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Press Conference by Secretary Mattis in Afghanistan

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JIM MATTIS:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Good to see you all.  

And I think you're aware of who General Nicholson is, but for those of you who've travelled with me, if you've not seen him before, this is the NATO commander here of the international operation that's been going on for years.  

And, as if we needed a reminder, as I stand here before you, of the type of enemy that we're up against, the killing of Afghan citizens, soldiers, protectors of the people, just as they were coming out of a mosque, you know, coming out of a house of worship -- it certainly characterizes this fight for exactly what it is.  

These people have no religious foundation.  They -- they are not devout anything, and -- and it shows that we -- why we stand with the people of this country against such heinous acts perpetrated by -- and the word gets used often, I think too often, but this is -- this barbaric enemy and what they do.  Kind of makes it clear to me why it is we stand together.  

I met today with President Ghani.  I'd seen him in Europe about two months ago, ladies and gentlemen.  And here, we had another focused discussion, here in Kabul, as we worked to align our efforts.  

I thanked him for his warm welcome, and it certainly was that, with him and his -- his leadership, for his personal leadership in the midst of very, very difficult times and for the inclusive approach of this unity government, with Chief Executive Abdullah, who also in both our private meeting, the president and I, and also in the larger meeting between our delegations.  

We discussed his initiative to make the government of national unity more responsive to all of the Afghan people.  And we all recognized the challenges to this government and to that effort presented by enemies of the Afghan people who refused to renounce violence.  

As you know, President Trump has directed a review of our policy in Afghanistan as the new administration takes hold in Washington.  This dictates an on-going dialogue with Afghanistan's leadership, and that's why I came here.  

I talked again with President Ghani, with his ministers, and heard directly and at length from the NATO commander, General Nicholson, in -- in order to provide my best assessment and advice as we go forward, advice to the president, to the NATO secretary general and all the troop-contributing nations with whom I coordinate and collaborate.  

Our NATO general -- our NATO commander, General Nicholson is one of our most experienced officers in the field, also one of our most serious strategic thinkers.  The teamwork that we enjoy here between the Afghan government, our diplomats and our international military contingence has reached very, very high levels of partnership.  In a word, I found it impressive.  

Within the new American administration, of course, our review in Washington is a dialogue with Secretary Tillerson and the president and his staff in the White House.  And I'd say that we're under no illusions about the challenges associated with this mission.  

2017's going to be another tough year for the valiant Afghan security forces and the international troops who have stood and will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Afghanistan against terrorism and against those who seek to undermine the legitimate United Nations-recognized government of this nation.  

If the Taliban wished to join the political process and work honestly for a positive future for the Afghan people, who have suffered long and hard, they need only to renounce violence and reject terrorism.  It's a pretty low standard to join the -- join the political process.  

But those are my impressions, what I was doing here during these -- these hours that I've been here on the ground, and I can take any questions that you might have.  

I've got a couple minutes for questions.  

Helene, go ahead, please.  

Q:  Thank you, both of you, for doing this.  

I'd like to ask both Secretary Mattis and General Nicholson whether it's your assessment that the Haqqani network was behind the Afghan base attack last week.  

Also, do you think that the Haqqani network may have also played a role in the hospital attack last month, and whether you see any contact under way between ISIS and Haqqani here in Afghanistan?  

And then, separately, for General Nicholson, you've explained that you dropped the MOAB on Achin to clear a tunnel of -- a cave complex of ISIS fighters.  Did you also consider the larger strategic message that you might be sending to American adversaries like North Korea and Syria when you made that decision?  

Thank you.  

GENERAL JOHN NICHOLSON:  Thank you, Helene.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  

Well, first -- let me take the second question first.  The secretary has talked about the strike we conducted in Achin last week.  I really have nothing to add with respect to that.  I will say we were sending a very clear message to ISIS -- not only to ISIS here in Afghanistan, but also ISIS main.  

But they -- if they come here to Afghanistan, they will be destroyed.  In keeping with the secretary's intent, they will be annihilated.  And so this continuing pressure we're putting on ISIS is achieving that effect, and we're going to keep it up.  

To shift to the first part of your question, the Haqqanis and the Taliban both pose a threat this year.  We have not seen cooperation between ISIS-K and the Haqqanis, however we're always watching for convergence between the various terrorist groups that we see here.  

ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack on the hospital that occurred.  The Taliban have claimed responsibility for the attack that occurred up in Mazar-e Sharif.  Again, we don't see the connections between those two groups.  But in terms of the way -- what they did during these attacks, there's very much a connection.  

As the secretary talked about in his comments, the level of barbarity and cruelty, shooting patients in their beds, killing young soldiers at the mosque in prayer -- they're reaching new lows in terms of their behavior.  And this is why the majority of the Afghan people -- something like 87 percent -- reject the Taliban and do not want to see a return of this regime.  

And as the secretary said, we are open to -- I know our Afghan partners are open to having the Taliban rejoin peaceful life here in Afghanistan.  Thank you. 

Q:  And the first part of my question, on whether or not you -- you -- is your assessment that the Haqqani network was responsible for the base attack on Friday?  

GEN. NICHOLSON:  We're -- we're still -- we're still developing that, and -- and we'll let you know as we develop more details.  The Taliban claimed credit for the attack...


GEN. NICHOLSON:  ... but, as you -- as you know, Helene, the Taliban and Haqqani are linked.  So Siraj Haqqani is the deputy of the Taliban.  So we tend to -- to look at them as one quite often.  So, in -- in the level of sophistication and the way this attack was conducted -- it's quite possible that the Haqqanis were involved.  

Q:  Just to follow on this -- ISIS.  Hi, Kevin Baron from Defense One.  Just to follow, could -- you said you're achieving intended effects on -- on ISIS growing here.  Can you say, then, for the record, does that mean that foreign fighters are not coming to -- to Afghanistan?  Are your number -- are their numbers dwindling, or are they growing?  What's ISIS ability to sustain it?  In short, is -- is it the threat that many folks back home are -- are starting to think that it was becoming? 

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Well, ISIS is certainly a threat globally.  ISIS Khorasan province is one of the principal affiliates of ISIS, and so they're attempting to establish their own form of a caliphate here by seizing and holding terrain.  

As you're aware, we have begun -- we've been attacking that caliphate since last -- since early last year, reduced it by about two-thirds in size, reduced their fighters by at least half.  

We've done this through a series of operations.  The latest one started in early March -- continuous pressure on them, and we'll -- we're going to keep going until they're defeated in 2017.

Now, they have an aspiration, I think, to move fighters here from Syria.  We haven't seen it happen.  And, in fact, by reducing their sanctuary here, or by annihilating them here or (there ?), it should be very clear to ISIS main, there is no space for them to come to in Afghanistan.  

Q:  Thank you gentlemen for doing this.  Thomas Gibbons-Neff from the Washington Post.  

If you two could just address the influx of Russian weapons into Afghanistan and -- and showing up in Taliban hands in Helmand, Kandahar and Urozgan, and what both of you -- I guess, General Nicholson on the tactical and strategic level, and Secretary Mattis on the, I guess, diplomatic level, political level of what you're going to do to stop the Russians from sending these weapons in?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, you know, the -- the Russians seem to be choosing to be strategic competitors in a number of areas.  The level of granularity and the level of success they're achieving -- I think the jury is out on that.  

I'll let the general talk about any of the specific weapons and all, but the -- the broader strategic framework that you're driving toward -- I would say that we will engage with Russia diplomatically.  We'll do so where we can.  But we're going to have to confront Russia where what they're doing is contrary to international law or denying the sovereignty of other countries.  For example, any weapons being funneled here from a foreign country would be -- would be a violation of international law, unless they're coming through the government of Afghanistan for the -- for the Afghan forces.  And so that would have to be dealt with as a violation of international law.  

But if you have any information on the weapons, add another word?  

GEN. NICHOLSON:  The -- the only thing I would add to that is that we -- we continue to get reports of this assistance, and, of course, we had the overt legitimacy lent to the Taliban by the Russians.  That -- that really occurred starting late last year, beginning through this process they've been undertaking.  And, of course, as the Secretary stated, we support anyone who wants to help us advance the reconciliation process.  

But, arming belligerents or legitimizing belligerents who perpetuate attacks like we saw two days ago in Mazar-e Sharif is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation.  

Q:  So, to be clear, you're not refuting that they're sending weapons to the Taliban?  

GEN. NICHOLSON:  No, I'm not refuting that. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, go ahead, please.  

Q:  General, Hans Nichols with NBC News.  

The general sitting next to you is -- or standing next to you has said that we're at a stalemate in terms of the U.S. versus the Taliban.  He's also requested thousands of more troops.  Which one is it?  Are you comfortable with the stalemate, or do we need more troops? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Frankly, I don't see any tension between those two things, those two factors.  Right now, we're engaged in defining the challenge, the way ahead, with a whole lot of nations.  And it depends -- there's no one nation that's going to carry all this, so there's a lot of collaboration.  And that is based on an assessment of the tactical and operational challenge and where we want to be in what time.  

So, to -- I'm not going to get into how you would characterize it in one word, but we are going to address that situation and move forward together against the terrorists.  And that is exactly why we're meeting now.  

And those -- obviously, I owe some degree of confidentiality on where my thinking's at and what I'm going to recommend once I've compiled my notes from this trip and speak to some of our NATO allies about the way ahead.  

Q:  Let me ask that a slightly different way.  Is NATO winning this conflict?  And, if not, is it winnable?

SEC. MATTIS:  The -- the bottom line is that this fight against terrorism is going to go on.  You saw what happened in Paris.  You see the French troops engaged down in Africa.  You find the NATO -- the NATO-led force -- a lot more than just NATO -- here in Afghanistan.  You see what's going on against ISIS in Syria.  This fight is going to go on.  

We're in an era of frequent skirmishing.  It's going to be far-flung, and that's the -- the nature of this fight.  And concise, short definitions in one local area or another do not give sufficient credit to -- to really defining the complexity of the issue.  

STAFF:  Sir, that's all the time we've got.  We've got to get you to your next thing.  Thank you, guys, very much.  

SEC. MATTIS:  All right, thank you.