Department Of Defense Press Briefing By Lieutenant General Cripwell via teleconference from Afghanistan on the Resolute Support train, advise and assist mission

Lt. Gen. Richard J. Cripwell (U.K. Army), deputy commander, NATO's Resolute Support Mission


STAFF:  Okay, good morning, everyone.  Good morning, everyone.

Sir, are -- are you there?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL RICHARD J. CRIPWELL:  Yeah, I'm here.

STAFF:  Thank you very much, sir.

So today's briefing should last approximately 30 minutes.  Today, we have Resolute Support Mission -- Mission's duty commander, Lieutenant General Richard Cripwell of Great Britain, to provide an update on R.S.'s train, advise and assist mission.

And with that, sir, the floor is yours.

GEN. CRIPWELL:  Well, thank you very much, indeed.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

And I should just confirm that I'm the deputy commander of R.S., not the duty commander.  I'm not aware that there is such a position.

But I'm privileged today to be representing the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission, and I'm delighted to have the chance to give you an update on the situation here in Afghanistan.

I know last week that you heard from the U.S. SFAB commander, Colonel Jackson, who gave you a focus on activity at the tactical level.

My intention is to speak to you about the ceasefire, first of all, at least to the extent that I can, from a Resolute Support perspective; and then to take the opportunity, as a non-U.S. officer, to give you an insight into the work of the 39-nation coalition, training, advising and assisting to ensure that Afghanistan's security institutions are fit for the future.

So turning first to the ceasefire, we saw some remarkable scenes here over the weekend.  For the first time in a generation, the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban participated in a ceasefire over Eid, one that was observed by both sides.  You'll have seen the pictures of Afghan soldiers and Taliban fighters embracing and shaking hands, and government representatives and Taliban leaders were seen praying together.

Although the Taliban ceasefire has now ended, President Ghani's decision to extend the government ceasefire and reiterate his offer of unconditional talks shows just how serious the desire for peace is here in Afghanistan.  Your own secretary of state, Secretary Pompeo, was the first to declare support for the president's offer.  We are, of course, disappointed that the Taliban decided not to continue, and chose instead to return to war.  But we are fully behind the Afghan government, and Resolute Support will continue to honor the government's ceasefire as long as it endures.

Now, to turn to the Resolute Support Mission itself, you will, I hope, be familiar with the three pressures that President Ghani believes will ultimately bring the Taliban to the table:  social pressure, which is clearly growing in the run-up to the election; diplomatic pressure from NATO, the U.N. and the entire international community; and lastly, military pressure.  And Resolute Support is squarely focused on the latter pressure.

But NATO isn't here to do this ourselves.  As I intimated earlier, our focus is on building capability to show that the Afghan security forces can deliver effective, targeted military pressure, to protect and secure their population and to create the conditions for an inclusive political settlement.  We are doing that through the train-advise-assist mission, and are supporting our Afghan counterparts at every level.

We are helping at the most senior levels, what I would like to call institutional development.  We have Resolute Support military advisers meeting regularly with Afghan leaders in the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior and the National Security Council, helping to deliver reform, to tackle corruption, and to make tough decisions in the interests of national security.

We are also helping at the structural level to fundamentally redesign, and to produce a different sort of army; one that is capable, one that is professional, and in the long run, one that is affordable for the Afghan government.  With support from Resolute Support, old leaders have been retired and placed -- and replaced with younger, more capable officers, promoted on merit, and rigorously held to account for their leadership ability.

My own country, the United Kingdom, along with Denmark, Australia and New Zealand, oversee, for example, the training of over a thousand new officers, male and female, per year at the Afghan National Army's officer academy.

And then finally, as you heard last week, we're also helping at the tactical level, supporting the ANDSF on the ground.

You heard about the impact the SFAB has, as I said, but we are also mentoring the Afghan Air Force, which is becoming more capable and more professional by the day, providing support to the Afghan ground forces.

Our seven Resolute Support commands, four of them lead by the U.S. and the remaining three by Germany, Italy and Turkey, provide the same mentorship at the corps level, ensuring the best possible leadership and decision-making.

I've seen for myself how resilient the security forces now are, despite the challenging circumstances they find themselves in.  So far this year, they have defended over 80 percent of the district centers attacked by the enemy.  They are getting better all the time, they are more resilient and at the highest level they are clear on how they see their future.

All of this is delivered through a true team effort in the collation of 39 nations.  Even the newest member of NATO, Montenegro, assists with the protection of advisers in the north of the country and has done for many years.

I clearly don't have time this morning to mention every ally and partner, but the collective effort is considerable, enduring and beneficial to the long-term development of government institutions and the security forces themselves.

Right now, I truly believe that we stand on the edge of opportunity here in Afghanistan.  There are clear signs of change.

We've seen the first Eid ceasefire since 2001.  The security forces, army and police are more capable, more professional and are better lead than ever before.  The country's preparing for national, parliamentary and next year presidential elections, which in turn will give a clear voice to the Afghan people who are clearly committed to peace.

International support for Resolute Support remains strong.  NATO is increasing the mission by 3,000 troops this year, and the NATO summit in Brussels in three weeks time will be the opportunity to again publicly declare the long-term commitment of the coalition in both funding and in military capability to the future of this mission.

I firmly believe that the continued commitment of all 39 nations, in concert with the South Asia Strategy, is working.  But it is also clear that we have to stay the course.

To provide some sense of the work the coalition is doing, perhaps on a more broad level than you have heard before.

We are clear that Resolute Support is here to help the Afghans to deliver the military pressure that brings the Taliban to the table.  The ways in which we do that are varied:  through institutional development, through our advisers to the Afghan government, through our assistance to reforming the Afghan police and army, and right down to tactical advice and support from our streets to the field.

We all believe here that Afghanistan and all of its citizens deserve security and a lasting peace.

And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I am very happy to take your questions.

STAFF:  All right.

So, ladies and gentlemen, before we get started, for all questions please provide full name and your agency.  We'll allow everyone to have up to two follow-ups for each question.

And the first one we'll bring it for Reuters.  Go ahead.

Q:  Sure, Idrees from Reuters here.

Question about the ceasefire.  Now that the Taliban is obviously carrying out attacks, do you still feel optimistic that it -- you know, it could work in the future?  Do you expect the Taliban to, sort of, come back to the table or -- I mean, how do you see this playing out?  Because the optimism's there, but I'm not seeing the Taliban re-engaging in any way in any sort of ceasefire in the future.

GEN. CRIPWELL:  Thanks very much indeed for that question.

As for what can happen in the future, clearly I don't have a crystal ball for that.  But I cannot understate the sense of optimism that is in the country at the moment.

The president made an extraordinarily courageous statement of ceasefire before Eid.  That was matched by, in a sense, their own statement from the Taliban.  And the scenes here in Kabul would certainly give anybody a hope that the ceasefire is possible in the future.

Q:  Right.  But the scenes in western Afghanistan I think, where 30 soldiers were killed would probably, sort of, shatter that optimism.

What is your optimism based on, other than this three-day ceasefire?  Is there anything else beyond that that, sort of, gives you a sense of optimism?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  I think it's not just the -- the ceasefire, but the manner in which it played out over the weekend.  It really was extraordinary to see the Taliban laying down their weapons, coming into Kabul, intermingling with the security forces.  We know that there were governors going to prayers with Taliban leaders.

These things would have been unimaginable only a week ago, and I think it's scenes like that that gives us optimism for the future.

Q:  (Off mic), I think there was a story out of the region that we've been citing officials, saying they were actually concerned that the Taliban coming into the centers and cities had given them an opportunity to scope out targets and it was actually -- that's why they were in the cities.

Have you seen any, sort of, intelligence reporting on that?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  No, I've seen no reporting on -- you know, I've seen the reports in the media and so on, but I've seen no reports of military-like activity.

Candidly, the Taliban that came into Kabul on Saturday seems to be more focused on taking selfies, going to the barber, buying ice cream and things like that.  I saw no evidence of any other military activity.

STAFF:  All right, for the next question we'll go to Military Times.

Q:  Thank you, Tara Copp, Military Times.

Just to follow up on Idrees' question, you know, how can the Taliban be serious about your sense of optimism, you know, if they follow up immediately with this type of attack?  How do you balance those two statements?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  I'm not going to speak to the Taliban's sense of optimism or anything else.

All I can tell you is what I see.  I see enormously courageous steps taken by the government of Afghanistan to bring about peace in their country, one in which we are fully supportive.

What the Taliban do is a matter for them.

Q:  Okay.

And then as a follow-up, you know with -- with the NATO summit coming in a matter of weeks, you described this time as the edge of opportunity.  What additional things do the NATO contributing nations need to do militarily to make this edge different than other times of optimism over the last 17 years?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  I don't think we need to do anything differently.  I think that the mission that Resolute Support has -- has been a critical factor in bringing about a ceasefire.

Our job here is to build up the capability of Afghan forces.  Chairman Dunford, just as one, has stated that the forces are here, they're required to do the job.  And our job here is to make sure that we continue to do the work that this coalition has continued to do for many years and which has clearly brought the -- an extra sense of professionalism and resilience to the security forces.

Q:  And as a last follow-up, so, going into the summit, there wouldn't be any additional asks or requests for resources you need, or personnel, or a type of military capability?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  Well, it -- I'm not going to pass any requests to the summit through this medium.  It is a matter for the commanders here to make their recommendations to their military leaders, and I'll leave it up to the -- the leaders at the summit to decide how they can best support the mission.

STAFF:  All right.

With that, we'll move forward to AP.

Q:  General, this is Bob Burns of the Associated Press.

I wonder if you think there's merit to the argument that the Afghan government's ceasefire, now that the Taliban is not participating, simply gives time and space for the Taliban to regroup, and to regain military advantage.

GEN. CRIPWELL:  Well, thanks very much, indeed.

As I said in my opening remarks, it's clearly disappointing that the Taliban has decided not to extend their ceasefire.  But the fact remains, nothing in the president's ceasefire means the security forces cannot act in self-defense, and that they can't act to stop any military activity.  They are not defenseless as a result of their ceasefire in any way, and if the Taliban choose to carry out military activity, the Afghan security forces are going to stop it.

Q:  As -- as a follow-up, General, the argument recently, prior to the ceasefire, was that one of the major differences recently was that the Afghans were on the offensive, and that this was a major change.  Now they're not on the offensive, almost by definition, (inaudible) -- ceasefire, so doesn't that -- isn't that a setback in some sense for the -- the equation with the Taliban?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  No, I don't -- I don't think it is.

I mean, military -- as I said, military pressure is also just one of the pressures that are being applied to the Taliban.  It is clear from events over the weekends, from the peace marches, from the peace movements, that there is a growing social pressure against the Taliban, and the -- the scenes that we saw over the weekend are further evidence of that.  There's been an extraordinary outpouring of support from around the world, and particularly around the region, in support of the ceasefire.

And I certainly don't see the Afghan security forces at a disadvantage because their presence has taken the courageous move to declare a ceasefire.  As I say, they retain, as we do, the right of self-defense, and they retain the rights to stop military activity as and when they see it.

STAFF:  All right.

With that, we'll go on to our next question from NBC.

Q:  Thank you, sir, for doing this today.

What's your sense of where the Afghan government -- what's their feeling towards -- after the -- the Taliban stopped the -- the -- the ceasefire?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  Thanks for the question, but I -- I'm afraid you're going to have to ask the Afghan government that question.

Clearly, there is a huge sense of achievement in the government over what was achieved for the weekend.  But as for their reactions since then, you're going to have to put that to the government information spokesman.

STAFF:  No other follow-up for that? OK.  Go ahead, sir.

Q:  All right.  It's Jamie McIntyre with The Washington Examiner.

Those of us who've been around long enough remember 50 years ago, when the United States' strategy in Vietnam was to inflict so much pain on the Vietcong that they would be driven to the peace table.  Ultimately, the U.S. discovered there was no amount of pain that they could inflict that would break the will of the Vietcong.

Now, we see the strategy that you're talking about, about putting military pressure on the Taliban.  What signs do you see, what evidence do you have that the Taliban is going to be susceptible to that pressure, that it will in fact change the dynamic?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  Well, thanks for the question.  The -- I think the signs have been clear over the last few years.  You know, the NATO Resolute Support mission, through train, advise and assist, has been developing the capability of the security forces.

They -- as I -- as I said in my earlier remarks, the army is more resilient.  It is better led.  It is better equipped.  It is more professional.  The Afghan Air Force is growing at a significant rate, and, as you will be aware from comments that General Nicholson has made, the commandos have doubled in size.

This is the force that ensured, last year, that the Taliban achieved none of their strategic objectives, and this is the force that has brought the Taliban to a ceasefire this year.  I have great faith in the Afghan forces, and I can see, from the work that we do with them, just how much better they're getting all the time.

This is their fight.  I'm not going to comment on American strategies from the past.  We are supporting a nation that wishes to fight its enemies, and this is their fight and their strategy.

Q:  If I can just follow up, it may be that the Afghan forces are more capable and are able to conduct more effective operations, but what evidence is there that the Taliban isn't just ready and willing to just keep fighting indefinitely, as it has in the past, whether or not it's winning tactical victories on the battlefield?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  I think the Taliban's statements themselves of this year point to the fact that they are looking for a different outcome than just fighting for the rest of the year, or the years.

Their letter to the people of America in -- in February of this year, the wording of the al-kandak announcement at the start of the fighting season makes it clear that they wish to see an end to this war, as well.

STAFF:  With that, we're going to Anadolu.

Q:  General, thanks for doing this.  Kasim Ileri with Anadolu Agency.  As much as you know, does the Afghan government speak to Taliban as a whole organization, or they are speaking with different factions within the Taliban separately?  Because we hear that some of the violations continue, despite these talks.

GEN. CRIPWELL:  Thank you very much indeed for the question.  I have no idea whether the government of Afghanistan is talking to the Taliban.  I really can't add any more to that.  I just don't know.

STAFF:  For our next question, we're going to Fox.

Q:  General, Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News.  Just to follow up on Bob's question, can you rule out that the Taliban used this three-day ceasefire to restage their operations and launch this attack in Badghis?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  Lucas, I'd kind of go back to the answer I gave before.  I -- I've seen no suggestion that the Taliban were using the Eid ceasefire to in some way improve or redistribute their military capability.

Q:  Yesterday on Capitol Hill, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren said that there have been so many statements by American generals over the years about turning the corner or, as you said today, this edge of opportunity, that the policy is going in circles.

Can you respond to that comment, General?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  Thanks for the question, but I -- I -- I'm very happy that General Miller responded to that question at the armed services hearing.

STAFF:  And, with that, we'll go on to CNN, and then we'll go to Wall Street Journal.

Q:  Hello, General, Ryan Browne, CNN.  Thank you for doing this.  I did have a question:  You mentioned how -- the increased resiliency of the ANA, and you talked a little bit how they're being better led.

Can you -- are there any metrics you can talk a little bit about -- what -- what makes you see these, what improvements you're actually seeing?  I mean this -- the attrition rate seems pretty high, still, in this recent attack -- you know, reports of 30.  So what are some of the metrics you're seeing?

And then, in addition to that, I think I heard you say that commandos have been doubled, but that's planned, to double them, right?  They actually haven't been doubled at this time?  Thanks.

GEN. CRIPWELL:  You're absolutely right, and I'm -- and I'm glad to have a chance to clear that up.  The -- the plan is to double the commandos.

As for the -- the resilience, I -- as I mentioned in my opening statement, over 80 percent's on -- 80 percent of attacks on district centers have been pushed back.

We saw, earlier this year and last year, just how more resilient the army has been, but I don't deny that the level of casualties in the army is worrying.  General Nicholson has spoke to this in the past.  And we remain keen, in particular, to change the tactic of the Afghan Army and their reliance on checkpoints, which is as much a social issue as is -- as it is a military issue.

As for the metrics to judge leadership, if you like, those are -- those are many and various, but we go to significant lengths to make sure that the army, particularly, these days, are selecting officers on merit, who have proven themselves at lower ranks in the field, to make sure that they are being as trained as the best of our ability in leadership and in command, and we see those results in the field.

Q:  And have you seen any decrease in the casualty rate since this new strategy has kind of been unveiled and more advisers are going to the kandak level and the brigade level?  Have you seen any effect on the number of casualties being suffered by the ANA or ANP, also?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  Honestly, I don't have the -- I don't have the detail of that.  Clearly, the Afghan forces are being much more offensive than they have been in the past.  All seven corps are engaged in operations now.  Their brigades -- routinely, they have three of their four brigades engaged in operations, and it's just the nature of war that there will be casualties as a result of that action.  But I don't have any details.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  With that, Wall Street Journal?

Q:  Hi, General, how are you?  It's Gordon Lubold from the Wall Street Journal.  We've been hearing a lot about peace talks and reconciliation.  I wonder if you could expand a little bit on how you characterize where that is, assuming it's still kind of in its nascency.

And, also, could you talk to us about the idea of American -- about the U.S. leading direct negotiations with the Taliban, which -- you know, up until now, it had always been an Afghan-led affair?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  Yeah, good morning, Gordon.  Good to hear from you.

I'll tackle the second one first, because -- which I can do very simply, because it would simply be inappropriate of me to discuss what the United States may or may not do.  I don't wish to be swerving away from the question, but it's simply not for me to talk about that.

As for talks and reconciliation, as I said to one of your colleagues earlier, I'm not aware of the government talking to the Taliban.  But we have seen, through the course of this year and last year, individuals and groups of Taliban who are seeking to reconcile.

That's all over the country, but I particularly note, in the west, in Herat and in Badghis, we have seen groups of Taliban who have been coming in, who want to reconcile with the government and with the governors.  And I think the way in which that process is happening provides a model for the rest of the country.

Q:  Is -- is that, though, you know, onesies-twosies, kind of an interesting development?  Or do you think that there is, like, the beginning of what could be some momentum on that front?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  There's certainly, I think, momentum over in the west, notwithstanding the recent attacks.  I think there is momentum over there.  I would imagine that, as a result of the scenes over the weekend, there are questions being asked in the Taliban about -- asking themselves the same questions.

I'm not going to overplay what's happening in the west, but it is clear, whether people are reconciling or whether they are investigating the possibility of that, it's clear that there is a movement.

Over the weekend, we saw, as I said, (inaudible) Taliban and security forces together.  Taliban leaders have been having discussions and continue to do so with governors.  So I think this is -- I wouldn't overplay what's happening in the west, but I do think it's the start of something.

Q:  Wait -- but there's no way to kind of quantify it or characterize it in a way that would help kind of better -- help us to better understand kind of the nature of it, is there?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  Unfortunately, I don't think there is a better way to characterize it.  This isn't a movement, but it is clear that there's something that is being discussed and, in some cases, is happening, and we'll continue to monitor that and continue to look to the Afghan government to support that process.

STAFF:  Sir?

Q:  Hi, sir, Jim Garamone with DOD News.  We talk about the Taliban, or all -- many people talk about the Taliban as if it's some sort of a monolithic organization.  It's more a confederacy.

And I'm wondering if there's a difference among these groups throughout the region and if it would be possible to perhaps get some of these groups in other areas -- more apt to -- to discuss reconciliation than in others?  Your -- is -- what's your take on it?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  Jim, thanks for the question.  I -- you know, I hear your premise, and it's clear from the way in which the Taliban started their ceasefire that the -- the organization as a whole clearly accepted the direction that they were given by their leadership.

As I said -- as I --

(AUDIO GAP)

GEN. CRIPWELL:  -- the Taliban around the country are exploring ways in which to move forward from that ceasefire.  So, in that sense, I guess you could say that there is a disparate nature to the organization.

STAFF:  Jim, you good with that?  And so we've got time for one final question.  Go ahead, sir.

Q:  Thank you.  General, thanks very much for doing this.  Jeff Seldin from VOA.  You mentioned how some Taliban were -- are exploring and more open to the possibility of reconciliation.

We heard several months ago from Afghan officials that Taliban leadership was actively trying to do things to prevent that.  How strong has that snapback been?  Have there been more reports of families of Taliban fighters or commanders being held hostage, essentially?

And, also, to what extent -- you mentioned the optimism, but to what extent is -- are the other efforts that are necessary -- the diplomatic efforts, some of the other efforts that go along with military efforts -- keeping pace with what you've been able to achieve militarily with the Afghan forces?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  Thanks for that.  As for a snapback, I -- I don't think I can talk to that.  But, clearly, between the events of Saturday that we saw all over the country and to -- the fact that that was significantly reduced on the Sunday suggests that at least somebody wasn't keen to see Taliban fighters taking selfies and eating ice cream in Kabul.

More broadly, I think diplomatic pressure and social pressure is hugely important.  I think the speed with which Secretary Pompeo came out in support of the extension of the ceasefire the other night was hugely important, I think, the way in which countries in the region -- which the United Nations and other organizations have -- have demonstrated their support for the actions that the government has taken.

And just to reinforce the social pressure, it is clear, again, from around the country how people embrace the notion of peace, of not fighting, the way in which the progress in the elections is coming and how much they look forward to expressing their view and to having a role in the future of their country.  So the -- all of the pressures have a vital role to play in bringing peace to this country.

STAFF:  Okay.  Well, thank you all for your questions.  That's all the time we have here.  Sir, are there any final words you'd like for this group, sir?

GEN. CRIPWELL:  I may.  I'd just like to, again, thank you for your questions.  We didn't, perhaps, get to quite the detail of train, advise and assist that I think this mission is so focused on, which is at the heart of the capability development of the armed forces.

But I would like to -- to reinforce to you that it is the work that the 39 nations do here to build the capability not just of the forces, but of the institutions that is at the heart of the success of the security forces, which is at the heart of bringing about a ceasefire recently and which will be at the heart of providing security and peace for the people of this country.

And thank you very much.

STAFF:  Okay.  Thank you for your time.  If there are any additional questions, I'll take them and coordinate directly with Lieutenant General Cripwell's staff.  Sir, thank you again.

GEN. CRIPWELL:  My pleasure.  Thank you very much, indeed.