14 Feb 2008

Video Tele Conference

with Brigadier General M. Azimi,
Spokesperson, Afghanistan Ministry of Defence

(INTERPRETATION THROUGHOUT)

(TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES THROUGHOUT)

ERIC POVEL (Press Officer, NATO Press Service, Media Operations Centre on Afghanistan): Good morning. My name is Eric Povel. I'm a press officer in the NATO Press Service in the Media Operations Centre on Afghanistan.

Good morning ISAF and General Azimi thanks very much for taking your time and your willingness to be in this one-hour Q&A with Brussels-based journalists. We have a long-standing program of having officers on the ground in Afghanistan talking to journalists here in Brussels, so we really appreciate your efforts. Thanks very much for that.

I need to have one question... George here in the studio, how long do we have? Do we really have until 10:30? So we only have 45 minutes now? Okay.

Let me firstly introduce the journalists here on the left of me. It's Xinghui Zhang from the China Youth Daily; Ahto Lobjakas from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. On my right hand side Tejinder Singh from New Europe, European Weekly. Brooks Tigner from Jane's Defence; Chris Dickson from Agence Europe; and to my ultimate right side Gianluca Cazzaniga from the Italian Defence Review.

So these are the journalists here today and before going into questions, General, firstly I would like to give you the floor for your opening statement.

BRIGADIER GENERAL M. AZIMI (Spokesperson, Afghanistan Ministry of Defence): Thank you so much for the opportunity and good afternoon. First of all I would have my opening remarks and after that I will come answer your questions.

Afghan National Army is a confident defensive institution with more than 60,000 personnel who have been able to get the confidence of international community and people of Afghanistan. Afghanistan Army has led some important operations such as Maiwand, operation Khybar and recently the operation in Musa Qala. Today Afghan nation is proud of their national army.

We believe the more we can strengthen Afghanistan Army until it is enabled to ensure internal and foreign security of Afghanistan from several aspects, the more it would be in the interest of Afghanistan and international community. From an economical point of view, expenses of Afghanistan Army is much lower. It means expenses of one foreign soldier could be the equivalent for 60 to 100 Afghan National Army soldiers.

From a political point of view, countries who are present in Afghanistan could pressure by public opinion Parliament and the opposition parties. From social and cultural point of view, when Afghan National Army is going to carry out operations in an area because of the same language, same culture and familiarity with the area and the people, it could be very useful and can diminish sensitivities.

I believe that in the way of launching independent operations, we face three main challenges. First the number of Afghan National Army which is agreed for 86,000 troops should be increased in case of necessity. Second, lack of heavy weapons like tanks which can increase the morale of troops. Third, lack of air power which can perform logistic, transport, air strikes and reconnaissance activity.

Fortunately, international community got enough confidence upon Afghan National Army and from each side joint efforts are being met in order to overcome the challenges.

What I want to tell the people in governments of Europe in this current war in Afghanistan is a war on terror. It is not the war of Afghanistan. If we jointly, with international community, don't fight this war in this region, then it could be fought elsewhere.

Yesterday Afghanistan was a centre of terrorism that was threatening the world. Today it is the centre of struggle against terrorism with having elected government, Parliament, constitution, press freedom and more than six million of our children are going to school and women are struggling beside the men.

Thank you.

POVEL: I'm looking... who wants to take the first question. Ahto?

Q: Ahto Lobjakas, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Given the fairly upbeat commentary you've just given us on the state of the army, I'm wondering why do you think it is that NATO and ISAF Commanders seem to think that the ANA cannot hold ground on its own and seems to lack motivation as soon as ISAF support is either withdrawn or is too far away?

Thank you.

AZIMI: I not agree with you that without NATO-ISAF troops the morale of Afghan National Army is going to be collapsed. But I agree with you that Afghanistan Army can't launch independent operation without the support of the international community... because the reason is we don't have heavy weapons, we don't have air power or air forces. That's why we can't launch independent operations.

Just for instance I would like to put in here the previous COMISAF General Richards. In Operation Medusa we had soldiers from differing countries and they were fighting against terrorism in one of our operations. Our Afghan National Army guard the first position and this position was given by the pervious Commander of ISAF General Richards. Yes, I can tell you that we have some problems regarding the weapons; we have some problems regarding the training. If we improve these sectors, we will be better and we will be able to launch independent operations, but I do not agree that the morale of our Afghan National Army collapsed without NATO troops.

POVEL: Okay. Next question is from Brooks Tigner, Jane's.

Q: Yes, hi. Can you hear me? Can you hear me? I guess they can.

AZIMI: Yes, I can hear you.

Q: Okay, very good. You mentioned that one of the things you need is air power. I believe that the Czech Republic is giving you five upgraded helicopters. Is this enough or do you need more and what other kinds of air power assets do you need?

Thank you.

AZIMI: Regarding the air power, for launching independent operations, we need complete air power. It means we need aircraft for transportation, we need fixed-wing aircraft, we need reconnaissance aircraft, we need aircraft for air strikes. So all these aircrafts could complete our air power then we would be able to launch independent operations.

Recently United Arab Emirates have given us 10 aircraft and 12 aircraft are bought by United States from the Republic of Czech and these aircraft are considered for a transitional period, so...(BREAK IN TRANSMISSION)...

POVEL: Sorry. We lost the last part of your answer. Could you maybe repeat the last part of the answer in English?

AZIMI: Okay. The General said that recently United Arab Emirates has given us 10 aircraft...

(INAUDIBLE EXCHANGE)

AZIMI: Which is in (inaudible)...and 12 aircraft are bought by United States from Republic of Czech and these aircraft are for a transitional period. So if you have complete air power it means we can launch independent operations.

POVEL: Thank you. Tejinder Singh.

Q: Can you hear me? This is Tejinder from New Europe.

AZIMI:  Yes.

Q: In earlier talks with NATO Commanders, we've been told that they are very happy with the way Afghan National Army soldiers fight and the high morale. How do you compare your efforts to enlist Afghan youth with comparison to the terrorists? How do you compare your efforts to enlist Afghan youth with comparison to the terrorist outfits who are also trying to enlist the youth support?

INTERPRETER: Tejinder, can you please repeat your question because we are not hearing your voice very good.

Q: Can you hear me now?

INTERPRETER: Yes, now I can hear you. Please go ahead.

Q: In earlier talks, NATO Commanders have said that the Afghan National Army is doing a good job. How do you compare yourself, your efforts to attract Afghan youth into your fold in comparison to the efforts of the terrorist organizations to attract the youth? They are also trying to take the youth, Afghan youth.

Thank you.

POVEL: Yes, so the question is basically about recruitment.

INTERPRETER: Yes, we got the message. Thank you so much. I will just translate it.

AZIMI: So far the number which is considered by international community or which is decided by international community for our Afghan National Army, we could have been able to attract a lot of Afghan youth to bring them to Afghanistan Army and they came voluntarily. So I can tell you that Afghan youth are interested to be in Afghanistan Army and economical aspect of this army is not important for our youth.

The thing which is important for them is that they are interested to defend their country. They are interested to defend democracy and they are interested to defend their national values.

For instance, in March 2007 it was decided to increase the number of National Army by two times by the end of 2007. During the eight months we have been able to complete the number of our Afghan National Army. It means that we have been able to attract Afghan youth to Afghan National Army.

Q: Okay. Xinghui Zhang from China Youth Daily. It seems that the army from west countries are not happy to stay in south of Afghanistan to continue the fight. Can you describe how serious, how fierce of the situation in the south of Afghanistan?

And the second question is what are the Afghanistan army doing in the south? How many Afghanistan army do you have in the south?

Thank you.

AZIMI: Thank you. The thing which is very important for us that recently in Lithuania in a NATO summit, NATO member countries decidedly supported this mission in Afghanistan and they pledged that they will stay in Afghanistan and they will support Afghanistan until Afghan National Army stands on its own feet. So if we are coming to the issue of some countries that they are going to some provinces and they are not going to some provinces, we think that this is an internal issue between NATO member countries and we don't want to interfere in this issue.

So the thing which is very important for us is that we have enough NATO troops in Afghanistan which could be enough for this mission.

...(BREAK IN TRANSMISSION)... and we have our 205 military corps. So we have four brigades in each southern provinces. One in Zabul, one in Helmand, one in Uruzgan and one in Kandahar.

So presently we have 10,000 Afghan National Army... about 10,000 Afghan National Army troops in southern Afghanistan. We have sent some additional troops from western Afghanistan which we have one of our military corps and from central Afghanistan there just for a transitional period in order to serve in there.

So we have decided that we will increase our troops in Kandahar by the beginning of the new solar year. We will send our special commando unit in Kandahar and we are working on the plan of increasing troops in Kandahar.

Q: Chris Dickson for Agence Europe. One first very simple question. You say by the beginning of the new solar year; when is the solar year for you, if I heard that correctly?

AZIMI: The first day of the solar year will be on the 21st March.

Q: Okay. Thank you.

Yes, my other questions were firstly on recruitment again. After the first training period, how many of the recruits stay in the army? What percentage stay after the first training period?

(INAUDIBLE EXCHANGE)

POVEL: ISAF General Azimi this is NATO headquarters. We can hear you, but we cannot see you. But please go ahead. We can hear you.

UNIDENTIFIED: Yeah, okay, that's fine. We'll work with that. Thanks.

UNIDENTIFIED: They should repeat the question about recruitment.

INTERPRETER: Oh okay, could you repeat your question about recruitment, because we haven't heard that.

Q: After the period of training, how many of the new recruits stay in the army and how many leave? What percentage leave straight after the recruitment... sorry, straight after the training? With or without permission?

AZIMI: When we recruit a soldier after being with us for us three years, we would like to have them in Afghan National Army for a (inaudible) period. We are going to give them plenty of advantages. For example, we are going to give them some extra salaries. We are going to give them some extra leave. So we would like to use their experiences in Afghan National Army. Yes, they are getting experience and education.

So right now between 65... up to 70 percent of our soldiers those... entered their contract with us... it means they entered the duration of three years. We extended their contracts and they have been with us for a long period of time or let's say for a permanent period of time.

Q: (SPEAKS IN FOREIGN LANGUAGE) This is Gianluca Cazzaniga with the Italian Defence Review. I have two questions for you. The first one is when will you have your 14 brigades? And the second one is what's going to happen in the next fighting season? Will violence decrease?

Thank you.

AZIMI: We are planning to deploy our 14 brigades in Farah province which will be in frame of 207 military corps.

We don't expect that upcoming spring or the spring of 2008 to be harder than the spring of 2007 because when we started spring of 2007, we had around 30,000 troops. So among these 30,000 troops 15,000 were busy in serving different headquarters and some of them were busy in transportation; some of them were busy in logistic services; some of them were under training; and some of them were on leave.

So we didn't have advanced equipment in the beginning of 2007. We didn't have M16, we didn't have M4. We didn't have aircraft, we didn't have air power. But now by the beginning of 2008 or by the beginning of the spring of 2008, we will have around 70,000 troops, we will have advanced equipment; we will have M16 weapons, we will have M4...(BREAK IN TRANSMISSION)... violent in the summer or we don't expect that this spring will be harder and we are not concerned at all about upcoming spring.

In addition to this, in the beginning of 2008, in addition to this we have some regional understanding increase... .and these regional understanding pressurized(sic) the training, funding, centres of the terrorists and these centres are going to be more and more pressurized, so we think that spring of 2008 will be in our interest, although we expect that there will be some conflict. We are not saying that this upcoming spring will be completely tranquil or calm, but we think, our calculation is that we... the time will be in our interest.

The strength of Afghanistan and also in general the strength of international community is better than at the beginning of 2007. It means in this year or 2008 we will have 3,200 U.S. marines...(BREAK IN TRANSMISSION)...

POVEL: ISAF can you hear us? We cannot see you and we cannot hear you anymore.

AZIMI: We shouldn't forget that during the year of 2007 insurgent... we inflicted heavy losses to insurgents. Their key leaders were targeted; they were killed. Their key leaders were arrested. So we, in general, can say that they had more than 2,000 persons casualty or... Meanwhile there are a lot pressure on their training and funding centres from the international community.

So we and NATO troops are planning in order to have our spring offensives against the enemy, against terrorists. So we have the initiatives in our hands and we are trying in order to stop terrorists command and (inaudible) system and by the joint trying with NATO troops we will be able to have the initiative in our hands.

Q: General, you said understanding language and culture is very important in Afghanistan. What proportion of your men in the south, the Kandahar-based corps, are Pashtun and what proportion are non-Pashtun? And secondly, could you please repeat what kind of aircraft the United Arab Emirates are donating to Afghanistan?

Thank you.

INTERPRETER: There was a problem on line. I'm so sorry, we couldn't understand you. Please could you repeat yourself again?

Q: Sorry. What proportion of your men in the south of the country are Pashtun? What proportion of the army in the south are Pashtun? And secondly, could you please repeat again what kind of aircraft you're getting from the United Arab Emirates, the 10 aircraft you mentioned?

Thank you.

AZIMI: The Afghan National Defence Ministry is the only one Ministry which is observing our standards in order to have all the standards for nationalization. It means we agreed on the international community that we will have in our Afghan National Army from all tribes of Afghanistan. It means we have a certain percentage from Pashtun, a certain percentage from Tajik, Hazara, or other Uzbek or other tribes of Afghanistan. We observe this standard in our army.

So we have a very good percentage or very fair percentage in our officer, which could be included from the Minister of Defence up to the rank of Lieutenant. But the soldiers that are serving Afghanistan army they are volunteer, so it is a little bit difficult for us to keep this proportion. And fortunately the soldiers that are coming to Afghanistan army voluntarily, they have their proportion or their percentage randomly and we can say that we are in very good shape in this aspect.

So the majority of our Afghan National Army is from the Pashtun tribe. The second majority is Tajik; the third is Hazara; the fourth is Uzbek. So the same is from other minor tribes of Afghanistan. So this is the shape of our Afghan National Army.

So regarding the issue of aircraft, United Arab Emirates have given us 10 Mi-17 aircraft. Also 12 aircraft are bought by United States from the Czech Republic; six of them are Mi-7 and six others are Mi-35; also, four M-32 aircraft are given to us by United States. These aircraft from the United States...(BREAK IN TRANSMISSION)...

UNIDENTIFIED: Tell him that please, don't mention the casualty very high because of some sensitivities.

UNIDENTIFIED: Well, we don't mention it either.

UNIDENTIFIED: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED: (Inaudible)...

UNIDENTIFIED: Oh, here they are again.

POVEL: We are back again. We lost you for two minutes I think. So I don't know if you have said very important things, otherwise if you could repeat. Otherwise we still a few questions until we have to drop off I think in about 10 minutes so...

INTERPRETER: Okay, you got the last answer or not?

POVEL: Yes, we have a follow-up question.

INTERPRETER: Okay, go ahead.

Q: My question about the share of Pashtun ANA troops was specifically about the southern corps, the 205 corps I think. The answer you gave me was about the entire army. What about the proportion of Pashtun fighters in your southern corps, the 205 corps that does the fighting in the south of the country?

Thank you.

AZIMI: (Inaudible)...

POVEL: Hello ISAF. We can see you again, not yet hear you.

INTERPRETER: Okay do you hear us and have you got the answer?

POVEL: We can see you. We can hear you again. We did not get the answer. If you can answer the question about the troops in the south.

INTERPRETER: Okay. The General said I think I have already answered your question. I mentioned that the majority of our Afghan National Army, in all provinces or in all military corps, because the Afghan National Army is a national army, the majority is Pashtun, the second majority is Tajik, third is Hazara, fourth is Uzbek and so on. All the tribes have their own proportion in Afghan National Army and they are deployed by headquarters of Afghan National Army (BREAK IN TRANSMISSION)...

POVEL: Yes, we can see you again. Yes we can see you and we can hear you again. I think we'll try one last...

UNIDENTIFIED: Okay, Eric...

POVEL: Go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED: Can I just say one word? Because it cuts all the time, I suggest that we take just maybe one last question. And then what I suggest you can maybe send the question by e-mail if there is a need and we will answer by e-mail because it's becoming very painful.

POVEL: I agree. We'll have one more question from Brooks Tigner and then we'll leave it at that because the line is really getting bad. So Brooks the last question for you.

Q: Brooks Tigner, Jane's Defence. Does the ANA have any plans to shut-off the border, to close the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan? And if not, what kind of equipment do you need to do this?  Thank you.

AZIMI: Afghanistan, from a geographical point of view, there are a lot of terrain or (inaudible) terrain areas which are very difficult to pass it, or it means Afghanistan a mountainous country.

I think Afghanistan's border needs four important points. First of all we need a strong border force for our border. For example, we have 5,600-kilometre border with... more than 5,600-kilometre border with different countries and the number which is determined for Afghan National Border Police is just 12,0000. So 6,000 or 7,000 of them could be busy in headquarter services. We will just have 5,000 or 6,000 troops. So they won't be able to protect all the borders because there is more than 5,600 kilometres.

The second thing is about technology. We should have advanced technology in order to monitor our border areas. So we need night-glasses. We need the equipment that could be used by our border police in order to monitor it.

The third point is the collaboration of people. Potentially people are ready to help government in order to monitor the border. So this potential power should become active and they should actively participate to protect... to monitor the borders.

The fourth point or element is the honest collaboration between two countries. So the two countries, those of the border between each other, they should honestly collaborate or co-operate with each other in order to make sure the security or the control of the border.

With all the complete shutting-off of the border or the complete... let's say the complete closing of the border is impossible because when we see to the United States, United States is a powerful country, even they cannot shut or they cannot close their border with Mexico. If we see to the previous era of Afghanistan or to the previous...(BREAK IN TRANSMISSION)...more than 500,000 Afghan army and they couldn't completely close or shut the border. So this is impossible to shut...(BREAK IN TRANSMISSION)...

We shouldn't forget that the number which is decided or which is considered for Afghan National Border Police, it is not enough and if we see to the geo-strategic or geographical (inaudible) terrain of Afghanistan, it is not enough number and it should be increased.

Thank you so much for the opportunity; that I got familiarity with the European reporters and I hope that in the future our co-operation will be continuing.

POVEL: Thank you very much General Azimi. On behalf off all the journalists and also on behalf of NATO Headquarters, thank you very much for your willingness and your frankness answer the questions. Thank you very much and maybe we'll see you in the future once again. Thank you very much. Bye bye.

AZIMI: Thank you for... bye.