Department of Defense Press Briefing with Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications, Resolute Support Mission, Afghanistan

Captain Jeff Davis, Director, Defense Press Office; Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications, Afghanistan


 

            CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS:  Great.  OK.  Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us, and sorry for the delays here.  This is a -- a -- a bit unusual in how we're doing this, and I apologize for that.  We do have the -- at a minimum, the audio file of this will be available right after, and I think we're pulling -- we're putting it out on the pool line, too. 

 

            We have with us today General Wilson Shoffner, who's the deputy chief of staff for communication out in Afghanistan with Operation Resolute Support, and, without any further ado, General, I'll turn it over to you. 

 

            After -- after you're done, we'll -- we'll take questions from here, and I would just ask folks that -- that since he can't see you, you identify yourself by name and -- and your outlet. 

 

            And, general, over to you. 

 

            GENERAL WILSON SHOFFNER:  Well, thanks, Jeff, and thanks, everybody, for taking the time to -- to let me talk to you today.  We -- we definitely got a lot going on over here in Afghanistan, and I -- I do welcome the opportunity to share with you our perspective. 

 

            I'd like to start by talking about the -- the three attacks that occurred last Friday, on the 7th of August.  We had three attacks within a 24-hour period, which is definitely unusual.  In fact, these are the first high-profile attacks in Kabul in over a month.  Multiple attacks like these in one day are -- are extremely rare, and last time this has happened was -- it was probably April of 2012. 

 

            That said, these attacks were not a surprise.  We did anticipate that we'd see an uptick in violence due to the fracturing of the Taliban leadership.  In fact, looking back over this year so far, twenty -- 2015, it's surprising that we haven't seen more high-profile attacks, and in fact we attribute the relatively low number of attacks this year to the increasing capability, professionalism and resilience of the Afghans and their security forces. 

 

            In each of the incidents I've talked about in another high-profile attack here in Kabul, one thing that we have seen, and it is worth noting, is the -- the ability of the Afghan security forces to respond. 

 

            In every case here on the 7th, they quickly moved in, secured the area, they evacuated the wounded, and they quickly tied in with local law enforcement to ensure they stabilized the situation. 

 

            I'll go back and cite one recent example, and that is the -- the attack on the Park Palace Hotel here in Kabul on the 13th of May.  Just a couple points that I think are worth -- worth noting on that, again, another high-profile attack, the -- the victims were largely civilians, but, in that case, the Afghan Special Security Forces responded.  I think they were on scene in about 22 minutes. 

 

            It's a fairly large complex, they went in, they cleared the complex, building by building, room by room. They secured the facility, freed 49 hostages, and killed three insurgents, all in the space of about two hours.  That's pretty remarkable, and that's a capability that they didn't have a few years ago. 

 

            I'd ask you to compare that to the -- the hotel attack in Mumbai of two years ago, and just use that to put in perspective the capability of the -- the Afghan Special Security Forces.

 

            The other thing I'd point out is that for every attack that does occur, there are many others that you don't hear about because they're actually prevented by the Afghan security forces. 

 

            So they'll be doing -- well, along with our Afghan partners, we'll -- we remain vigilant against any future attacks, as we expect the Taliban will continue to conduct the high-profile attacks here in Kabul as an attempt to increase their influence and their relevance. 

 

            So I -- I do want to point out that while some of these attacks are clearly directed against Afghan security forces and coalition forces, the victims here, those paying the bill are the innocent Afghan civilians, because the Taliban, increasingly, are killing innocent Afghan civilians in their activities. 

 

            In terms of how the Afghan security forces are doing this year, they -- they definitely have been tested this fighting season, fighting season '15, but they're holding their own, and they've demonstrated their remarkable courage and resilience this year, and every day, you know, we see the remarkable men and women of the Afghan security forces -- all of them are volunteers, and they're continuing to put their lives on the line to protect their people and this country. 

 

            It is clear that the Afghan security forces do still require broad support, and that's one of the reasons why the Resolute Support mission remains critical. 

 

            They've got some capability gaps that we're gonna have to help them with over the next few years.  These primarily are in close air support, aviation, intelligence and logistics. 

 

            Looking back on this fighting season, fighting season '15, they -- they've learned some hard lessons this year, but they've also achieved some very significant results. 

 

            And so what we've seen is, when they've conducted deliberate, planned operations that -- (inaudible) -- they've performed very well.  We've seen this starting in January in Helmand Province.  We saw that in Zabul Province, in Ghazni, and we've seen that in the last two weeks in Nangarhar Province. 

 

            On the down side, whenever they employ their forces hastily, or they do so in an uncoordinated manner, and that -- by that I mean the army doesn't coordinate with the police, doesn't coordinate with air or fire support, they're far less effective. 

 

            I -- I'd like to just take a second to talk about how we see the general security situation here in Afghanistan.  The bottom line is that the level of enemy activity so far in 2015 is very consistent with what we saw in 2014 and 2013, so, year to date, the number of enemy-initiated attacks for 2015 so far is actually down compared to last year.  It's eight percent lower than it was last year. 

 

            What we are seeing is an increase in IEDs, use of IEDs in high-profile attacks here in Kabul.  (inaudible) -- you see that, Kabul remains the area of strategic importance for the insurgency, as a -- as a very important center of the government of Afghanistan's authority, and these attacks are an attempt to garner widespread coverage that, for the Taliban, for them, leads to a perception that the Afghan government is unable to provide adequate security. 

 

            In terms of the Afghan security forces themselves, as I said earlier, they're in full control here.  They have -- they have sustained an average of about 46 percent more casualties this year compared to last, but again, they assumed full responsibility for securing their people and coalition forces have been greatly reduced.

 

            So to put this in context, three years ago, we had over 130,000 coalition forces here.  We now have less than 10 percent of that, yet the Afghan security forces are holding their own and doing fairly well. 

 

            Recently, UNAMA released their annual report of civilians in armed conflicts.  That report cited a civilian casualty rate approximately one percent higher than last year.  So that's running about the same.  Also, they attribute 69 percent of the civilian casualties to the Taliban and other anti-government elements.  And so again, that remains about the same.  So over two-thirds of the civilian casualties caused by the Taliban and other insurgents. 

 

            Looking ahead in terms of where we stand this fighting season, General Campbell is conducting his assessment of the situation here in Afghanistan.  He will deliver that this fall.  That's called, as you're probably aware, the fall assessment.  His assessment obviously will help inform decisions by U.S. leadership and by NATO on the future strategic direction here in Afghanistan. 

 

            And with that as an opening, welcome to take your questions. 

 

            CAPT. DAVIS:  Bob? 

 

            Q:  General, this is Bob Burns with Associated Press. 

 

            I wonder if you would elaborate on a point you alluded to briefly at the beginning of your remarks, you referred to the fracturing of the Taliban leadership.  Would you elaborate on the implications and the significance of what you're seeing in terms of that turmoil that's been seen inside the Taliban leadership since the disclosure of Mullah Omar's death? 

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Yeah.  Thank you.  I hope you're watching this closely, as is -- as is the Afghan government.  I think it's too soon to speculate on what the long-term impacts of Mullah Omar's death and the fracturing in the Taliban would be, but we do continue to support an Afghan-led, an Afghan peace process.  We see that as the surest way to end violence and to ensure lasting stability in Afghanistan and the region.

 

            As far as the Taliban, you know, this -- we see this as an opportunity for them to make genuine peace with the Afghan government and to rebuild their lives in Afghanistan, because many of them, as you know, are Afghans.  And the government of Afghanistan has invited the Taliban to join as part of a political process.  We support the Afghan government in that, and we hope that they do that. 

           

            The U.S. --

 

            CAPT. DAVIS:  Still there?  It sounds like we might have lost you.  Hello?  Hello?  All right.  Sorry about that, guys.  I don't.   I'm sorry. 

 

            Mic check.  Anybody -- General, are you there?

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  I'm -- (inaudible)

 

            CAPT. DAVIS:  General, sorry about that.  We lost you.  What were we talking about? 

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Last question was about the splintering in the Taliban, and I had given an answer, but I don't know how much of that you caught.  I'm prepared to repeat it. 

 

            CAPT. DAVIS:  OK.  OK. 

 

            Q:  Someone else probably wants to --

 

            CAPT. DAVIS:  Dion.

 

            Q:  General, this is Dion Nissenbaum with the Wall Street Journal.  I wanted to follow up on Bob's question a little bit. 

 

            It does seem like -- you said that these attacks suggest that the -- that they're an outgrowth of the splintering, so doesn't that suggest it will be harder to make peace with the Taliban if there are groups that are launching these kind of attacks? 

 

            And I'm wondering if you're seeing any kind of migration to Islamic State at this point as a result of this fracturing and what you're seeing now in Afghanistan in terms of a presence from the Islamic State more broadly? 

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Yeah, again.  I don't know if you caught my answer to the first question there, but I'll just quickly repeat the high points again. 

 

            With regards to splintering of the Taliban, I think it's too soon to tell what the long-term impacts of that are going to be, really too soon to tell what the impacts of Mullah Omar's death are going to be. 

 

            As you know, the Afghan government has a delegation in Pakistan now.  We're watching that closely.  We're watching the Taliban closely.  I will say, though, that they -- the Taliban do -- has an opportunity here, we think, to strike for peace with the Afghan government and to rebuild their own lives in Afghanistan because many of them are Afghans. 

 

            We know that the government of Afghanistan has invited the Taliban to join as part of the political process.  We strongly support the Afghan government in that.  We stand with the international community and support any outcome that the Taliban or any armed opposition group may use to pledge to end violence, to break associations with international terrorism and to accept the Afghan constitution.

 

            With regard to ISIS, I -- we in Afghanistan refer to them as DAESH, so I'll use that term.  So bottom line, the presence of DAESH in Afghanistan is an issue of great concern to the Afghan government, it's an issue of great concern to us.  We, the coalition, share intelligence and information with the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces on DAESH -- and when I say share, that's a two-way street.

 

            We categorize DAESH in Afghanistan as operationally emergent.  We do not see them as having operational capabilities, so we do not see them having the ability to coordinate operations in more than one part of the country at a time.

 

            We do have reports of them operating in different parts of the country, but again, not in a coordinated fashion.  We do see some funding flowing to DAESH but not a significant amount.

 

            We see their capabilities increasing somewhat, but not to the point where they can conduct operations that you're seeing in Iraq and Syria.  Although we do have the potential for them to evolve into something more dangerous, and we take that very seriously.

 

            We have seen some Taliban rebrand themselves as DAESH.  We're not exactly sure why this is.  We believe it's probably an attempt to gain resources or perhaps attention or better leadership. 

 

            We are seeing some fighting between DAESH and the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Usually this is a result of DAESH encroaching upon Taliban territory and interfering with established Taliban operations.

 

            We've seen the fighting between the two groups in Nangarhar Province, in (inaudible) in northern Helmand.

 

            Most intense fighting between DAESH and Taliban has taken part -- taken place in Nangarhar.  We do expect to see this throughout the fighting season.  And you know, even though in some cases we have DAESH and Taliban fighting themselves, that's a problem.  It's a problem because it's a destabilizing influence and -- (inaudible) -- for this, unfortunately the victims are Afghan civilians.  And so that's a security issue that we -- we are committed to helping the Afghan government resolve.

 

            So, with regard to DAESH, I would just say that DAESH and terrorism poses a common threat to all the states in this region, and so it's not just an Afghan problem, it's a regional problem.

 

            So we -- we support the government of Afghanistan's efforts to work with other regional partners to -- to both contain and dismantle this threat.  The other thing I'd point out at DAESH is it's an opportunity.  It's an opportunity for Afghans to join -- (inaudible) -- regional partners to come together to confront a common threat.

 

            And so, we're all committed to working together to help the Afghan government prevent DAESH from establishing a foothold, not just in Afghanistan, but in Central Asia.

 

            Q:  General, Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News.

 

            You said you're seeing some funding flowing in to the DAESH.  Where is this funding coming from?

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Yeah, I won't speculate on that.  And as I said before, it's not significant.

 

            Q:  And just a follow up.  What can you tell us about the recent drone strikes, particularly in Nangarhar Province?  Is there been an uptick of drone strikes against ISIS, against Taliban units in -- compared to the last year?

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Well, I won't go into specifics about our targeting methodology, but I will say compared to previous years, drone strikes have significantly decreased in volume this year compared to previous years.

 

            Although, you know, if you're looking at number of strikes, it is natural to see a fluctuation as the fighting season goes on, so it's natural to see the number of drone strikes go up as the weather warms up and then taper off toward the end of the year.

 

            Q:  General, hey.  This is Andrew Tilghman with Military Times.

 

            I'd like to ask you to talk about how the emergence of Islamic State is affecting the U.S. mission.  I mean, does that potentially warrant preventing them from having a foothold in Afghanistan?  Does that warrant counter-terrorism operations by the U.S. troops that are in country?  Does that warrant authorizing airstrikes, or are you just letting that kind of play out and let the Afghans handle that for now?

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Well, as I said earlier, we're committed to -- to working with our Afghan partners to establish security here, and anyone who's conducting terrorist acts is -- is something we're concerned about.

 

            As far as -- as far as drone strikes, the United States conducts drone strikes here for two primary reasons.  One is part of our counter-terrorism mission, and the second is the force protection.

 

            So the commander has -- has the authorities he needs to do both of those missions, and this, what you bring up, is clearly a factor that will be included, one of many factors that will be included as part of the fall assessment at the end of this year.

 

            Q:  Hi, General.

 

            Tara Copp with Stars and Stripes.  It's been a few days.  Could you please give us some additional details on the Camp Integrity attack, on whether or not the attackers were able to penetrate the base?  And given the uptick in violence, have there been any changes to force protection and posture at the other bases around Afghanistan?

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Well, thanks for the question.  So I'll -- I'll briefly go over what happened and apologize if -- if this was repetitive in terms of information you already have. 

 

            So, Camp Integrity, which is a coalition facility that's located near the Kabul international airport was attacked the evening of seven, August.  It was attacked by a vehicle-borne IED.  Following the -- the explosion, the vehicle-borne IED, some number of insurgents used other explosive devices, grenades, and small arms to attempt to attack in to the base.  Coalition forces then responded, suppressed the attack, and secured the base. 

 

            As a result of the attack, one U.S. servicemember, eight Resolute Support contracted Afghan civilians, and four insurgent attackers were killed.  And we deeply regret the loss of life in that -- in that situation.  Also, several Resolute Support servicemembers and contracted civilians were wounded during the attack. 

 

            So at Camp Integrity, we've got NATO's Special Operations Component Command Afghanistan, otherwise known as NSOC Alpha.  That includes U.S. Special Forces elements.

 

            So on this, to the second part of your question, on force protection, we do take force protection very seriously, but for operational reasons, I won't discuss force protection posture or methods.  It remains a top concern and Afghanistan remains a dangerous place.

 

            As I mentioned earlier, you know, in terms of attacks on other facilities here, we did anticipate that the Taliban would turn to high-profile attacks such as this one to garner headlines and create perception that the Afghan security forces can't protect its people.

 

            Q:  Hi, General.  This is Courtney Kube with NBC News.

 

            One quick follow up on Tara's question. 

 

            Were they, the insurgents, able -- actually able to breach the base and get on the base?

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Well, we've got an investigation ongoing to look at the exact details.  They attempted to, but they were -- they were pushed back.  I could say that much without getting in front of the investigation.

 

            Q:  Okay.  And then, if we could just turn back to the Islamic State or DAESH.  You said that they have some capabilities not like Iraq or Syria, but that they have some -- what do you mean by that?  Are they able to actually carry out attacks in Afghanistan, and can you give a little bit more details about what specifically that you're --  you're seeing if they are carrying out any attacks?

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Most of what we're seeing is attempts to gain influence.  So that's recruiting.  It's attempt to take -- to gain territory, and it's attempt to disrupt the Taliban in terms of their operations.

 

            So the fighting has generally been from DAESH against the Taliban in terms of what we've seen so far.

 

            Q:  Hey General, Bill Hennigan, Los Angeles Times.

 

            You  mentioned that the recent attacks didn't surprise you.  Does that mean that there has been an increase in security either by the U.S. and or the Afghans there, and how has the recent attacks affected the peace talks with the Taliban?

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Bill, the attacks follow an established trend, which is as I said, a greater reliance on high-profile attacks, particularly those within Kabul, that you know, grab the headlines.

 

            In terms of how it affects the peace talks, I think it's -- I think it's too soon for us to speculate.  As I said earlier, we do -- we do support the peace process.  We do believe that this may be an attempt by the Taliban to -- to reassert their -- their authority and influence.  And I'll leave it at that.

 

            Q:  So essentially you're saying they're using this as leverage for the peace talks?

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Yeah, I think it's too soon to speculate on that, but could be.

 

            We do think that the high-profile attacks are intended to -- to strengthen their position.

 

            Q:  General, Richard Smith from military.com. 

 

            Sir, can you give us anything on the situation in Helmand Province, where there was an attack yesterday?  Who is in control up around the Sangin, and the Kajaki Dam area?

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Yeah, we -- I would characterize the security situation around Kajaki as a local security challenge.  It is -- there is a highway there that has been contested.  One of the things that President Ghani has done is ask the -- directed the Afghan security forces to reduce their number of checkpoints. 

 

            There's a highway leading up to the dam called Highway 611 that had a large number of these checkpoints.  Those checkpoints were reduced, were consolidated.  The reason they do that is because when they have accepted numbers of forces on checkpoints, they increase their vulnerability and they reduce their ability to respond.

 

            So that was behind in consolidation.  The insurgents attempted to take advantage of that.  Afghan security forces have an operation underway to -- to regain security, and we believe they've got the forces in place, the right leadership in place, to do that.

 

            So to put it in context, yeah it is a concern of the government, but it is not an operationally significant concern.  Obviously Kajaki Dam generates power, is significant infrastructure.  But I'll leave it at that unless there are further questions specific to Kajaki.

 

            Q:  General Shoffner, Barbara Starr from CNN. 

 

            Going back to the Camp Integrity attack, in fact, the Pentagon had, and correct me if I'm wrong, the Pentagon had put out a statement in the days after the attack that the attackers did breach the base and got inside.  So, is there some reason to think that those facts have changed pending the investigation you're talking about, or does that still stand since the Pentagon has already said that?

 

            And it's hardly, you know, it's not a new tactic by the Taliban to engage in a high profile suicide car bomb attack.  So with something around 10,000 troops left, this seems like a quite serious vulnerability.  How --how much -- how convinced are you that troops can be kept safe?  This seems a very serious breach. 

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Yeah the -- the report put out by the Pentagon was accurate.  They did -- the explosion did breach the outer perimeter wall.  Some insurgents entered through the breach and were contained and suppressed, and those insurgents that entered were killed.

 

            So again, the Pentagon's report was -- was accurate, but to say that they got inside the base, it was to a very limited degree (inaudible) the attack was concerned.

 

            So, as I said earlier, I can't talk about our force protection posture.  But you know, we do take these -- these attacks and threats very seriously, and the commander has said repeatedly, you've got the authority and the forces he needs to be able to provide adequate security.  I will keep in mind that you know, coalition force casualties have been exceptionally low this year.  The ANDSF is in the lead, they remain in the lead, and this remains a dangerous place.

 

            Q:  Sir, if I could just follow up, are the eyewitness reports correct that the gun battle to suppress the insurgents lasted approximately half an hour?

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Yeah the -- the number I've got -- the duration I've got was slightly less than that.  I would go with less than half an hour.

 

            Q:  Can I ask -- this is Courtney Kube at NBC News again.  Just one more follow up from your opening.  You said that the ANSF casualties are 46 percent higher this year than last, I believe.  Do you have the numbers?

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Yeah, let me follow up with you.  I've got an approximate number, but I'd be happy to follow up with you in email.

 

            We've got numbers for this year and last year, and we'll share that with everyone. 

 

            Luis.

 

            Q:  General, Luis Martinez with ABC News.

 

            There has been a significant increase in Taliban activity in northern Afghanistan, particularly around Kunduz.  What is behind that?  Are the Afghan troops in that part of Afghanistan at risk of falling to the Taliban?

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Yeah, no, good question.

 

            So, in the north, it's -- it's a complicated situation in the north.  And I'll try to add a little bit of clarity in terms of what we are seeing.  Clearly, we're seeing an attempt by the Taliban to try to stretch the Afghan security forces in the north.

 

            The north is -- is quite diverse.  It consists of nine different provinces.  It's got borders with multiple nations, to include China that stands, as you well know.

 

            There are a diverse number of economic interests in the north: several commercial routes that are international cross-border routes, some of those have to do with the lapis mines that are in the Badakhshan region to the northeast.  Some of them have to do with the -- the illicit trade of narcotics that goes across the border. 

 

            You've also got a -- a rubric of the conflicts, tribal and political dynamics that exist, and then you've also got with the -- with the Kunduz, in the Kunduz region, local dynamics where you've got individuals that are vying to expand their influence or to protect their interests.  In some cases it's, you know, controlling the cross-border illicit activity. 

 

            We've also seen an increase in presence of Taliban.  We think this is due to the operations being conducted in Pakistan that has possibly pushed some insurgents into the northeast.  So all of those factors together combine to make this a -- a fairly complex region. 

 

            There's definitely a criminal syndicate that exists in the north that we don't fully understand.  It's -- it's more than just a military problem, so a lot of this is tied together.  So, to try to paint a picture, it's -- it's very -- very difficult, it's dangerous, I would think, to generalize when we speak about the north. 

 

            If I could -- just to kind of put things in perspective, we've got a lot of attention on Badakhshan recently.  One of the -- one of the districts in Badakhshan that was -- the Taliban is taking control of the district centers, a district called Yamgan. 

 

            Yamgan is in -- as I said, northeast corner of Afghanistan.  It's very rugged.  The district center that I'm referring to has no -- no paved roads that lead to it. 

 

            We had a situation where the district center that consisted of two buildings fell under the Taliban control for a number of hours, until the Afghan security forces were able to regain control. 

 

            To kind of put this in perspective, there are 300 districts in Afghanistan.  As of today, we assess that in less than 10 of those, the Taliban has some level of control. 

 

            Yamgan by itself has a population of -- of 20,000.  So if you compare that to the overall population of Afghanistan, which is nearly 31 million, you're talking about, you know, less than one -- just over one half of 1 percent of the population that's affected by that, yet it -- it was a headline, and did get quite a bit of attention.  Was not operationally significant or military -- militarily significant in terms of what happened. 

 

            So, again, I think there's been a lot of generalization when it comes to reports on the north.  Kunduz is -- is not now, and has not been in danger of being overrun by the Taliban, and so -- with that, it's kind of a general perspective in the north that's sort of how we see it. 

 

            We -- we -- bottom line is, the Afghan security forces have more than sufficient resources in the north.  When they're operating in the north, especially in the northeast, where the terrain is rugged, it just takes a lot longer, it takes more forces, it takes more air, and it is -- it is a more intensive operation to do anything in the exceptionally rugged terrain of the north. 

 

            The corps that's operating in the north, 209th Corps, is -- is -- is stretched.  They are adding a fourth brigade right now, that fourth brigade will have responsibility for Badakhshan.  They've also added an -- an additional deputy brigade commander to give a greater ability to control the operation that's going on there. 

 

            So we think the Afghan security forces are taking the appropriate steps in terms of adjusting the leadership, in terms of providing additional forces in the north, to give the commanders their appropriate levels of control and the amount of security forces they need to control the situation. 

 

            I've got time for about one more question. 

 

            CAPT. DAVIS:  We'll do Andrew, and then Lucas. 

 

            Q:  OK.  General, Andrew Tilghman, Military Times, again. 

 

            Can you tell me if any U.S. manned or unmanned aircraft have struck any Islamic State targets in Afghanistan to date? 

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Again, I -- I'll go as far as to say that, you know, the commander here has the authority he needs.  We conduct drone strikes for two reasons: as counterterrorism and force protection, and I -- I won't go into any specifics about specific targeting. 

 

            CAPT. DAVIS:  Lucas. 

 

            Q:  Sir, Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News, again. 

 

            What can you tell us about this year's poppy crop, and is narcotics trade still a major revenue source for the Taliban? 

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  It is.  No significant changes from the last couple of years. 

 

            You know, some of the -- some of the fighting we've seen has to do when -- especially with the deliberate operations, particularly in Helmand earlier this year, and the security operations disrupted, you know, the linkage between the Taliban, who depend on the poppy and narcotics as a source of revenue. 

 

            So the Afghan security forces, in their efforts, through their deliberate operations to address those areas that traditionally have been support bases for the Taliban have disrupted some of that, but not a significant change from the last couple of years in terms of the -- the crop and the harvest. 

 

            CAPT. DAVIS:  You can follow-up that. 

 

            Q:  You think the nearly 10,000 troops that you have in Afghanistan will remain past 2017? 

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Those are -- those are decisions that'll be made later on this year. 

 

            I -- I will go back to -- to the NATO defense ministerials that occurred earlier this year -- earlier in the summer, and -- and at the defense ministerials, we had over 30 nations indicate their support for continued presence -- continued contribution here, both in terms of troops as well as -- as funding.  So we're very encouraged by that. 

 

            Let me just close by -- by adding on to that statement and your question, and -- and just -- just wanna say that, you know, there has been a lot of hard work and sacrifice for the various coalition nations that have been involved here in the past 14 years. 

 

            All that hard work has created the conditions where the Afghans are now taking responsibility for their own security, and the Afghans are now seizing the opportunity to shape and to lead their destiny, but they do still -- they do still desire, they do still need, and they do still deserve our -- our presence and our assistance. 

 

            So what that looks like, you know, the specific trajectory, the drawdown in 2016, that'll be established later this year as we move toward a consolidated Kabul-based embassy presence by the end of 2016.  That still remains the plan. 

 

            The mission that will follow Resolute Support, known under NATO terms as enhanced Enduring Partnership, will be a -- we believe, a valuable platform through which all nations, as I said earlier, can continue to contribute to the Afghan government. 

 

            What we foresee for the future is -- is a NATO organization that is civilian-led, that's got a military component, but a light footprint and a low profile that does provide the ability for that coalition to continue the capacity-building that's so important, and to assist the Afghans, as I mentioned earlier, in the key institutional development that's gonna be required for the next couple of years in their Afghan security institutions. 

 

            We're very encouraged by -- by President Ghani's, you know, description of the vision for the future of Afghanistan, and he doesn't focus on just Afghanistan: he focuses on the region.  And he's called for the establishment of a regional hub to combat terrorism, General Dempsey, when he was here, acknowledged that Afghanistan could be -- and I'll quote him "one of the keys to addressing ISIL in all of South Asia." 

 

            So, again, thanks very much for your time.  It's been a true privilege, and I -- I hope to take any of your questions via e-mail if you have anything to follow up on.  Thanks very much. 

 

            CAPT. DAVIS:  Thank you very much, General.  Appreciate your time. 

 

            GEN. SHOFFNER:  Thanks, everybody.