DoD News Briefing with Col. Nicholson from Afghanistan
(Note: Colonel Nicholson appears via teleconference from Afghanistan.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs): Well, good morning. It looks like we have good video. Let’s just make sure that Colonel Nicholson can hear us.
Colonel, it’s Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon.
COL. NICHOLSON: Bryan, I can hear you very well, thanks.
MR. WHITMAN: Very good.
Well, good morning, and welcome, and good afternoon to you, Colonel. This is Colonel John Nicholson. He’s commander of 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. He and his unit are part of Task Force Spartan, are responsible for security and stability operations in eastern Afghanistan.
Colonel Nicholson’s been commanding his unit in Afghanistan since January of 2006. This is also, I understand, your birthday.
COL. NICHOLSON: I can’t believe they told you that, but it is. That’s correct.
MR. WHITMAN: Can’t imagine a better way to spend your birthday than with our Pentagon press corps.
Actually, this is not even his first birthday in Afghanistan. This is second consecutive birthday in Afghanistan. And we appreciate the time that you give us this morning to talk to us about what your unit has been doing and to answer some of our questions.
Colonel Nicholson is speaking to us today from Forward Operating Base Fenty in Nangahar province. And like I said, we all appreciate you giving us some time today, particularly on a special day for you. And with that, let me turn it over to you for some opening comments before we get to some questions.
COL. NICHOLSON: Okay. Thanks, Bryan. And again, thanks for that very nice welcome.
And right, this is – I am speaking to you from Forward Operating Base Fenty, which is named after Lieutenant Colonel Joseph J. Fenty (sp), one of our battalion commanders, killed on May the 5th, 2006. We just dedicated this forward operating base to his memory here just a few days ago. So it’s very meaningful for us.
We are on our 16th month here. Our soldiers miss their families very much, but morale is good. It’s good because we have a very cohesive unit. It’s been a very gratifying experience thus far.
Why is it gratifying? It’s gratifying because we’d humbly suggest we’re winning here in Afghanistan.
What does that mean in a counterinsurgency environment? It means we’ve defeated the enemy every time we’ve met him over the last 16 months. We feel genuinely appreciated by the Afghan people. And our soldiers, by and large, know that they’re making a difference for the people and the government here.
It’s important to note that the Afghan people are our center of gravity, not the enemy. Our objective is to get the people to believe that their own government offers the best hope for the future and to then to buy into Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as their choice for the future, to provide better lives for their families.
We are in a struggle for that popular support with an enemy, who broadly defined, is anyone who opposes the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Now, that would be terrorists, insurgents, drug lords, criminals, anyone who would benefit from instability on the part of this government to gain personal profit. We work with and through the Afghan government and the Afghan Security Forces in this endeavor. We thus seek to build their capacity as we accomplish our aim with respect to the population.
We follow three basic steps in our methodology for counterinsurgency here in Afghanistan.
The first is we seek to separate the enemy from the people. And the enemy, as I mentioned before, is broadly defined as anyone who is vying with the government for power or who seeks instability. And we seek to separate the enemy through a variety of means. It could involve kinetic operations, killing or capturing the enemy; it could be forcing those elements to flee the country for elsewhere; it could be getting them to reconcile with the government. There’s a significant information ops component to separating the enemy. If we can convince those fighting on the side of the enemy to side with the government, then we’ve been just as successful as if we killed them; I’d argue even more successful, because that builds the momentum of its own and helps these people to reconcile after many, many years of civil war.
So anyway, after we’ve separated the enemy from the people -- step number one; step number two would be to achieve effects of the population. And what do we seek to do here? Essentially, this comes down to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. These people have suffered from 30 years of war. Their first need is first and foremost security. They need to know that if the government is here, that the government’s going to stay and we’re going to secure them from the enemy. Otherwise, they will be punished by the enemy for their cooperation with us, and that punishment can go all the way up to murder, mutilation, robbery, you name it. Once they feel secure, then they feel free to express their needs to the government, and these needs are pretty basic. After security is food, health, electricity, roads, jobs, things of this nature.
Finally, once we begin that connection with the government, we seek to transform the environment permanently, both tangibly and intangibly; tangibly in the sense of providing for those basic needs and intangibly in the psychological sense where the people are convinced that the government’s the best hope for the future, their buy-in is complete and the enemy is no longer welcome in the area – or, if he has remained, he’s slowly squeezed out.
Now, let me tell you a little bit about these people who we focus on here. They’re a pretty impressive bunch. Their life expectancy is less than 43 years. One in five children die before the age of five. Sixteen percent of the mothers die in child birth, although that’s improving somewhat. Eighty percent are illiterate; 60 percent are unemployed. The public health situation here is worse than a country with an AIDS epidemic.
Yet in spite of that, these people have a deep faith in God. Their willingness to accept their hardship as the will of God is frankly somewhat awe-inspiring. And we are daily impressed with the way they can persevere through this hardship. Dignity and respect is everything to them, and they want us – they genuinely want us here, and they are genuinely appreciative of us being here. Why is that? It’s because they have seen into the abyss, frankly, after 30 years of war. They have seen it about as bad as it can get, and they don’t want to go back.
And I think the majority of the people – when I say majority, I’m talking 80 to 90 percent – see us, see this opportunity with the international community being here as their best way to turn their forces around and have a better future for their children. So they work with us and they appreciate our efforts, and all that makes it a very gratifying experience for the American soldiers who are over here, even though they’re in their 16th month.
But to achieve these effects, you have to be with the people, and that has involved a fundamental shift in the methodology over here from the past. This requires a persistent presence with the people. So in order to achieve that, we have essentially tripled our footprint over the footprint we had when we arrived here 16 months ago. That means we have pushed out groups of soldiers in platoon-size elements, as low as platoon-size elements in bases amongst the villages and towns with the population. Remember, this is a rural-based population; a larger country than Iraq, more people than Iraq, but a rural population.
So in order to be with the people, you have to move out into the rural areas. In some cases we have soldiers living at 8(,000) or 10,000 feet on the sides of mountains in mountain communities, only accessible by air. Interestingly enough, when we move in, the enemy moves out, facilitating that connection even further. But this presence, this pushing out and being amongst the people forces the enemy to fight you. What that does is it leads to an increase in fighting and to some extent an increase in casualties. But the difference is you get greater effects for that fighting. The fighting spikes as the enemy contests you for the human terrain, and then it goes down somewhat as the enemy is forced to basically either flee or continue to fight you or move elsewhere.
As a result of this, after 16 months -- and this is one of the advantages of the 16-month deployment -- folks have focused, I know, a lot on the hardship, and there certainly is some of that, and we have been incredibly impressed with the strength of our families and our soldiers in persevering with an unexpected extension. But what this means is now going into our second spring in Afghanistan, is in many cases our soldiers have more experience than the enemy fighters they are facing, and as a result, we defeat them soundly every time they show themselves.
We have seen the enemy, therefore, resort to things like suicide bombings and IEDs. These, though, are tactics that don't go over well here with the people. While they may reap some short-term benefit for the enemy, in the long term these are losing approaches with the Afghan people.
The Afghan people place a high value on respect for human life. And when the enemy murders elders or blows up mullahs, children, innocent civilians as a result of these indiscriminate suicide attacks and IEDs, it doesn't go over well. We've had numerous ulemas issue fatwas against suicide bombing and against these tactics being used by the enemy.
So we see a definite shift in the sentiments of the people and their willingness to speak out against these kinds of tactics by the enemy, which is all very encouraging to us.
So it goes well. We also believe and I would make the point that having two brigade combat teams over here was certainly the right thing to do, and we were the right ones to extend to make that a reality. No one had more experience over here -- again, even though it was fairly unexpected, we had soldiers already back at Fort Drum, some were in Kuwait, they were turned around and everyone was brought back. The extension by four months enabled the unit that's replacing us to retrain for Afghanistan, repack their gear and move out here, and they’re arriving now. So it was the right thing to do and we were the right unit to do the job.
I want to mention one thing. I've noticed in the news recently there's been some coverage of a 4 March incident that occurred here in Nangarhar province in which a Marine special forces unit was attacked by a suicide bomber, and in the ensuing fight a number of civilians were killed. Today we met with the families of those victims; 19 dead and 50 injured. We made official apologies on the part of the U.S. government and the part of the coalition, and we made what is called a solatia payment, which is essentially a symbol of our sympathy to them. It is not a legal claim per se, but it is a way of expressing our genuine condolences and deep regret over the incident occurring.
And I wanted to share that with you because this is very important. The people are our center of gravity here. So first and foremost in all that we do, we seek to do no harm to the people. So events such as that do set us back with the population and they have to be addressed very directly and forthrightly with the Afghan people.
And I just wanted to read a part of the statement that I made to the families, so that you have an appreciation for how we interact with the people over here and what this kind of event means. We – and I would comment that the response by the people was very positive. Showing them the appropriate respect is culturally significant, and seeing the genuine remorse that we have for incidents such as this is important in terms of keeping them with us.
As I commented to them today, “We came here to help the Afghan people and the Afghan government, not to hurt you. We deeply appreciate the hospitality you’ve shown us by allowing us to stand beside you and to fight our common enemy together. America has stood by you in the anti-Soviet jihad, and we stand by you today. God has blessed us with success, and Insha’Allah we will continue to see a better life for all Afghans, a life of dignity, honor and opportunity.
“Most American soldiers here have families of their own. When we see Afghan children smiling and waving, we think of our own children. And this brings a smile to our faces and joy to our hearts.
“We wish for you and your children, just as for our own children, to have a happy and healthy life. All life is precious. Our soldiers believe this; the American people believe this. When our soldiers see suffering and death, as we do very frequently in this war, we are very sad. When children or other innocent people suffer or die, it breaks our hearts.
“So I stand before you today, deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people. We are filled with grief and sadness at the death of any Afghan, but the death and wounding of innocent Afghans at the hand of Americans is a stain on our honor and on the memory of the many Americans who have died defending Afghanistan and the Afghan people. This was a terrible, terrible mistake, and my nation grieves with you for your loss and suffering. We humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness,” end-quote.
I wanted to share that with you to demonstrate how important connections with the people are to us. And I know there’s many stories in the news about civilian deaths, and I wanted you to hear from a commander in the field how we interact with the people when such a thing occurs. And regrettably it does happen, because this is war, but we go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.
And if they do occur, we go to great lengths to try and make it right with the people who’ve suffered because that is not what America stands for. They know that. They hold us to a higher standard, and they should hold us to a higher standard. And we should hold ourselves to a higher standard because we are professionals, and we can be better than that. So we work very hard to do no harm to the Afghan people and to deliver those effects that we know will achieve the buy-in by the Afghans of their own government and will help us to win this war on terror.
And with that, I’d welcome any questions.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you, Colonel. We do have a few here. Let’s start with Kristin.
Q Colonel, this is Kristin Roberts with Reuters. Happy birthday. Thanks for the information about the March 4th event. I’m hoping you can give us a couple more details, perhaps, about what determination has been made about the incident and the conduct of the U.S. service members who were involved.
COL. NICHOLSON: Yeah, Kristin, there is an investigation ongoing into that. In fact, we have investigators here now from the Naval Criminal Investigation Service. They were requested by the SOCCENT, General Kearney. The unit that was involved in this fell under the command of Special Operations Central Command. As you probably saw in the interview that he gave with The Washington Post earlier in April, he covered some of the details of the incident.
I really have nothing to add. The investigation is ongoing. The investigators are interviewing as many of the people involved as possible, and that goes well over a hundred. So there’s a lot of work to be done, and we’re facilitating that investigation to the best extent possible so that they can wrap that up and arrive at the truth about what happened and why it happened.
Q Sir, this is Pam Hess with United Press International. Can you tell us how much you paid – you gave in solatia payments, how you arrive at that number, how you divide it up between people who had family members killed and those who were injured, if you worked for the tribes for that? And also, why six weeks later? Why didn’t you do it two weeks later or three weeks or immediately after?
COL. NICHOLSON: Yeah, Pam, great question. And let me take a minute to explain the process and how it works.
First off, solatia is not a claims process per se. It is an expression of condolence, an expression of sympathy. So the amounts of money are as such.
So for example, they're in Afghanis, paid in Afghanis. Let me quote you the figure. (Pause.) So for a family who's lost someone who has died, we give them 100,000 Afghani; in U.S. dollars, this amounts to around $2,000, which clearly, by Western standards, is -- again, is not a claim per se but is an expression of condolence. And we certainly present it in that vein.
Now, the way the process works -- we had -- of course in the wake of any combat action, it's very confusing, and it takes a while to piece together what happened and how. At this point, we'll work very closely with the government of Afghanistan and with UNAMA, the U.N. mission here in Afghanistan. And the claimants -- we'll encourage to come to the government and come to UNAMA; then we sat down with those two organizations and worked our way through the list of people who had identified that they had suffered some loss or death or injury as a result of this event. This involved going to all the local hospitals and checking with them, and in some cases, if we found victims of the incident who were wounded, we assisted the hospitals with additional medical supplies. In some cases, we flew victims to U.S. medical facilities to be assisted and to provide a level of care needed based on their injuries.
This took some time, frankly, because the place where the attack occurred was along the major transportation artery between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the east. So there were many vehicles along this road, a very crowded road in a crowded bazaar, so people were not just from the local neighborhood but may have been transiting the area or may have been from surrounding districts coming to the bazaar. So we had to cast a rather wide net to get everyone.
Then we essentially asked the government of Afghanistan to assist us in adjudicating who actually were legitimate claimants. And they -- it took some time to do that, and they did that working through the elders. We had a number of shuras with the elders from the Shinwari tribe, who was affected by this incident, and the other tribes in Nangahar who had people involved. We had shuras up until yesterday, as an example, discussing the incident and leading up to this event.
Then we again worked with UNAMA, cross-checked the list against our own list. We defaulted, frankly, to the higher number, if you will, but feel confidently that each of these people were in fact involved in the incident.
It was a very crowded bazaar in the middle of the business day. There were, you know, hundreds of people in the bazaar when the incident occurred and along the road after -- the location where the suicide bomber went off. So there were many people involved. It did take some time to put it all together, but we wanted to make sure we got it right, so that the tribal elders and the local leaders would be satisfied that we had in fact gotten everyone who needed to be apologized to and paid salatia to.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, Jim.
Q This is Jim Mannion from Agence France-Presse. I wonder if you could also talk about the incident in Shindand province, whether the military has established that civilians were killed there, and then the larger issue of whether airpower -- airstrikes is really the appropriate tool to be using in a counterinsurgency campaign where you're trying to win over the population.
COL. NICHOLSON: Jim, I believe you're referring to an incident in western Afghanistan. Is that the location you mentioned?
COL. NICHOLSON: Okay. Yeah. I am not -- of course that's not in my area of operations. So I really don't want to comment on the tactics involved.
I will talk about the use of airpower here in eastern Afghanistan and in our sector, because we have made extensive use of it.
In general, again, this fight is different. We fight in our sector in -- at altitudes up to 15,000 feet in the Himalayan Mountains, and we fight in some very rugged, rough and sparsely populated areas. In many cases the enemy's technique is to do what we call attack by fire. So the majority of our fighting and our casualties are not from IEDs or suicide-bombers, they are from gun fights. So we, by a ratio of about 4 to 1, engage in classic infantry combat with the enemy, versus suicide bombings and IED attacks, which are prevalent elsewhere.
When the enemy attacks by fire, he typically tries to attack us from a position of advantage, which is usually high ground focused on our forces which may be transiting an area, or in the low ground with the population in some of these platoon-sized outposts that I mentioned earlier. So, the enemy will move to a piece of unoccupied ground on the side of a hill or the top of a mountain and then will attempt to fire down on us, which of course makes him vulnerable to our indirect fires. You know, we shoot back at him with every weapon in our arsenal. We make a lot of use of artillery, mortars and air power. And we have had -- at least in our portion of the battlespace, here in the Joint Task Force 82 and Joint Task Force 76's areas of Regional Command-East, we have had relatively few incidents where artillery mortars or even airstrikes have killed civilians. And we go to great lengths to clear our fires before we shoot. We will not shoot before we will risk hitting civilians. And so we try to be as precise as possible.
So how do we do that? Well, we have certain criteria that we go through when we look. One, we visually clear the area and look and see if there are civilians in the area. If there are civilians in the area, we won't shoot artillery. Artillery has a certain bursting radius. When we calculate whether we're going to shoot artillery or mortars or drop a bomb, we apply that bursting radius to the location where the enemy is located and estimate if there would be any civilian casualties. If there would be any, then we don't shoot that munition. We would engage with direct fire in as precise a manner as possible. And that might involve some of our missile systems or other systems, which are more precise than the area fire weapons like artillery or bombs.
But having said that, we fired well over 30,000 rounds of artillery, 8,000 rounds of mortars, and dropped over 300 tons of bombs in RC-East in defeating the enemy here. And we do that -- and those numbers are useful to the extent that they give you an idea of the order of magnitude of the use of indirect fire. When we put platoon-size elements out in remote valleys and on hillsides, the enemy tries to take advantage of that by attacking them from a position of advantage. And then, of course, he makes himself vulnerable to our fires.
But again, very precise application of those fires. Our systems are very accurate. And if we had incidents, typically they have been because of some technical problem. For example, a bad lot of ammunition in one case. A mortar round fell short and killed two civilians. That was determined to be from a bad lot of ammunition. We pulled that ammunition out and we don't use it anymore, and it's replaced with effective ammunition. So this is just one example; very infrequent that that occurs.
The issue of dropping a bomb on a compound or a house is a -- there's a very deliberate decision process that you must go through before you would make such a decision to use a munition against a -- at least speaking for our part of the battlespace here in the east and for my commander and myself, if there's risk of a killing a civilian, that we don't drop the bomb.
MR. WHITMAN: Marc.
Q Hi, it's Marc Heller with Watertown Times. How are you? Happy birthday, by the way. How old are you now?
COL. NICHOLSON: Thank you very much. I'm 50.
Q I wanted to ask you a little bit of a military quality-of-life question. You touched a little bit on the issue of deployment and redeployments and length of deployments. There's been kind of a perception, maybe even kind of a constant drum beat over the last few years, that we're not really doing everything that we could do for our soldiers. It seems that every time that we're doing things right, we find out about things like redeployments that you mentioned, the Walter Reed situation, bureaucratic snafus and so forth.
And I wondered if you could describe a little bit about what sorts of things you think really make a difference to soldiers in terms of benefits, in terms of things that we can do or that Congress can do. What makes a difference in real life for soldiers? And what kinds of things do you really think that they would appreciate?
COL. NICHOLSON: Sure, that's a great question, and I appreciate you asking that because it shows a real interest in that. And, you know, you're right; we're a country of 300 million people, there's about 140,000 of us overseas; that makes each of these soldiers over here about one in 2,000 of our citizenry, and they certainly deserve all the support we can give them. And so again, thanks for asking the question.
And this is something the Army is grappling with and the armed forces are grappling with as we go to these extended tours. And the first thing I'd say is, you know, war's a tough business and it requires tough people. And this is when the nation needs tough people to step up and be prepared to endure hardship for their country. And every soldier over here is willing to do that. And so no one here is -- in my command no one has complained to me about this, they've just put their shoulder to the wheel and gotten after it.
Now, having said that, we are a volunteer force, and the risk here is that soldiers will be forced to choose between their families and their profession, and even though they love their profession and they love the camaraderie, and they're in very cohesive units and they feel tremendous gratification from what they're doing for the country, they can't be the kinds of husbands, wives, fathers that they want to be. I mean, that's the fundamental tension that conflicts our soldiers today. And so it's that desire to be a good husband, father, son, and how can you do that when you're not home and you're not with your family. So time with the family is the coin of the realm. And how do you do that? That's hard because as we're seeing with the length of the tours being increased, that time is more difficult.
So one of the things that is most important is predictability and some time the families can count on that they're going to be together. And so that's one of the number one things. We're looking very closely at assignment patterns so that after a certain number of deployments, a soldier could go to an assignment where he would be home every night; that's certainly important. We're looking at things like -- and so what are some of those assignments? Some of those assignments are very important as well: recruiter drill sergeant. We're increasing the size of the Army. We have to train those forces. We need good sergeants and good soldiers to go train our new recruits. So it's a very good place for a soldier who's been deployed, you know, once, twice, three times to go to; again, be home every night with his family but still do something important for the Army and the nation.
So assignment patterns are important. Time with the family is absolutely critical. I know the Army is looking at things like leave policies; as you extend tours, do you increase the amount of leave?
Educational benefits are extremely important. This is one thing that I hear a lot of my soldiers talk about. The possibility of getting in-state tuition, regardless of where they're assigned would be a tremendous benefit that soldiers I think would be very happy with. Even though they might be a resident of one state, if they wanted to send their child to another state or a state of choice or a statement of assignment, that they could get that in-state tuition benefit.
And, of course, you know people talk about more money, but it's not just about money. You know the tax-free benefit that accrues to soldiers when they're over here, certainly it helps. When soldiers go over 12 months, they get an additional thousand dollars, and that is a big deal, especially to our more junior soldiers. But it's mainly for those more senior, for the mid-level non-commissioned officers, for the officers who are having to make those tough choices, it's about time with family, and managing our personnel policies and our leave policies and things of that nature so that soldiers can spend time with their families.
I've had some junior officers, some very outstanding junior officers who are really having a tough time deciding whether to get out of the Army, and the number one thing they're concerned about is meeting someone that they want to spend the rest of their life with and be married to. You know, they want to have a wife, they want to have a family. And this Army is a values-based Army. You know, we have been very successful in recruiting into our ranks people that have got tremendous character and strong family values, and they want to be able to live those values. And it's a shame that sometimes, you know, they feel they have to choose between values as opposed to an easier choice between something that was good and something that was bad.
So to wrap it up there, Jim, great question, and I went on too long. But you know, educational benefits, time with family, you know, personnel policies, leave policies and certainly some of those financial incentives are nice as well.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, Colonel Nicholson, we have reached the end of our allotted time here, and we want to be respectful of your time. But before we close, why don't I turn it back to you in case you have anything else you'd like to share with us or any closing remarks.
COL. NICHOLSON: Sure, Bryan, thank you very much.
Again, first I just want to say to all of you in the press corps, thank you for telling the story over here in Afghanistan. You know, we certainly have a smaller American presence over here. We have the benefit of 36 other nations that we're fighting alongside. And there's tremendous gratification that comes with knowing we're part of NATO and that we're doing something so important here on behalf of the Afghan people and for the war on terror. So thank you for telling that story and listening today.
I really just have one thing to say and it's just to say, thanks to the soldiers and their families who have been the real bedrock of our strength over here. The way that in which the families of our brigade handled this extension was simply awe-inspiring. Sure, there was about 48 to 72 hours of, you know, anger, sadness, denial and the acceptance, and then they moved on with it.
The Army did a great job of getting up to Fort Drum and working with their families on helping to mitigate some of the effects of this extension. I know they're doing the same thing with the other units that are being extended as we speak. But at the end of the day, you know, there's families; there's spouses; there's children -- that are doing without their spouse, doing without their dad, doing without their mom for an extended period of time. And all I want to say is, God bless you, and I thank you very much for what you're doing, because it's a critical part of our effort. It's a critical part of the morale of our soldiers and keeping these guys focused and in the fight.
And that's all I've got. Again, thank you very much.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you, Colonel, and thank you for your service and the sacrifice of your men and women and their families at home, too. We appreciate your time and wish you a safe and speedy redeployment from Afghanistan.
COL. NICHOLSON: Thanks very much, Bryan. Take care.
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