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Press briefing with Major General Jim Ferron, Deputy Commanding General, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) and Major General M. Zahir Azimi, Afghan lead for the NATO Training Mission, moderated by Chris Riley, NATO Press Officer

NATO - North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

03 Dec. 2012

Press briefing

with Major General Jim Ferron, Deputy Commanding General, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) and Major General M. Zahir Azimi, Afghan lead for the NATO Training Mission, moderated by Chris Riley, NATO Press Officer

A very warm welcome to you all, and good afternoon to our distinguished guests from Kabul. Welcome to this on the record briefing by NTM-A and the Afghan National Army.

We have with us two very distinguished speakers. Major General Jim Ferron, who is currently double-hatted as the Commanding General of the Canadian Military Mission in Afghanistan and the Deputy Commanding General of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan.

And alongside him is an old friend of NATO, an old friend of myself, General Mohammad Zahir Azimi who is the Spokesman of the Afghan National Army and Minister of Defence. General Azimi has held that position since 2003. We have known him for many years, and it is great to see you here today again, General.

Today there will be a short opening statement by our guest speakers, and then we will go to questions and answers. Please note that there may be a slight time delay on the VTC, so please give your question time to be received and processed at the other end before you speak up again.

It is very timely that we are here. The NATO and ISAF Foreign Ministers will be meeting in a couple of days’ time to discuss progress in Afghanistan, so we are very much looking forward to hearing the views from theatre.

All I would ask is that when you ask your questions please make sure that you identify yourself , and your news organization.

Without further ado, Generals, the floor is yours.

Major General Jim Ferron (Commander, Canadian Mission and Deputy Commanding General, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, NTM-A): Chris, General Ferron here, and I'll start off. First of all, I just want to say hello to everybody and tell you what a privilege it is today for both General Azimi and I to be with you, to spend a couple of minutes explaining what we do here in Afghanistan.

I know that this is clearly a well-informed audience, and I honestly look forward to having a good dialogue with you. Chris has identified who I am, what I do for a living. Most of you, I think are well aware that the NATO Training Mission here in Afghanistan is principally responsible for the training, equipping and advising the Afghan National Security Forces as we move throughout our mission.

So with that as a very brief introduction, because I think the meat of this will be in the question-and-answer period, I'd like to pass the microphone over to my esteemed colleague, General Azimi. Sir.

Major General M. Zahir Azimi (Afghan Lead for NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, NTM-A): Hi, Chris, and everybody. Good afternoon. I am General Azimi, Spokesman of the Defence Ministry.

General Jim Ferron: So, Chris, I think with that, please, over to you.

Chris Riley: Who would like the first question? We'll go to Slobo at AP.

Q: Slobo Lekic from the Associated Press. A question for both of you. Actually several questions for both of you. First of all, what percent of Afghan units are operating independently now? And has the recruitment reached its peak? Have you reached the 352,000 combined ANP and ANA figure that was the target? And when will it be reached, if it hasn't, and are you doing more recruitment to offset attrition?

General Jim Ferron: Thank you very much for that. General Ferron here, and I'll start off. Right now, regarding the number of units that are working independently, I'd say that a fair statement would be 80 percent of the units in the field are leading operations. They're actually leading the partnered conventional operations that we're working towards. And you're all aware of the tranches that we're working towards. So between 75 percent and 80 percent. Very difficult to give you anything more clear than that.

Regarding the 352,000 I think we're on time, on target. We've suffered a couple of delays in terms of reaching that recruiting figure. I'm relatively confident that in the spring, in the new year, February, March, sometime in that regard we'll reach the figures that we need, both for the army and for the police.

Recruiting is steady, so we haven't necessarily surged into the recruiting. We have taken, and I will say that we took a small pause in the recruiting just to re-vet, or to conduct some confirmation of our vetting procedures, primarily with the police. So that's pushed us into the February-March timeframe. But seriously, that's not a serious delay for us.

I would just like to say that once those recruiting figures have been achieved I know that you appreciate that the training then continues throughout the period of time 2013, 2014, as we endeavour to get all of those troops into the field.

So I'll turn it over to General Azimi for any amplifying comments that he may have.

General M. Zahir Azimi: Presently, the percentage of the Afghans independently planning and leading the operations is at 80 percent, and so it shows their capacity and capability. And also regarding the number for the Security Forces it is at 190,000... the ANA only is at 190,000 and close to its goal which is 195,000.

And also regarding the transfer of responsibility, 75 percent of the population of Afghans are being taken care of and as far as security is concerned, by Afghan Forces, and in those areas where they are taking care of their security their security situation has improved in those specific areas, which is under the Afghan Security Forces. From 15 to 20 percent improvement has been seen.

General Jim Ferron: Thank you very much, again, for that question.

Chris Riley: And one here from our Afghan friends.

Q: Yes, is (inaudible...) from Kabul News Television. I want to ask from General Azimi that according to the rumours that has announced by Ministry of Defence, every day four Afghan soldiers at normal point killed. Isn't it an important point that according to the rumours does it affect the morale of Afghan soldiers?

And another point, by which point are they killed? By roadside bombs or by face-to-face fight with insurgents? Thank you.

General M. Zahir Azimi: The first seven months of this year, for example, there has been 3.7 Afghans Security Forces... ANA forces murdered, and it just shows that the increase in the casualty of the ANA forces shows that it's because of the fact that there has been an increase of the taking of the responsibility for security, which is at 80 percent almost. And so that's why also the casualties have increased as well. And also most of the casualties are due to mines, which is from 80 to 85 percent and only 50 percent of the casualties are occurring due to face-to-face fight with Taliban and Taliban capability has really declined grossly and so mainly they are concentrating on being a threat by using mines.

And fortunately, lately we have had some programs, with the help of ISAF, concentrating on the engineering capabilities of the ANA, which includes, of course, training and equipping them.

Chris Riley: I think we might get a clarification on that number later, okay? Before we go to Ana, Kim Sengupta here, please.

Q: Can I ask General Ferron, you mentioned that you've had a pause for re-vetting of, I think, it's a general... the ANP in particular. Can I ask you what exactly that re-vetting process comprised of. And was it something you were not... or assuming it's something you were not doing before and you're doing now, and how confident are you that this re-vetting will cut down the numbers of green-on-blue attacks we have seen recently?

Can I also ask, maybe a supplementary to Colonel(sic) Azimi, do the Afghan authorities feel that because of the need to build up the ANSF figures to 352,000 and the West's... ISAF's exit strategy, that the Afghan agencies, like the NDS, are being put under too much pressure to carry out the vetting in too short a time?

General Jim Ferron: So thank you very much. I'll start off. We did a small pause for re-vetting so what we did is over the course of time, as in any skill, we've attempted to learn the lessons over time. There is an eight-stage vetting process that we're putting in place... not we, the Afghans have put in place, and we are in full support of them, so we'd really like to emphasize that the vetting procedure is being planned, organized and led by the Afghan National Security Forces.

This process includes everything from letters of recommendation, if you will, and they could be verbal, they could be written from elders, tribal elders. So there is a sense of responsibility from the Afghan community in terms of those young men who are being moved into the recruiting centres. So that's a very valuable part.

There is also a system in which there is a number of interviews. Not fully to the extent that you would perhaps in an European environment or a North American environment where you would use the full suite of polygraph tests, but there are some tests that are similar in nature to that to determine stress factors. There is a biometric registration that we have assisted the Afghans with in terms of trying to record people who are in the recruiting system so that we are able to better track those people through recruiting and training.

We're relatively confident that these steps will support in the mitigation of the green on blue, as you said, and we prefer to use the term the insider threat. You can never predict the future, of course, and we remain vigilant.

If I could just finish and just to re-emphasize that this is one thing that folks don't appreciate is this is very much an Afghan-led mechanism; one that they have planned, taken the responsibility to implement and we are there working with them, advising them on some of the lessons that we have learned over time.

Sir, please.

General M. Zahir Azimi: The capability of the Afghan National Army and Security Forces has increased and we are capable to take the responsibility of security inside Afghanistan by 2014, and there is no pressure, we do not feel any pressure.

But the only challenges are in the air corps and the area of the air capacity, Air Force and intelligence, engineering and also fire support and heavy weapons. But there also has been some talks with the Deputy for Policy of the U.S. Defence Ministry, Dr. Mullen and there has been some measures taken under consideration to be implemented regarding those shortcomings. And we are ready to take the responsibility of transition successfully and we will be successful and as I mentioned earlier, 75 percent of the population of Afghanistan has been under the control of Afghan Security Forces and also we are glad to take over the responsibility of the security of Afghanistan.

General Jim Ferron: Thank you.

Chris Riley: Thanks. I think we've got a question from Ana Pisonero.

Q: Thank you. Basically I think the spokesperson... the Afghan counterpart has already replied to the answer. It was, indeed, if they think that the Afghan Security Forces will be ready in time to provide for their own security by 2014. And how much is dependent on improving the capacity of the Afghan Forces, or how much is the Afghan Government depending on a positive outcome with negotiations with the insurgents? Is this more a determining factor, or do you think it will be, actually the capacity of the Afghan National Forces to be able to take on board these security threats from Taliban and other insurgent groups? Thank you.

Chris Riley: Perhaps General Azimi would like to have a go at that second question.

General Jim Ferron: One moment. One moment, please.

General M. Zahir Azimi: There are some other elements also, of course, included in the situation, but we are ready to take the responsibility of security transition by 2014. But some of the other elements I mentioned, include elements unfortunately such as good governance and development, economic development and infrastructure; issues of justice and judicial and also the relations with other countries in the region, peace. But unfortunately, the emphasis has been put on the transfer of security responsibility, but there are also these other elements that I've mentioned, and of course, these other elements will influence what will happen. But as far as the capacity of the Afghan Security Forces are concerned, we are able to take over the responsibility by 2014.

Chris Riley: Thank you. Let's got to Teri from NPR and CBS.

Q: Thank you. I want to know what happens to the training mission after 2014? Does it wind down? Is it taken over by Afghans entirely, or is that where some of the trainers will remain posted?

And a different question: When we're talking about the vetting process one of the problems previously was that the different provinces weren't linked up by computer, so you could do good vetting in a certain province of the recruits, but that computer would not be linked to the next province, and somebody who was trying to get in for nefarious reasons could just go next door and try again. I'm wondering if those computers are yet linked up and if those are linked up with ISAF computers so that everybody's using the same database on recruiting statistics and information on recruits? Thanks.

General Jim Ferron: Thank you very much for that. That's a question that we are all considering right now, in particular what the face of the training mission will look like post-2014.

The intent is that the Afghan National Security Forces will lead that. They will be in a position, and they're very close to that right now, that they would be able to plan, to organize and execute that mission.

What right now we are trying to do is develop more capacity through a train-the-trainer type of a program, so that there are sufficient trainers, both for the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police to be able to do it.

Now, the question about whether there is going to be, let's just say, a NATO training mission here in Afghanistan post-2014, that is a question that is being... or I'd say the concept is still being developed by the NATO staffs. There is a commitment by the NATO community that there would be a train, advise and assist mission that would be beyond 2014. So that's really not a debate. What the discussion really is is what size that will be. And right now we are all participating in that endeavour.

So I think the message is, the Afghans will be responsible for the training of their forces, and that there will be an advisory mission here in Afghanistan, the size yet to be determined.

I think you're clearly well informed about the vetting issue. We still have challenges in terms of what I would call a full integration of the biometric system throughout the provinces of Afghanistan. It's a difficult challenge in this country in terms of... you know, you're talking about a system that would depend primarily upon a fibre optic network, and as you're probably well aware this nation has taken tremendous leaps and bounds in terms of their communications architecture, but we're not quite there. That is a work in progress. The intent is that all of the systems throughout the country would be interoperable, but admittedly, we're not quite there yet.

Sir, did you wish to add anything?

General M. Zahir Azimi: Yes.

General Jim Ferron: Please.

General M. Zahir Azimi: Regarding post-2014 there has been a lot of concerns expressed by the international media, so therefore I want to talk about that, and I want to... and besides that, we have an Army or Security Force of 350,000 strong that are able to take over. In regards with training, equipment and facilities they are capable and not to mention they also have the support... the political support of many countries such as France, U.K., NATO, the U.S. and we've had some strategic agreements with them. And also we have a budget committed or promised, pledged to us, a budget of over $4 million... $4 billion per year. And also, not to mention, we have the support of the Afghan people and also NATO's support for training, logistics and the latest surveys show that 83 percent of the Afghan people, population, they are supporting the Afghan National Army. And further, our relations in the region, with the countries, are improving, and also the peace process is making some gains, and we are not concerned for the post- 2014.

We know that we'll be successful. And I want to emphasize that. We also have a communications system which includes a video communications, video conferencing and also through telecommunicating. So we have all this to support us.

Chris Riley: Adrian, from Reuters.

Q: Adrian Croft from Reuters. A question for General Ferron, please. Reports from Washington say the U.S. officials are looking at a post-2014 NATO force between 7,000 and 15,000 U.S. troops. Could a force of that size, in your view, accomplish the training and advisory mission, while having enough troops to protect the force? thank you.

General Jim Ferron: That's a question right now that is being looked at by any number of staff, and it all depends upon the factors in which you're referring to. Some of the considerations that make that answer very difficult is what are the contributing nations, not just the United States, are willing to apply to the training mission and the security mission; the monies that are available, the threat situation that will be here at the end of 2014? We always need to understand that that's two years left in the future.

So given that all of those factors are still yet to be worked out, and given that you have to appreciate, and I know you do, that I'm on the ground right now and don't have access to the strategic level information from those contributing nations, I'd have to say let's just wait and see in terms of what actually materializes from the planning staff.

Thank you.

Chris Riley: Brooks, you've been waiting a little while now, come to you, sir.

Q: Yes, Brooks Tigner, Jane's Defence. I have two short questions. When the ANA's force of 195,000 is fielded next year, if I've understood this correctly, I'm wondering what the standard equipment will be, that will be issued to each of the ANA foot soldiers? In other words, if a majority of the army was mobilized, or had to mobilize for some reason, would each foot soldier have the same standard kit of weaponry and equipment that he needs? That's one question.

And the second is: You told us what the shortcomings are that you still face for the army, but could you tell us what were the major equipment capability gaps that were filled in 2012 by the donor nations? Thank you.

General Jim Ferron: Certainly. Thanks very much for that. Certainly the intent, and I think we're well on the way there, I know we're well on the way there, is to have a standardized level of equipment for each and every one of the Afghans. We're not quite there yet.

What we really want them to do, each soldier is to have a full set of body army, which we believe is incredibly important in this environment, particularly with the IEDs, the shrapnel injuries, so you would see a standardized uniform, which we're there, ensuring that each and every soldier has a full set of body army, has his personal weapons system, with what we would call a... well, certainly sufficient ammunition to be able to move through any set of operation.

Right now, you know, you're asking a very specific question. We're looking at combat boots. Very much what you would expect of a North American or a European soldier to have. So we're looking at standardization right across the board.

The reason for that, not only for the protection of the soldier, but it's the logistic side. Really, the art of training a soldier and fighting a soldier is one thing. It's the science of the logistics that's that most difficult, so a standardized pattern all the way across is the way to go.

The shortcomings that we're working through in 2012 from, as you say, from the donor communities, I would think that the most predominant one is providing an accelerated level, or a surge level, if you will, of protection against IEDs. That is primarily taken place and the amount of training that's gone on here in Afghanistan, not just in the engineering school, the Afghan Engineering School up in Mazar-e Sharif, but throughout the various regions. So that's been a tremendous accomplishment.

We have, right now, working very hard to accelerate the level of EOD teams, so those experts for explosive ordinance disposal. We're also working on explosive hazard response teams throughout the country, so there's been tremendous progress in terms of doing that.

In terms of deploying armoured vehicles that has been not completed fielded, but largely fielded, so you see the armoured Humvee, the American product, that is moving into the field, and that has been largely accomplished, but that'll continue throughout 2013.

There has been some areas in terms of intelligence. General Azimi has talked about intelligence. We have... the Afghans certainly have improved the capacity within the intelligence school here in Afghanistan, which is now producing MI companies, so military intelligence companies, that will be deployed to the field throughout 2013, that will be able to take their human intelligence capability, which is really quite developed in this nation and integrate that into the fighting force.

And General Azimi mentioned, if I may, he mentioned fires. Right now there's been some very good progress in terms of the Afghan National Army's capability to bring fires into the field. And I don't want to forget, although your question was specific to the ANA, I think that we should always recognize that the first responders in this nation has to be the Afghan National Police, and although we've talked about the Army, the improvements that have been made in terms of professionalizing the Afghan Police Force have been steady and we're confident that the rule of law is being well introduced into all of the training. Things like evidence-based operations are being integrated into the training plan .

So hopefully that gives you an idea regarding capacity and capability development.

Sir.

General M. Zahir Azimi: Presently there are four areas that we have problems, difficulties, challenges in and the first priority is the Air Force capability and although we have the foundation for the facilities and establishments, we need to build on it and we do need training. We have also started a training facility for this in Shindand in Herat province and also we have sent some members of Afghan Forces to go and get training overseas, abroad, out of Afghanistan, and we have received a number of M-17 Russian V5, the latest model. We have purchased some of those. They're in process. But our capability presently is not able to respond to the transportation... Air Force transportation. We're not capable of that to fully respond to all the needs that we have presently.

And also secondly, we need the heavy weapons fire protection capability, to improve on that. And we have had some talks regarding that, and we've come to some decisions that we will be able to have... own some of the (inaudible...) heavy weapons (inaudible) capabilities, in that area.

And third, we need some... work needs to be done in the mining and engineering areas in order to... because the more the security responsibility is being handed over, given to the Afghan Forces, there's a higher need for equipment, training and especially in the area of mining and defusing mine threats.

And therefore, the last point is intelligence. Presently, we are mostly dependent on ISAF capability as far as intelligence is concerned, and from here on, after 2014, we're focusing... a deeper focus, a concentration, in the area of training and equipment and in the area of intelligence.

And fortunately, they have had some talks, some discussions with Dr. Mullen and the ISAF Commander and the General and some of those other generals in this area and we've come to some conclusions on this topic and by 2014 our capabilities will be improving and I do realize that the Air Force capability, in order to improve that, and the classes and the training is very costly, and needs more time. I do realize that.

Chris Riley: Time for a couple of more last questions and one from our Afghan friends here.

Q: This is (inaudible) from Pajhwok Afghan News. My question to General Ferron, the Afghan National Security Forces casualties is a big concern for government and Afghan people. Last year when ISAF was leading the operations ISAF cost(?) 560 fatalities in all the year. But this year when Afghan Forces are leading the operations every month there are facing 500 casualties. So my question, is there a lack, they are not well trained and is there any measures or planning to reduce these numbers?

And my question for General Azimi, as he mentioned the problems in Air Force, how much is he optimistic that after 2014 they will lead the combat operation and without Air Force the operations could not be successful?

General Jim Ferron: You know, the question of casualties is always a difficult one for any professional soldier to discuss. I've been in uniform now for 37 years and I want you to understand that from my perspective one casualty is one too many. And I think General Azimi indicated earlier the pride that the Afghans have taken in now switching the equation to them now leading the operations.

When you lead operations there are risks and in a war, such as we're in right now, a counter-insurgency operation, there are risks that nations put their soldiers into.

The planning and the preparation, the training and the equipping, is right now the best that the international community can provide. We have taken the lessons learned over the last number of years and integrate them on a regular basis. The amount of equipment that the Afghan soldiers and the Afghan policemen are using today is world class. The equipment that the Air Force is using, you can never have too much or you can never have enough, if you will—excuse me—continues to be developed.

So I'm confident that given the resources that the international community is making available to Afghanistan, given the professionalism of the trainers that are here, that we are doing the very best that we can to prepare the Afghan National Security Forces to sustain the lead in a very difficult combat environment.

General M. Zahir Azimi: (SPEAKING IN DARI OR PASHTO LANGUAGE)...

General M. Zahir Azimi: Chris, this is General Ferron. I personally only have about another five minutes, so if could just leave that with you and I would appreciate the opportunity maybe for 30 seconds at the end to just make some closing remarks. So if could lay that with you, I'd appreciate it.

Sorry, for translation, please.

General M. Zahir Azimi: First of all, I want to make a correction there, that casualties for the Afghan National Army is 110 per month and for the police it's 200 per month. About 200 per month. And the reason for that is that, as I said... mentioned before, the leadership of the security is basically mostly upon the Afghans now and they're taking more responsibility therefore the casualty is also increasing.

And also the second thing that's having a high impact in the casualty area is the mine... the issues of the mines, and as NATO has the capability of defusing and eliminating the mines before it becomes a threat, Afghans do not have the same capability presently. And the international community has made a commitment to us and they're going to be able to deliver the commitment. And we also had a meeting a few days ago regarding these efforts... the issue, which was the main topic of the meeting, and we have been given a promise that there will be some measures taken in this area, and the U.S. is the main funder of the Air Force for Afghanistan and they have made a commitment that by 2016 there will be 150 airplanes of very good airplanes given to the Afghan Air Force, and we are now in the process of shortening that timeline to sooner, to make it happen sooner, and as I mentioned earlier, I do want to emphasize again, that we do know that equipment... that Air Forces are very costly and time-taking process and for example, just to train a pilot takes years and we are aware of that issue.

But despite all that we are hopeful and we are going to take... by 2014, we'll be able to respond to all the needs of our security here in Afghanistan at any cost. We should be able to do that. At any cost our Air Force needs to be able to be ready and poised to take care of its security on the ground and also all over Afghanistan.

Chris Riley: Just before you wrap up, General, we have one very, very brief last question from Associated Press. Slobo, if you can make it quick, please.

Q: Just for General Azimi, about the casualty figures for the ANA and ANP, you said it's a 110 and 200 on average. Does that include both injured and dead, or is it just those killed in action?

And just one more question on the Air Force, the C-27 transports, how are they being integrated into the Air Force? There were reports that there were some problems with that.

General M. Zahir Azimi: Regarding the C-27 they're not useable by Afghan Air Force, and regarding the numbers, they pertain to the ANA and ANP, but I just want to make a clarification to General Azimi and that you're asking just to make sure that he answers the second part.

No, the injured are not included in this. Only those murdered. Just killed.

General Jim Ferron: If I could add on to the C-27. Right now the international community is looking at how to provide a medium lift, fixed-wing logistics capability to the Afghan Air Force and there is a number of ways that we're looking at doing that, right now.

Certainly there is a C-208 which is a Cessna version, a large Cessna version that is filling some of the gaps. We're looking at also some leased aircraft throughout the country that are providing an interim solution, while the international community examines the various options for the future. And clearly the future, as General Azimi indicated for the Air Force, is going to move out beyond 2014 to 2016 to 2017.

And as you all appreciate, the equipping of an Air Force is a serious business, as is anything else in this nation, but aircraft area high-priced ticket item.

General M. Zahir Azimi: Thank you.

Chris Riley: General, I think... Thank you very much, we've taken an awful lot of questions there. Would you like the opportunity to wrap up in a few seconds?

General Jim Ferron: Chris, I would. Very briefly. If I could just sincerely thank the journalists that are there. Right now it's difficult at times to get the international community's attention around the problems that we're facing in Afghanistan. The world is a very chaotic place and I understand that everybody's attention shifts to the situation at hand.

But right now, if you look at Afghanistan and you look at the future of Afghanistan and you just take five simple parameters, look at the comparison over the last decade, if you will, in terms of governance. If you look at the figures that demonstrate that the educational prospects for both boys, girls, men and women, is absolutely phenomenal. The improvement that's occurred over the last ten years.

You know, the United Nations has released figures in terms of the economic growth. Healthcare is simply astonishing in terms of the last 26 years. You have a... infant mortality has decreased by 26 percent. And of course, for those of us in the theatre, it's always heart-breaking when you see the ravages of war and the effect on children and the youth. And all of that inside a security bubble. These 350,000 policemen and soldiers and air force that are making all of that possible.

So I just really want to take the opportunity to thank everybody there, Chris, to thank you personally for putting this together and giving us the opportunity to share some of the ground truth that occurs here in Afghanistan. So I thank you very much for that.

General M. Zahir Azimi: Thank you very much, Chris, everybody.

Chris Riley: To both our guests from Kabul, thank you for being peppered for the last hour or so and for all of you for being so patient with our technical difficulties there. I think it was well worth it.

For your information, we do have bios of both our guests available in hard copy that Luca’s got and the audio file will go online shortly after this meeting's finished, and we will have a transcript online, I suspect it won't be until tomorrow.

So thank you, once again, all, and thanks a lot to you in Kabul.



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