26 Mar. 2008

Video Teleconference

with Major General Robert W. Cone - Commander of CSTC-A (Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan)

JAMES APPATHURAI (NATO Spokesman): I'm James Appathurai, the NATO Spokesman. It was on my invitation that you're here, and I want to thank you for being here. We have assembled here and you can see them on your screen, much of the Brussels press corps. So let me, without any further ado, because I know you're a busy man, simply introduce you.

This is General Cone. He is responsible for the bulk of the training effort in Afghanistan and is doing, by all accounts, a fantastic job and everyone's here to hear from you and to ask you a few questions when you have the time.

So let me just, without further ado, turn the floor over to you and ask you if you have a few introductory statements to make and then we will field the questions from here.

General.

MAJOR GENERAL ROBERT W. CONE (Commander of Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, CSTC-A): Yes, James, thank you and thank all of you for coming to this press interview.

My name is Robert W. Cone, I'm the commanding general of Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan. And in that capacity I am responsible for the training of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. To accomplish that mission I have about 7,000 people who work for me. About 3,200 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, about 800 coalition members, and another 3,000 civilian contractors, largely translators and civilian policemen who are acting as trainers for the Afghan National Police.

We are... my Headquarters is here in Kabul, and we operate from some 260 field location across Afghanistan and interface on a daily basis with NATO ISAF and the regional commanders and their subordinate elements in the field.

In many ways I view NATO as my customer regarding the training of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.

Let me give you a short situation report on the status of the Afghan Army and the Afghan National Police and then I'll take your questions.

I think it is a fairly exciting time for the Afghan National Army. They have been under development now for over six years and they are now at a strength of about 51,000 troops in the fielded force, and another 10,000 that are currently in training, in the training centres across this country. And most of those will graduate... those soldiers will graduate in time to participate with units in the spring fighting season.

The Afghans have worked very hard to create as many units and soldiers as rapidly as possible. Their goal and objective is to assume responsibility for their own security as quickly as we can get them properly manned and equipped. They understand the balance between quantity and quality and we are all working jointly together with NATO ISAF, with our OMLT partners, and with CSTC-A to ensure that the Afghans we put in the field will be successful in combat operations.

The Afghans have acquitted themselves very well in this last year and have taken an increasing number of combat operations in the lead. And ideally these Afghan units look to the NATO troops that are in the field, essentially as role models and as teachers, to teach them what being a professional soldier in Afghanistan in this environment is all about.

As I say the Afghan National Army now has 11 fielded brigades and they are located in all of the regional commands throughout Afghanistan, and those units operate under the control of the Ministry of Defence, but work very closely, and one of our jobs, working with the OMLTs is to ensure that their operations are fully integrated with COMISAF's or Commander ISAF's plans and that the Afghans work arm-in-arm across Afghanistan.

On the police it is a much more complicated situation. The police development lags behind the army some number of years. The police problem is much more complicated in its nature because it's constantly in interaction with the people and frankly there are many more opportunities for corruption and inappropriate activity.

The history of policing in Afghanistan is problematic. And many of the police in the past have been members of former militias and had not had the kind of training and professional education that we as westerners find acceptable in a modern police force.

We have a number of programmes, and I'd first say that our partners here are EUPOL and the ten nation states that make up the Law and Order Trust Fund of Afghanistan, all who contribute towards salaries for the Afghan National Army and of course the Ministry of Interior. We work very closely and jointly. Each of us brings unique capabilities to the table, and I would point out that EUPOL, in terms of police expertise, at the organizational level, they bring a lot to the table, helping us with the Ministry of Interior and the higher level Headquarters of the police and the Ministry of Interior.

Our major programme, we have a comprehensive programme for reform that we are working, and of course that has to do with things like rank reform, ensuring that the police who hold high rank are competent and not corrupt. And we have executed rank reform and looked at the top 17,000 people in the Afghan police and identified about 8,000 for separation or reduction. Things like pay reform, ensuring that the police are paid adequately so they are not prone to what is known as one-handed-corruption, which is that they don't make enough money and so therefore they must attempt to gain money illegally. Things like... basic things that you would think that they have, like ID cards, biometrics and electronic payroll system, and the international community, through the International Police Coordination Board and the Law and Order Trust Fund of Afghanistan have funded many of these initiatives and have them in play right now.

Our major programme, though, at the district level, and in a counterinsurgency what is so important is that the police in the district, or the local police, are truly the face of the government to the Afghan people. And therefore they must meet a very high standard of performance. And frankly, that is where we have had problems in the past. Previous attempts at reform had attempted to train individuals and insert them within the system and what we found is to deal with corruption what you have to do is literally go in and take police forces offline and essentially give them an infusion, a blood transfusion if you would, of new nationally vetted leaders, of new policemen who have been professionally trained at the NCO Academy and then retrain them, essentially, with heavy emphasis on values and training as a unit.

In the interim what we do is we take... we have about five battalions of nationally-trained police that are actually, probably, our best-trained, well-led, well-equipped, and nationally focused police. They backfill those police in the districts while we're restructuring the police, and then we basically bring the police back in and re-introduce them to the citizens of their community.

We are currently in our third round of focused district development, or we have three phases currently ongoing. We started with some of the toughest areas in Afghanistan. Essentially where COMISAF and NATO needed the districts to be reformed, we went in and have refocused these first seven districts, that has been accomplished. The next eight are in training and then there's another eight in the form of assessment where we go in and do shuras with the local people and determine what their needs are for police.

We will continue this throughout the year and we'll do some 52 districts this year.

Our needs are significant in regard to police training. That is probably the one shortfall that I have, and that I actively solicit assistance from the nations that are involved in Afghanistan.  We need additional police trainers to assist us to broaden this programme.  Fifty-two districts in a nation where there's 364 is where we require additional assistance.  Fifty-two, it is a programme that appears to be working and what we need is additional assistance in terms of police trainers and we think that the international community and many of the nations that are here in Afghanistan are-- some of them have already stepped forward, for instance, Great Britain, Canada, have stepped forward and offered on a bilateral basis police trainers to assist in this programme.

With that, I'll be willing take your questions.

Q: One Hour (inaudible) BBC World Service; General, you say that out of the 17,000 high rank police officials you've identified 8,000 for separation.  Does that mean that half of them are corrupt and need to be removed?  And secondly, how many more police trainers are you hoping to get and are you hoping for some sort of signal from the Bucharest Summit on that?

CONE: Okay.  In regard to your first question, the Afghans did the police reform themselves.  They put together panels of-- from the Ministry of Interior.  Principally, it was based upon, really, competence in regard to their manner of performance.  Some of it had to do with literacy which, as you know in this nation, is a problem and some of it had to do with accusations of corruption and most of the accusations of corruption as they were vetted in regard to their personnel files-- I think we've lost the connection.  Can you hear me now?

APPATHURAI: General, we seem to have a little audio issue.  Could you try speaking again, if we can get volume?

CONE: Yeah, can you hear me now?

APPATHURAI: No. Hang on a second.

CONE:  Can you hear me now?

APPATHURAI: Who's controlling volume?  Ah, it's coming back, alright, if you could scroll back about three minutes and try again?

CONE: Okay, I'll go back to the question, I guess, is where we were at, about rank reform.  Yes, the Afghans conducted this, the boards themselves that reviewed these files-- principally, they were concerned about competence.  Illiteracy was a major issue.  Of course, rule of law is driven by your ability to read and apply the law and so some of them were separated from that.  Some of them were separated for job performance and others were vetted, both by the international community, UNAMA and the Afghans themselves for records of corruption.

I don't know the exact breakdown on why those people were dismissed, but largely it was matters of competence, I think, was the greatest factor.

APPATHURAI: Second question was how many police do you need?

CONE: The number of police trainers we currently need is a number of about 2,300.  That includes about 800 actual police trainers, policemen who go to the field, but because it's dangerous here in Afghanistan they require a security force that goes with them.  So that number, the balance of the 2,300-2,400 is in fact security detachments to go forward with those trainers.

For example, what we're doing with the marines that are coming in, one of the marine battalions is dedicated to providing security out in these police districts where this training takes place, and therefore providing the security forces for professional police trainers that we are bringing in.  What we found in dealing with corruption is you must live among the Afghans in the districts, particularly once you've reformed a district and brought it back in to ensure that they don't perhaps fall back into their prior practices and encourage them to serve their nation and to serve for the right reasons.  We continue to mentor them and we find that to be very effective.  Although there is a risk of course in being out in those districts and that's why we provide security forces for any police trainers that are, in fact, forward.  Alright?

Q: (Inaudible) Radio for Europe, Radio Liberty; trying to fast forward here a little.  Once the ANA's fully compliments-- it's fully equipped and you are where you want to be, do you see it acquitting itself any better than the Pakistani army, for example now, across the border which still has to fight its way into the tribal areas whenever the need arises to go there.  So, essentially, do you see the ANA as ever being able to do the full job that even the Pakistani army seems to be unable to do after some 50 years?  Thank you.

CONE: Yes, I think that any of the NATO countries here would relate the same sort of stories that the Afghans are a martial people.  They do a very good job as soldiers.  They're very hardy people.  They are disciplined and given the training programme that we have is really focused on counterinsurgency warfare and the kind of warfare that they're likely to be engaged in, the Afghans have acquitted themselves in a large number of fights.

This last week alone, of the nine operations-- named operations conducted in Afghanistan; the Afghans in fact led six of them and participated in the other three.  And one thing they have engrained in them is this-- some described them as being fearless in the face of contact.  In some ways, they're sometimes casual about the threat to their life.  The challenge with them is not in this willingness to fight, it is in the higher level skills of things like command and control, logistics, applying close air support; the professional military skills, which is such a good fit for NATO, because frankly that is what our OMLTs and our ETTs bring to the fight is a knowledge of integrating these systems to match with the Afghan's innate ability to close with and destroy the enemy.

Q: Sorry, just a follow-up.  The question is, as a finished product, do you see the Afghan army as a superior force to that of-- as superior to the Pakistani army, say, in ten year's time?  That's the question, thank you.

CONE: I wouldn't want to make a comparison of the army.  We want an army in Afghanistan that is capable of defending Afghanistan and I believe that the Afghan army, it will take time; it will take time to integrate all of the capabilities and the professional military skills.  And, for instance, the current plan to build an air corps. will take us a number of years to produce that air corps.  But in terms of their ability today to defend Afghanistan, I think it is growing with every day and every combat experience that they have.  So yes, they will be a force capable of defending Afghanistan.

Q: And, yeah, hi.  Jim Nuger from Bloomberg News.  To follow up the first question, you said that you need another 2,300 police trainers.  How many do you currently have?  And then, beyond that, what is your current estimate of when the ANA will be up to full strength?

CONE: We currently have some 1,300 police trainers that are employed in the field; 1,300 police trainers.  And that is, as I say, not what we need to have the kind of presence that we want in this country.  We do pretty well at institutional-level training, where we train individuals, the Germans run a police academy, they do NCO training that feeds within our programme as part of this international community programme.  Where the real need is now is at the district level for mentors that take reformed police and stay with them out in the fight.

The current plan for the Afghan army is to grow it to 80,000.  That is the internationally-agreed upon number from the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board.  That will be some 14 brigades and 6 commando battalions with associated logistics support, aviation support, artillery support, and that force-- that number will be achieved, we predict, in March of next year.  They will, as I say, at 61,000 now, we anticipate that they will be in March of '09 they will reach 80,000.  There will still be work to do in terms of professionalizing and developing them for years after that.  And things like, for instance, the airforce capability will not be fully online until 2013 and so that-- again, because it takes much longer to teach them English to fly an aircraft, to teach them to fly, for instance, the C27 which we're buying from Italy will be their primary airlift aircraft, and so that will take longer.

So to be fully independent, you look to saying what is the last piece that will come over the line?  And I think we will still have developmental activities with them through 2016 as we continue to monitor them and ensure they have all the capabilities that they have.  And again, I don't want to imply, this is both art and science and the fact of the matter is I think we understand the science of buying equipment and training numbers of people but when leadership development is involved, it may go faster or it may go slower.  But the point is, we are here with them as an international community ensuring that they take the lead and they do so in a professionally competent manner.

Q: Hi, Chris Dixon from European Diplomacy Defence.  It's a general question on a phrase that I've been hearing quite often, which is this "taking the lead," -- you mentioned there have been some conflicts where the Afghan soldiers have led an engagement.  We also heard there's (Inaudible) that the ANA were taking the lead and I'd like to know, it may be difficult to give details, but if you've got any illustrations of what this means, does it mean anything more than they're sent in first?

CONE: Well, I'll give you a great example.  In RC North, the German AO, this last fall the German Commander, General Warnecke, decided to conduct an operation with COMISAF consent out to the distant reaches, the western reaches, in a place called Ghormash which is actually across the boundary, so they changed the core boundary and the Germans working with an Afghan brigade conducted an operation that went all the way from Mazar-I Sharif all the way out to Maymana and Ghormash, and again, the large-- the preponderance of forces that were involved in that were in fact Afghan battalions, and they had a limited number of German troops that basically went along as a quick reaction force to assist.  They did it with German airlift and they did it with German close air support.

So, that's the kind of model that we would like to see and that is the Afghans taking the majority of the fight, taking the fight to the enemy, because they know the ground, they understand the language, they know the people, and again, using ISAF forces as reinforcement.  The same type operation happens routinely in RCEast with CJTF-82, the 82nd airborne, in which the Afghans conduct the bulk.  I was recently-- in this last fall, in an operation up in the Khyber Pass, in which I would say perhaps 80 percent of the troops provided were Afghan and the Americans provided quick reaction forces to assist the Afghans, provided some people to assist them in planning and ensuring that they had close air support or they had casualty evacuation as necessary.  That is the emerging model and I think all can see the value of this that the Afghans are on point and provide the majority of the combat forces engaged in the operations.

Q: (Inaudible) News Network, Pakistan; General, you know as well as we do, that 120,000 troops other side of the border in Pakistan, very small area, fighting insurgency-- you have 45,000 troops altogether with NATO in Afghanistan; until you increase the troops there's the issue of number of troops, and secondly, that is the what kind of cooperation you are getting from Pakistan armed forces along the border which is 1,400 kilometre borders with where these insurgents are just crossing from one way to other and now, the infiltration from Afghan border into Pakistan is so large the whole northern areas from Waziristan to Wana and Wana down Sawat Valley is there is insurgency and Pakistan army is fighting at its teeth.

CONE: I think your point is a good one and that is given the size of Afghanistan, given the size of the population, and the complexity of the terrain, will an 80,000 Afghan army and an 82,000 Afghan police be enough, and the answer is it does not appear, if we look at any number of historical or studies on counterinsurgency theory that even with the 40,000 ISAF forces that that will be enough, and there are studies underway right now that are looking at what is the appropriate end-state of the Afghan army.  We do know this, we can grow about 15,000 Afghan soldiers a year, or slightly more than that; they've proven the ability to do almost 20,000-- that is quite a bit for a modern army with training to grow to that extent.

And so, what we're doing is we're growing as fast as we can with a quality product that acquits itself well in combat and then looking to the future to determine what is the appropriate size, what size of the enemy will be remaining given the effects of ISAF-- there are a number of complicated factors here.  Another factor we must consider, of course, is it must be a force that is right for Afghanistan given the difficult circumstances it finds itself in financially.  And again, armies are expensive and we need to build a force for Afghanistan that is ripe for the long haul and something the Afghans can afford.

In regard to your cooperation with Pakistan, I think we find on a day-to-day basis relatively good cooperation among soldiers and border police on the ground in working cooperatively to stop the flow of personnel in either direction, from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Afghanistan to Pakistan.  For instance, there is a regular tripartite conference that takes place with the leaders of the Afghan army, NATO ISAF and the leaders of the Pakistan army to discuss the positioning of forces, to exchange information about typical routes used by infiltrators, and so I think that cooperation on a day-to-day basis has improved over my nine months that I've been here to the point that we are now capable of communicating between the Pakistan forces and the Afghan forces to make sure that we don't have a border incident and that we're working cooperatively to meet both nations' interest in securing those borders.

Q: (Inaudible) News Agency of Ukraine.  General, could you specify please the ethnical structure of the forces you've trained.  I just explain the question, have you any guarantee that tomorrow, maybe after tomorrow, people of different tribes will turn weapons against each other, for example, Uzbeks against Pashto, like that happened in the past, especially if foreign troops leaving the country? Thank you.

CONE: I am very confident that the Afghan national army is a, in fact, a model of national unity.  From the day that young Afghans come into the army they are broken down and ethnically balanced within every organization.  When you see any group of, for instance, a core staff, you will see ethnic balancing employed there.  For instance, the 209th corps is commanded by a Hazara, his chief of staff is a Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik, and what I think is interesting having watched Afghan operations in the countryside is the amazement of the Afghan people looking at this army as a model of ethnic integration.  We work constantly-- the Afghans work constantly to emphasize the importance of Afghan national unity.  At their camp, where they start their basic training, there's a sign in Dari that says unity starts here.  And so, I believe that the army has been an institution that has led the way in ethnic balancing and ethnic unity within Afghanistan.

Q: General, this is (inaudible) from New Europe, the European weekly, I'd like to know what is the percentage of dropouts in the sense that how many people get trained, and then join the army, and are deserters, you know?  There is a lot of talk about when they get trained and then they leave.  Do you have any particular figures and you have been mentioning figures about the Afghan army, do you have any figures about the enemy you are fighting with?

CONE: I have figures on the Afghan national army, it's something that we watch very carefully.  One of the, if you say, the advantages of having an ethnically balanced army, it's truly a national army where soldiers come in and will serve anywhere across the nation.

The fact is that that creates a problem in that you have soldiers who signed up in Mazar-e Sharif are then shipped down to Kandahar and are fighting in Kandahar, so we ethnically mixed them up across the country so they are not regionalized, and there's great danger in regionalization here in Afghanistan; as you know, the history of the warlords, but because we have a truly national army what we have learned over time is that young Afghans, the family is extremely important to them.   They are working, they are earning a good paycheque in Afghanistan and they can go about four months without leave and the need to go home on leave and to take that money to the family, address their family's issues, and then they return, invariably they return back to the army.

I'd say, probably 18 months to 2 years ago we had an AWOL rate that was over 20 percent, which is totally unacceptable in a modern army.  Today, as we speak, I think that number is actually below 8 percent and the Afghans continue to work this very hard.  I would attribute the reduction in AWOL, and again they're not desertions because what happens is they come back, but what happens is after about four months, and we cycle them through the war fight within a brigade, bring them back to the (inaudible) and then arrange for transportation; we call it a managed leave programme where every Afghan soldier, just like every western soldier, knows when his next break is going to be and then can take it-- it's complicated here, of course, because the banking system is not that mature and often they have to carry that money home to their families.

Since we started managing this, since we've started meeting the young Afghans' expectations, that number is down, now, below 8 percent.  It will spike, I will tell you that a large number of Afghans will go on leave during the Eid period, and-- but they will all come back, or not all come back but a significant number, it's normally a transportation delay that they can't get back from where they went home to and they can't get back in time, so they'll show up several days or a week late because of transportation problems.  We're working on that hard now, with the air corps.  Right now they have seven rotary wing aircraft, or fixed wing aircraft that provide transportation.  The Afghans, last month alone, moved 4,200 soldiers to and from the battlefield, in many cases on a space-available basis, took them back to the nearest airport in their home region so that they could be with their families on their leave and then return them in a timely basis. In many ways, they're very much like western soldiers in terms of their expectations of care by their chain of command.

APPATHURAI: General, that's all we will make you sit here with us, thank you very, very much.  I learned a lot, I think we all learned a lot.  We might see you the next time we're down in Afghanistan.  Thank you, again.  You'll see your remarks, I hope, tomorrow in the press.  Thank you.

CONE: Great, take care.