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DoD News Briefing with Brig. Gen. Cantwell and Brig. Gen. Tremblay from Kabul, Afghanistan

Presenters: Chief, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Election Task Force Australian Brig. Gen. Damian Cantwell and ISAF Spokesman Canadian Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay
August 18, 2009

         MODERATOR:  Good morning to the press corps.  Good afternoon to our guests in Kabul.  

 

         Today our briefers are Brigadier General Damian Cantwell, of the Australian Army, and Brigadier General Eric Tremblay of the Canadian forces.  Brigadier General Cantwell is the chief of the Election Task Force for the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF; and Brigadier General Tremblay is the ISAF spokesman.

 

         General Cantwell has been the chief of the Election Task Force since March of this year, and General Tremblay has been the ISAF spokesman for the past several months.  As I mentioned, both of these officers are joining us today from Kabul.  And this is the first time either of them have joined us in this forum.  With that, generals, I'll turn it over to you for opening remarks, and then we'll take questions if you'd like.

 

         GEN. TREMBLAY:  Thank you very much.  

 

         Ladies and gentlemen, I am Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, the International Security Assistance Force spokesperson.  And as mentioned, I'm also with Brigadier General Damian Cantwell, the chief, ISAF Task Force Election.

 

         As you know, earlier today a vehicle-borne suicide bomber detonated his explosive charge on a busy street of Kabul, killing one ISAF service member, seven Afghan civilians and two United Nations civilian employees.  This vicious attack also injured two ISAF civilian employees and more than 50 innocent Afghans.

 

         This incident once again proves that the insurgents have no respect for the Afghan population as they continue to use indiscriminate and unproportionate violence to advance their ideology and extremist views against the citizens of Afghanistan.  

 

         Over the last months, ISAF has conducted numerous security operations all over the country and has worked very closely with its Afghan security partners, the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army, to prepare and provide a security environment to the people of Afghanistan for the elections.

 

             The objectives of these operations and preparations were to minimize and mitigate the risk to the lowest levels possible.  Despite the best plans in place, there will always be some residual risk. This is especially the case in a complex environment like Afghanistan.

 

         As you can imagine, conducting elections throughout an insurgency and counterinsurgency makes these elections even more challenging. Having said that, the insurgents have averaged about 32 attacks a day over the last 10 days and around 48 attacks within the last four days a day.  Clearly, they do not have the capacity to intimidate and prevent 15 million Afghans -- voters that have registered for these election(s), considering that only 1 percent of 6,500 potential polling stations is 65, and the maximum attacks they've done in one day was 48.

 

         The Afghans have expressed very clearly their will and their determination to vote, and we will continue to support them so that they can freely exercise their right to choose their next president and their provincial representatives.  It is now for the Afghans themselves to decide their future.

 

         We're now ready for your questions.

 

         MODERATOR:  All right.  Who's up first?

 

         Courtney.

 

         Q     Hi, General.  This is Courtney Kube from NBC News.  I'm sorry; I didn't understand some of the statistics you just gave in your opening statement.  Did you say there have been 48 attacks per day for the past four days?  Is that -- that's an average for the entire country?  And then -- and also, can you say again how many total polling stations there are?

 

         GEN. TREMBLAY:  So the -- within the last 10 days -- like, 10 days ago, the average daily insurgent number of attacks against the Afghan national security forces, ISAF or local civilians was in the low 30s.  But within the last three, four days, this has increased daily to the high 40s.  When we put in perspective the number of potential polling sites -- and General Cantwell will give you the approximate number of polling sites in a minute -- if you take in account about 6,500, 1 percent of that is 65.

 

        So chances are, when you're looking purely at statistics that they're not going to be able to attack even 1 percent of the entire polling sites in this country.

 

         Damian.

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Good morning.  As introduced, I'm Brigadier Damian Cantwell, and, as the chief of the Elections Task Force, have been working on behalf of the commander of ISAF here at Kabul to assist in the coordination of ISAF's activities in support of the elections.  And just on that point, I'd like to stress that it is the commander's current highest operational priority; that is, we wish to do everything that we can within our capabilities and limitations to support our Afghan partners in the security for these upcoming elections.

 

         In particular, in relation to the number of polling centers across the country, the Independent Electoral Commission, the Afghan body which is charged with the actual conduct of the elections, has stated that they intend to open approximately 6,500 polling centers.

 

         Now, that number is not yet firm, because in interests of wishing to allow as many people across the country suitable access to polling centers as possible, we at ISAF have been working very hard with our Afghan security partners of late to conduct area security operations to reduce the effect of the insurgents in those areas where some members of the population have not had access to a particular polling center.  

 

         So our polling center numbers or the polling center numbers across the country are still in a state of slight flux, because the intention is to try to ensure that as many polling centers as possible are able to be accessed by as many people as possible.

 

         Q     General Cantwell, can you also just give us the most up-to- date numbers on other election security?  How many Afghan security forces will be directly involved in securing those polling places? How many ISAF forces will be involved, just sort of the rundown of the facts around the security?

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Okay, certainly.  Certainly.  If I can just describe the tiered arrangement, which has been agreed to by both ISAF and our Afghan security partners -- and also just I would like to stress that our Afghan security partners are the lead agency and    organization for the planning and execution of security across the country.  

 

        I mean, it's important that we are able to facilitate and enable their activities wherever possible, but they are the lead agency.  In fact, the Afghan Ministry of Defense has the lead amongst its other agencies and their Afghan partners to execute security for the elections.

 

         With respect to specific numbers, rather than to seek to divulge any particular operational circumstances or details, what I will say is that the Afghan security forces have committed themselves fully across the country with the intent to provide all they can within their resource limitations in terms of manpower and other capabilities, to ensure that the best possible security picture is able to be presented to the community, to reassure the Afghan people that it is safe to move from their homes and villages to where the polling sites are located, that they can take part in the execution of their political process as safely as can be under the circumstances and know that their security forces are working hard for them, as is appropriate, to ensure their security and safety.

 

         And ISAF has a very important role in that regard as well.  With regards to in the outer tiers around each particular polling center, in a low-profile but agile posture, ISAF will be prepared to provide air-over watch capabilities and also ready ground forces if we need to move to where any security incidents may arise.

 

         So we've got a fully-committed ANA, Afghan National Army.  We have a fully-committed Afghan National Police.  And we have ISAF's resources, which are fully committed to ensuring that they have the support they need to execute their very important mission on behalf of their people.

 

         Q     General Cantwell, this is Viola Gienger from Bloomberg News.  Can you talk about why it's so important -- considering the increase in violence in recent years in Afghanistan, why is it so important that the Afghan security forces take so much of the profile, so much of the lead in this operation?  And how confident are you that they can really -- really do the job that needs to be done?

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Okay.  I think it's very important for the Afghan national security forces to be seen by the Afghan people as the lead agency in execution of security for their elections.  After all, ISAF is, as the name suggests, a security assistance force, and we're here with the responsibilities to facilitate and enable their capabilities wherever possible.  It's a very important step in the development of maturing security forces, both in respect of the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army.  And also, it reflects the will of the people.

 

        If you can imagine the sense of confidence that will be generated amongst the local villagers and community members to see other than foreign troops, our ISAF forces on the ground nearby, if they were to see and interact with members of their own security forces, in particular, in the first tier or the first responders, the Afghan National Police, people that they're used to seeing moving amongst their communities and in an outer tier members of the Afghan National Army, ready to be prepared to support the Afghan National Police in execution of their first tier responsibilities.  And I think it's critical that they see that as a maturing set of security agencies that they're now able to step up to the task that's before them.  

 

         There's no doubt there are many challenges.  Indeed security challenges are many in the country, in various forms.  And we're aware that there's an active insurgency who has expressed his intent to disrupt and discredit the process wherever possible.  But for that very reason, I think it's critical that the Afghan security forces are seen by their people as a credible response and a proactive set of circumstances put in place by their own agencies to reassure them that they are in -- security agencies are doing the best they can within their resource limitations.  

 

         By the same token, we recognize that as security agencies, they have some way to develop and mature.  And we've been involved with our Afghan security partners from the very beginning, certainly since I've arrived here, through a series of national and regional rehearsal and preparatory activities to ensure that each of the agencies at play -- the Afghan partners and the ISAF security forces located elsewhere, but in over watch -- are aware of the sorts of challenges that would arise on the ground as we lead up to the election and to have coordinated joint plans in place to be able to respond effectively.  

 

         But I think it is a critical step in the development of both the Afghan security forces but also the country as a whole for the people to see and develop trust and confidence in their own security agencies.  That's the important step forward for them.  

 

         Q     General Cantwell, Barbara Starr from CNN.  Sir, what is your actual threat projection for Election Day?  What at this point do you anticipate that day?  

 

         And my follow-up is you've now had two suicide car bombs in just the last couple of days.  What's your assessment of that?  Do you believe that there is some new capability on the part of the insurgents to manufacture and deploy these suicide car bombs?  What do you think is going on?

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  It has been a little bit difficult to tease apart the threads of the threat to be able to determine -- to say categorically and with some confidence that a specific enemy or insurgent threat is directed toward achieving his aims of disruption or discrediting of the elections, other than that which might be in place, as he is routinely doing, as part of his overall insurgency campaign.  

 

             But the indications are that his leadership has expressed a desire, as I've indicated, to disrupt and to discredit this process. And the sort of tactics that we're seeing on the ground, they're typical of those which we've seen in other parts of the country, running up to the elections but not necessarily related to them.  

 

         Those tactics involve more benign or subtle actions such as the use of propaganda, use of information to intimidate or to threaten violent acts against certain members of the Afghan community, to much more barbarous, even murderous acts such as we've seen, as you've described, that have occurred here in Kabul in the last couple of days.  

 

         But I would like to point out that those sorts of threats are not unexpected; that is, that we always look very carefully, along with our Afghan partners, at the sorts of threats which might materialize on the ground.  I mean, the insurgents are often taken to offering up threats which are never followed through.  

 

         But we are very careful to realize that on occasion, he's been able to demonstrate a capability to close with and cause obscene acts of violence, against not just the Afghan security forces and those of ISAF but critically against his own people.  

 

         And this is a measurement of the sort of character and ideology that we're dealing with here.  I mean, there is no doubt.  It's a very dangerous and adaptable enemy and one which is prepared to cause numerous civilian casualties in pursuing his own ideological or political goals.  

 

         And that's why I think this election is a critical step forward for the Afghan people.  Indeed if you take that to the next level of analysis, every vote cast by any Afghan in these elections, regardless of who he or she might vote for, is a personal statement against the Taliban and a rejection of their pretty sinister alternative future that they're offering to the people of Afghanistan.  

 

         So I think it's a very honorable and credible mission that we're undertaking here in support of our Afghan partners.  We're seeking to assist the security partners in the lead, the Afghans, to defeat that threat.  

 

         And although it's specifically related to the elections at the moment, we hope to build upon those successes and carry forward those sorts of -- those ideas further forward, beyond the elections of course.  

 

        And they're -- the threat, as I've said, materializes in various ways, in dynamic ways across the theater.  And they've been taken into account in a series of rehearsal and preparatory activities.

 

         Of course, we're never fully assured of what the enemy will do on the day.  All we can do is to do our very best, working with our Afghan partners, to provide the very best possible security posture in support of the Afghan people to give them the confidence to get out and take part in their political future.

 

         MODERATOR:  (Off mike.)

 

         Q     General, this is Kevin Baron from Stars and Stripes.  You mentioned earlier that American ISAF forces are part of this outer tier of security.  Could you describe a little bit more the specifics of -- you know, of -- what does that mean, are -- you know, what the rules are, especially for the ground troops who are supposed to be at the ready in case something happens?  

 

         Does that mean they're down the street waiting in the vehicles or out at the bases?  How close are they?  And what went into the decision of, you know, how that might affect locals who are going to go to the polls uninhibited to vote?

 

         And on that same -- if I could do a second question to follow up on Barbara, you know, there's reports of the Taliban threatening to kill anybody they see with a purple finger.  What is your assessment of the locals', you know, preview or reaction to those kinds of -- to the kind of propaganda you just mentioned?  Are they, you know, going to defy it, or are they going to -- I mean, I guess they -- we'll see what they're going to do, but do you have any indicators of what they might be doing on election day?

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Yeah.  Okay.  I'll deal with the second part first.  Certainly, the sorts of threats that you've suggested that -- along the lines of threatening to carry out reprisal actions against those who clearly, by showing the mark on their finger, have taken part in elections, are the sort of tactics that the Afghan people are probably becoming resilient to.  Remember, they're -- the people here have been subject to enormous hardships over a number of years now that many of us in other societies would have trouble relating to.  

 

         Having said that, though, the threat sometimes materializes in often brutal ways, and again, we're doing whatever we can to assist the people to gain that sense of community confidence so they can take part in this process.

 

         With regard to the tiered arrangement that were described earlier, and without wishing to describe it in detail that would be useful to our enemies, what I will say is that our Afghan partners, as the lead agency, have first-tier responsibility.  That is, if you can imagine a set of first responders, the first people in the event of an incident, or, indeed, the first people even if the thing runs pretty smoothly in a particular polling site, will be those members of the Afghan National Police.  And they'll be within close proximity in and around the polling-center locations themselves.

 

         Removed from that tier, in the next layer and within a reasonably short distance from the polling center, it's intended that the Afghan National Army units will carry primacy.

 

        And they'll be in a position so as to be able to not only provide a sense of security and strength in that outer tier, but also prepared to move wherever else they need to in support of their police colleagues, should some sort of incident arise.

         And importantly, ISAF, working outside those inner two tiers in distances further away from each individual polling center, will be using its ranger capabilities that the Afghans don't necessarily have access to, such as our considerable air over-watch capabilities, as well as a set of ground forces that are prepared from pre-prepared positions to be able to move to -- either by air or by ground moves, quickly and responsibly to respond and assist the Afghans in any incident that might occur.

 

         And we've rehearsed this in a number of levels.  It's interesting to see that, as the Afghans have gone about their business, how enthusiastic they are to carry out their missions.  They're very keen to do their very best for their people, and I've been very pleased to see that.  It's been very encouraging.  And although they may not have a long-range planning culture necessarily, yet, it's very important to realize that they are very aggressive once on the ground to ensure they're doing their very best mission they can, and that's a good thing as well.

 

         With respect to our operations, we'll be monitoring what's going on from command centers and coordination control points throughout the country.  And one of the things which has been set up to assist the command and control of these operations to ensure that the forces which are arrayed across the country are utilized in entirely an appropriate fashion are what we refer to as the operational coordination centers.  And there's one covering off on each region, but there's also, very importantly, one in each province.

 

         Now, they are manned primarily by our Afghan partners, with the Afghan National Army senior officer present at each location in charge.  He's supported by a number of ANP [Afghan National Police] staff as well.  And then we have some ISAF personnel and others to ensure that the communications are in place and working well and also able to offer advice to the commanders through their network on the ground.  And they are linked into the headquarters, the Afghan military and police headquarters here at Kabul, and we've also established communications with them to our command posts here at headquarters ISAF and elsewhere in the theater.  So I'm confident that the preparations that we've worked through, the infrastructure and the control nodes that are in place are suitable to the task.  And also, we've done a number of regional and nationally coordinated rehearsals.  We've had the joint regional teams from each location spend a day here with us and, in front of their ministers -- that is, the Afghan ministers and the Afghan senior leadership from the Independent Electoral Commission and other organizations -- they were able to present their plans through a series of fictitious scenarios which might represent the sorts of threats which may materialize on the day.

 

             That was an excellent activity, because not only was it a sign of a set of maturing security agencies, but it was also an opportunity for them to take part in a discussion with the ministers; the ministers of the departments for whom they work, ultimately, are able to hear and consider questions from them.  It sought to reassure the ministers that there was a good deal of work under way, work which I'm confident is appropriate to the sorts of threats which may materialize.

 

         Again, I'd just like to stress, we're never quite sure what the enemy will do, but we do have a series of solid plans in place to be able to be proactive in support of our Afghan partners to allow them to present that sort of security picture, which is important for the communities to work within as they go forward and take part in voting on the day.  So it's an encouraging sign altogether.

 

         MODERATOR:  (Off mike.)

 

         Q     General, its Mike Mount with CNN.  Just going back on these numbers of polling centers you've been talking about, what's the percentage of the country you think is going to be able to vote? Maybe I should rephrase it.  How much of the country is in Taliban hands where -- that you don't think will be able to vote, I guess. And with the recent operations down south in order to kind of open up more sectors to voting, can you quantify at all how much of that area you think you have opened up to vote, maybe total population or a percentage of the country?

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Okay.  It's a great question, because of course the number of polling centers that the IEC have declared they intend to open is probably not the best metric by which we can gauge the level of uptake or people who will actually take part in the electoral process itself.

 

         But having said that, the advice that we receive from both the regional corps commanders -- that is, the Afghan security corps commanders on the ground, but also our own commanders -- suggests that we're probably going to be able to present reasonable access to about 85 to 90 percent of those people who are registered to vote.  

 

         So, amongst the registered voters, as introduced by Brigadier General Tremblay, we think between about 15 [million] to as many as 17 million voters potentially are registered and should be able to take part.  Having said that, with the number of polling centers which are able to be opened, we think we should be able to provide reasonable access to about 85 to 90 percent of that total number.

 

             Of course, the turnout on the day will be -- will be shaped and tempered by the sense of community confidence that is felt and held by the community members themselves.  

 

         And in respect of that, in particular, as you've indicated, operations in the south have gone a considerable way to enhance one of the key issues which we've sought to address.  That is to improve voter accessibility to polling sites.  

 

         And I'm pleased to report that the operations in the southern districts, in particular Helmand, have in close coordination with the independent electoral commission staff been able to open up a number of areas that otherwise would not have been able to take part in this process.  

 

         In the first instance, they have allowed them to be separated from the often brutal effects of the insurgent threat but also then, with the IEC [Independent Electoral Commission] officials, to register themselves as voters for the upcoming elections and then be able to take part on the 20th.  And that's great news story.  

 

         That's as a direct result of the security operations which have been under way down south.  Of themselves, those operations are not solely aimed at enhancing voter accessibility to polling centers.  

 

         They're also aimed of course at defeating the insurgent threat, so that the population can become -- can resume more normalcy, life patterns, and feel free from those threats which have existed here for some time.  

 

         But an important spinoff and one which we're very encouraged to see, and the Afghans are of course delighted with locally, is the opportunity to be able to now take part in this process which otherwise, without those operations led by Afghan partners, we would not have been able to undertake.  That's a very encouraging thing.  

 

         I think I've addressed the main thrust of your question.  But feel free to throw one part at me again.  

 

         Q     Gordon Lubold with the Christian Science Monitor.  Just two kind of quick things.  

 

         One is are you able to tell us what the number of Afghan forces, to include the police -- how many of them are actually assigned to polling places and to kind of election security?  I heard -- was told 47,000 police for example.  Does that sound about right to you?  And how many army?  

 

         But also as your forces come across Afghans who say, hey, I want to vote but I'm afraid of reprisals or anything against me, what do you tell them?  

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Well, I was struck by the response by President Karzai to that sort of question, when it was posed to him recently by a member of the international media.  And his response, I think, was along the lines that it's up to the courageous Afghan citizens to move forward, in the face of those threats, as they always have, and take part in the shaping of their country's destiny.  

 

         And I think that's a pretty important, pretty powerful statement. But at the local level, I think, it would take resonance with the local communities.  

 

             And I think, again, it's important to look at it from their perspectives.  The country has endured some hardships that many of us would find hard to relate to or understand.  And they're quite a resilient set of people.  

 

         Here they now have an opportunity to, as part of the democratic development of this country in Afghanistan, to take forward a very personal viewpoint, reject the Taliban alternative and those of other insurgent groups, and take part in the, as I said, shaping of their political future.  And we're very keen to be able to take part, along with our Afghan partners, in that, providing that sort of security environment for them.

 

         Q     Can you just speak to the numbers really quickly?  How many Afghan forces are dedicated to the election, please?  

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Sure.  Yep.  Yep.  I think the numbers you quoted will be about right, and I would say that they are fully committed to the task that's before them; that is, the numbers are available across the ANP and ANA, engaged fully in the task that's here.  And as well as that, of course, it's important to realize that not just the election security operations, which are the forefront of our planning at the moment, are the ongoing framework operations, as we regard them, or as we call them, those sorts of operations which are ongoing day and night to defeat the insurgent threat and to restore a sense of community confidence amongst the communities and to separate the population groups from the threats of the insurgents as they go about their business.

 

         So there's two levels of operations under way.  There's those ongoing framework operations, which will continue in the background as part of our ongoing security effort here, but also election security operations specific to targeting the sorts of issues I've addressed along the lines of improving voter access to polling centers and to reducing or mitigating against the effects of the intimidation tactics that we've described earlier amongst insurgents, and also to encourage the Afghans themselves in support of the Afghan authorities to take part in their political process.  So what I will say, in terms of numbers, is that they're fully committed.  

 

         Importantly also, the training organization here has worked very hard with Afghan partners to bring forward a graduation of the number of the kandaks, or battalions as they are known, to bring them forward from that graduation program that was planned for 2010 to the current    months, so that they can graduate early, trained and equipped and in location to provide an important element of the security apparatus that's at play here.

 

         That's an important milestone that's being brought forward, and I'm pleased to report they've done that very successfully.

 

        It's a measure of how keen the Afghan security forces themselves are to get into the job that's before them and to do their very best for their people.

 

         MODERATOR:  (Off mike.)

 

         Q     Sorry, before I start my question, we're still looking for figures for the Afghan National Army, however approximate.  And then also on numbers -- this is Dan De Luce from Agence France-Presse, sorry -- then also, what are the -- what are the ISAF numbers?  Is it just the entire international coalition that is basically focused on the election?  Or is there some kind of more specific number you have on that?  And then I'll get to my real question after.

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Okay.  Okay.  (Chuckles.)  I can't wait.  I might throw you to Brigadier General Tremblay if he wishes to address specific numbers of the troops that are involved.  But I would relate that, rather than wish to give specific numbers or locations that might be useful to enemies, that the ministers and the senior officers in charge of the ANA and ANP really haven't left much in reserve, as to speak, and they are fully committed to the task that's at -- before them.  

 

         But I'll throw to Eric if he wishes to answer particular numbers.

 

         GEN. TREMBLAY:  The Afghan National Security Forces realize the importance of Election Day, so they've pushed along from an Afghan National Army up to 92,000 soldiers throughout Afghanistan in order to bring further security and assist the Afghan National Police and ISAF. So when you add all the numbers, it's just short of 300,000 troops on the ground to maintain the security of the Election Day.

 

         Q     Okay.  Yes.  Now, this is the quote-unquote "real question," my question.  It's in -- it's actually two parts.  First, could you describe, maybe in a little bit more detail, how the security will work for the Afghans as they go to vote?  Will they be searched?  Will there be IDs, a certain criteria for IDs that will apply everywhere?  Kabul especially, now, has been targeted now in these past few days.  Will there be kind of no movement on the roads almost at all?  Will -- could you just give us a little bit of a picture so we have some idea so -- because at the moment it's abstract for us?  And then I'll go to my second part, sir.

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Okay.  If you were to picture yourself as a member of the Afghan community, and the example you stated there is   Kabul, then they would have already been aware and apprised of the polling-center locations.  

 

        And they are spread across the populated groups -- populated areas, I should say -- to ensure that everyone's got quite reasonable and easy access to the polling centers.

 

         So they will move, if they wish to, by whatever means, to where the polling center will be located.  They will move through a series of checkpoints established by ANA, and then ANP as they get closer to the actual location.  As they approach the location, there will be a series of further checkpoints and security procedures to reduce or mitigate against the risk of insurgents moving to close proximity of the polling centers.  In particular, what the security forces are looking for are evidence of suicide bombers or, of course, any hidden or perhaps even covert weapon they might be carrying with them.

 

         And once they have gone through a series of checks, as appropriate for the gender of course -- there are particular arrangements in place for the female voters -- then they'll be allowed to move into the polling center as established by the IEC, take part in the vote and then, through an approved exit, then make their way out.  And again, that should be regarded as a series of tiers within an ongoing framework operation.  So at all times, they'll be moving within a security zone, as such, particularly in a built-up area such as here at Kabul.

 

         Obviously, those sorts of incidents which occurred today, tragically, and also last Saturday, will probably cause some citizens to have some concerns about moving forward and taking part in the election on the day.  But again, I think I'd like to remind you all that this is a very hardy and resilient people, and they're quite used to hearing and seeing acts of violence that many of us would probably stop dead in our tracks once we've seen the detail and some of the brutal aftermaths.

 

         But having said that, there are -- opportunities abound for them to move forward under the security which has been put in place.  And they're quite used to seeing checkpoints and roadblocks and so forth in place.  It's all understood to be part of the effort by the Afghan security partners to develop a sense of community confidence.  Of course, there needs to be a balance struck between allowing the local community groups to get about their normal business and carry on their daily routine as they will have to.

 

         I should also bring to your attention at this point that the Ministry of Defense announced a couple of days ago an initiative which we fully support, and that was the election peace day initiative.  In this, the MOD as the lead agency for security for the elections, stated that there would be no offensive operations conducted on the day of the elections, other than that which are required to ensure protection of the population as they go about voting.

 

        And they've invited the ISAF, or the security forces, to support them in that regard, and of course we did so very willingly.  And as a result, we've issued an order across ISAF that we will maintain a low profile but agile posture, in support of the sentiment expressed by the Ministry of Defense, to allow the people to move forward with an increased or enhanced sense of community confidence that is safe to do so.

 

         Now of course the ball is now in the insurgent's court, and to this point, particularly as demonstrated by those tragic events today, I think his response is on par for his criminal and murderous track record.  But the opportunity is there for the Taliban and the other insurgent groups to take up the sentiment expressed in the Ministry of Defense statement and the supporting initiative agreed to by ISAF, and let the people get about taking part in their democratic life.  And we look forward to seeing some positive results from that initiative, and we support the government of Afghanistan and the Ministry of Defense in that initiative, and we hope that it's going to bring good results for the people.

 

         And of course once the people have taken part in that sort of process, the voting process, then they will be joined by others, I'm sure, who will be confident in the knowledge that they've taken part in the process that they're entitled to, free from intimidation, and moved the country forward in the right direction towards a developing democratic nation.

 

         Q     And then lastly, then, could you then give us the picture of where you face the biggest security challenges and what areas where Afghan voters are under the most pressure, given the fact that in some of these places they've only recently seen international troops, literally only for the first time in a matter of weeks?  And there are still areas that -- as you well know that there still is no international presence.

 

         So I guess what I'm asking is could you give us a little bit of a picture where you see the real challenges, not just -- obviously a commitment from the Afghan security forces is one thing, and actually providing security is another.  At what point can you say that an election is credible?  What proportion of the population can vote in safety, and what proportion of the population is under a lethal threat?

 

        And so at what point is the election not credible?

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Yes.  Yes.  I think we should be guarded here against seeking to further the enemy's own intimidational propaganda tactics and not be taken in by some of the statements that they've made recently about their apparent intention to attack polling sites and apparent willingness to demonstrate -- although they've stated not to cause civilian casualties, the last two days -- the incidents of the last few days, I should say, demonstrated that I think that's just a -- an inaccurate statement entirely.

 

         There are certainly some areas in the country which regrettably will not be able to take part in the process because of the insurgent actions.  Now, we've been working very hard with our Afghan partners to reduce the number and the size of those sorts of locations.  But these are sort of areas that have been subject to Taliban and other insurgent intimidation -- and, indeed, occupation -- for some time. And I think under the circumstances, being able to open up more polling centers than was the case in 2004 and '5, and also in cooperation, in close cooperation with Afghan partners, open up areas particularly in the south where the Taliban, other groups dominated for some time is a great success story.  

 

         But we're not underestimating the enemy threat.  I mean, here in Kabul, right outside the front gates of headquarters ISAF, he moved a suicide bomber and conducted a murderous attack, causing many injuries and some deaths, predominantly to members of the local population, Afghan citizens going about their business in the normal fashion.  And that sort of thing is reprehensible by any standards.  And we need to be guarded against those sorts of acts.  And again, he's demonstrated the capacity to bring that to bear in some of the populated areas here in Kabul.  I mean, clearly those things are worrying.  

 

         But again, we're doing everything we can to support our Afghan partners, to prevent those sorts of things happening.  I mean, the very fact that the insurgent operates amongst the population is at once both his strength but also his weakness.  And by that I mean that, although he can use the population to hide, as a means of being able to disguise himself from easy detection, once he tries to coincide the attacker, the resources that needs to have in place, such as a suicide bomber with a vehicle, the appropriate opportunity, and the target that he might be seeking to attack directly -- if he tries to put those things in place, then he exposes himself by movement to the very population that he's seeking to cause harm to.    And they're a very wary group of people.  In most of these outlying communities in particular, they know everyone and they know the patterns of life in and around their local communities.  And if they are -- were to see groups of people that don't belong there, then they're very quick to identify that as a likely threat.

 

             In a more built-up area like this, when he gets about his activities such as demonstrated in the last couple of days, he will and does expose himself to the sorts of observation and intelligence that we've got in place, with our Afghan partners, to do our best to try to pick that threat up very early.  

 

         And of course, it's a prime focus for our intelligence and information-gathering techniques.  And we work closely with our Afghan partners to share intelligence and information, so we can be as preemptive as possible.  

 

         Again in any military operation or any security operation, the enemy always gets a vote.  And we have worked very hard to try to determine what sort of actions he might carry out on the ground.  

 

         Those things we see of late are true to his pattern of death and misery.  And we look to try to be proactive and prevent those things occurring.  Tragically despite our best efforts, sometimes he's able to carry out those acts that we've seen the last couple of days.  

 

         Q     Generals, this is actually for both of you.  I understand that you both went to similar war colleges.  And you did discuss the tactics that you had involved, about the three-tier system.  

 

         But what I was curious about is how did you weigh where the actual polling places would be?  Like, so you would have, like, an advantageous spot if there was to be any violence.  

 

         Were they in the cities?  Like, you would obviously want to keep them away from any roads, I would assume.  

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  I'm sorry; I missed the thrust of your question. Are you talking about particular enemy planes or particular enemy actions?  I'm sorry; I just misunderstood or misheard your question.  

 

         Q     Where these polling places would be.  

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Oh, the polling sites.  

 

         Okay, the polling sites themselves are selected by the Independent Electoral Commission [IEC], as I said, is an Afghan body.  This is their election.  It's actually set up and run by the IEC.  And their security partners, supported by us, are responsible for the execution of security.    Now, the selection of those polling centers is based upon those which were used for the 2004 and 2005 elections.  But they added to them, to reflect the desire to get as many people as possible to take part in this very important election.  

 

         So this very much is an Afghan decision.  

 

        They've described across the country a number of intended polling sites.  They've issued that list to the Afghan security forces and ourselves.  We've worked with them to improve the information that relates to those sorts of -- the details that we need to know.  

 

         We've gone out and conducted reconnaissance on the ground to look at exactly where the intended polling center location is.  Some of those we've had to adjust because of enemy locations and the threat of the insurgent actions against such intended locations.  Some have been co-located, some have been merged and some have been moved, but it has been very much a process that's been led by the Afghan Independent Election Commission, in the first instance, and then the Afghan security forces have worked up security plans to be able to support the security of each of those locations.

 

         Other things that have been at play here, of course, are also the number of people that live in and around those locations.  Clearly, they want to capture the greatest number of people as they can.  

 

         And other things that we've done to support them in that is to advise them as to areas whereby we conduct specific area security operations where we could gather new security and enable new voter registration and voting activities to occur, as I said, particularly in the south.

 

         We've worked very hard to integrate the efforts of planning and security across the board.  And as I said, even in the last couple of days as we approach the 20th of August, the final number of the polling centers will be determined by the security on the ground.  

 

         And as the IEC becomes content with that advice provided to them by the Afghan security forces and ourselves, they'll finalize that number and the last detail will be put into place to deliver the ballot material forward to the intended polling locations and also to confirm the Afghan security force arrangements on the ground as to where they need to be at and with the appropriate number of people given the threat that might exist in that area.  And we'll be in position to support them in that activity.

 

         Q     (Inaudible) -- Adrian Frost from Talk Radio News Service. You said you are advisers, but you also have basically the longest history and the most knowledge.  So how comfortable are they taking your advice, even though that you're basically, you know, a third- party capacity? 

 

GEN. CANTWELL:  Yeah.  My personal experience has been that they've been very willing and keen to take advice and assistance.

 

        Certainly, we have capabilities from the range of troop-contributing nations that make up ISAF that they don't have yet and probably are some time away from developing.

 

         But in terms of advice, it covers the spectrum of planning -- short-, medium- and long-term planning; coordination of activities on the ground, in particular those relating to the security for these elections; logistic planning and, also, sharing of information and intelligence.

 

         And I think they're pretty keen to not only do their very best for their people and to be seen to be doing a good job, but also to learn as much as they can.  In those sorts of rehearsal activities I spoke about earlier, I've been impressed with their -- with their desire to talk -- it's a culture of -- or it's a very important aspect of their culture -- and to then, having talked through the issues, settle upon a plan and bring it to action pretty quickly.  And they're very keen to get about the job once the plan's been decided.

 

         We also have a number of mentors and partners at every level, both within the senior levels of the headquarters in the Ministry of Defense and intelligence -- I should say, Interior -- also, at the operational and at the tactical level, where ISAF troops with the appropriate skills and experiences are positioned so as to assist them in the considerations of the sorts of issues that may be at play, whether it be at the strategic or the operational or even the tactical level.

 

         And of course, we are very careful to ensure that they are seen, quite rightly and legitimately, as the lead agency.  After all, this is their country.  This is their effort.  This is their elections. And we're not going to be here forever, and will only be here for as long as they want us to be here in this regard.  So we are keen to support them, but of course we're also keen to ensure that, as we move forward in a security sense, that they're learning and developing as they go.

 

         And the rate of development of their security forces, not just for the election security but overall, has been pretty impressive to date, given the circumstances.  They're always keen to take part in the training.  They're keen to engage.  And of course, they will know things about their local communities and they'll be able to interact with them in a way that foreign troops or ISAF troops never could do so effectively.  So it's important that they do take the lead and that we're in a position to support them.  Often is the case, we're learning just as much from them as they are learning from us, and it's an important and very fruitful relationship on both sides of the fence.

 

         MODERATOR:  Generals, you've been very generous with your time. What do you feel about one or two more questions?

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Sure.  Always happy to engage.

 

         MODERATOR:  (Off mike.)

 

         Q     Hi, General.  This is Michael Cardin from American Forces Press.  You talked about how some regions in the country will have more -- a higher percentage of voters.

 

        But just to give us here some more perspective on that, like specifically in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, what do you expect the voter turnout to be?  Just to give us some perspective on the south and east.

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Okay.  It's difficult to predict exactly on the day and measure the number of people who will have the confidence to come forward.  In the end, that's going to be a decision for every individual who's out there, and the strength of his willingness to take part in the democratic process.

 

         In terms of raw numbers, I think certainly it stands to reason that those people living in areas that have been subject to the most recent security operations will probably fall in one camp or the other pretty readily.  That is, that they will probably have gathered a sense of confidence that it's now safe to get out and about and resume a more normal lifestyle, and relish the opportunity to take part in the elections and normal day-to-day community lifestyle activities, or they might feel that the presence of troops of late to remove the threat of the insurgents and to flush them out of the areas in which they've been dominating for some time is such that maybe they don't feel as secure, given that it's -- there's been a sense of engagement, there's been some activities involving troops and aircraft in their near vicinity.  But I think it's important for them to take heart in those efforts which have been evident around them, and to move out of their communities and take part in this process.

 

         I would think that we're looking at, and the reports from our commanders down south would indicate, that there's a good percentage likely to turn out.  I know you're looking for a specific figure, but it's hard to lay a finger on it.  As I said, we're seeking to open up a -- the access to the polling centers to about 85 to 90 percent of the registered voters.  And clearly, those voters who have moved pretty eagerly, particularly in the areas opened up by the operations down south in Helmand -- given the number of people who have taken forward -- moved forward and taken part in voter registration, I think it's a pretty good sign, if they're keen to register themselves as voters, that they're going to move up on the day and actually take part in the voting itself.  So I think we're probably looking at a pretty good turnout across the board.

 

         Again, it will be hard to judge that from this -- from this position.  And again, the threat at each location can be viewed differently, and they've manifested themselves on the ground in different ways.  And the coordination that's in place is a big step forward to try to reassure them that it's safe to come out and vote.

 

         But again, it's up to the local population to get out and do the job for themselves.  We'll provide the security as best we can within the resources available to the Afghan partners.  But if I was seeking to pass a word of encouragement to the communities, then I think it would be along the lines of, the security is there, it's evident, take part in the electoral process and benefit from those actions which have been undertaken by your security forces, and also that you're going to be safe as you do so.

 

         Q     Well, thank --

 

         Q     Oh -- he's talking.

 

         Q     Thank you.

 

         Q     I'll ask my question.  This is Al Pessin from Voice of America.  General Cantwell, where are the 10 to 15 percent of voters who will not be able to participate?  What is your biggest security concern for Election Day, considering the nationally limited capability of the insurgents, as outlined at the beginning of the briefing?  And finally, are you worried that the presence of the Afghan security forces in such numbers could be as much of an intimidating factor to some voters as it -- as you hope it will be a reassuring factor?

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Yeah.  That's a very good three questions.  But what I will say, though -- (chuckles) -- is that it's -- those areas that we're not likely to see a strong turnout from the voters probably are in those areas that have been held by the Taliban and other insurgent groups for some time.  And in that regard, we're probably talking at pockets within the Helmand and Kandahar provinces, some areas in the east of the country, even some areas, to a lesser extent, in the north and west.  

 

         The truth is that it's difficult to predict exactly how many will turn out on the day, but also exactly where they're going to move from.  But I'm encouraged by the sense of community confidence that's -- that I've seen as we've moved through the country and taken part in some of these election-security rehearsals and back briefs and so on. And the reports that we're seeing in the local media are pretty encouraging, despite the intentions of the insurgents for their populations to do otherwise.  I think the biggest threat, actually, really is in the minds of the people themselves.  That is, they've got to be convinced that this is their chance to shape their political future.  

 

        And if you're looking for a sense of where the most difficult challenge is, it's resident in the minds and the sense of confidence in each and every Afghan citizen.  

 

         That's where the real battle of perceptions and confidence is waged every day.  And that battle has to be refought every day.  We kick start off a new day with a sense that we've got to do everything that we can, to get about reassuring the population of the intentions of their government, to protect and secure them from the threat of the insurgent groups that exist here and get about their nasty business.  

 

         But I think the greatest threat really is one of seeking to get confidence instilled amongst the people and to take part in their process. In terms of a threat from the insurgent, again he's demonstrated some horrendous tactics where he's quite willing to cause death and injury, to his fellow Afghan people, to pursue his goal.  

 

         And it offers a simple taste of the sort of barbaric alternative that the Taliban have been able and intend, given a chance, to offer again to the people of Afghanistan and elsewhere.  So I think the threat itself might be manifested in its most dangerous form, in those sorts of tactics we've seen, in suicide bombing in populated areas.  

 

         And therefore we're doing everything we can to try to mitigate against those risks, through a series of physical checkpoints and hardened infrastructure, to protect the population, but also a whole range of other activities that are all about encouraging the people to take part in this process, as part of a larger community.  

 

         And of course, we can bring to bear a range of intelligence- gathering and other activities that the Afghan partners can't necessarily do, not at least at this point.  And we're very keen to make sure it's integrated in the overall security picture.  And that's where we're at right now.  

 

         Q     (Off mike) -- security forces?  The question was whether they could be an intimidating presence, rather than a reassuring presence.  

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Oh, yes.  Thank you, yes.  

 

         Yes, it is true that it could be seen as an intimidating element again, as I indicated, particularly in those areas that have only very recently or even are still subject to ongoing operations, by our Afghan security forces and ourselves.    And there's no doubt though that those operations are all about providing that sense of confidence that may indeed be brought to question, as you've indicated.  

 

         But again I would remind us that these are people who are used to seeing military forces and military operations.  And they probably view those sorts of things in a way that we would struggle to identify with.  

 

        And they're quite used to seeing -- because of the nature of violence and the history of war and conflict in this country, regrettably, they're quite used to seeing the presence of their own security forces and those of foreign troops.

 

         And here of course we're working very hard ensure that the Afghan security forces are those who are uppermost in the day-to-day visibility of the community groups we're talking about.  So they should seek some confidence from knowing that it's their security agencies that are primarily responsible for security in a general sense but in particular the Election Day itself.  

 

         Our aim is here to ensure that we have ISAF forces ready and postured to support where appropriate and where necessary.  But the Afghans are the people who -- the Afghan security forces are the people who the Afghan citizens will see quite routinely on a day-to- day basis, and they should be quite comfortable with those arrangements that they see every day.  

 

         MODERATOR:  Gentlemen, thank you again for your time.  We're closing in on a -- on the one-hour mark, so we'll close it up here and send it back to you for any closing remarks you'd like to make.  

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  Okay.  I'll throw to Brigadier Tremblay to start with, if he wishes to make a closing statement, and I'll offer one as well.

 

         GEN. TREMBLAY:  I think that the government of Afghanistan, the Afghan national security forces and ISAF have put the security measures in place so that on Election Day the security is effective.  

 

         All this being said, there will always be residual risk, but most of the risk has been mitigated through security measures throughout the country in order to give a chance for the Afghans to vote on Election Day.

 

         GEN. CANTWELL:  The closing statement I'd like to make is along the lines of a counterinsurgency strategy.  That is, we're seeking to defeat the insurgent threat here.  And if one of the main aims within a counterinsurgency strategy is to seek to remove the threat of the insurgent from the population, this Afghan election is an opportunity for the next evolution of that tactic or aim.   That is, it's an opportunity for the population to remove themselves from the threat of the Afghan -- or, I should say, of the insurgents.  And we're doing    everything we can to support them in that endeavor and we're working hard with our Afghan partners as they lean forward in the security arrangements that we have in place for the elections and beyond.

 

        And as they separate themselves from the insurgent threat, ISAF's prepared to do everything we can within our limits and capabilities to assist them in that goal.

 

         Thank you for your questions.

 

         MODERATOR:  Thank you. 

 

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