27 Mar. 2008

Video Teleconference

with Afghan Minister of Defence, Mr. Abdul Rahim Wardak

JAMES APPATHURAI (NATO Spokesman): Let me introduce myself, very briefly. I'm the NATO Spokesman, James Appathurai. General, we've met many times with the Secretary General. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us and to the press that you have there with you in ISAF HQ.

We have quite a substantial number of journalists who've come here to hear you and to ask some questions of you, so again, thanks for coming.

May I suggest... I assume that was your plan, that you would take a couple of minutes just to introduce whatever issues you want to raise and then we can take questions, is that all right? Over to you? 

ABDUL RAHIM WARDAK (Afghan Minister of Defence): Yes, thank you very much for giving me this opportunity and I know that yes, we have met frequently, and I'm glad to be talking to you once again.

APPATHURAI: Microphone.

WARDAK: (Inaudible)...?

UNIDENTIFIED: Yes, with your introduction.

WARDAK: Oh, introduction. So here the time is … good afternoon to all of you. As you are all well aware we had a very intense 2007, and as usual during the winter the level of activities has declined and we are expecting now to... that there will be an increase in the activities.

Fortunately, together we, with ISAF, this winter, we have continued our operations. We have continued to entrap their crossborder operation. We have interdicted their lines of communications. We have entrapped their command and control. We have conducted the subjective strikes, and have tried to deprive them of any capability to launch a so-called spring offensive. And I think we will be successful in doing so.

And also, as you are aware, the enemies have changed their tactics after suffering heavy casualty during Operation Medusa, and afterwards, so now they're operating in much smaller groups, but over a larger geographic area. 

So we are still expecting that they will be relying very heavily on IEDs and suicide bombing attacks. And they will try to spread the war to the western... to the north and probably they might try to conduct some type of conventional attack and they move to areas where the government and international forces are not present, but generally they have lost the capability to engage with us conventionally in a fighting.

From other point of view I think we are much well prepared than in the past. During this winter the ANA went through a period of search. The troops went out for training institutions... we have doubled, so there will be more ANA available for this fighting season and there will be an increase on the level of ISAF and coalition forces, that will definitely also make a difference.

Generally we all believe here, we Afghans believe that the only sustaining way in the long term to secure Afghanistan is to enable the Afghans themselves. And for that purpose I think we are asking the international community and everybody to accelerate the growth of... the process of the growth of the Afghan National Security Forces both in qualities and capabilities and also in quantity.

We already last year have conducted operations which were led by the Afghan National Army, supported by ISAF, because still we don't have all the enablers which we need. But these operations have had really positive results. We had almost, in some of these operations zero collateral damage or civilian casualties. The house searches by the Afghan Police, and supported by the ANA was not provoking any reaction and also the application of force was by Afghans, or by all principles of counterinsurgency, said more legitimate.

And in the meantime, the population has also cooperated to show us the hideout of the enemy and also point out to the places which IEDs already were a threat.

So this year also we will continue to take the lead of operations, but not the full lead, because we will still need to rely on NATO and coalition for air mobility, air support and fire support and some other logistics. Gradually we hope that we will be able to obtain that capability by the help and support of the international community because we don't want to burden permanently on the international community. It's our country. We have defended it for thousands of years against all odds, and now also we are ready to sacrifice for it, so and fortunately the Afghan Army is doing very well. It is, every day that passes it's getting more disciplined more professional and more effective.

So I take the rest, otherwise I will keep on talking, so I will just leave you to ask me questions.

APPATHURAI: Thank you. Thank you, General, very much. Let me quickly turn the floor over to the journalists here.

Q: General, it's Paul Ames from the Associated Press. Could I ask you straight way, what are your expectations for the NATO Summit in Bucharest? What would you like the Allies to do for Afghanistan at that meeting?

WARDAK: I... I will be expecting that the international community will continue to reaffirm their long-term commitment to Afghanistan. And I do hope that they will also commit to allocate more resources to the growth of the Afghan National Army and other Afghan National Security Forces, because we strongly believe that having more ANA is the best solution. It is cheaper, economically. It is politically less complex and it will also safe lives for our friends and allies. And also I think to tell you as an Afghan, and as somebody who has been involved in this war for the last 30 years, that it is really painful for the Afghans to see that the boys and men and women and all of our friends and allies shed their blood on our side, while throughout the history our own pride was that we were able to defend this country against anybody who called himself a superpower or a big conqueror.

So now I think these three decades of war made us weak so we will need the help for a transitional period and then I think we will be restored to our traditional responsibility to defend this country ourself, and remain a friend and ally to all those countries and all those institutions who have helped us.

Q: General, Ahto Lobjakas, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. When you say that you want the Bucharest Summit to reaffirm the allies' long-term commitment to Afghanistan, how long do you foresee the... how long do you think the military side of this commitment will have to be there for Afghanistan to be able to stand on its own feet?

And secondly, when you speak about defending the country, do you mean that the insurgency then is largely now a foreign phenomenon, not an Afghan... not an Afghan movement, not based in Afghanistan, not rooted in the Pashtun belt in the south? Thank you.

WARDAK: Sir, I will answer the first portion of your question because I understood it fully. The second one, I think I will need further clarification so that I'll be able to give you the right answer.

I mean, the commitment, the reason which we are asking to reaffirm the commitment, it is based on our experience of the nineties that once in the nineties all our friends and allies have left us. They disengaged regardless of all the commitment which we had, and then we became the victim of that situation, and all what have happened in Afghanistan after that, was the result of the disengagement of the free world and also the one who support us during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

So now though verbally this commitment has been given to us frequently we still want to somehow reassure ourself and the time of this commitment will directly depend on the amount of support which we will be getting to accelerate the growth of Afghan National Security Forces. The faster we reach that, I think the time will be shorter. Otherwise then the time will be longer.

We are already working on a campaign plan that has three phases. The first phase will be that we have to, with the help of the international community, to reach a level of quality and capabilities so that we can start conducting independent operations.

And the second phase will be that we will start transition from NATO-led operation to Afghan-led operation and NATO-supported operation, which in that case, the physical security will be the Afghan forces' job and mentoring and supporting will be the job of... and gradually the more we are capable it will allow the gradual reduction of the international forces.

And the third phase will be that all our institution buildings and all of our capabilities will be completed and that is the time that we will revert back to our enduring strategic cooperation programs which we have with NATO, with U.S., with U.K. and European Union. We do need that cooperation because we are living in a very dangerous neighbourhood.

Q: Sorry, my second question was, when you talk about the ability to defend Afghanistan, as your main aim, as main aim of the Afghan Security Forces at this stage, I'm just wondering whether that means that the insurgents you are battling now are a foreign phenomenon, that you mean they do not come from Afghanistan, they come from outside? Am I correct in this interpretation? Thank you.

WARDAK: You see defending Afghanistan... I mean, if I... a little bit bypass your question, defending Afghanistan will be to me to have the capability to defend Afghanistan against all conventional and unconventional threats. And that will be that the international community should consider Afghanistan not only in the context of counter... the present counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism, but to think that it as a country which can contribute to the regional security and stability as a whole.

So that will be a little bit different and it will take much longer time which that... that will be one of our wishes. And that will be a stage that all the help, assistance, support and sacrifices and generosity of the international community can be really ensured. Ensuring the result of that... that they are not in vain and we will have an enduring stability. Not only in the country, but also contributing to the stability in this really volatile region of the world.

In the meantime, that is the time that we would also like to participate in peacekeeping operations and other stability operations with our friends and allies, so that we can pay our debts to the international community.

About... there is no doubt that our... the terrorists, and Taliban, are getting their support from outside of our country. They do have sanctuaries. There are places where they can get trained, they get support, they get supplies, they plan, they train and then operate from. That is a well-known phenomenon which everybody knows.

Q: General, Lorne Cook from AFP News Agency. If I can perhaps just follow on with that. Pakistan is an obvious source of command and control for the Taliban. At the Summit next week Pakistan's not going to be present. It's not one of the invitees. Are you concerned that it won't be there on the international stage next week, or is it perhaps a too complex political time in Pakistan for it to be there?

WARDAK: There is no doubt that we would have welcomed their participation, but otherwise also we are pursuing other avenues to further increase our cooperation with our neighbour, Pakistan. We do believe that they should be convinced now that we are sharing a common threat, and we are sharing a common objective. So I hope that through these other bilateral and... I will call it trilateral, the one which is with the help of NATO we are having, started a cooperation which I hope if… it is a realistic and sincere cooperation and the Pakistan has also been affected by this terrorism, it will have really positive results in our joint mission of war against terror.

Q: Mark John from Reuters. General, am I correct in thinking that for you to move to, as you say, the second phase of your campaign, in other words, Afghan-led operations, you'll need a fully functioning air force to provide air cover and so on? And could you update us where you are in terms of discussions on acquiring that kind of air capability and whether you expect any progress at the Summit?

WARDAK: I'm really not aware that in the Summit we will be discussing the Afghan air force, but fortunately for the first time, after all these years of our struggle and also being really persistent in this request to give us this capability, for the first time this year I think there is some move in reviving the Afghan air force.

So at the moment we are receiving some helicopters from UAE which they have donated about ten MI-17s.  We also got a donation from Czech Republic of six MI-17s and six MI-35 gunships.  We have, I think, the (inaudible) also bought some AN-32s for us, which all of this will be for a transitional period.  The future plan of the Afghan air force is still under study.  We are asking to enable us to be able to conduct independent operations. We will need much bigger transport capabilities, but that is also planned, so I think in a year or two we will be getting some new Western aircraft which is C-27.  C-27?  You're familiar with C-27? 

APPATHURAI: No.

WARDAK: No? Or C-57.

UNIDENTIFIED: CH-53 maybe…

WARDAK: No, it's not, it is a transport aircraft, it's smaller than C-130.  Not 21, it's 27.  C-27, so we will be getting some of them, we hope this program can be expedited so-- but the moment I think they will start arriving in 2010. But we do need to conduct independent operations, we will need reconnaissance capabilities and we need some ground attack capability to support our ground forces.  So the issue is still under consideration and we will welcome help from ISAF, NATO countries-- I mean to help us and restructuring and recreating our air force.  That is a capability which will surely help that we can take a proper lead and conduct independent operation on with the support from NATO and coalition forces.

Q: (Inaudible)…Geo Television, Pakistan; you have pointed out a finger and gentlemen also asked you a question that the source of this infiltration is Pakistan, but Pakistan have been, last six months, accusing Afghanistan-- it is a lot of Afghan terrorists crossing borders and infiltrating into Pakistan and they are reaching to, even, Islamabad and committing suicide bombing.  So, what do you say about it?

WARDAK: I am-- I think it is so crystal clear and it's so obvious I think, like you're looking to the Sun, that we don't have any capability, I mean, to send terrorists.  We consider Pakistan our friendly and brotherly country; we are indebted to them for sheltering millions of Afghan refugees during the war with the Soviet Union and also enabling us to wage that war against Soviets.  So, there is a really deep feeling in the heart of each Afghan as far as the Pakistani people are concerned, so it's not a question of fingering.

But, I seriously believe at the moment-- also I think the surveillance and intelligence, the technical surveillance and technical intelligence, and also human intelligence and services are plentiful and I can tell you that there is no terrorist permanent sanctuary in any place in Afghanistan.  They, from time to time, they can move around but some place, which they see permanent training and supplies, it does not exist in Afghanistan and we really don't want to create any harm to any of our Pakistani brothers by sending terrorists.  We have, during the war with the Soviets, we were so noble that against the Russians and all the countries which were helping them, we have not conducted a single act of terror and the history is a goof proof of that-- if they can show me that we have the capability, the Soviet diplomats who are walking around in Islamabad freely and a lot of other places.  We didn't hijack a plane, we didn't assassinate anybody, and we do-- we have not done any act which was against the rules of war and also acceptable by the standards of civilized world.

Q: General, Dennis (Inaudible) in the (inaudible) News Agency, Russia.  I would like to ask you about what's your evaluation-- how many troops needs Afghanistan to ensure himself the security and stability in the country, and when approximately the phase two, or the development of Afghan National Army, can begin?  Thank you.

WARDAK: Yeah, actually, you see, at the beginning the level of the threat was anticipated really low, and unfortunately at the moment, I think, all of us and our friends and allies are convinced that the level of the threat is much higher than it was anticipated in 2002 or in 2003.  So, we are actually not a country that can initiate because of our economical resources; we are relying entirely, almost entirely, on the international community as a friend and our ally.  So, we are studying, actually at the moment, with our US allies and also our NATO Headquarters.  I mean, to come up with a proper number in the future that will be the number which will be the minimum amount required and that also will depend in the future development of the security situation and also this number will also depend on how much cooperation we can get from our neighbouring countries to fight this evil, giantly.

Q: Barbara (inaudible), Associated Press.  General, you have said that the Taliban will try to move the war to the north and the west.  Do you have clear indication of that or has this process, in fact, already started?  Thank you.

WARDAK: Actually, I think that will be their intention and at the moment I doubt that they will be successful there or later a bit from time to time something, but so far there is nothing serious in the north and west and in the centre of gravity is always east and south, south and east.  So, but, it also, I told you that we are in a much better situation as far as the level of forces is concerned.  In the meantime, the understanding of the Afghan public about who the Taliban are is-- have changed.  They really know now that what sort of people they are, which have no respect to women, children, elderly, religion, they are burning Koran, blowing up the mosques, killing all the innocent people.

So gradually, I think, the people are also trying to stay away from them and there has been cooperation in a lot of cases by the people.  This episode-- I mean, this recapturing of Musa Qalah really slaughtered by the people of Musa Qalah.  They were fed up with the presence of Taliban there, so, I will say, I think I will not be sure that they will be able, I mean, to spread the war to the north or to the south, I mean to the north or west, dramatically.

Q: Yes, Gerard Gaudin, Belgian News Agency. Beside an air force, what capabilities do you need for your ground forces, for instance, as a priority?

WARDAK: As a priority for our ground forces, I think we need protected mobility and some more firepower and manoeuvrability and some better equipment. So I think we will, if we acquire that, that will be the capability which we will be needing; protected mobility and more firepower and better supplies and logistics.

APPATHURAI: Minister and I should have called you Minister--

WARDAK: (Inaudible)

APPATHURAI: Uh, Minister, thank you very, very much for the time that you have devoted to us. It's been very, very informative for me as much as, I think, for all of my colleagues.  We will see you, certainly, very, very soon, but let me thank you very warmly for what the time that you've done-- time that you've given us and what you've done today.

WARDAK: Okay, thank you very much, indeed. I think I really welcome this opportunity to be able, I mean, to talk to you and be able to shed some light from our perspective on some of the issues and we will be looking forward to seeing you in Bucharest.  Thank you very much.