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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Brig. Gen. Shoffner via Teleconference in the Pentagon Press Briefing Room
Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, deputy chief of staff for communications, Resolute Support Mission, Afghanistan
February 11, 2016
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Good morning, everybody, and thank you for joining us today. We're pleased to have Brigadier General Al Shoffner with us today to give us an update from Resolute Support mission, coming to us live from Kabul.
General, we'll turn it over to you for opening comments, then we'll take questions from the group here. We think we've got about 40, 45 minutes or so.
General Shoffner, over to you.
BRIGADIER GENERAL WILSON SHOFFNER: Well, great, Jeff.
And good morning to everyone there in Washington, and greetings from Kabul.
I hope by now you've had a chance to meet my replacement, Brigadier General Charlie Cleveland, who should be there. And I hope that not only are you able to meet him, but you're able to spend a little bit of time with him in the next few weeks before he departs for Afghanistan.
What I'd like to do is just give you a quick update on what's been happening here in Afghanistan over the last few weeks, and then we'll go to your questions.
So, right now here we are almost the middle of February and we are about halfway through what we would describe as the winter campaign. And when I say "winter campaign," what I'm referring to is the Afghan security forces' campaign that's occurred over the winter. Traditionally here in Afghanistan, we've referred to a fighting season as starting in May and going until about November timeframe, at such a point when the snow in the passes precluded movement around the country.
And that really is an outdated term. And so the winter campaign is a way I would describe security operations now. To categorize sort of how things are around the country, I would categorize the situation for the Afghan security forces as manageable in the north, in the west, in the east, and here in Kabul.
In the east, there has been some activity against Daesh, and actually the Afghan security forces have had great success against Daesh. There's also been some activity which we refer to as red on red, or Taliban against Taliban. We've also seen Taliban fighting with Daesh, particularly in the eastern part of Afghanistan.
In Kabul, we have had a couple of high-profile attacks in the recent weeks. These high-profile attacks, I just want to point out, are not killing coalition forces. They're not killing Afghan security forces. In almost every case, they're killing and they're wounding civilians. That continues to be the trend.
That was noted by UNAMA, United Nations Assistance Mission-Afghanistan in their report that came out in August this year. They're about to release another report which we expect in the next few weeks and we think the trends will remain the same. And that is that is that the civilian casualties caused in Afghanistan, the vast majority of those are caused consistently by anti-government elements. And that trend continues with the high-profile attacks we've seen.
High-profile attacks, just to put those in context, are down quite significantly from 2015 compared to 2014. But whenever you have a high-profile attack, especially in a densely populated city like Kabul, it does unfortunately cause civilian casualties. So that remains a concern. Although while Kabul, you know, Kabul is a city of over 3.5 million people, and the vast majority of Kabulis are going about their daily business and that's a good thing.
Also, the weather has played a role here so far. It's been a very mild winter and while there's a lot of positives with that, one of the realities and one of the concerns is the amount of snowfall. The amount of snowfall, particularly in the mountainous regions, has been less than average. We still have some of the winter left, so that could change, but if snowfall levels remain lower than expected, that could have a negative impact on crops this next year. Crop yields could be lower and that could have an effect on the -- on the economy.
The weather has also allowed the Taliban to continue operations, particularly in the southern part of the country. We expected that. We expected it to be a tough fight. We expected it to continue over the winter months and it has. But the mild winter has certainly worked to their advantage.
You know, the Afghan security forces, though, they really haven't let the seasons dictate what they've done. They've done operations year-round. In fact at the start of 2015 in January, they kicked off their first deliberate operation in Helmand province in January. And they've been at it -- they've been at it continuously, especially in the south, all year long. And so that's a changing or shifting dynamic in Afghanistan, this continuous fighting that's going on.
That leads to one of the very, very important things that the Afghan security forces have got to do. And so as we look forward to 2016, there are four things that are absolutely imperative that the Afghan security forces have got to do to be successful, not just in 2016, but going forward as a security force.
The first is they've got to implement what we call a force readiness cycle. What I mean by that is a cyclic system where their units are going through a training phase and they're going through an operational phase, where they're conducting security operations. And then they go through a re-set phase where they get to take a break. Soldiers get to take leave. Equipment is put into maintenance. And they, once they're done with that, they're ready for that training cycle to begin again.
Some of their forces are worn down, as I mentioned. They've been, some of them in continuous security operations since the beginning of 2015. And that cyclic system that I mentioned is going to be key for them being able to sustain security operations here in Afghanistan.
The second point is they've got to reduce checkpoints. The Afghan security forces, particularly in the army, are short about 25,000. They've got a total authorization of 352,000, but in the army they're short about 25,000. They've got too many of their soldiers on checkpoints, and they've got to reduce some of those checkpoints. Some of those checkpoints are lightly armed and in some cases, it has been fairly easy for the Taliban to take advantage of those checkpoints that are vulnerable.
So, what they need to do is get soldiers off checkpoints, they need to consolidate, they can't get rid of all of them, but they need to create strong points that they can defend and from which they can maneuver and deal with security issues as they arise.
The third thing that got to do is make some very difficult leadership changes. They are doing this -- in fact, over the last two months, they changed out 92 general officers across the Afghan Security Forces. Now, that is a good step, but I point out, just changing a leader is only part of it. You've got to have the right leader to go in there for that leader to be effective and for that unit to become effective. And in some cases, they put a guy in who turns out not to be the right leader.
So, just changing out the leader doesn't necessarily fix the issue, and those new leaders are going to need time to build their units, to instill their vision, and in some cases, get the units back on track. And so, that will take some patience and continued coaching by the coalition advisers.
And then the fourth thing they have got to do is recruiting. I mentioned the shortfall of about 25,000 in the Afghan National Army; they're on a six-month campaign to close that gap. To put this in context, they have got a capacity right now of training about 6,000 soldiers a month for the Army, but they're not meeting that. They're currently training about 3 to 4,000. So, they have got to ramp up their recruiting efforts and they have got to get more soldiers in the pipeline, so that they have the ability to sustain themselves in security operations here throughout the country.
Another thing we will see in 2016 is we'll see their capacity continue to grow. A great example of this was a demonstration, and in fact just today, that President Ghani, directed by the Afghan Air Force; it included A-29s, it included the C-130, it included a PC-12, MB-530 and the Cessna 208 aircraft -- all aircraft that are active parts of the Afghan Air Force.
In fact, they received their first four A-29 aircraft just a few weeks ago. Those pilots are now going to familiarization training, they should be employed in combat operations by the end of the spring, early summer time frame.
So, that -- that's encouraging. Their Afghan Special Forces continue to build in capability; over the winter so far, they've executed two absolutely flawless raids down at Helmand province, raids were conducted under the cover of darkness using Afghan assets, Afghan Special Forces, highly successful. No Afghans hurt on those raids, and in both cases, they achieve their objectives and all of the prisoners that they were intending to rescue were rescued without a scratch.
That it doesn't happen by accident, and that reflects the tremendous partnership that we've had with them over several years in the building that special forces capacity.
If I can shift to the political front, as you know we had the third round of quadrilateral talks here on the 6th of February, that involves Afghanistan and Pakistan, U.S. and China participate in an observer capacity. Three important things came out of this last round of talks. So, one was an agreement to meet again for the fourth round of talks on the 23rd of February.
Also an agreement by all present that the time is -- the time is ready for the Taliban to come to the table, and for direct talks to begin with the Taliban. Now, this is a change, that's something that the participants had not felt they were ready for until this last round about quadrilateral talks. So, we're encouraged by that.
And then, finally, the formalization of a road map that was developed at the previous quadrilateral talk. The road map is a formal, written document that lays out a plan for peace talks. This is important, because it charts the way ahead, and it's a document that has been agreed to by all parties and we hope will be a key implement in terms of pushing the peace talks forward.
And with that, I'll go to you for your questions.
CAPT. DAVIS: We'll start with Barbara Starr.
Q: General, thank you. Can you bring us up to date on the status of three things -- your assessment of the status of ISIS inside Afghanistan. Are they now a, you know, more of an affiliate than just Taliban rebranding?
How many, where? What is the situation with ISIS there? What is the situation in Kunduz in the north? Do you now see the Taliban, in fact, reassembling in there and threatening the stability of Kunduz? What might you be able to do about that?
And the third, of course, is Helmand. And how much did you actually really send the troops down there for force protection of U.S. troops, given what happened when you couldn't get to the wounded overnight, the last time they came under serious attack?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Well, thanks, Barbara. For your first question on Daesh.
Our characterization of Daesh remains that we see them as operationally emergent. What we're not seeing is Daesh having the ability from either Iraq or Syria to orchestrate operations in Afghanistan. We're not seeing Daesh having the ability to conduct operations in Afghanistan in more than one place at a time.
We are seeing Daesh attempting to do low-level recruiting and propaganda in various places in the country. Almost all of those, with the exception of Nangarhar province in the east are unsuccessful. So, very, very low level activity, with the exception of the east.
And in the east, in Nangarhar province, we're seeing Daesh attempting to establish a base of operations there. Afghan Security Forces have had quite a bit of success against them. In the past few weeks, we, the U.S., have increased significantly our pressure on Daesh. Part of this was enabled by the recent change in authorities, which has given us additional flexibility against Daesh.
So, Daesh, currently, is contained largely to four or five districts in the southern part of Nangarhar province. This is the area of Eastern Afghanistan, that's south of Jalalabad, along the Pakistani border, and is the area where Tora Bora was. It's very rugged, it has been an insurgent safe haven for many, many years, and it continues to be.
Now, in terms of the numbers you asked about, we think the numbers in the eastern part of Afghanistan or -- are in the 1 to 3,000 range. Throughout the country, it's very, very small numbers. Largely, it is rebranding. We're seeing primarily former TTP, some former Taliban pledging to Daesh. We're not exactly sure what their motivation is.
I can tell you that, ideologically, Daesh does not resonate with most people in Afghanistan.
So, in terms of motivation, what we see are generally former TTP who believe that associating with Daesh or pledging to Daesh will further their interests in some way.
So, I will leave it at that with Daesh, but happy to answer any further questions you may have on that.
On Kunduz, Afghan government and the Afghan security forces are watching the situation in Kunduz very closely. They were concerned over what happened in Kunduz in the fall, but I can tell you they are determined to not let that happen again.
They have made quite a bit of changes up north in the 209th Corps. They've actually put in a deputy corps commander to increase their span of control in the north. They've also added a fourth brigade, so they've increased by one brigade the number of combat forces they have in the north. So they are better postured to deal with the security situation.
The security situation in Kunduz right now is stable. We have seen reports, as have you, of Taliban operating outside of Kunduz, and in the northern part of Kunduz Province. And again, Afghan security forces are watching that closely.
And Barbara, I'll just tell you they have the sufficient leadership to deal with that. They've got sufficient combat power within 209th Corps to deal with that. And I know that President Ghani is taking security situation in Kunduz City and Kunduz Province very seriously.
The third part in Helmand, I can confirm that a U.S. Army infantry battalion is deploying to Afghanistan. It will replace another U.S. Army infantry battalion of like size that will be departing. This is a normal scheduled unit rotation.
The incoming battalion will be conducting primarily force protection. Some elements of that battalion will be Helmand Province, some elements of the battalion that is rotating out are in Helmand Province.
I can tell you, Barbara, that we are increasing our number of soldiers dedicated to train, advise and assist in Helmand Province, but what we're not doing is we're not increasing the overall number of troops in Afghanistan. So troop levels in Afghanistan remain unchanged.
But the soldiers dedicated to train, advise and assist in Helmand is part of our re-balancing effort as we support the Afghan army's or the Afghan security force's main effort, which is the rebuild of 215th Corps in Helmand. That is their main effort, so that's our main effort in terms of advising. And we're going to continue to try to look at how we can do the advising mission more efficiently and more effectively within the authorities we have.
We're going to provide or allocate as many forces as we need for force protection wherever it is in the country, whether it's in Helmand or somewhere else. But the mission hasn't changed, our mission remains train, advise and assist at the corps level and at the ministerial level. The train, advise and assist of the 215th Corps is major effort, and that will continue throughout the winter months until that corps is combat ready and able to conduct security operations there as it was intended.
The final point I'll make is that we remain very engaged in TAA, and we are committed to making as much of an impact as we can in 2016. Thank you.
Q: Can I just follow up real quick? I'm confused about one thing. So you have -- you have acknowledged publicly you were sending 500 troops down to Helmand from inside Afghanistan, and at that time, you said for train, advise, assist and force protection. What you just said now, the rotation of 500 into Afghanistan, mainly for force protection.
Can you just clarify that is separate from the 500 you're sending down to Helmand, this rotational force?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Well Barbara, one thing I'm not going to do is comment on numbers or unit designations of units that are deploying, but I can confirm we are rotating out a battalion. Part of that battalion will be operating in Helmand doing a force protection mission, and we're also re-allocating the number of troops we have dedicated to the train, advise and assist mission.
Some of those are engaged in force protection, some are supporting train, advise and assist.
Q: Without referencing numbers, you're talking about two separate items then, the re-allocation of troops within the country down to Helmand and a rotational force that's on rotation orders coming into Afghanistan, part of which will go to Helmand for force protection. Two items, correct?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Again, I'm not going to get into the details of the disposition of the particular units that are here, but I will say it is a normally scheduled unit rotation, and part of that unit will be operating in Helmand, and we are increasing the number of advisers that we have in Helmand Province.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay, next to Tara.
Q: Thank you, general. To follow up on Barbara's questions, can you put some context as to the number of forces, the attention they are putting in Helmand now, how does it compare to last year? And also, to further follow up on her question, we're just trying to understand if you've got two different resources that you're pouring into Helmand because of the risk there, not -- we don't need, you know, visibility on exact numbers or where they're coming from, but to get a better understanding of what sort of attention the U.S. is placing in Helmand Province.
GEN. SHOFFNER: So the re-allocation that I referred to advisers. We're also deploying soldiers, we're positioning soldiers to provide force protection. And I'll go as far as that.
And, you know, so the numbers that we have doing force protection are going to be commensurate with and appropriate for the number of soldiers doing advising. We are increasing our advising effort in Helmand Province, what we're not doing is changing our authorities and we're not changing the way in which we do that. But we are increasing that effort.
Part of that is due to the fact that Afghan special forces are increasing operations in Helmand. Part of the reason they're doing that is to take some of the pressure off of 215th Corps so the 215th Corps can go through their re-build.
Now, we are partnered with the Afghan special forces at the tactical level, and so because we're partnered, the number of advisers we have in Helmand advising the Afghan special forces will increase somewhat, but it will increase as appropriate, given the amount of Afghan special forces they have down there.
Q: And a quick follow-up. Would it be accurate to say that the U.S. footprint in Helmand is increasing?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Yes, that's accurate.
Q: Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Lucas.
Q: I think the general is about to say something.
GEN. SHOFFNER: (inaudible) -- 500 advisers, we said we're deploying a battalion and we are increasing the number of troops we have down there that are in the TAA role, the train, advise and assist role. Sorry to step on you there, Jeff.
CAPT. DAVIS: Sure. I just want to make sure I -- can you -- can you say what you just said over again? We missed the -- I think, the meat of it.
GEN. SHOFFNER: Yeah. So the soldiers that we're deploying down there are coming to do a force protection mission. We are increasing the number of soldiers that we have or the number of assets that we have in the TAA mission, the train, advise and assist mission, in Helmand. And we'll provide the appropriate amount of force protection as required by the mission, in Helmand and elsewhere in the country.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Lucas?
Q: Thank you, general.
Since the U.S. has -- withdrew from Helmand in 2014, does it make it more challenging to redeployed forces there without U.S. bases existing?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Well, we have a very light footprint. And to put it into context, four years ago we had over 130,000 coalition forces here. Now, we have less than 10 percent of that.
One of the very important parts of President Obama's decision about the troop levels going forward was not just the troop levels, but it was the bases. And so the bases we have allow us to conduct the mission that we're doing. We're doing train, advise and assist on a full-time basis on four out of the six corps. So in two of the corps, we're conducting expeditionary advising.
That is the case in Helmand, with 215th Corps. So we have elements coming from -- from Kabul going down to Helmand; some for days, some for weeks at a time conducting that mission. 2015 was the first time we've started the expeditionary advising.
So this is still fairly new. And as, you know, the commander does his assessments in terms of what's required, he'll continue to look at how to use the forces he has available with the bases that we have here currently in Afghanistan. And physics do play a part. They certainly do. And in Helmand and Kandahar, we have a lot of great distances that have to be traveled, and there's no way around the physics of it.
But we -- we do have some flexibility to reposition forces and reallocate forces as the commander sees fit. As I said, General Campbell has done continuous assessments since he's been here. And the administration and the Department of Defense have demonstrated quite a bit of flexibility in terms of accepting that advice and giving the commander the latitude he needs to do the mission.
Q: But it is challenging moving forces into an area without U.S. bases?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Well, look, I'll tell you that we have the ability to do the expeditionary advising. So that means we've got a place to put them, and we have the proper force protection. We've got the resources to sustain those forces down there. And we've got adequate combat power to protect them.
Q: Finally, General Petraeus in an op-ed in The Washington Post last month said that he wasn't advocating more troops going to Afghanistan, but he wanted to, quote, "take the gloves off." Is there any plan to change the ROE or allow for more airstrikes against the Taliban as you have recently done against ISIS in the east?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Yeah, a couple of points there, Lucas. The first is that the Afghans have their own capacity for delivering airstrikes. They have their own air force. And we want them to use their air whenever possible. They had quite a bit of success integrating their MD-530 helicopters, especially in Nangarhar province earlier this year. We anticipate that they will have increasing success integrating their air assets in the south. The A-29 aircraft should be coming into operational status this summer, so that will significantly increase their ability to provide close-air support.
But I want to say -- just make one thing clear about close-air support. You know, whether it is U.S. providing close-air support or the Afghans providing their own close-air support, it's not just about aircraft being available. There are essentially three components you've got to have.
You've got to have the aircraft. You've got to have a trained pilot. And you've got to have a tactical air controller on the ground. That tactical air controller has got to do three things to be able to deliver munitions. He's got to be able to precisely locate the target. He's got to know where friendly forces are. And, very importantly, he's got to know where those areas are that he can't strike -- the restricted fire areas and the areas where there might be civilians, where there might be towns, where there might be schools.
And regardless of who's providing the air cover, unless you have those three requirements met, you cannot and you should not be dropping ordnance from aircraft. And so that's one of their key challenges is making sure that they have met the conditions for delivering air.
One of the key things they've focused on is the development of their Afghanistan tactical air controllers. Currently, they have about 18 of them that are trained and certified. And what they're doing, Lucas, is they're deploying those as a package. So they'll send the aircraft along with the tactical air controllers to an area for an operation. So it goes as a trained package that has worked together before and can effectively employ those systems.
It's going to take them a while to get those in the fight. But we want them to use their assets first. And it's going to be -- they're going to have to work through how to get those tactical air controllers where they need to be. They're going to need to work through how to get the aircraft, the maintenance for that aircraft and the fuel in position to support their security operations.
On rules of engagement, that's something I'm not going to discuss publicly. Rules of engagement, however, have not changed. But one thing with authorities, we don't have the authority to target the Taliban and we don't specifically target the Taliban based on affiliation.
Q: General, Jim Miklaszewski with NBC.
I want to drill down a little bit on this force protection mission. Is this force protection for U.S. and Afghan forces? Is it defensive? Or can it in fact be preemptive?
And then I'd like to follow up, too, on the train, advise, assist mission.
GEN. SHOFFNER: Yes, sure, Jim.
So, the first part of your question, the purpose of the force protection mission is force protection for the U.S. assets that are here -- the U.S. and in some cases coalition assets because it's -- the train, advise and assist mission is both a U.S. authority and it's a coalition authority. So, they're there for force protection. They're not there for offensive purposes.
On the train, advise and assist, we're conducting train, advise and assist on the conventional side at the corps level. The main effort there is the -- in Helmand is the rebuild of the 215th Corps, which will take several months. With the Afghan special forces, we're conducting the train, advise and assist down to the tactical level with those Afghan special forces.
What we're not doing is putting the troops in the train, advise and assist role on the objective. So, those forces that are partnering with the special forces, we call them partnered operations, the trainers will participate in the planning. They'll participate in the coordination for air, for intelligence. They may participate in the coordination for transportation, although the Afghans are increasingly taking care of the transportation on their own.
But when the operation actually occurs, those trainers are breaking off and they'll go to an overwatch position or they'll go to a command and control location. And so they're not actually on the objective when the operation is occurring.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, we'll go to Christina.
Q: Hi, general. Thanks for speaking with us.
General Campbell and others have recommended keeping troops through the fighting season. When would the -- when would troops have to begin drawing down in order to get to 5,500 by the end of the year? And also, if the fighting season is continuous, I mean, what would be the end of that fighting season, then?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Yeah, so, Christina, thank you.
We typically are moving away from using the term "fighting season," because it is an outdated term and it really doesn't reflect reality on the ground. I can tell you that for 2016, the troop levels will be essentially what they had been for 2015, and that will give us quite a bit of time to continue to make an effect.
As I mentioned down in 215th Corps, we're going to try to get the maximum impact of those trainers that we have throughout 2016. The commander has made assessments, continues to make assessments. In fact, he was just in Washington, testifying with House Armed Services and Senate Armed Services committees, providing those assessments. He also provided them to the Department of Defense and the administration.
Congress, the administration and DOD have been receptive to not only his assessments, but his best military advice moving forward. And so, we anticipate the new commander coming in, will continue to make his assessments and provide his military advice on what the proper allocation of resources are here, going forward.
Q: Stepping away from the 5,500 by the end of the year?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Well, Christina, at some point, physics do intercede, and decisions will have to be made about how to get forces down to the appropriate troops levels.
We have had a lot of experience in drawing down forces here in Afghanistan. And so, we're very, very good at that. We know how do it. The number of troops we have here now, as I said, ten percent of what we had four years ago. So, any future drawdowns will be fairly -- nothing is ever easy, but a much, much less of a challenge to manage, than the massive drawdown that we had going on over the last two to three years.
Q: I was asking what that point was, where you would have to begin drawing down forces?
But also, I wanted to ask, is this going be such a challenge to get the Afghan Air Force off its feet, why shouldn't the U.S. provide air support for Afghan Troops against the Taliban in the -- (inaudible)?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Well, we did that for many years. And under ISAF, when we were conducting operations, we did a lot of partnered operations with the Afghans. And we often provided U.S. close air support.
But what that did over time, was it created a dependency relationship on the U.S. air power, and we've got to move away from that. Arguably, we got started a bit late on the Afghan Air Force, because it takes a long time to build that capacity. It takes, on average, about three years to built a pilot; it takes about five years to grow a maintainer.
So, it's going to -- it's going to continue to take continued support by the U.S. and other partner nations. With the air force, it is a partnership that is going to continue for a while.
But because they have their own capability, we want them to use that capability.
So, we think it's more important that they figure out how to use that, than it is for us to step in and use U.S. assets just because we can.
I will say we have used U.S. assets. We have used them in Helmand over the last few months selectively. And I think that needs to be selective, and it has been a very deliberate decision by the commander to do that, and he approves each one of those personally.
So, we have got the ability. It was -- it has been used selectively; I think that's going to continue. But I do think you'll see them increasingly capable, increasingly competent, and increasingly proficient in employing their own assets as fighting continues.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay, next we'll go to Andrew.
Q: General, hi, it's Andrew Tilghman. I just want to make sure I understand your reference to increasing the number of troops. You're sending more U.S. troops to Helmand for both the force protection mission, and also, are you increasing the number of troops that are participating in the tactical level advise and assist?
GEN. SHOFFNER: So, we are increasing our number of advisers in Helmand, and the force protection that will be there for those troops will be what is appropriate given the number of troops we have down there. And I won't get into details of dispositions of -- of unit deployments that have yet to occur.
With regard to the Afghan Special Forces, Afghan Special Forces have increased their numbers in Helmand; they've done it, really to take the pressure off of 215th Corps, so 215th Corps can go through that rebuilding.
So, the number of advisers we have for the Afghan Special Forces have increased somewhat, they have increased somewhat in Helmand. And we expect they will -- will stay at current levels as long as the Afghan Security Forces -- or Afghan Special Security Forces are operating there.
Q: Just to clarify, increase somewhat over what timeframe? Is that over the past month or so, since the first of the year that level has increased?
GEN. SHOFFNER: So, the Taliban started an offensive in Helmand in October that was aimed at securing their air objectives throughout Central Helmand, which was road networks, support bases and areas that they needed to be able to conduct operations against their objectives in Central Helmand.
In November timeframe, the Afghan Security Forces began a counter offensive, aimed at countering those Taliban advances. That consisted of conventional forces, so part of the 215th Corps. They also brought conventional forces from elsewhere in Afghanistan, and they increased their special forces, all as part of that counter offensive that started back in November, and that continues now. We expect it will continue for the next few months at least.
CAPT. DAVIS: Going next to -- (inaudible).
Q: Thank you, general. Pakistan still has (inaudible) on the borders of Afghanistan.
How big that challenge is, and how -- what is the nature of terrorists coming from those safe havens to Afghanistan?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Yes, so a couple of points about safe havens in Pakistan.
Over the last two years, Pakistan has put quite a bit of pressure -- can you hear me?
CAPT. DAVIS: Yeah, we hear you.
GEN. SHOFFNER: So, over the past couple of years, Pakistan has put increasing pressure on the Taliban in Pakistan -- both Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban operating in Pakistan.
The result of that effort is that it has pushed some of the Taliban that were taking sanctuary in Pakistan into Afghanistan -- not all of them, but some. That has increased the security challenges in Afghanistan.
But you bring up a very good point, and that is that terrorism knows no boundaries. And what we're seeing with the sanctuaries in Pakistan is typical of some of the ways these terrorist organizations operate.
The don't respect international boundaries and they take advantage of political boundaries. One of the things President Ghani has stressed is the importance of a regional approach.
President Ghani has said that he's fighting insurgents from around the region in Afghanistan, and that should not be only his problem. It's going to take a commitment of the leaders of the nations throughout the region to get at that.
And you've hit on a very important point. If insurgents have sanctuary on both sides of the border, you can't just address them in Afghanistan. You've got to address it as a regional problem. And the -- it's got to become a military solution by the different countries in the region, not just Pakistan.
Q: Sir, Gordon Lubold from The Wall Street Journal.
Two questions. Can you -- I know you were talking about Islamic state targeting earlier. We can come back to that.
Do you now how many strikes or attacks or operations against Islamic state the U.S. has conducted since you were given the authority to do so just a few weeks ago, I guess? And also I had a quick question about the Haqqani network.
GEN. SHOFFNER: So, no, thanks, Gordon.
On Daesh and the change in authorities, I can't give you a number, but I can tell you in the last roughly three weeks, we have significantly increased our pressure on Daesh in Afghanistan, particularly in the Nangarhar province. That has had an effect, but it's not just U.S. airstrikes that are having an effect. It's Afghanistan -- Afghan security forces that have been putting pressure on Daesh for sometime now. So it's a combination of all of that that has Daesh relatively contained in the southern part of Nangarhar province.
On Haqqani network, we remain concerned about Haqqani network. What we often see here is we'll see the Taliban, we'll see the Haqqani network, and sometimes Al Qaida working together. You know, one of the number two leaders in the Taliban is a Haqqani member. So the two are clearly related and are working together to some degree. So we take them very seriously. We -- we always have and we will continue to.
Q: Just to clarify. Are you unable to give -- provide the number of strikes because you don't have it? Or because you guys don't want to say?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Yeah, I'm not going to go into the detail on the number of strikes, but I'll leave it at we have significantly increased our pressure and the number of strikes we've conducted against Daesh in Nangarhar province over the past three weeks.
CAPT. DAVIS: Anybody else?
I'm sorry -- Luis, you had one, and then we'll come back to you, Lucas.
Q: General Shoffner, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News.
If I could go back to some points you made earlier with regards to ISIS. You said that ISIS is essentially TTP that has rebranded itself in southern Nangarhar. And you talked just now to Gordon about how the strikes that you have under the new authorities. But under the old authorities, would you have been able to strike at TTP? And if they hadn't rebranded themselves, is that the only motivator for you actually striking at them?
In other words, if they hadn't rebranded themselves and they posed no threat to American forces, which I don't think there are that many advisers in Nangarhar, then in other words, what would you be doing any different if they had not rebranded themselves as TTP?
(inaudible) -- ISIS -- (inaudible).
GEN. SHOFFNER: Well, Luis, we've always had the ability to strike threats to the force. That has not changed. I'm not going to get into the rules of engagement. We've always had that authority regardless of what label an organization had.
The change in authorities has given us additional flexibility. And I'll leave it at that with regard to the authorities piece.
And I don't recall. Was there a second part to your question?
Q: A follow up to the first part, too, because if -- under the new authority, you've had a significant ramp-up in activity, but under the previous rules, it would have been only, as you said, a threat to the force. So in other words, what would have happened any differently now than from before?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Well, with regard to Daesh, President Ghani considers Daesh to be a significant potential threat to his national security. He takes it very seriously. We take it very seriously as well. What we want is to prevent Daesh from becoming any more capable than it currently is in Afghanistan.
And I would go so far as to say we want to deal with Daesh here, as opposed to somewhere else in the world.
Q: Second topic, going back to the earlier question about Helmand and the advisers there. Have there always been advisers in Helmand with the 215th Corps at the, you know, at that level? At what point did things change so that you started moving forces down to the tactical level as what happened in Marjah?
GEN. SHOFFNER: So, we're really talking two separate issues. They are related in that they're in the same geographical area and all part of the same major operation. But at the tactical level, again, it's train, advise and assist of Afghan special forces down to the tactical level.
That is a NATO Resolute Support mission. So it's not just U.S. trainers that are doing that. And then in addition to that, we're conducting train, advise and assist down to the corps level in four out of the six Afghan corps. That's a permanent presence.
In two out of the six, 215th is one of them, it's the expeditionary advising. So the expeditionary advising started 1 January 2015. It went on throughout 2015, and that we have increased that effort as security operations in Helmand and the rebuild of 215th Corps have become the Afghan security forces' main effort.
Q: Hi, general. Thank you for doing this call. Carla Babb, Voice of America.
Has Daesh posed a threat to U.S. forces -- the Daesh in Nangarhar province? Have they posed a threat to U.S. forces either before the new authorities or after?
GEN. SHOFFNER: I'd go back to President Ghani's characterization. He -- he characterizes Daesh as a potential strategic threat. We see it the same way. We take it very, very seriously. And we are actively sharing information and intelligence with our Afghan counterparts. What we want to do is make sure Daesh doesn't become any more capable than it already is, and that is doesn't -- it doesn't spread any further.
Q: But I'm wondering if there were any specific instances where Daesh had posed a threat to U.S. forces.
GEN. SHOFFNER: I'm not going to get into specifics of targeting and the tactical level details with regard to Daesh. But I will emphasize that the change in authorities has given us increased flexibility here and we appreciate that adjustment.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay, yeah, three quick followups here. Lucas?
Q: Going back to Marjah, general, when will we see the investigation into the death of the special forces soldier, Staff Sergeant McClintock? And when your command release a timeline into the events of the battle, including your response to the QRF, et cetera?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Yeah, so that remains under investigation. I don't have a date for you. As soon as that is released, we'll let you know. I'd be happy to work with you offline and tell you what we can on the sequence of events there as we know it. What I'm not going to do is get into parts of that that are -- that are under investigation at the moment.
Q: Thanks, general. One more quick follow-up.
In your introductory remarks, you characterized the north and the east and the west of Afghanistan. And I was wondering if you could just give us a snapshot of the security situation in Helmand? Start from maybe November 2015 to now. Has it gotten worse? What's its status?
GEN. SHOFFNER: So, I'd characterize it as contested. We knew that Helmand, particularly central Helmand, was one of the Taliban's objectives in 2015. One of the things the Taliban has not been able to do, though, is seize a major population center within Helmand.
So, a lot of the activity you've heard about are fairly minor, tactical issues. That is not to diminish the importance of Helmand to the Afghans and the importance of the -- the campaign that's going on or the operation that's going on there now.
So, the Taliban did reposition forces throughout Afghanistan in the latter part of 2015. They began their offensive in October. And then the Afghan security forces began their counter-offensive in November. So their offensive in October did bring more Taliban into Helmand. And the Afghans' counter-offensive that started in November brought more Afghan security forces into Helmand province as well from other parts of Afghanistan, in some cases.
CAPT. DAVIS: Barbara Starr, the last word.
Q: I wanted to follow up on Luis' question, if I may. So you -- let's go back a minute.
You weren't striking the TTP unless they posed a direct threat to U.S. forces. You're now striking them because they've re-branded themselves as ISIS. So the sole reason, if I understand you correctly, for striking TTP re-branded fighters now is they now self-identify as ISIS, which goes to self-identification and their motivation, whatever that may be.
I'm curious how you know -- this is a very unique situation. How do you know which individuals on the ground are now re-branding and self-identifying themselves as ISIS, rather than TTP?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Well, Barbara, I won't get into the specifics of targeting. I would just say that President Ghani considers Daesh a potential strategic threat. We agree with that assessment. And we are committed to making sure it doesn't become any more powerful than it is.
With regard to the Taliban, what President Ghani seeks with the Taliban is a political -- political solution. And we think that the surest way toward ending the violence in this country is an Afghan-led peace process that brings the Taliban through political means to the negotiating table.
And so the national command authorities of the United States have given us certain authorities, based on a variety of considerations that are well above my level here. And I will say that the change in authority with Daesh has given us additional flexibility. At the same time, we remain supportive of the Afghan government's efforts to seek a peaceful solution with the Taliban.
CAPT. DAVIS: General, thank you for your time, and be safe out there.
I just want to commend everyone to General Cleveland here. Please go say hi. Trade business cards if you haven't yet. He'll be headed over here.
When -- when is the turnover?
CAPT. DAVIS: Middle of March, it will be handed over to relieve General Shoffner middle of March.
Go ahead, sir.
GEN. SHOFFNER: Thanks again, everybody. And I appreciate your time and your questions. And I'm standing by to follow up with any more detail if I can provide that either tonight or in the coming days.
One of the things that I want to emphasize is the international commitment to Afghanistan. You know, Secretary Carter is in Brussels now meeting with leaders there, mostly having to do with ISIS. That's encouraging. I think it shows the commitment not just by the U.S., but the international community with regard to ISIS.
I'll go back to the foreign ministerials -- the NATO foreign ministers meeting that occurred in December where we had 47 nations pledge their long-term commitment to the stability of Afghanistan. That's very encouraging.
So beyond the U.S. commitment that we've talked about this morning, the significance of that international commitment cannot be overstated. That should be codified in a conference in Warsaw in July, and then there's a development conference that will occur in October in Brussels -- October 2016 in Brussels.
So those two conferences in 2016 are essential in terms of cementing the -- both the troop contribution and the financial contribution of all the different contributing nations, over 40, going forward to 2020.
Thanks very much, and I appreciate your time this morning.
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