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Transcript
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Press Conference With General John Nicholson

Dec. 9, 2016
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter; John Nicholson, Commander of International Forces in Afghanistan

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER:  Okay.

Well Good afternoon, everyone.

STAFF:  Can you wait one second?  I just want to make sure CNN pulls through -- (inaudible).

SEC. CARTER:  I just can't wait to get to Bob Burns.

(Laughter.)

You ready to go?

Okay.  Well, listen, thank you all for being here.  It's great to be here once again at Bagram with General Mick Nicholson.  And I'll say a few things about our meetings today and then both General Nicholson and I will be pleased to respond to your questions.

I have come here for two main purposes, but one is to thank him, our NATO partners and our Afghan partners for their efforts all together to ensure a bright future for the Afghan people and to protect our own people from attacks originating here.

I have full confidence in General Nicholson and that's -- that's true also of the chairman and the president.  We're very luck to have him here.  I've known him for a long time.  I have great confidence in his leadership and I'm very pleased that he is here with his wife also.

And I want to mention that my wife Stephanie is here also, and that's the other reason why I'm here, is to -- holiday time is approaching and to thank the wonderful men and women who have performed so well here in Afghanistan, and you know, indirectly, Americans going back many years who have done so well, sacrificed so much.  Remember all of them at holiday time.

And since I'm here at Bagram, also -- and I'll have a moment shortly to especially remember them -- but also, in our thoughts and prayers are the families of those who perished here -- here at Bagram recently in the incident.  And again, we'll be visiting that site shortly.

I just came from Kabul, had productive meetings with President Ghani and discussed the continued U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.  I commended the determination of the Afghan security forces.  This -- I've made many visits to Afghanistan myself.  This was the first place I came when I became secretary of defense, so I know it well, and I am therefore able to say both to General Nicholson but to all the U.S. service members here how proud I am of what they're doing here and how well they're doing it.

And so in addition to wishing them a happy holidays, there's a big congratulations to (inaudible) -- I'm giving that to them as well.  They're pursuing two key missions for us.  First is the counterterrorism mission and the second is giving enabling support to the Afghan security forces.

And the United States made three key decisions in 2016 that General Nicholson and I and Chairman Dunford recommended to President Obama and he approved that will shape our future involvement here.  

The first has to do with the authorities that General Nicholson has.  Last time I was here, if you remember, I announced the president's decision to grant General Nicholson some additional authorities that essentially permit him to act in anticipate -- in anticipation of events that could have strategic effect.  And it -- at that time, we -- we -- Mick and I were explaining to you why that would make a different, and now, we can explain to you -- now we can show you how it has made a difference.

And so if you ask that question, Mick will be prepared to answer that.  But I think you've seen that in the results over the last few months here in Afghanistan, the one sign of which is that the Taliban failed to achieve the objective that it set itself this year, which was to take the provincial capital, and they didn't do what they set out to do.

A second decision was made by the president to retain in 2017 8,448 troop level here in Afghanistan rather than the 5,500 that has been planned earlier.  And the third was the make a continued financial commitment to the support of the Afghan security forces.  

And in our conversations with President Ghani today, he was explaining how those decisions both physically and in morale terms strengthened the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces.  And looking ahead, we discussed a number of issues as well.

For the Americans, we always remember what brought us here in the first place, which is our -- our need to make sure that this is never again a place from which terrorist attacks arise against the United States and we have an opportunity here to maintain a counterterrorism platform in a part of the world where that's very important.  That's -- that's – very valuable to -- the United States.

And so, that's a very important objective to us and so we're -- we're grateful both for our Afghan partners and we're above all grateful for our wonderful men and women serving here today.

So with that, let me and Mick take your questions.

Q:  Can you hear me?

SEC. CARTER:  I can.

Q:  My question is primarily for General Nicholson -- (inaudible) 

SEC. CARTER:  Sure.

Q:  General, obviously soon, you will be working for a different commander-in-chief and a different secretary of defense.  I'm wondering whether you, A, received any kind of guidance from the president-elect's team about going forward next year?  And B, are you already considering some options on different approaches to handling the conflict in the coming year?

GENERAL JOHN NICHOLSON:  Well, thank --

SEC. CARTER:  Let me just say something about the transition first and then you answer the -- you answer the question. 

I -- I just want to say that the -- our -- the department is working on and committed to a transition that allows the new team there to hit the ground running.  We're responding to and will continue to respond to and make questions and to make available people, including General Nicholson.  That hasn't been requested yet, but I just want to make it clear that if that does come up in the future, of course, we'll -- we'll make General Nicholson available.

Sorry.  Please, Mick.

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

And Bob, what I'd add to that is the fundamental rationale for being here in Afghanistan, as the secretary referenced, has not changed.  When you look at the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, there are 20 U.S.-designated terrorist groups in this region.  Our policy of having an enduring counterterrorism effort alongside of our Afghan partners is, in my view, very sound and something we need to continue.

If you look at this past year in terms of our counterterrorism effort, we have focused on Al Qaida and Islamic State in particular with great success and we wish to continue that.  So I think the fundamental logic is -- is very sound.

The second part of our mission, as the secretary mentioned, is to train, advise and assist the Afghan forces.  When you look at the performance of the Afghan forces this year, it was a tough year.  They were tested, but they prevailed.  And this is a testimony to the effectivness of our mission here.  

It also should be noted that we have a 39-nation coalition here.  So this mission and its continuance has been endorsed as recently as the Warsaw Summit, where those coalition partners all committed to four more years of help to the Afghans, and at the Brussels donor conference, where donors expressed an intent to commit another $15.2 billion to development.  

So I think we see a lot of positive momentum and effective stemming from this policy.

STAFF:  Idrees?

Q:  Mr. Secretary -- (inaudible).  You've been here four times, like you mentioned.  President-elect Trump has not given too much information about his policies for Afghanistan.  What advice do you have for him how to deal -- (inaudible)?

SEC. CARTER:  With?

Q:  How to deal --

SEC. CARTER:  With Afghanistan?

Q:  And General Nicholson, could you define what success, how you are defining success in Afghanistan? -- (inaudible).

SEC. CARTER:  Well, with respect to the first part of your question, I think the interests that we're pursuing here are clear and enduring, namely to protect ourselves from attack ever arising again from Afghan territory.  That's one thing that we're doing here.  The other is to make Afghanistan able to secure its own territory so that it can remain what it is, which is a place in a -- in a part of the world that we need to watch from which we can have a strong security partner.

So those -- those interests will endure and our -- and our approach to it is based upon the pursuit of those two American national security interests.

Mick?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Thank you, sir.

And I think a good way to respond to that question is to look at what President Ghani and his team, along with Chief Executive Abdullah and the ministries have defined as success.  So they have a national campaign plan.  That campaign plan ends with a reconciliation with the belligerents or a reconciliation with enough of them that the balance can be managed by the Afghan security forces.

So I'd say this year, we're on that glide path.  When you look at the -- the amount of the population secured by the government, it equates to roughly two-thirds, about 64 percent.  The Taliban are viewed with great disdain by the Afghan people; 87 percent would tell you that a return to Taliban rule would be bad for the country.  There's also great confidence expressed in the Afghan security forces.  And so -- and roughly three-quarters of the population say they have faith and confidence in the Afghan security forces.

So these ingredients add up to a -- I think a year on year increase in the amount of security provided by their government over the population, and that is the objective of the national campaign plan, to a point where the enemy is incentivized to reconcile.

Now, let's look at the Hezb-i-Islami peace deal that was reached this year.  This is an important milestone.  It demonstrates that former belligerents can reconcile with the government.  And next year, they'll go through a re-integration process.  

So I think year on year, with the support provided by the international community, from the Warsaw Summit, from Brussels, we're gonna see this gradual improvement of the situation until they get to this critical mass of the population that they control, and ideally, a reconciliation with the belligerents.  Thank you.

STAFF:  David?

Q:  General Nicholson and Secretary Carter, you both spoke of efforts against terrorists and Secretary Carter you spoke of great success going against Al Qaida.  Since the original authorization for the use of military force here, specifically tailored to going after Al Qaida to what extent has Al Qaida been eliminated from Afghanistan?  And how far are -- is the United States from achieving that objective?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, this has been a -- a big year in that connection, David, and since he conducted many of those operations, let me give Mick the pleasure of reporting the results.

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

And first, I want to thank our counterterrorism forces, special operations forces.  You've done a great job this year.

These operations have been done in conjunction with our Afghan partners.  So highlights this year.  I mentioned there were 20 terrorist groups in the region; seven of those are in Pakistan.  Of these 20, our CT forces, operating with the Afghans, have killed five of the emirs of the 20 organizations.  

They have inflicted -- for example, take Islamic State.  So Islamic State has lost a third of its fighters, two-thirds of the territory that they have seized and we have killed the top 12 leaders, including their emir, Hafiz Saeed Khan.  So just one example.  Against Al Qaida, Farouq al-Qatari, who was the external operations director for Al Qaida, was killed on October 23 along with a few of his associates.  He was involved within the last year in active plotting against the West, against the United States and our allies.  So by removing him, we have severely disrupted their ability to do that.

We'll continue to keep the pressure on these organizations and we'll continue to take the fight to them.  And so, we -- the medium within which some of these groups, like Islamic State and Al Qaida, operate is provided in part by the other insurgent and terrorist organizations in the country.  So pressure on the -- on the whole is important.

I also want to point out the Afghans' key role in all of this.  So 80 percent of the operations done by the Afghan special forces are independent of U.S. enablers, but those operations are critical in keeping pressure on these organizations.

SEC. CARTER:  Do you -- you want to characterize Al Qaida today --

Q:  I have a follow up.  Does Al Qaida represent a threat to the United States at this point here in Afghanistan?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Al Qaida has the intent to attack the United States, their capability, we're working hard on that, on reducing that capability.

But what you see -- you have core Al Qaida, you also have Al Qaida's affiliates.  So here in Afghanistan, we have a group called Al Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent.  And so the two of these groups together have the intent and the capability to conduct attacks outside of Afghanistan.  And in the case of -- of core Al Qaida, they certainly have the intent to try to conduct operations against the United States.

STAFF:  Team CNN, you guys got -- (inaudible)?

Q:  Thank you, General.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

In regards to today, President Ghani spoke at length about how the commitment of resources and commitment of continued U.S. personnel here had gone a long way in terms of boosting morale in the country.  But given that there's a transition -- a new administration coming in, are you hearing any expressions of concern from the Afghan partners, whether in the Afghan military or within the Afghan political establishment?

And I may just quickly -- General, you described a moderate level of risk with the current resources.  What additional resources will reduce that risk?  Is it more trainers, more air assets, those kind of things?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, with respect to the first part of the question, no there -- there wasn't concern.  We did talk about the future, so in addition to President Ghani thanking the United States and the coalition for the decisions made over the last year and the continued support, we did talk about the future.  We talked about the so-called -- (inaudible) -- rest, which is important to look ahead to next summer.

We looked -- we talked about the importance of political unity here in Afghanistan continuing into the future.  We talked about the continued need for economic reform and anti-corruption.  And we talked about regional security affairs and the actions of others in the area, including their actions within Afghanistan.  So it was a very forward-looking conversation.

But the reason why, I think, President Ghani has confidence in the future of his country is importantly because of some of the decisions taken over the last year.

And on the second part of your question, I think that was for General Nicholson.

Go ahead, Mick.

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Thanks, Mr. Secretary.

Well, thanks for the question.  And -- and to reiterate on the Warsaw Summit, so when we talk about Afghan morale and hope for the future, the international decision of this coalition to recommit to four more years provided a huge boost in morale to the government, to the Afghan security forces themselves, but mainly to the Afghan people.

So I think in July, that renewal of commitment and then the follow-on in Brussels with the renewed donor commitment was extremely important to Afghan morale.  We have seen, despite the fact that this was a tough year -- and I would say the Afghan security forces were tested, but they prevailed -- we've actually seen a decrease in the number of Afghans who say they would seek to emigrate.

Now, I -- I know these are small signs of -- of -- well, I already mentioned the fact that, you know, 87 percent of the people do not want to see a return of the Taliban.

With respect to the question of risk, I've said it's a moderate but acceptable level of risk.  And in terms of what are we doing, of course we are primarily doing our counterterrorism mission, and when I need additional assets for that, they are brought in for the duration that we need them and then they can depart again.  So there's been -- I've been able to get everything I've needed when it comes to my counterterrorism mission.

And with respect to the advising mission, what we've done this year is sort of re-organized our advisers and gone back to some of our allies, especially with respect to, for example, the training base, the schools, the education systems.  And we've gotten some great contributions from many of our allies on this; the Germans, the Italians, the Brits in particular have all provided additional focused groups of advisers on some of these key areas.

So in the NATO system, every six months, we do a review of the mission, it's called a periodic mission review, and then we review our requirements, then we go out to the alliance with the -- with those needs.  And so this process is what -- you know, as we get the numbers back in from all the allies, that's what causes me to gauge my risk.  So -- but I should point out we're not only asking the U.S. for these, we're also go out to all of our allies as well.

I just came here from the foreign ministerials meeting in Brussels with NATO.  I was very encouraged by what we heard from the nations and the foreign ministers.  I think when you look at the range of challenges facing NATO, there remains a strong commitment to Afghanistan going -- going forward, as mentioned, at Warsaw, Brussels, and now again at the foreign ministerials.

So I feel like we will have the resources we need going forward.

STAFF:  Let's take one last one from -- (inaudible).

Q:  (inaudible) – so when I came here on previous visits -- (inaudible) – there was a time when people talked about security -- (inaudible) -- governance -- (inaudible).  We hear a lot less of that now. When you have a president-elect who says he doesn't do nation building, how -- is there any extent to which nation building is still a part of  -- (inaudible) -- as you (inaudible) security objectives?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, our -- our mission is principally the security mission.  (inaudible) I'll say something and then -- (inaudible) -- which is as I've characterized it.  There is also an international assistance mission here in Afghanistan which we're -- we can't speak for, but which is also extremely important, which is aimed at political development and economic development here in the country.  And that continues.

But the reason for the U.S. military commitment here are the reasons, David, that I cited before, which are the need to protect our own country and our own people first and foremost from attacks emanating from here, and secondly, the recognition that this is an important part of the world and that to have a stable security partner who is eager and willing to work with the United States is an asset for the future for us in security terms.  So those are the reasons why we're here, and in particular, why General Nicholson and all these wonderful people here you see at Bagram are here.

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

David, what I'd add -- I'd add to what the secretary said, in 2014, we shifted our mission from ISF doing counter-insurgency to Resolute Support conducting train, advise, assist.  So when we ended our counter-insurgency mission, those other dimensions that you mentioned, nation-building and development, were picked up by the international community and -- and led by our diplomatic missions.

I would point out a couple things.  I already mentioned the Brussels donor conference with $15 billion expressed intent to commit.  Let me highlight a couple of folks.  The Indians, for example, give -- have given $1 billion to the Afghans thus far and have now committed to additional billion -- excuse me -- $2 billion thus far and committed to an additional billion.  You see the U.S. -- this is one of our largest development programs.  It remains not administered, of course, by the Pentagon, but by the State Department and USAID.

So we see continued strong commitment in many of these other areas going forward.  

In the -- speaking on the military sides, it's also worth noting that when Secretary Carter became the secretary of defense and we had close to 100,000 troops here, and now, we're down to one-tenth of that.  So the -- the way we've been able to do that is because the Afghan security capability has been built up over that same period to where they now provide over 300,000 service members, police, out there securing the country with our advising and assisting, again, at one-tenth of the level we once were.

So we've seen a real shift in terms of our focus going forward.  So that's reflected not only in the -- in the numbers of troops, but also it's actually in -- in our mission statement, it's -- it's what we do.  Do we consult with those other efforts?  Absolutely.  But we are not directly involved in that from -- from the Resolute Support or U.S. forces Afghanistan perspective.

Q:  Quick follow-up.  Just quick, if the United States -- (inaudible) -- United States government stopped what could be called nation building would that make your task harder?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  I think the -- we're talking about factors such as economic development, demographics, counter-narcotics, and all these factors are very important.  Other actors in the landscape here, primarily through our diplomatic efforts and donors, are focused on those issues.  We -- we certainly try to coordinate our activities with them, but -- but our main focus is -- is on -- on the security dimension going forward.

And again, from my assessment as a commander on the ground, the Afghans are making steady process in that -- in that arena, and that's been proven this year in the fact that they were tested, they prevailed, the enemy sought to take their -- take cities away from them on eight separate occasions, some of them -- (inaudible) -- one day, the sixth of October, there were simultaneous attacks on four Afghan cities.  The Afghans defeated them all.

And this is -- shows a maturing army that can deal with complexity and simultaneity in a way that they have not been able to do in the past.  So we're very encouraged by what we see.

Q:  Thank you, sir.

SEC. CARTER:  Good.  All right.  Thanks, all, very much.