And so a combination of security forces to protect the people and development activities to demonstrate hope for a better future in almost every case where there's been that combination, then there has been a significant decrease in the access by the Taliban and the activities by the Taliban.

And so simply put, once the people have the protection provided by the government, and once they see the evidence that the government is arranging for educational, health care, infrastructure advancements then they readily report any activity that might not be consistent with their village.

And so we've seen that in many cases. In cases where there has not been the capability to maintain persistence, or to establish and maintain the presence, then support for the Taliban, where it has existed in the past, has not declined.

Q: Just to follow-up on that, we've often heard complaints from commanders in the southern region saying they just don't have enough troops, either international troops or Afghan troops to provide that kind of security support in some of the outlying areas, which you've just mentioned.

How big a problem is that for you in RC East? Do you have sufficient international forces and Afghan forces to provide that sort of security that will make people stick to the government side?

ANDERSON: We have a very deliberate plan, the government does, for building the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. And those programs and the timelines for those programs are supportable with a number of troops that we currently have in Regional Command East. So I would say that in Regional Command East our partnership efforts and the milestones associated with the growth of police and army capability is adequate.

Q: It's a question on the figures and the economics of the development effort. The Secretary General mentioned last Thursday that the income in Afghanistan had doubled over the last, I think he said year, or some period. My question has got two parts: Firstly, what's the role of inflation in that figure? And secondly, what's the role of poppy revenue in that figure?

And then a second question that's linked to that, there's been some talk in the press of a program to substitute pomegranates for poppies and I'm wondering if it's been successful and if you think it's realistic? Again, if you have some figures for that that would be appreciated.

ANDERSON: That is an excellent question and while I do have a degree I economics, I really don't have any statistics on inflation or the other aspects of macro or micro economics and so I'm afraid I can't comment on that.

I would say that in terms of alternative products that there have been several initiatives. The government in the lead, because the government has the primacy for counternarcotics and the United Kingdom is in support.

I would say that there have been several programs for alternative livelihood and they include providing seeds for certain crops, wheat and et cetera and we really won't know the success of those programs until this upcoming growing season begins and we're able to make some assessment of the level of reduction in poppy growth.

But we fully anticipate, given the indicators that we've seen, that there will be a reduction in RC East for poppy planting and poppy production this coming year.

Q: General, in your assessment, how long will it take for the Afghan National Security Forces to be able to stand on their own feet, so to speak, without the coalition support in Regional Command East? Thank you.

ANDERSON: That is a question that is going to be based on several factors. One is the support to improve and the capability and capacity of the security forces. But it's also going to be a function of the government's effort to address the insurgency. And so the insurgents do have a role to play in the overall security environment so we have not put a date, if you will, on when the Afghan Security Forces will be able to operate with minimum support from the coalition.

I would say that overall, in answering your question overall, the date that I'm accustomed to using is the date established by the UN Millennial Development Goals, which for Afghanistan is 2020. And so the other nations of the world have 2015, but Afghanistan's goal is 2020 to have reached the eight Millennial Development Goals.

And so development and security really are linked and so as they move forward there will be an increase in capability and capacity of the police and the army and likewise in the reduction in poverty, in the improvement in universal primary education, gender equity and all of the other aspects of the Millennial Development Goals.

Q: Sorry, very brief follow-up, to be perfectly clear, do I understand right, that in thinking that you seem to say that even if the Afghan National Security Forces were at full capacity they might not be able to cope with insurgency on their own if insurgency levels remain high? Thank you.

ANDERSON: What I'm saying is that the level of the insurgence has an impact on the ability to provide security. And so... and that relates to not just the Afghan Security Forces, but that relates to all security forces, including the coalition.

And so the level of security forces, coalition and Afghan, one factor is the level of the insurgency. And that relationship is there and it's one that changes and that really is impacted by several other factors to include other government efforts to address the insurgency.

Q: General, you mentioned... gave these figures, very impressive figures, but you also mentioned that you are cooperating with the Ministry of Education, ministry, so are these figures from the Ministry or is there an independent verification by the coalition mechanism there or is it from the Ministry only?

ANDERSON: The figures that we're using are with inputs from the ministries, but from independent assessments that have been done and indicators from several different sources. And so we are fairly comfortable that we have not overinflated the figures that I gave you.

Q: Yes, as to the good cooperation between you and the Pakistani side, can you give me some examples for this good cooperation? And do you have any disagreements? What are they?

The second question: Do you have the intentions or plans to cross the border into Pakistan side to fight against terrorists? Do you have... have you consulted your Pakistan counterparts? Thank you.

ANDERSON: Yes. The best example that I can give you related to coordination is that the Pakistan border security elements  and the Afghan and coalition security elements, have compatible radios and they are able to make radio checks and they are likewise able to report when there is activity on either the Afghanistan or Pakistan side, that might really impact the other side.

And there have been several cases where the Pakistan security forces have called the Afghan border post, or the coalition forces in the area, to give an alert that there were suspicious movements of personnel that might be crossing the border.

And so that's the best example of coordination along the border that we've seen. And over the last 12 months the level of those types of reports, and the fact that there is now a deliberate effort to make communications checks, is what I would cite as growing communications between the two.

There are no disagreements that I am aware of between the Pakistan's military and the coalition forces' military as it relates to the border.

We have no plans, no intentions, no instructions, no authority to cross the border to conduct any sort of operations inside Pakistan.

Q: Ah yes, Brooks Tigner, Jane's again. Just a slight... well, a considerable change of subject. Antipersonnel mines, do you have much... is there much of a risk of anti-personnel mines in Regional Command East? Whether it be IEDs or conventional mines. And how are you dealing with this logistically?  Are you getting requests for new kinds of equipment, or is there enough equipment there? And what sort of impact, if any, is this having on the locals?

Thanks.

ANDERSON: There have been incidents of antipersonnel mines and our assessment is that these are mines that have principally been left in place from the last 30 years of war. And on occasion there are farmers or other innocent civilians who are injured by antipersonnel mines that have been left from the war.

As it relates to IEDs, there have been IEDs implanted by the insurgents along the road networks in RC East and those IEDs have caused coalition, as well as Afghan Security Force casualties. What we have done is two things. On the offensive front we have really communicated with the local villagers and to inform them of the dangers associated with mines and/or IEDs planted specifically along the road ways. And we have encouraged them to report to their local officials any such activities, because they are much more apt to notice someone in planting a mine than the security forces.

And we've had some success in reporting of those sorts of activities in some areas.

On the defensive arena we have conducted some training with the Afghan National Army principally, but also with the police, to alert them to increase that there might be a mine or an IED in certain areas.

And so in line with our partnership efforts we've sought to train and educate them on how to identify those kinds of devices.

And for our own forces, we have armoured vehicles and so our formation uses armoured vehicles an they provide us protection. Not absolute protection, but protection from IEDs.

Q: Just a quick follow-up, according to UN and other NGOs, though, the greater threat is really the old conventional mines. I mean, Afghanistan is larded with conventional mines, antipersonnel mines, all over the country, due to the Soviet occupation of the past years.

So shouldn't the effort really go... more of your effort go into that, like bringing in equipment and training the locals? I mean, that's good governance, in order that a farmer can step with confidence into his field, or walk along a path to get there and know that there are no 25-year-old mines that are there that will blow him up. Thank you.

ANDERSON: No, that's a very good question, and a combination of private companies, as well as the Afghan National Army, we are really assisting them in growing the capability to do exactly what you... what you describe. Typically the members of the village have good situational awareness on areas that are mines. But on occasion there are incidents, and so I would agree with you that de-mining effort is an important effort in terms of making the environment safe for the citizens, and there is some effort being given to de-mining.

Q: General, Secretary Gates was quoted yesterday as expressing some concern about the lack of training of troops coming from some of the NATO countries, lack of training in counterinsurgency. Is this a problem that you have encountered? Is it a major issue in RC East?

ANDERSON: What we've experienced in Regional Command East is really that our partners are making a significant contribution to advancing security governance and development. And our focus is to partner with the Afghan institutions. And as an example, the Polish battle group, around a 1000 soldiers from Poland, have operated in Regional Command East for the past ten months. And they have done a superb job of providing a partnership with the Afghan Army forces in the area, but also with advance in the governance and development in and around the villages in their province that they are operating in.

And so they've made a significant difference in the overall effort, and so that's been our experience with the partnership who... the coalition partners who operate in Regional Command East.

Q: General, for your unit it's more about you're dealing with the developments and programs. So you're dealing more with the civilization. Us there a special program that you initiated, you provide to your troops before they go out in the field, because of the cultural differences that they encounter while dealing with this population?

ANDERSON: We... the United States army, whom I'm very familiar with, has a very deliberate program for preparing those who deploy. It begins with manning, equipping, training, and then there's a certification prior to deployment.

A part of that certification is... includes training and education in terms of some minimal language, but a fairly robust level of cultural training. And so we do make that  part of our program.

The leaders in our formation, and this goes for the coalition partners, such as the Polish battle group, whom I'm familiar with, when they conduct their training and their education in preparation, we provide experts from here who can provide them with the details on what is taking place in the development and governance arena at the time.

And where there are civilian experts, of course we use the civilian experts, and overall the approach that we take is that we follow the Afghan National Development Strategy, the ministerial strategies and the sector strategies and so we've sought to educate ourselves on what the government has set as its priorities and then we make sure that our subordinate leaders are familiar with that and that they follow the path of supporting what the government has established.

And it has worked very well, I must say, in Regional Command East, because you can imagine that without a central strategy there could be all sorts of different views on education, health care and infrastructure, but in RC East, we follow the Afghan National Development Strategy in terms of the priorities and education is an example. The Minister has termed that he will have... he wants to promote a certain level of education and a certain type of school, and so we follow his lead in terms of assisting in that advancement.

And so I know that was a long answer, but I can't overemphasize the importance of the Afghan National Development Strategy, our understanding of it, and then our education and training of our leaders in how to best follow and support the government in implementing that strategy.

Q: A quick follow-up, so you... if I understand correctly, it's Afghans who are providing with the right ways of dealing with this particular subject, and so in every unit that goes out there has to be an Afghan soldier or an Afghan cultural activist.

ANDERSON: No, we do not have... we do not have a specific Afghan soldier in each one of our units. What we do is, we conduct preparatory training before we arrive to provide the basic level of cultural awareness and overall awareness to the leaders about the development environment.

And once the unit is here, then they partner with an Afghan Army unit and so typically the way it's done is that if there's an Afghan company, then there is a coalition platoon that is partnered with them, and so they conduct operations together and so the coalition soldiers and the Afghan soldiers do rehearsals together, they do patrols together, and they operation together. And so it's a partnership has been our approach.

And insofar as the development and governance, then the leaders are, you know, our leaders, coalition leaders are given the training and the education and the follow-up to provide rudimentary assistance to the locations that they operate in.

But once there is an NGO or once there are other international aid organizations, we, of course, defer to them on providing that level of support. But where they don't exist then we seek to assist the people in linking to the government and linking to the government programs.

POVEL: I think we have time for one more quick question.

Q: I have a real quick and easy question for you, General. You have done a lot in Afghanistan, congratulations, but I want to know whether you have the experience to contract directly with the local citizens? Have you talked to them? What's their attitude toward what you have done in Afghanistan? What do they say to you?

Thank you.

ANDERSON: We have several organizations that conduct assessments and surveys and the survey information, as well as the direct feedback that we've gotten, in every case that I know of, has been positive as it relates to our ability to assist the people with development.

I did not mention yet the provincial reconstruction teams, but each province in Regional Command East has a PRT, a Provincial Reconstruction Team, and it is one of their responsibilities to assist the Provincial Development Council and the District Development Assembly and just partner with the entire development and governance framework at the provincial level.

And we've witnessed just some significant progress over the last year in both governance, and there've been subnational consultations led by the government, as there've been a significant increase in the government programs that have gone out and helped the villages.

And so our role is just to assist where there's a lack of knowledge of what government program might be available. It's our role to just assist in linking the need to the resource. And that, quite simply put, has been...

POVEL: Can you hear me? We have a frozen picture.

Well, in any case, thank you very much.