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Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Nicholson via teleconference from Afghanistan

Press Operations

General John W. Nicholson, commander, Resolute Support and United States Forces-Afghanistan; Captain Jeff Davis, Director, Defense Press Office
July 28, 2016
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CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS:  Good morning.  We're pleased to be joined live via video link from Kabul today, with General John W. Nicholson.  He assumed duties as commander of Resolute Support and U.S. Forces Afghanistan in March.

General, if you can hear us, we'll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.

GENERAL JOHN NICHOLSON:  Thanks very much, Jeff.  I can hear you loud and clear.

And I can't see you at the other end, but welcome.  And I just want to say, since this is my first Pentagon press briefing, thanks to all of you for covering our mission in Afghanistan.

I know I've seen some of you here as you traveled through, the secretary, the chairman and others.  And look forward to hosting any of the others of you that choose to come here.  Btu again, thanks for covering the mission.  I look forward to talking about any aspect of that with you here today.

I do want to give you a few opening comments.  Looking at current operations that we're conducting, as -- as we know, President Obama has identified Islamic State, Daesh, as one of our top security threats.  He has indicated we will destroy Daesh wherever we find them.

Secretary Carter has also said that wherever Daesh metastasizes, as it has done so here in Afghanistan, that we will go after it -- and we are.

So, I wanted to talk a little bit about our operations against that regional affiliate here in Afghanistan, which is called the Islamic State Khorasan Province.

Last December, they had expended -- expanded to an area of about ten districts in southern Nangarhar.  In January, the president gave U.S. forces here in Afghanistan counter terrorism authorities to strike Daesh.  And we began to do so.

So, since then, U.S. and Afghan partnered forces have attacked Daesh and begun to reduce their area of control.  This has included attacks by the Taliban against Daesh as well.

So, now since January, their area has shrunk to about three or four districts -- parts of three or four districts in southern Nangarhar.

As you're aware, they are committing the same kinds of atrocities here in Afghanistan that they are noted for elsewhere, killing innocent men, women, children and -- and Saturday's attack in Kabul is another indication of their brutality, where they detonated a suicide bomb and killed upwards of 80 innocent Afghans who were out during -- participating in a peaceful demonstration.

I would highlight, however, that the fact that they could conduct a high profile attack is -- should not be perceived as a sign of growing strength.  Sadly, we have seen high profile attacks conducted in Belgium, France, Germany, even the United States.  And this is not necessarily a sign of growing strength in Afghanistan; indeed, their area is shrinking.

So, as part of the larger Afghan campaign plan for 2016 -- which is called Operation Shafaq, the Afghan Security Forces began operations in the north, defending the area around Kunduz.  They then shifted to southern Afghanistan, where they conducted, again, more successful defensive operations there.

And now, they have shifted their main effort to the east.  And President Ghani has visited Nangarhar, given instruction to his security forces to destroy Daesh.

And so, this operation being conducted against them is partnered with Afghan Security Forces and is part of the Afghan national campaign plan.

I should point out also that this was planned and had been initiated before the attack in Kabul on Saturday.

So in keeping with our two missions -- and again, U.S. forces in Afghanistan have a counterterrorism mission and a train, advise and assist mission -- we are utilizing our counterterrorist authorities to attack Daesh in southern Nangahar.  We are also partnered with some of the Afghan special forces as we conduct these operations.

Thus far the operations have been successful.  We have helped the Afghan Security Forces to reclaim significant portions of the territory that was previously controlled by Daesh.  We have killed many Daesh commanders and soldiers, destroyed key infrastructure capabilities, logistical nodes, and Daesh fighters are retreating south into the mountains of southern Nangahar as we speak.

And while successful, as with any counterterrorism operation, there's always some risk and indeed some of our servicemembers have been wounded in this operation:  a total of five.  None of these are life-threatening injuries.  Two of the servicemembers have already been returned to duty with their units.  The other three were evacuated out of theater.  They're in good spirits.  They've talked to their families.  We expect a full recovery.

We will continue to stay after Daesh until they are defeated here in Afghanistan.  While at the same time, we'll continue with our train, advise, assist mission with our Afghan partners, so ultimately in the future they will be able to do these missions entirely on their own.

So this fight against Daesh is critical.  It's nested within a larger global strategy against Islamic State.  It, in fact, coincides with ongoing operations in Iraq and Syria.  And again, by fighting groups like Daesh and Al Qaida here in Afghanistan, we deny them sanctuary and we inhibit their ability to conduct trans-national attacks from here.

So I would -- I would note that Daesh is only one of nine U.S. designated terrorist organizations here in Afghanistan.  Additionally there are three other violent extremist organizations.

These groups are the principle focus of our counterterrorism mission and the -- the purpose of helping the Afghans to build their capabilities so that they can maintain pressure on these enemy groups and prevent them from realizing their trans-national ambitions.

I would say overall our mission in Afghanistan is on a positive trajectory.  I can elaborate on that with you later, but thus far, in keeping with the campaign plan that I outlined, we have seen the Afghans successfully defend each of these areas, largely by taking offensive operations against the enemy, and the Taliban has not yet been able to realize any of their territorial ambitions this year.

Now with that, Jeff, let me turn it back over to you for any questions.

CAPT. DAVIS:  (Off-mic.)

Q:  General Nicholson, thanks.

Just a quick follow-up on your reference to the five Americans who were wounded.  I didn't quite catch if you described, and could describe a little more fully, the circumstances of that.

And secondly, could you give us a run down on what's going on in Helmand province?  Is the U.S. involved in supporting Afghan offensive operations down there under these new authorities currently?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Right.  Thanks for the question.

To elaborate a little bit, and I don't want to get into too much detail for operational security and privacy reasons, frankly, for the wounded soldiers, but it was on a partnered operation, meaning U.S. special operators with Afghan special operators conducting the operation.  And they were clearing some of these areas that I mentioned in southern Nangarhar, where Daesh previously had control, and they were helping our Afghan partners to regain control of those areas.

So -- so, that was really, the nature of the operation.  Offensive operation, counter-terrorism operation, partnered operation.

Shifting to Helmand, as you're aware, Helmand experienced a tough fight last year with the 215th Corps of the Afghan corps down there.  At the end of the fighting season last year, the Afghans put in new leadership at the corps level, all the brigades.  And we helped them to regenerate six of their kandaks.

They consolidated their positions.  They now hold between central Sangin, all the way down to the Garmsir area.  And they're able to conduct operations in outlying areas from there.

They have successfully conducted, earlier this year, clearing operations, all the way from Lashka Gah up to the Sangin District Center and clearing operations from Lashka Gah out into Marja, and the Marja District Center.

So, generally speaking, the Afghan Security Forces have accomplished their objectives in Helmand thus far, securing the major population centers.  The enemy was active earlier in the year, attacking isolated check points.

But frankly, in the last two weeks, the enemy activity has dropped off to a -- to a much lower level.

Now, fighting season's not over.  We anticipate we'll see other enemy attempts to regain territory in Helmand.  But thus far, things are on a real positive trajectory in the 215th Corps.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Okay.  Next, we'll go to Courtney Kube, from NBC News.

Q:  HI, General.  One more on the -- the wounded Americans in Nangarhar.

Can you just give us a little better sense of exactly what they were doing in this partnered operation when they were wounded, and how they were wounded?  Were they in the middle of a gun battle, or was it -- could -- was it all one incident?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  We're -- the operations in Nangarhar involved Afghan special forces clearing areas that had been held by Daesh.

So -- in clearing operations, these are preceded by airstrikes, and the airstrikes have been going on there really since January, since the president gave us the authorities to do that.

And then, there were -- there were strikes, of course, in the immediate time proceeding this operations.  And then, the Afghan Security Forces went in to retake the ground that had been held by Daesh.

So, I'd characterize it as a clearing operation, where the Afghan forces are moving south into the areas that were occupied by Daesh.

The nature of the combat there, you know, small arms fire, I would say, some shrapnel, these were -- these were the nature of the injuries that they experienced.

And so -- so, does that give you a sense of the -- of the type of operation?  This is what they were conducting.

Q:  Thank you very much.

And then just one more, on ISIS -- the ISIS presence in Afghanistan, can you just sort of give us an update?  You said that the -- you've killed many of the fighters and soldiers.

What's the -- the estimate now for how many are there?

And you gave an interview to the A.P. -- I'm sorry, I don't remember if it was yesterday or the day before -- where you mentioned that a lot of the ISIS fighters, you believe, are former TTP fighters who are now moving into ISIS.

Are you seeing an increase in that recently?  And can you give us any numbers on how many TTP may be now fighting under the ISIS flag?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Right, yeah.  Great question.

So, when we began our operations in January, we estimated that ISIS would -- might have numbered around 3,000.  They were primarily located in southern Nangarhar and in Kunar provinces.

We -- many of these fighters were members of other groups that had really changed allegiances.

No, I call this convergence.  And the convergence would be again, amongst these nine terrorist groups and three violent extremists organizations, we see periodically members changing from one organization to another.

In the case of Islamic State Khorasan province, the majority of the members are from the Tehrik-I Taliban Pakistan, which has been the anti-Pakistan government Taliban.  Many of these personnel were forced out of Pakistan by Pakistan military offensive operations, Zarb-e-Azb, which is a large-scale offensive operation they conducted.

In the case of the I.S. fighters in southern Nangahar, we see that many of them come from the Orakzai Agency, which is south of Nangahar -- actually, south of the Khyber Agency.  And they were former members of the TTP, complete with their leadership, who wholesale joined Islamic State, pledged bayat to Islamic State and joined them earlier this year.

So 70 percent, roughly, of those fighters are from the TTP and many of them are Pakistani Pashtun from the Orakzai Agency.

We also see members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as well, who have joined the organization, although some of them have also returned to their original colors, if you will.

And this number that originally was 3,000, we think has been roughly cut in half.  We estimate them between -- now between 1,000 and 1,500 at the present time.

But it's -- again, it's very hard to say.  It's very dynamic battlefield down there.  And of course it's easy to miss people in the mountains there.

But we think we've reduced their numbers fairly significantly in the last six months.

Q:  Thank you very much.  If I could just ask one more about the wounded Americans, what was the date of that attack?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Well, this operation has been going on for a week.  This has just occurred in the last few days.

CAPT. DAVIS:  OK, yeah.  Next we'll go to June Torbati with Reuters.

Q:  Thank you, General.

We know that the Taliban have -- have gained a little bit of territory since the beginning of the year.  Can you talk about whether that's because of, sort of, a strategic withdrawal of Afghan forces in order to shore up their forces elsewhere or, kind of -- what are some other factors behind that slight gain in territory?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Sure.

Now, again, we can discuss in greater detail, you know, which territory is controlled versus which territory they have a presence in.

So we -- we would, sort of, estimate that the Taliban would have a presence in maybe a third of the country.  But in terms of actual control, we think 10 districts out of the 400 where they actually would have what we would call control.

There's other districts where they have some influence, where they have a greater degree of presence.  But again, this is being contested.

One thing to understand about the Afghan campaign plan in '16 versus 2015 is that after 2015, learning from the operations last year, the Afghans decided to concentrate their effort in key parts of the country.

So, as I mentioned in my opening statement, they started in the Kunduz area, with the necessity to defend that from the Taliban.  They did that successfully in the April/May timeframe and inflicted heavy causalities on the Taliban up there, and in fact prevented him from seizing Kunduz again.

Though we still see a presence in the northern districts, north of Kunduz, as an example Archi District and so forth up there.  But again, they don't control the district centers and they don't control the provincial capital.

So this kind of gives you a sense of the nature of the Taliban presence and the degree of control.  They're largely in rural areas -- in the villages and rural areas, but not in the district centers and in none of the provincial capitals.

Now, what we see down in the south is somewhat similar, but I should mention we assess the Taliban have been disrupted by the death of Mullah Mansour that occurred on the 21st of May, and that this disruption, even though they would like us to believe that they recovered from this quickly, they appointed their new leader Haibatullah within one week.

But in fact, many of the tensions that existed in the Taliban under Mansour have, if anything, been exacerbated further with the rapid succession of Haibatullah.

So this rapid succession process was not very inclusive, many of the Taliban leaders who were not in support of Mansour, or remain unsupportive of Haibatullah.  We also see evidence that Mansour had misdirected a lot of the Taliban revenues for his own purposes.  And in fact, since his death, because of his tight control over Taliban finances, in fact, the Taliban are having trouble getting control of their own finances.

So this disruption of finances, disruption amongst the leadership, the fact that the Taliban fighters are fighting and dying inside Afghanistan, while their leaders are living in sanctuary and safety elsewhere, all of this has undermined the cohesion and the effectiveness of the Taliban.

Now, this doesn't mean that they won't be able to conduct high profile attacks, they won't be able to conduct isolated attacks.  We fully expect to see more of that this year.  But what they have been unable to do is to seize and hold any terrain.  And we think that the end of 2015, after their brief success in Kunduz, they believed they were going to be able to seize and hold terrain, and they failed to do so.

So this -- this fight is not over, but I would say that we're cautiously optimistic.  The Afghan security forces are on a positive trajectory in going after the Taliban.  This all fits within President Ghani's approach of fight, fracture, talk.

So they fight the Taliban hard, deny them their objectives, try to peel elements off and reconcile with them.  There's at least two of these groups that are in various stages of conversations with the Afghan government.  And then, eventually, this would ideally lead to a larger and larger number of Taliban fighters choosing to lay down their arms and reconcile with the government.

Q:  All right, thank you.  Just a couple other quick ones.

When we saw you in Afghanistan a couple weeks ago, you said that the new authorities granted by President Obama had been used a couple dozen times, so approximately once per day.  Has that -- has that pace sort of continued?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yes.  So I've been using those authorities daily since the president gave them to us.  Greatly appreciate those.

As I mentioned, since the Afghans are on more of an offensive trajectory, the ability to use the new authorities, which essentially allow us to support them while in offensive operations are -- come in very handy, and really help them to maintain the momentum that they're gaining.

So yes, we continue to use those authorities on a daily basis.  And of course, using authorities does not always mean an air strike.  It may mean reconnaissance aircraft, it may mean armed reconnaissance, it may mean rotary-wing support.

So, it enables me to use my combat enablers in support of the Afghans as they execute their strategic effects under their campaign plan.

Q:  Little bit about the -- the attack in Kabul by Islamic State.  What is that -- what is their ability to have such a large bombing in Kabul say to you about their -- their ability to operate in the country and you know, kind of their -- yeah, just their ability to operate in the country?

Thanks.

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yeah, we again -- they launched a suicide attack against innocent people who were peacefully demonstrating on behalf of their desire for more electricity in Bamiyan province.

It just shows again, targeting innocent victims.  No -- there was no purpose behind it other than that, was to inflict terror and inflict casualties on innocent Afghan victims.  This -- I would say it's not a sign of strength that someone can conduct a suicide attack.

I would -- I would draw your attention, again, back to the high profile attacks that have occurred in Europe and the United States.  Tragic events, but not a sign of a movement necessarily that is growing in strength.  Merely that it has a capability to conduct these attacks.

The -- Kabul is still a city with a number of threat streams.  The Afghan Security Forces work extremely hard and do a tremendous job at interrupting and interdicting many of these threat streams.

So, what we're seeing is, I think, an improvement in Afghan ability to interdict these threat streams as they come forward.  Slightly fewer high profile attacks than last year at this time, even though, again, we're facing nine designated terrorist organizations in the region.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Next to Carla Babb with Voice of America.

Q:  Hi General.  Thank you for doing this.  Good to see you again.  I was wondering, you had said that you continued to use your new authorities on a daily basis.

Do you know how many airstrikes have been carried out under these new authorities?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  The -- since January, we've conducted about 470 airstrikes, just to give you a rollup.

Of counter-terrorist strikes -- specific counter-terrorist strikes, about 180.  Under the new authorities, which are called strategic effects, which have been in effect since early June, about 40 airstrikes, plus or minus.  So again, the use of authority -- you know, the designation of an area as being under the authorities does not necessarily mean we immediately follow with an airstrike.

But I think that'll give you a sense of the numbers.

Q:  Thank you.  And then I just wanted to follow up on the -- the positioning of U.S. troops, because when we spoke to you a couple of weeks ago, you talked about shifting to the east and you talked about some of the injuries in southern Nangarhar.

Are the troops that were in Helmand, are they going to be shifting to southern Nangarhar?  Is that an accurate assessment of where the U.S. troops are going to be?

And if that is the case, does that mean that in the south, they're in that holding pattern?  Because you had mentioned to us a couple of weeks ago that they were either going to be going on the offensive, or holding or disrupting, I think were the three words that you used.

Does that mean that they're -- they're in hold?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Right.  So let me just take a second and describe that.  So this, what you're referencing is the overall Afghan strategy for 2016 Operation Shafaq.  And what -- which means "dawn," and is part of what the Afghans call a sustainable security strategy.

So the idea is that the Afghans will focus their efforts on certain areas, and mainly this is the key population centers, the ring road, the major economic arteries within the country.  And so, these areas are generally designated as areas they will hold or they will fight for.

And so, if it's a hold or a fight area, then the Afghan Security Forces will immediately act to interdict, defeat any enemy effort to gain ground in those areas.  There are other areas in the country where they will disrupt enemy operations, but they're not seeking to hold or fight for those areas.

Now, the -- all the areas we've mentioned today, central Helmand, Kabul, Nangarhar, are all in this fight or hold category.  The Afghan forces are distributed around the country in these areas.  So, the -- the forces in Nangarhar, for example, are advised by a group of advisers that stay with that force.

So -- so, the forces in -- in Helmand, Kandahar, Nangarhar each have their own set of U.S. advisers who stay with those forces and assist them in their operations.

And then, if we invoke authorities, then those advisers would assist in applying those authorities -- you know, calling in an airstrike, et cetera, using reconnaissance, unmanned aerial vehicles, et cetera.

So, these are the kinds of the things that we do.  So, the Afghans have shifted their main effort up to the east, from Helmand to Nangarhar.  And then we assist them by moving, say, our ISR assets, our air power, et cetera, to that area in accordance with our counterterrorism authorities to assist them.

So, this is how we kind of move assets around the country.  The Afghans also move their own assets; they move their own air power, the A-29 aircraft, the MD-530 helicopters, the MI-17 modified forward-firing variant.

So, they move assets around as well.  They move their special forces around.

The Afghan special forces are one of the critical enablers that the Afghans have, about 17,000 of them.  Now, they are the most effective forces -- counterterrorism forces, really, in the entire region.

So, when the Afghans have a major effort, they will move their special forces to that area, and then they have yet, really, to be defeated anywhere this year.

So, this -- so, this is a way in which the Afghans weight the main effort, and that's how we support them with that.

CAPT. DAVIS:  And for a few more minutes, General, I want to go to Tom Bowman from NPR.

Q:  Thanks for doing this, General.

You talked about the Afghan special forces, and you know, there's a lot of talk that these guys are kind of spread too thin, that they're called upon at all times to kind of put out the fire over there.

Are you looking -- or are they looking at expanding the Afghan special forces or -- or anything along those lines?  Giving them more of a rest?  Because clearly, they're being called on for everything.

GEN. NICHOLSON:  So, you're right, Tom.  The -- they are -- they have become kind of the firemen, if you will, and are moved around rapidly.

And we work closely with our Afghan -- the senior leadership of the Afghan military to ensure that the special forces are kept in -- what we call an operational cycle, so that they are employed.  But that they get a chance to rotate out, refit, retrain, take leave, you know, see their families.  Then they get back into the fight.

And so, they're the only force in the Afghan army, candidly, that has this kind of operational cycle.  But as you point out, because they're so good, the temptation is to use them everywhere, and then to leave them in the fight.

And so, we are working closely with our Afghan partners on this.  And I have to say, what we're seeing is, for a young army, what -- what we're seeing is kind of rapid growth in the understanding of how to employ these forces and of the need to regenerate forces before you put them back into the fight.

I would point out that many of the leaders of the Afghan Security Forces have been at war for decades.  I mean, so their entire adult lives, they have been at war.

So, when we come in with our Western notions of operational cycles and force regeneration, it is somewhat new to them, because this is what they do.

So -- but in spite of that, we are finding they are -- they are seeing the benefits of this and are responding to that, and in fact, professionalizing it in a way that -- which we're very proud, and -- as their -- as their advisers.

And so, we're seeing progress on that.  To your question about increasing the size, currently no.  But what we -- what we are trying to do is take some of the methods we -- that have proven so successful with the special forces and bring those over to the conventional force.  You know, the operational cycle, the retraining.

And so, as we go into the winter with the Afghan Security Forces this year, in fact, we're going to work very hard on realizing this -- this same operational cycle with the conventional forces that we have with the special forces.

CAPT. DAVIS:  OK, we'll go to Bill Hennigan from the Los Angeles Times.  This may be our last one, here.

Q:  Thanks.  So, as long as we're on the Afghan forces, I was wondering what the casualty numbers were this year, regarding Afghan forces, and whether that number was higher or lower than last year.

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Thanks, Tom.  It's a great question, and it is one of the areas we're concerned about.

The casualties are trending about 20 percent higher.  Now, last year, the Afghans took high casualties, about 20,000 total casualties, which is tough for a young army.

But I would also say, it was equally impressive to see how a -- again, relatively young army recovered from that and demonstrated real resiliency.

So, I mentioned the regeneration effort in Helmand that has resulted in -- in greater battlefield success this year.

I think what's happening -- and again, we -- we're studying this closely is, what we saw happen this year is that the Taliban continued their fight into the winter months.  So, earlier this year, in January, February, March.

Whereas in the past, in 2015, for example, there was not a lot of fighting.  This year, there was more fighting.

So, the Afghans continued to take casualties steadily throughout the year and through the winter.  And so, now, what we're seeing is I think the majority of that overage is due to the fighting that occurred early in the year of 2016, as compared to last year, when there was little fighting going on early in the year.

But we -- we're studying it.  There are other reasons we're looking at.  You know, it's -- many of these casualties occur on static checkpoints.  We're working hard with the Afghan police and army to reduce their dependency on checkpoints.

Checkpoints are important for political and social reasons; communities feel safer if there's a police or an army checkpoint.  So, it's not a simple matter of telling them to stop having checkpoints.  So, there's a political dimension to it as well.

So, it's a multi-dimensional solution.  But we're working closely with them on that, and then helping them to establish the ability to regenerate forces once they get a chance to -- to do so after a tough period of fighting.

CAPT. DAVIS:  General, it's 11:31.  We promised to end you by 11:30.  Any -- any other closing comments?  Is there anything you wanted to pass onto us?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  I wanted to say again, thanks very much for your focus on -- on this campaign in Afghanistan.

We -- we think the Afghans, again, are on a positive trajectory.  I don't want to overstate it.

But at the same time, they are doing some things very well this year, and we are seeing some progress.  The fight's not over.  We expect we'll see more attempts by the enemy to conduct high profile attacks.

But again, they have not been successful in seizing territory, district centers, provincial capitals.  And as -- as we know, this was their objective this year.

So, we're very proud of our Afghan teammates.  We'll be -- we also -- I also want to note, the very positive results of the Warsaw summit that occurred, and -- and let you all know how great this has been for Afghan morale.

The Afghan people are more encouraged by this strong international commitment.  The Afghan military and security forces are very encouraged.  Their morale is up, as well as the Afghan government.

So this -- this strong demonstration of commitment by President Obama and by all of our international partners here has gone a long way to encouraging the Afghans.

And then the final comment is the Afghans are taking this fight to the enemy.  So we have great partners here in the Afghans.  They're willing.  They're able.  With our assistance, they will take the fight to these nine terrorist groups and these three VEOs and it's much better to fight them here than in our homeland.

Jeff, thanks very much and look forward to seeing you all again here -- either here in Afghanistan or back in Washington.  Thank you, very much.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Thank you, sir.

Thanks, everybody