Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Nicholson in the Pentagon Briefing Room

General John W. Nicholson Jr., commander, Resolute Support and U.S. Forces Afghanistan


 

      GENERAL JOHN W. NICHOLSON:  Good morning, everyone.  It's great to be back with you all again.  Want to thank you again for covering our mission in Afghanistan.

 

      What I'd like to do this time since my last update with you in September is really review 2016 and where we've come and a little bit about the way forward.

 

      As you know, our main objective in Afghanistan is to prevent the country from being used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack to the U.S. or our allies.  And to achieve this, we execute two missions.  First is the U.S. mission, which is a counterterrorism mission called Operation Freedom Sentinel, and second is the NATO Resolute Support Mission, which is primarily to train, advise, and assist the Afghan security forces.

 

      So in the U.S. mission, Freedom Sentinel, we're focused on CT operations for the Central Asia-South Asia region, hence the name CA-SA CT.  This counterterrorism effort has two lines of effort.  The first is unilateral, and this is where the U.S. is focused on Al Qaeda and Islamic State in particular.

 

      The second is with our Afghan special forces, whom we advise and assist as they conduct operations against these CT threats to their country.  Our shared goal with our Afghan partners is the defeat of Al Qaeda and Islamic State Khorasan inside Afghanistan.

 

      Now, there are 98 U.S.-designated terrorist groups globally.  Twenty of them are in the Af-Pak region.  This represents the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world.  Now, while some of these groups may have larger numbers in other countries, like ISIL in Syria for example, the number of groups in one region, again, is the highest concentration in the world.

 

      The -- the danger in that is that these groups mix and converge. So for example, Islamic State Khorasan today is formed of members of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and even some former members of the Afghan Taliban.

 

      So this year, our U.S. CT forces conducted operations against the enemy across the country all year.  They conducted over 350 operations against Al Qaeda and Islamic State in 2016.  Nearly 50 Al Qaeda and -- and AQIS leaders, this is Al Qaeda Indian Subcontinent.  So nearly 50 leaders from those two organizations, facilitators, key associates were killed or captured.  And when they're captured, of course, they go to the Afghan judiciary and detention system.  Additionally, about 200 other members of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda Islamic State, were killed or captured as well. Our CT forces rescued the son of the former Pakistani Prime Minister Haider Gilani in a raid against Al Qaeda in

eastern Afghanistan.

 

We have killed a total of five emirs of these terrorist groups -- of these 20 terrorist groups in Afghanistan.  On October 23, U.S. forces killed for Farouq al-Qatari, the emir of eastern Afghanistan.  He was also their external operations director.  These individuals were directly involved in planning threats against the United States in the last year.

 

      There was also the strike in Pakistan against Mullah Mansour, the emir of the Taliban and a designated U.N. terrorist.  We killed Hamidullah, the emir of the Islamic Jihad Union, and Omar Khalifa, who is the Tariq Gidar Group emir.  The Tariq Gidar Group, you'll remember, is the group that perpetuated those horrendous attacks in Pakistan against a Peshawar army school in which they killed over 130 children, and the Bacha Kan University where they killed dozens of professors and students, as well as a Pakistani air force base.

 

      With respect to ISK, we've conducted operations this year we call green sword series of operations.  They specifically have targeted this ISIL affiliate in Afghanistan.  These operations have been led by U.S. CT forces working with our Afghan allies.  These operations so far this year have killed the top 12 leaders of Islamic State Khorasan, including their emir, Hafiz Saeed Khan, back in July.

 

      They -- we reduced their force by roughly 25 to 30 percent, or roughly 500 Islamic State Khorasan casualties.

 

      About two dozen command and control facilities, training facilities were destroyed.  Financial courier networks were disrupted.  And the ISK sanctuary that once was nine districts in Afghanistan has been shrunk down to three.

 

      All of these actions are integral to our dual mission in Afghanistan.  So, on the one hand, we're focused on keeping military pressure on these networks.  Likewise, we're -- we're focused on helping the Afghan Security Forces to build their capability to defend their own country.

 

      So, as we shift now to Resolute Support, which is the train, advise, assist part of our mission, this is the largest and longest NATO operation in their history -- in our history of NATO.  It is primarily focused on training, advising and assisting the Afghan security forces.

 

      It has been particularly important as their security forces have taken over responsibility since the ISAF, or the end of 2014.  Thirty-nine nations in the coalition, or one quarter of the world's nations, have been together in the region for more than 10 years helping our Afghan partners.

 

      So, in July, at the Warsaw Summit, these nations reaffirmed their commitment to Afghanistan.  Thirty nations pledged roughly $800 million annually to support the Afghan security forces through 2020.  And we still have significant commitments to troops in Afghanistan, about 6,000 from our allies which complement the U.S. contribution.

 

      So, this essentially gives us four more years of funding, time and advising for the Afghan security forces.

 

      In October, international donors met at Brussels and expressed an intent to commit another $15.2 billion in support of developmental needs in Afghanistan.

 

      So -- so, if I were to sum all that up, I'd say that these events represent both progress and protection in terms of our way forward.

 

      So, the first we just discussed, the -- the protection through U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan, help protect our homeland and prevent future attacks against the U.S. and her allies; essentially to prevent another 9/11.

 

      The second reason we're there is progress, the evolution of the Afghan Security Forces during this past year.

 

      So, it's important to remember that five years ago, when we started building the Afghan security forces, we had about 140,000 U.S. and coalition troops in the country.  We are now down to less than one-tenth of that.  Today, it's the Afghan security forces who are responsible for securing their own country, with the assistance of our advisory and CT effort.

 

      We have seen definitive growth and progress in a couple of areas, in the last year in particular.

 

      First I would mention are the Afghan special forces.  So, 17,000 special forces, arguably the best in the region.  And they conduct about 70 percent of the Afghan Army's offensive operations.

 

      They operate independently of the U.S. about 80 percent of the time.  So, when I mention these CT operations, many -- many of those are conducted with the Afghans but the majority are conducted on their own.

 

      These troops are specially selected and trained.  This also includes a special mission wing, which is an Afghan air force wing, which is fully capable of night flying operations, goggle operations.  And they provide all the day and night helicopter support for the Afghan special forces.

 

      The Afghan air force is rapidly gaining capability as well.  They've effectively incorporated the MD-530 helicopter into their daily ops this year.  And they're now conducting most of their escort and resupply missions for the army across the country.  And this was something that previously was exclusively done by U.S. or coalition forces.

 

      So, before March of this year -- before March of 2016, the Afghan air force had no ground attack aircraft.  So, beginning in April they've added eight aircraft for this and -- and have also, more importantly, added about 120 Afghan air -- tactical air controllers.  So, not only are they adding the attack aircraft, they're adding the capability to control those aircraft on the ground.

 

      So, they ran their first A-29 strike combat mission in April, but nearly 20 air crews have been added since we began fueling this so this air force's going to continue to grow over the next years in the future.

 

      If I were to characterize how the Afghan security forces performed last year, I would say they were tested and they prevailed.  So, they were tested and they prevailed.  This year, they went into the year with a campaign plan which last year was more of a reaction to enemy activity.

 

      So, this year, they went in with a campaign plan called Operation Shafaq, executed it largely through the end of July, and then beginning in August we saw the enemy try -- made eight attempts to seize provincial capitols inside the country.  Every one of these attempts failed.

 

      So, President Ghani calls 2015 the year of survival as the government security forces did not have this coherent strategy, but 2016 was more of an anticipatory year in some respects than 2015.  So, this took the form of what we call a sustainable security strategy which the Afghans developed for this year and it -- and it identified a fight, hold, disrupt strategy so it identified areas of the population that they would hold, areas that they would fight for, and then other areas where they would do an economy of force and merely disrupt the enemy.  So, it was a very deliberate strategy.

 

      I mentioned the eight attempts to seize the cities.  This was three times in Kunduz, twice in Lashkar Gah, Helmand, twice in Tarin Kowt, and also in Farah City in Farah Province.  On the 6th of October, the Afghans faced four simultaneous attacks on their cities and they defeated each one of these attacks.

 

      This -- this ability to deal with simultaneous crises, as a military professional, I can tell you this is a sign of an army that's growing in capability, that's maturing in terms of its ability to handle simultaneity and complexity on the battlefield.

 

      So, again, this is a -- when I say they were tested, it's obvious that they were and they prevailed in terms of defending their cities and continuing to secure the majority of the population of the country.  So, shifting to that, when I look at my security assessment at the end of 2016 going forward, I believe that what we're seeing right now is what I would call an equilibrium, but one that's in favor of the government.

 

      The Afghan security forces have a hold approximately 64 percent of the population.  Now, this was down slightly from my 68 percent that I talked about in September.  The decrease has not meant more control to the Taliban.  We see them still holding less than 10 percent of the population.  More of the country -- slightly more is now contested.  So, we say they still hold roughly two-thirds of the population.  The enemy holds less than 10 percent and the balance is contested.

 

      Since the start of the Taliban's campaign in April, the Afghan security forces have prevented them from accomplishing their strategic objectives.  They've been unable to mass because of airpower, both Afghan and coalition airpower, and therefore they resorted to small-scale attacks on checkpoints around cities in attempts to isolate the cities and create panic.

 

      This did not succeed in causing any cities to fall.  They have also conducted high-profile attacks, as you're well aware, that have resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties, but the overall number of high-profile attacks is lower than last year.

 

      So, inside Kabul, for example, we had 18 high-profile attacks at this time last year attributed to the Taliban in Kabul.  This year only 12, so a reduction of about a third.  Now, we have seen a new element this year, which is Islamic State Khorasan Province conducting high-profile attacks, five or six that have occurred this year.  But again, an overall reduction in Taliban attacks.

 

      So, despite Taliban promises to safeguard civilians, the vast majority of civilian causalities have been caused by the insurgency.  Sixty-one to 72 percent, depending on which international organization you -- you use, but the statistics are compiled by UNAMA as well as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

 

      The Taliban have intentionally destroyed bridges and roadways, resulting in serious disruption of civilian trade routes and the country's economic development.  The Taliban has destroyed Afghan's infrastructure while the government seeks to build it.

 

      And so while the enemy controls slightly more terrain than before, they do not control more of the population than they did in April.  Additionally, the Afghan Security Forces have inflicted high casualties on the enemy during this year.

 

      So, as we look forward to 2017 in areas for improvement, one of the important areas is they were looking at -- or the two areas are leadership and corruption.  So, these do play some portions of the Afghan Security Forces.

 

      And what it has led to is a poor sustainment of soldiers in the field.  So, because of some ineffectiveness and corruption in the supply system, young soldiers out there on outpost don't always get the -- the -- the ammunition, the water, the food they need in order to conduct the fight.

 

      So, this is a specific area of focus over the winter that we're working closely with the Afghan leadership on.  And I've spoken very frankly to them about these issues.  I know President Ghani is very serious about addressing these issues over the winter.

 

      So, as we go into this winter campaign, the Afghan police and army will focus on replacing ineffective or corrupt leaders.  President Ghani and his administration are dedicated to this.  And they are acting quickly and systematically to make necessary leadership changes.

 

      So recently, the Afghan government arrested a senior official, a minister of interior, for bribery and suspended another for corruption.  They've referred these cases to the Anti-Corruption Justice Center, which has been newly opened this year.  And it has tried its first cases to root out corrupt government leaders and to improve the security institutions.

 

      As I look forward to the next year, one of the things we're most concerned about in terms of risks.

 

      Now, in addition to improving the corruption and leadership situation, we also obviously are concerned about the -- the stability of the Afghan government going forward.  I know you all have been tracking closely with the ongoing political evolution.  You know, my message to our Afghan partners and members of the political opposition is that we respect your political process, but please don't allow that process to undermine security gains, which have been made this year at such great cost.

 

      And one possible risk of Afghan political instability is a fracture, but we have not seen this happen within the security forces.

 

      Second concern would be the -- the malign influence of external actors and particularly Pakistan, Russia, and Iran.  And we're concerned about the external enablement of the insurgent or terrorist groups inside Afghanistan, in particular where they enjoy sanctuary or support from outside governments.

 

      Finally, we're concerned about the convergence of these terrorist groups.  I mentioned the 20 groups, 13 in Afghanistan, seven in Pakistan.  The -- the morphing of these groups into more virulent strains or the -- the fact that sometimes they cooperate and then the hole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

 

      These groups participate from a complimentary alliances or capabilities and networks, and required continuous pressure on them to prevent them from becoming something worse than they already are.

 

      We also, obviously, track very closely the non-security factors which effect Afghanistan's future.  And again, we're encouraged by the $15.2 billion pledged from the Brussels conference.  And I know this will go to focus on the Afghan economy.  We closely track their population growth and demographics.

 

      The impact of a narcotics trade on the insurgency in the economy is a concern.  Corruption, again, and of course Taliban reconciliation and reintegration -- or reconciliation and reintegration of any of the belligerents. And so while we don't directly control or influence these factors as a security lead, they all have an impact on the success of our mission going forward.

 

      So, in conclusion, the capable Afghan security forces and a continued U.S. CT presence will help us protect our homeland and that of our allies from terrorist attacks and any other disruption emanating from the region.  A secure Afghanistan, coupled with regional and international development efforts also helps ensure regional stability.

 

      We are stabilizing what was once a deteriorating situation and have the international support to progress even further in the coming years.  The Afghan leadership remains focused on the future as the men and women of the security forces fight daily for a safe and stable Afghanistan.

 

      Their resolve is bolstered by our continued commitment.  We have great partners and President Ghani and the leaders of the security ministries.  And we enjoy a close working relationship going forward.

 

      Our dedication to them sends a clear message to the enemies of piece and stability in Afghanistan, and the world frankly, that they will not win.  It lets the people of Afghanistan know that we are with them to help them realize their future.  And with the result of the Warsaw Summit we have four more years of commitment and support to help them enable that progress and protection.

 

      So again, thanks for covering the story.  I look forward to your questions.

 

      STAFF:  We'll start with Idrees Ali from Reuters.

 

      Q:  Hey, general.  I appreciate your point about the Afghan forces being able to repel attacks on the cities.  But the fact is that it seems to be happening far more often than it did before.

 

      And after 15 years of war, you know, hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars spent, life lost, how is that acceptable that we repelled attacks rather than, you know, there weren't any attacks?  I mean, how is that acceptable after 15 years?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Well, it's important to remember how far we -- we've come in 15 years, Idrees.

 

      So, a few years ago you had 140,000 coalition forces in the country and a growing Afghan security force.  So, in less than five years we've grown them to 300,000 troops and shrunk our presence down to less than 1/10th of what it once was.

 

      So, this -- this military -- this security force is attempting to grow itself while fighting a very difficult war.  And I think your -- your point is, we -- we saw an uptick in terms of, you know, there was attack on Kunduz that occurred in 2015.  They briefly took the city, the Afghans retook it.

 

      This year, eight attacks on cities, all of them failed.  So, in our view this is a sign of real progress.  The ability to deal with multiple simultaneous crises around the country.  Remember, this is an insurgency that still enjoys sanctuary and support from outside the country, that's very difficult for the Afghans to defeat.

 

      But they are taking the responsibility for their security.  They're the ones fighting the fight with our training and advising and assistance.  And that's a significant difference from when we began this 15 years ago -- or even just two years ago with the end of ISAF.

 

      Q:  Do you think there need -- need to be more NATO troops and is that something you would recommend to the incoming administration?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  The -- the -- the NATO command -- first off, important to remember, 39 nations in this coalition, in Afghanistan.  So, we have strong international commitment.  We go through every six months, on the NATO side, a review of our progress and recommendations for the future.

 

      So, in the time I've been in command, I've submitted these recommendations twice.  And this is continually reviewed by the alliance.

 

      And my assessment of our current capabilities, we have adequate resources to conduct this mission at a moderate level of risk going forward.  And then again, this is acceptable for what we need to conduct.

 

      I can't speak for the alliance or the U.S. administration on any decisions they might make about the -- about the situation going forward.

 

      STAFF:  Next we'll go with Thomas Watkins from Agence France-Presse.

 

      Q:  Hello, general.

 

      We -- we saw you recently at Resolute Support.  Good to see you again.

 

      The question that came up there was the number of Afghan casualties, and at the time you were saying you're tracking about 20 percent over last year.  SIGAR then released a report, a few days after we left actually, that said that they gave the number through August 19 of 5,523.  Do you have, like, year to date numbers that you can give us?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Those -- those numbers that SIGAR uses, they come from the Afghan government, who provide them to us and then we -- we provide them to SIGAR.  So, what -- what I would be able to offer you, Thom, is simply whatever the Afghan government has said.

 

      So, we'd be -- we'd be happy to get you the latest figures that we can from them on that, but -- but essentially I have nothing to add to what -- what you've already seen.

 

      And -- and again, those figures are coming directly from the Afghan government.

 

      I might offer, if you reach out directly to them, they might be able to provide you some greater clarity, but we'll certainly follow up as well.

 

      Q:  And then, just a second question if I may, Afghanistan got scarcely any kind of mention during the election cycle, during the campaign.  Have you received any reassurance from the incoming administration about where they see Afghan -- Afghanistan as a priority?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Well, I outlined the policy going forward.  Of course, it's counterterrorism and training, advising, and assisting the Afghan security forces.  It's a very, very sound policy.  This is the course that we're on, and I know that's what this administration will hand off to the next administration.

 

      STAFF:  Next to Joe Tabet from Al Hurrah.

 

      Q:  Thank you, sir.

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Hi, Joe.

 

      Q:  In your opening statement, you have mentioned Russia and Iran.  Would you please elaborate more about what type -- what's the nature of the Russian and the Iranian influence in Afghanistan?  Have you seen any evidence that they are linked to any terrorist group in the country?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Thanks for asking that, Joe.

 

      So, Russia has overtly lent legitimacy to the Taliban.  And their narrative goes something like this:  that the Taliban are the ones fighting Islamic State, not the Afghan government.  And of course, as I just outlined for you, the Afghan government and the U.S. counterterrorism effort are the ones achieving the greatest effect against Islamic State.

 

      So, this public legitimacy that Russia lends to the Taliban is not based on fact, but it is used as a way to essentially undermine the Afghan government and the NATO effort and bolster the belligerents.

 

      So, it's not helpful.  And it's something that the Afghan government has addressed with Russia.

 

      Shifting to Iran, the -- you have a similar situation.  There have been linkages between the Iranians and the Taliban in the past.  This might have been based, you know, upon hedging strategies concerned about the outcome.

 

      I know the Afghan government's engaged in a dialogue with the Iranian government over this issue.  But many other equities.  So as a neighbor, they have other equities, such as water rights, trade, as well as a security situation.

 

      We're hopeful -- speaking now as commander Resolute Support -- that these outside actors will act in a positive way, so we can work together to help bolster the capability and legitimacy of the Afghan government, not the belligerents.

 

      And so, this -- and again, let me finish where I started.  The -- the Afghan government and the U.S. counterterrorism effort are the ones taking on Islamic State inside Afghanistan, ensuring that we reduce their capability, reduce their enclave so that as pressure is applied against Islamic State and Syria, they do not see Afghanistan as a place that they can move to because that enclave will be reduced and defeated within the next year.

 

      Q:  Quick follow up, sir.  Have you seen any relations between the Islamic State in Afghanistan and ISIS in Syria?  Any -- any flow of foreign fighters into Afghanistan from Syria?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  We do see a connection.  Islamic State Khorasan is a -- is a recognized affiliate of the central Islamic State in Syria.  So, they apply for membership, they receive this, they pledge their fealty to al-Baghdadi.  Hafitz Saeed Khan, who we killed in July, went through the application process, if you will.

 

      They were acknowledged and recognized in ISIL's publication, Dabiq.  So, we've seen support provided to them in terms of advice, in terms of -- of publicity, and -- and some financial support.  We have not seen fighters move to Afghanistan.  And of course, as I mentioned by defeating Islamic State Khorasan inside Afghanistan, Afghanistan will not be a safe haven for any Islamic State fighters that leave Syria.

 

      STAFF:  Next, Jennifer Griffin with Fox News.

 

      Q:  Thank you.

 

      Sir, can we get your reaction to the announcement that General Mattis is the pick for the next Defense Secretary.  Is there anything you can tell us about him?  Any personal anecdotes, something we may not know about him.

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yes, I've known General Mattis for 10 years.  In fact, I first met him in Afghanistan.  He's highly respected across the ranks and so we all congratulate him.  I -- I don't want to obviously make any comment.  He's got to go -- he will go through a confirmation process as far as, you know, any policy issues going forward that would be a matter for the transition team.

 

      Q:  Any particular story about him that you'd like to relate?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Well, he's a soldier's soldier, a Marine's Marine.  I'm sure that's what he would say.  And again, I first met him in Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan while we were in a tough fight in 2006, and he's a very inspirational leader.  And I know he inspired me as a soldier on the ground as we talked about that very tough fight in those days.  And again, we wish him the best of luck and say congratulations.

 

      Q:  And if I could just follow up.  Could I get your reaction, what effect did President-elect Trump's praise of Nawaz Sharif during recent phone call have on your efforts to engage with the Afghans and to fight against the Taliban?  We both know the Pakistanis over the years have supported the Haqqani group, which have killed U.S. troops in Afghanistan.  What effect did that conversation have on you?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Well, of course I can't speak for the transition team and the transition effort, I refer you to them for anything having to do with that.  I -- I look forward to meeting the new Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General -- or General Bajwa.  I'll meet him upon my return to -- to the region here next week.

 

      And there are many areas of mutual cooperation with the Pakistanis with respect to the border, our joint efforts against terrorism and so forth.  And so, we're looking forward to working closely with them going -- going forward.

 

      Q:  Have the Haqqani attacks gone down or up in the last year?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  The Haqqanis still pose the greatest threat to Americans and to our -- to our coalition partners and to the Afghans.  And the Haqqanis hold five American citizens hostage right now.  I think this is worth remembering as we think about the Haqqani network.  And they remain a principal concern of ours.  And they -- and they do enjoy sanctuary inside Pakistan.

 

      STAFF:  Courtney Kube, NBC News.

 

      Q:  Actually Joe Tabet asked my question, but if I can ask just a little bit more about the malign influence issue, what is the -- has there been any practical -- Russia's lending legitimacy to the Taliban, has there been any practical or sort of tangible reaction or response to that in Afghanistan that you can point to?

 

      Can you explain a little bit more about how that and how Iran's, you know -- what exactly Iran was doing to support the Taliban and how that has had any kind of real impact on the ground for you.

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Well, any external enablement of an insurgency is going to sustain that fight.  You know, if -- if the insurgency was in Afghanistan exclusively and that didn't have external bases, it would be a different nature to that -- to the conflict.  Obviously external support enables and strengthens them and -- and I mentioned a legitimacy piece that we're concerned about.

 

      So, I think the legitimacy piece is an important factor.  It's important to remember that the Afghan population, 87 percent of the Afghan population think Taliban rule would be bad for the country.  Roughly the same percentage support the Afghan security forces.  So, it's important to remember that the Taliban are not welcome by the people of Afghanistan.

 

      So, when these external actors, be it Russia or Iran, publicly legitimize a movement that's not supported by the people, they're not advancing the cause of stability in the region.

 

      So, this -- this to us is what we all want.  We want a stable, prosperous, secure Afghanistan.  We think this will be positive for the region and so we would hope that actors, like the ones I mentioned, would support that instead of legitimizing a belligerence.

 

      Q:  What do you think Russia's motive is for doing that?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Well, certainly there's a competition with NATO, but I don't want to conjecture as to what Russia's motives are.  We just would like to see a change in their behavior in terms of not legitimizing the enemy.

 

      Q:  And this is one of things from your opening statement.  You mentioned that the high casualty that the enemy has -- been inflicted upon the enemy by the Afghans this year.  Do you have any numbers?  How many enemy --

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  I don't have any numbers for you but we know they have suffered very high casualties.

 

      STAFF:  Ryan Browne, CNN.

 

      Q:  Hello general, thank you for doing this.

 

      I actually have a couple of follow-ups, one quickly on -- you mentioned that the 17,000 member of the Afghan special forces were conducting I think 70 percent of operations.  I mean there's been reports that --

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Offensive.

 

      Q:  Offensive operations.  I mean is that, you know, that's a pretty small, relative to the size of the ANA, that's a pretty small force.  I mean is there a little bit of worry about whether they can sustain that?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yeah, so the Afghan special forces are again, specially selected and trained.  We are concerned about that and for that reason, during the winter campaign, the regeneration effort focuses on our Afghan special forces.  And also in discussions with President Ghani and his security ministers, we're looking at the growth of the Afghan special forces over the coming years.  Of course the key with any special forces is maintaining the high quality.

 

      So, it's not something you want to rush but when we look at the years provided in the Warsaw commitments of four years, we believe we can help to grow the special forces so that they can sustain and actually increase the tempo of operations going forward.  This year, with 10 commando battalions, or kandaks, they were able to successfully defend these eight attempts against cities and to conduct offensive operations against the Taliban in a number of areas.

 

      So, as we increase the number of commandos and special forces, not only will they be able to defend the sovereignty of the country, but they'll also be able to relegate the enemy to more remote areas of the country.

 

      So this combination of increased special forces and the growth in the size and capability of the air force will give the Afghan security forces an offensive punch that they don't have right now or -- or I should say, they have in a smaller quantity, and this will grow over the coming years, and we'll really begin to change the nature of the fight.

 

      Q:  Just to follow up on that, whether it's the officers academy, which I know you just visited out in Karga, or -- or, you know, you -- you discussed the resources right now being adequate for a moderate level of risk.

 

      Would additional resources, trainers from either NATO or the United States -- how could that reduce the level of risk?  And could you be able to do these kinds of things, which is improve the leadership problems you were talking about through the officers’ academy, or grow this -- the number of kandaks in the special forces?

 

      I mean, it would seem like more trainers, more resources would help, kind of, move that process along.

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  So, the -- the force-generation cycle, we call it, for NATO is a semi-annual process.  So, every six months I support a report and I lay this out.  And you've touched on all the issues.  So, we lay these out, we go to the alliance and say "Here's the capabilities we need."

 

      In fact, we saw some nations increase their commitments.  The Germans, the Italians, and some of the others have increased their commitments.  And -- and they're targeting some of these specific areas that we talked about.

 

      For example, in Karga we have the ANOA which the British provide.  The -- the -- an excellent advising capability for that.

 

      We've seen other -- for example, the Germans recently added an expeditionary advising package for Kunduz to assist the 20th Division.

 

      We have reorganized our U.S. advisory structure, so as we are transitioning from 9,800 to 8,450 this month, we're -- we're actually reorganizing as we transition to spread our advisers out to cover some of these issues.  So, we're adding training teams and sustainment teams in each of the corps in the American zones of responsibility.

 

      So, this is going to enable us to then refine and target the specific areas where we need help.

 

      One of the biggest areas in terms of leadership is the central -- a centralized, merit-based selection process.  So, President Ghani, under his leadership, has established, along with Chief Executive Abdullah, a method for more centrally controlled, merit-based selection.

 

      So, this process is actually being put together right now.  The first example of that was the selection of the new sergeant major of the army for the Afghan Army, Sergeant Major of the Army Chamkani who replaced Sergeant Major of the Army Roshan.

 

      And so, this was a merit-based process which -- where many outstanding candidates came in, their files were reviewed, they interviewed with a panel of leaders from across the security forces, one was selected, president approved it.

 

      This -- this process was very, very important, because it was a -- it wasn't a decision made by one individual or two individuals, it was actually a very open, transparent process.

 

      President Ghani praised this process; he wants to apply this to the whole army.  We're going to begin using that here in the coming year with them to enable a merit-based selection process.

 

      Another -- another dimension is the proper placement of graduates of the school that you mentioned.

 

      So, soldiers graduate from ANOA.  They're new lieutenants; making sure they get to the right units where they're needed, instead of maybe going back to an administrative assignment in Kabul instead.  And so getting -- getting these properly trained leaders to the point where they'll be most effective is extremely important.

 

      So, I didn't mention these in my opening remarks because I'm taking it into the weeds a little bit on the details, but these are the kind of details we're working with the Afghans.

 

      So, a lot of it is -- is really saying "What did we learn?  What do we need to fix?" using our existing advisory structure to do it, and then where we need -- we want to augment, I try to reorganize the resources I have or we go back to the nations and we ask for more.

 

      STAFF:  Thomas Gibbons-Neff from the Washington Post.

 

      Q:  Hi sir, thanks for doing this.

 

      A couple questions.  First one, kind of talk about in the last few months we had green on blue, small arms KIA and a suicide bomb on a -- or a suicide vest in Bagram.

 

      Going to the earlier this -- or early November, you've have two Green Berets killed in – (inaudible) -- in Kunduz, and a couple of air strikes that presumably killed a large number of civilians.  Can you kind of talk about, in your own words, what happened there?

 

      There was also some reports that the Afghan commandos who you were -- you were talking about at the beginning of your statement were routed or abandoned their positions with the Green Berets.

 

      And then I have a -- a follow-up about the Air Force.

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Okay, so, on the specific incidents you mentioned, Tom, the -- those are under investigation.  And we'll certainly share the results of that when we're complete.  But any comments I make right now would be getting in front of those investigations.

 

      The -- the issue on Bagram is being -- is being examined.  I would -- I would say right off the bat, as soon as that incident occurred, we undertook a complete review of our force protection measures around the country, especially in terms of local national contract employees.  And that -- that's -- this individual's a local national contractor.

 

      So, we are re-vetting and rescreening all those individuals before they are able to resume their positions, and reviewing all -- all of our procedures.  So, there's nothing more important to us than force protection.

 

      It's right up there with accomplishment of the missions that I outlined.  So, we're looking at this very closely.

 

      And again, as we -- as we complete those investigations, we'll be sharing the results of those.  You -- you asked about the commando attack in CIVCAS.  As you know, we take every possible effort to avoid civilian casualties.

 

      On this -- I believe the -- the incident you're -- you're mentioning recently, I made a statement within 48 hours -- 48, 72 hours of the incident that we believe it was likely that there were civilian causalities and that we're investigating that.  So, we're doing a joint investigation with the Afghans.

 

      Again, that result -- those results will be available soon and we'll release those.

 

      I would comment though on that, the -- some of the initial results of that investigation showed that the enemy was fighting from civilian homes.  And so our forces -- and when I say "our", I mean the Afghan Special Forces and the American advisers who were with them -- in self-defense, responded to those fires.  And we believe that may -- maybe of one of the civilian casualties occurred.

 

      But, it was self-defense.  And it was self-defense because the Taliban were fighting from civilian homes.  So, the Afghan government came out strongly to the Taliban please stop doing this.  Don't endanger civilians.  It is counter to the Taliban's public message as of April.  In Operation Omari, they say they would try to reduce civilian casualties.

 

      Yet here, they were fighting from civilian homes which invited a response and self-defense, which then may have contributed to civil casualties.  So, that's -- that's point number one.

 

      There were dozens of Taliban killed or injured in that fight.  It was a significant fight.  Again, I don't want to get too far into the details.  But that was a preemptive strike by the Afghan Special Forces against an -- a Taliban enclave that could have been used for another attack on Kunduz City -- attack which never materialized.

 

      So, I think it's important to remember those couple of points.  Taliban endangering civilians by how they're fighting, Afghan Special Forces taking the fight to the enemy preemptively to prevent an attack on Kunduz, and then again, because of the way the Taliban fought, unnecessarily endangering civilians is what was a contributing factor to the incident.

 

      Q:  And the second question on the -- the Afghan Air Force, talking about how that's kind of a capability you guys are constantly building and heavy relied on the MI-17 fleet by far, the most experienced fleet in the Afghan Air Force.  And there's been some reports that you'll -- you'll be replacing them with Black Hawks.

 

      How does that kind of factor into keeping this force going forward without taking two steps back?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Right.  So the -- the -- as you know, the decisions on the MI-17s were made prior to Crimea, prior to Ukraine, prior to the international sanctions on that.  So the Afghans traditionally had a core of MI-17 pilots who were trained on the airframe and some of them very experienced.  So early before Crimea, Ukraine, before sanctions, there was international support for continuing with Russian-made airframes.

 

      That all changed after 2014 and after those sanctions were imposed.  So the issue now is the sustainment of that -- of that fleet to continue while we field a new fleet.  President Obama forwarded to the Hill a request and the supplemental for purchase of UH-60 alpha model helicopters.  So these helicopters will be modified with an improved drivetrain transmission so to enable them to operate better in the environment up there.  But it will involve a transition for the pilots.

 

      So in addition to the equipment that's being purchased -- so it's not just the UH-60, it's also more A-29s, more MD-530s.  So an increased close air support capability, an increased lift capability and then a transition program for the pilots and for the maintainers.  So I already mentioned in my opening remarks about the -- fielding 120 Afghan tactical air controllers, so they're out in the field able to start doing this.

 

      So it's a -- it's a comprehensive program to not only get the airframes there, but the -- but the pilots trained, the maintainers trained, the -- the attacks trained so that we'll field a complete capability.  And then -- and then during this period, we need to sustain the MI-17s long enough to bridge through this period.  So we're getting help from some allies on this and partners on the this, the Australians, others are helping to fund maintenance on the MI-17s to -- to enable them to bridge this period until the UH-60s are fielded.

 

      Q:  But ideally, they'd want to keep the MI-17s, correct, because this is a step back as far as having to retrain pilots?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Well, the MI-17s are a great airframe that the Afghans use and they're comfortable with.  The -- the issue's gonna be the ability to maintain them.  And so this -- so maintaining the airframe -- you know, keeping the airframe in the inventory but not being able to maintain it was not -- would not be positive.  And so the -- the Afghan government has gone to the Russians and asked for their assistance in this.  The Russians have not provided it.

 

      And -- and so the Afghan government solicited from them help with maintaining these airframes.  They haven't -- they have not agreed to do it.  And because of the sanctions on Russia, the maintenance of this fleet's gonna be very difficult.

 

      STAFF:  Kristina Wong from the Hill?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Hi, Kristina.

 

      Q:  Hi.  Good to see you, general.

 

      With a lot of -- with still a large number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and a continuing fight with the Taliban for the foreseeable future, do you think there's room for adjustment of the rules of engagement or do you think that's -- you don't think that that's necessary at this -- at this time?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Well, in June, President Obama gave me additional authorities.  It was called strategic effects, but what it -- what it amounted to was that I can use U.S. combat enablers to support the Afghans in offensive operations.  Previously, we could use U.S. combat enablers to prevent a defeat.  Now, we can use them to enable them to take the initiative and go on the offense.

 

      So these authorities we've used every day since -- since they were authorized.  So these authorities are extremely important and they give us what we need to do our mission on the ground.  They -- the U.S. troops always have -- if they are in an advisory capability or an advisory role and they find themselves in a situation such as I was discussing with Tom, where they're threatened or under fire, they always have the right of self-defense.  So, there's no restriction at all on the ability of our soldiers to defend themselves if they need to.  And then with these additional authorities to assist the Afghans, we've been able to make good progress.

 

      So, we -- we think these authorities are very important for us -- for our ability to do our job going forward.

 

      Q:  So, you don't think it's necessary to further loosen those rules of engagement?  There are some in Congress who are pushing for that.

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  I think -- I think the -- I think the package of authorities that we have is adequate for us to do our job and so we'd like to continue to be able to use those authorities going forward.

 

      STAFF:  Corey Dickstein from Stars and Stripes.

 

      Q:  Thank you sir.

 

      (CROSSTALK)

 

      Q:  Can you tell us where -- where in Afghanistan the Taliban has gained some new territory?  And then can you tell us a little bit about what's going on in the Helmand Province since you were last here?  Do we still have U.S. advisers down there?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Right, so -- in the areas that are -- where the Taliban -- and I'll just take it back to those statistics I quoted up front.  So we assess less than 10 percent control or heavily influenced.  These are more remote areas, not the populated areas.  So, the Afghan strategy was to focus on the -- on the most densely populated areas, to hold them or fight to defend them, hence the fights around the cities.

 

      And so the areas of the -- that we would call more remote, or less populated, and as a general -- as a general observation, that's where the Taliban are more likely to be found.  So, in the case of Helmand, the enemy has fought hard for Helmand.  Why?

 

      Because they receive much of their funding from the narcotics trafficking that occurs out of Helmand.  As you know, Helmand produces a significant amount of the opium globally that turns into heroin and is -- and this provides about 60 percent of the Taliban funding, we believe.

 

      So, the control of these areas is very important to the Taliban.  They tax the farmers, they tax the narcotics traffickers and this is how they derive their revenue.  So, this -- so there's a nexus here between the insurgency and criminal networks that's occurring in Helmand that makes Helmand such a difficult fight.  I think it's important for observers of this to you know, don't -- I would suggest you don't look exclusively through the lens, of you know, Taliban versus government.

 

      But in the case of Helmand, consider there's more going on here, especially with the criminal enterprises that have been profiting enormously from the opium production.  So, what we see in Helmand then are these criminal networks coupled with insurgents fighting to retain their freedom of action to continue to make money.  And so this has been a big part of what's going on.  And then the money that’s generated from the opium industry is what fuels the insurgency and why we see so much fighting going on in Helmand. This is my personal observation having been there a few years.  So I think that's part of what we're seeing going on there and then the other -- the other areas where we see the Taliban try to extend their influence are areas where there's mining or other things where they can extract revenue, so when you look at opium cultivation, mining, extortion and kidnapping.

 

      This is how this movement funds itself.  So again, it's revealing about the true nature of the Taliban.  And the way that -- and the way they rely on criminal networks and these kinds of activities.  Drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion, to raise money and this really reveals who they really are.

 

      STAFF:  I'm -- I'm sorry, we're about out of time.  Go real quick.

 

      Q:  The training mission in Helmand, I think it's the 215th Corps, if --

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  The 215th Corps.

 

      Q:  How has that progressed?  How -- how --

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Well, yes, a very tough fight.  So, they're in the fight and we're trying to -- so, what you -- what we did last year as -- as you probably – (inaudible) -- so, at the end of the fighting season, because of high casualties, we did a regeneration effort with six of their kandaks -- six of their battalions.

 

      We brought them in, new personnel, new equipment, maintain their equipment, get them back in the fight.  We're going through a similar process this year.  That started this week.  So, we have companies coming off the battlefield, they go into the base, they get replacements, new weapons, refurbish their equipment and they get back in the fight.

 

      So, this -- we're calling this process force regeneration.  This is the centerpiece of our winter campaign.  The winter campaign will run for the next four months and that's roughly the time last year we took to regenerate the -- this didn't come up, but what we see in terms of recruitment, recruitment has roughly stayed -- kept pace with losses, plus or minus, but -- but roughly.

 

      So, this is enabling them to make this system effective and then by focusing on the supply and procurement system and fixing the corruption and diversion that goes on in there so that supplies get to the troops and they can regenerate.  This is the main focus in the winter.  Helmand continues to be a top concern as does Uruzgan.

 

      So, these are the two areas we'll continue to watch closely as we go through the winter.

 

      Q:  Thank you, general.  We --

 

      (Inaudible)

 

      MODERATOR:  If he wants to, we can do it.

 

      Q:  General, since early October, 11 Americans have been killed in action in Afghanistan in combat.  What message does it send the enemy that this January the United States is going to withdraw more than a thousand troops?  Is it sending the wrong message?

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  The -- first off, our condolences go out to all those families.  These American heroes who have -- who have given their lives in Afghanistan.  It's been a long fight, 15 years.  But I think it's one we got to remember this -- their actions, their sacrifice are protecting our homeland.  The 9/11 attacks emanated from this region.

 

      Al Qaeda, the group that did that, is still there; reduced significantly.  Their leaders have been killed.  You know, Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011.  We just killed -- killed Faruq al Qatari, who was working on external operations.  So, the presence, the sacrifice of Americans in Afghanistan continues to protect the homeland.

 

      And when you think about the height of our commitment there are 100,000 troops to now being down to 9,800 troops.  One-tenth of what -- of what it once was.  The forces that we have are adequate for us to do the mission.  I would point out that we can draw upon additional capabilities as we require them from over the horizon.

 

      We have done this numerous times this year to do these counter terrorism operations, for example, against Islamic State or against Al Qaeda.  We can call forward additional forces as required to go after these forces.

 

      So, I think that the message that I would ask that people remember is that the daily service and sacrifice of our service members over there is protecting our homeland from not only al Qaeda, but also the rest of these 20 terrorists who -- who threaten all Americans.

 

      Thank you.

 

      Q:  Thank you, general.  Thank you for taking the time to do this and Godspeed as you head back to theater.

 

      GEN. NICHOLSON:  Thanks very much.

 

      Thanks, everyone, look forward to seeing some of you in theater.

 

      Take care.

 

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