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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Brig. Gen. Cleveland via teleconference from Kabul, Afghanistan

Aug. 25, 2016
Presenters: Brigadier General Charles H. Cleveland, deputy chief of staff for communications, Resolute Support Mission Defense Press Office

CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Good morning, and welcome. We're pleased to be joined by General Charlie Cleveland, coming to us from Kabul, Afghanistan, although I don't see him. We're going to wait until we see him.

General, got it. We can see you. Can you hear us? And can we hear you?

BRIGADIER GENERAL CHARLES CLEVELAND: I can, Jeff. I can hear you well. Thank you.

CAPT. DAVIS: General, we'll turn it over to you for your opening comments, and we'll take questions from here.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Great.

So good morning to everybody. And again, thank you for taking the time, and also thank you for covering this story. We do think it's important and we appreciate your work on that.

What I'd like to be able to do is, again, make some brief opening comments for you, and then certainly do welcome your questions about anything you'd like to discuss.

I'd like to begin, though, however, by once again restating and reinforcing our deepest sympathies and our condolences for the family and friends of Staff Sergeant Matthew Thompson; again, the American hero who was killed in Helmand this week. Our thoughts are with his family. 

We also want to express our deepest sympathies and our condolences to the victims of last night's just horrendous terrorist attack here in Kabul at the American University of Afghanistan. And once again, our thoughts are with the families and the friends of those who were lost last night in just that terrible attack.

So what I'd like to do is really tell you a little bit today about what's happening in Helmand and how things are going there. Overall, though, as I think you're aware, the investigation into the incident this week is still ongoing. So I don't have a whole lot of additional information for you today on what transpired. Of course, that's a very normal investigation. We do it for every single servicemember who is killed in Afghanistan. But at this point, we don't have a whole lot of additional details for you.

But what I do want to discuss is I just want to provide a bit of a refresher on the larger train, advise and assist mission that U.S. forces are participating in, and then hopefully describe exactly how that is working down in Helmand and what those U.S. troops are doing down in Helmand.

So as a reminder, of course, the United States has two missions here. The first mission is a U.S. unilateral counterterrorism mission, and that is focused on Al Qaida and on ISK. And we do pursue that very aggressively. The second mission, though, is the train, advise, and assist mission. And that is a part of the larger NATO mission to really help the Afghans get to a point where they've got a sustainable security capability, they can defend their own borders, and they can address these trans-regional terrorist organizations that are based in this part of the world.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: And so again as a refresher, the train, advise and assist -- what is it? It really is exactly what it sounds like. First off, we do have personnel who are out there training Afghans, and that's everything from literally training them how to fire a weapon, to how to fly an airplane, and kind of everything in between.

On the advise piece, we do embed advisers at multiple levels within both the ministry of defense as well as the ministry of the interior. And the intent for that is to be able to just really provide some expertise and be able to talk through solutions and problems, and everything else that's going on with that particular organization.

And then finally, the assistance aspect. Often times, that comes in the form of financial assistance. It may come in the form of material assistance. But sometimes for specific operations, it will come in the form of logistics assistance or the provision of intelligence, or those types of things.

And so where do see this? You see it really at three different levels within the ministry of defense and the ministry of the interior.

The first level is here in Kabul, literally at the minister's -- at the ministerial here. And what we are trying to do is provide that assistance to those intuitions so that they can work as institutions and continue to evolve and grow.

The next level down is at the Army Corps and then the police zone level. And again, the Army Corps are the organizations for the Afghans that are responsible for soldiers across multiple provinces. And then the police zones are parallel organizations, they are responsible for policemen and their efforts across multiple provinces. And so we do focus our train, advise, and assist at that level.

And then the final level is the special operations capability. Again, that is both at the MOD and with the MOI. We do have the authority under NATO to be able to go out and provide very tactical level train, advise, and assist to our Afghan partners.

In most cases, that really does take place on a compound, on FOB, et cetera, but we do have the authority as required to go outside of the wire, and be able to provide that train, advise, and assist to our Afghan partners as they conduct operations. Our role in that of course is that -- we don't participate, we don't go on the objective, but we do do is we provide that assistance that they require.

And again, that is the NATO mission. And that is what we have been doing for the last 18 months in this country, and that we will continue to do really as we move forward into 2017.

So how does that pertain specifically to Helmand? And as I think you are aware, we do have a train, advise, and assist command or attack that is based out of Camp Shorab, that is led by an America. And the focus there is to provide that TAA, to the Afghan Corps, the 215th, which is based there at Camp Shorab.

Now specific to Helmand though, the police zone is actually not co-located. The police zone is in Lashkar Gah right now. And so what we have recently done is we have picked up an expeditionary advisory package and we have moved that down to Lashkar Gah for a temporary period.

We've always worked with the police zone that is based out of there, but in the last week, we've decided we want to get some focused effort down there. So we've moved some advisers down there and then of course, we've brought in a security capability so that they have force protection, and they can help defend themselves as required.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: And then the final component is the Afghan SOF, are typical habitually associated with a particular corps or a police zone, but that is not always the case. They certainly have the ability to move from Helmand, to move to Kandahar, Uruzgan, et cetera. But so on any given night, what you will find is that you may have Afghan SOF working in Helmand, you may have them in Kandahar, or you may have them someplace else. And then, of course, on any given night you may have NATO forces that are providing that train, advise and assist.

So I do just want to give you a little bit on the scope or the scale of what that looks like. So about 80 percent of the Afghan SOF operations are conducted completely independent of NATO. They do it by themselves. They don't need any assistance whatsoever.

Of that remaining 20 percent, about 10 percent of those are what we refer to as "enabled operations." So the NATO forces don't go outside of the wire, but will help with planning, will help with potentially ISR, will help with logistics, et cetera. 

And than that remaining 10 percent, again we refer to as "advise." And those are the examples where you may have NATO members that go outside of the wire, and then do accompany Afghan forces as they move towards an objective. And that is the type of mission that Staff Sergeant Thompson was a part of.

I now want to shift up to the, again, this terrible terrorist incident that occurred last night here in Kabul because there is a TAA component to that as well. Overall, this was a crisis that was handled by the Ministry of Interior, as well as all of their policemen and some of their special operations capabilities. And from all reports, they did exceptionally well. They handled a very challenging problem. They did it very professionally. So I really will refer you to the MOI for any specifics on what they did, how they did it, et cetera.

But as part of that effort, we did have a NATO-SOF train, advise, and assist capability that did go out with them, and did assist them. They did not go on to the objective. They did not participate in the actions on the objective, but they were there to provide additional assistance and provide that training and that advise and that assistance.

The other aspects of it, too, we did have a QRF, a NATO QRF that moved into the area to be an extra QRF for those advisers if they needed it. And then finally, we did provide some ISR to help our Afghan partners out. And when I say NATO, that was truly a NATO mission. It was a mix of several countries that are the habitual advisers. We did have a couple of Americans involved, but it was not a unilateral effort. They were integrated into this larger effort. And again, overall, the MOI did quite well in responding to that crisis.

So the final topic I just want to touch on very briefly, and then once again, I welcome your questions. And it's really the overall status in Afghanistan right now.

And of course, what we have seen is we've seen an uptick in fighting over the last month, specifically in Helmand and then that was followed in Kunduz. And of course, this is the heart of the fighting season. And we have absolutely been expecting that this is really when the Taliban were going to try and make their large push. So we have seen that. 

But overall, as we look at the country holistically, and as we compare and add into that the progress that we've seen at the ministry of defense and the ministry of interior from an institutional level, overall we still do believe that the ANDSF is performing better this year than they performed last year. We think that they are still generally on track with their offensive campaign plan, Operation Shafaq. And then finally, we still believe that they are generally on a positive trajectory.

So with that, Jeff, I'll turn it back to you and I welcome your comments.

CAPT. DAVIS: Sir, we'll start with Lita Baldor with Associated Press.

Q: Hi, general. Thanks for doing this.

Can I get a couple of quick specific questions on the incidents at the university, and then one sort of broader question?

You mentioned the QRF. Did the QRF actually move into -- onto the university proper?

And were there not American advisers also at the university? I'm wondering if you could just give us a better sense of what they may have been doing there.

And also, are you -- have you gotten any additional information about whether or not this was indeed the Taliban?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure, thank you, Lita.

First off, the QRF did not move on to the actually university campus. They were at a safe location back and prepared to respond. That's part of what's referred to here as our Kabul Security Force.

Again, it's a NATO effort that provides essentially QRFs for anything ongoing in Kabul. You ask about the advisers, again they were not physically at the university when the attack occurred.

But as their response occurred they did accompany again their partners that they work with habitually. And again I would stress it was not really a U.S. effort or even U.S. led.

We had a very small presence; it was a larger NATO effort of people who work with them. And then finally, on responsibility we have not seen at least a public claim of responsibility for this yet. We would expect this.

But at this point, we don't have a complete sense of who conducted it, be it a Taliban, be it the Haqqani network or be it somebody else.

Q: OK and thank you. And for my -- for the broader question, since the president has approved some of this more aggressive actions by the U.S. over the last couple of months, can you give us a sense of how many more air strikes and how much more the U.S. is doing in assisting the Afghans overall? If you've got any numbers on the increase in air strikes against the Taliban and or any actions against the Islamic State, et cetera. That'd be helpful.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure. So, Lita, we have -- as again to review the bidding. Of course, the president provided these additional authorities in mid-June for us and we refer to those as strategic effects.

And to really kind of understand those authorities they've got to understand the larger Afghanistan or the ANDSF campaign plan for 2016. So these are not strikes that we take in a unilateral fashion and again, these are U.S. strikes. They're not NATO strikes.

But we don't take them in a unilateral fashion like we do the counter terrorism strikes against Al Qaida or Daesh. These strikes and these combated neighbors that we provide are specifically tied to what the Afghans are doing on the ground.

And so again, their campaign plan to summarize it very briefly was they started off at the end of March, they started off up in Kunduz, essentially moving to the offense and trying to engage the Taliban.

They had success up there and then they successfully defended Kunduz City. They subsequently moved down to the south and moved their main effort into Helmand and again in our view they had success in Helmand.

There was some difficult fighting in northern Kandahar and in southern Uruzgan. But before Ramazan they were really able to stabilize that situation and accomplish their objectives.

After Ramazan, they shifted their main effort up into the northeast, up in Nangarhar and that's about the time that we really started using these authorities. And so overall, we do continue to use these authorities.

General Nicholson tries to be as aggressive as possible and since these authorities were granted, we've taken about 80 strikes. And those strikes have been either in the Nangarhar area, down in the Helmand area or back in the Kunduz area.

Again, focused on the Afghans campaign plan and their strategy for 2016. What we don't do is we don't target the Taliban by status, and we don't take these strikes, and we don't provide these combat enablers in locations around Afghanistan that are not tied to the larger campaign plan.

Does that answer the question?

Q: Right, and just on the enablers, have those been mostly down in the south? 

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Actually, they have been in several -- they have really been in Nangarhar, and they have been in Helmand, but they have also been up in Kunduz. And it has been episodic because the fighting has been episodic. 

You know, it was right after Ramazan and Eid, so early to mid- July that the focus was in Nangarhar. And so that's where most of the effort was put. So about the 28th of July when the Taliban began trying to conduct some attacks in Helmand, so our focus shifted down there and the preponderance of the strikes were in Helmand. 

About ten days or so ago, the situation in Helmand began to stabilize. And then at almost the same time, we saw a uptick in the fighting in Kunduz. And so the effort, and our strategic effects efforts started focusing up in the Kunduz area. 

CAPT. DAVIS: OK, great. Tom Bowman, from National Public Radio. 

Q: General, thanks for doing this. 

Can you explain why there is an uptick in violence in Helmand, especially since the U.S. has done dozens of air-strikes there? You have sent advisers there months and months ago. Is it because the Afghan Forces just aren't confident enough or sufficient in number? 

Or is it because the Taliban have larger numbers of fighters there with greater capabilities? 

There have been reports that they now have some sort of special operations capabilities, better weapons, and also, night vision goggles. 

Or is it a bit of both? 

BRIG. GEN.CLEVELAND: Yes Tom, thank you for the question as always. 

And as I think you know, Helmand has always been the Taliban's main effort. It is their prime focus. It is where they invest the most energy. They started off this fighting season. They refer to their offensive as Operation Omari. And as a part of Operation Omari, what they stated, is they actually wanted to go out and hold and seize terrain so that they could start developing a sanctuary overall in Helmand. So again, we are right in the middle of the fighting season. I would tell you candidly, the fighting was slower than we anticipated in Helmand. Frankly, we thought the Taliban would launch strikes and attacks earlier. But they didn't start until the end of July. 

And Tom, really what we've seen is -- I'd refer to these almost as raids. And so what we've watched over and over again, is we'll see the Taliban mass -- and when I say mass, it's literally 15 to 20 Taliban -- they will assault a checkpoint, or in some cases a district center. 

The ANDSF at the location, usually smaller, will withdraw. They will go back to a safer location. The Taliban will loot that place. And then the ANDSF will come back and move them out. 

And so, really what we see is the Taliban are not able to hold any specific terrain. And most important is, they are not able to hold any of the population centers. And that's really what the Afghans have built their entire strategy on for this campaign season, is being able to secure key population areas as well as key infrastructure. 

So again, you ask why do we see this attack? Well, this is the Taliban's main effort. Historically, this is where they want to be and they even announced it at the beginning of the fighting season. 

You asked about some new Taliban capabilities? And there has been some reporting that the Taliban have these quasi-special forces, and night vision goggles, and snipers, and all of that kind of stuff. We have not seen any evidence of that at this point. 

I think it's entirely possible that some Taliban have some captured equipment, but we do not believe that this is an institutional capability. What we have seen is the Taliban -- they will essentially kind of form a task force or a task group where they will go out and they'll reach out to about 10 or 20 people, those people will be assembled, they will go out and conduct a specific mission, and they will disperse back to wherever it is. 

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: But we have not seen anything related to a Taliban special forces capability that is an institutional effort.

I hope that answers the question, Tom.

Q: If you could answer a broader one. You know, the U.S. and its allies have been training the Afghans for a decade now. And the Afghans took over full responsibility for their own security last year. So, if that's the case, why is it necessary to once again send hundreds of American soldiers into Helmand to do basic training with the army and the police?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure, Tom.

So, last year, as we've discussed before, very, very difficult year for the ANDSF and perhaps most difficult for the corps based down there, the 215th Corps. They had a number of challenges. First off, from a strategy standpoint, they were spread out all over Helmand in a number of checkpoints, primarily on the defense.

They had a number of very poor leaders. And frankly, by the end of the year last year, the Taliban really had the upper hand on them. And so as we look at the 215th Corps and we worked with our Afghan partners, what we recognized was that we did absolutely need to help them regenerate some capability. 

So we did put down some additional train, advise and assist people down there. And what we worked with was the ability to pull a couple of their kandaks or their battalions off of the line for a given period; put them back through training; and then get them back into the fight.

So while that was going on, though, the Afghans did start trying to help themselves as well. They literally replaced over 100 leaders, and that starts at the corps commander. They replaced all of their brigade commanders and then many leaders beneath that. They really worked to try and change their larger strategy so that they would start off the season on the offense. 

And we saw some evidence of that. They were able this year in the spring to clear from Helmand up to Sangin, and clear that highway. They were able to clear out the Marjah, and then they have been trying to expand that Marjah security bubble as well.

As we know, it's not perfect. As we know, there is certainly still violence down there. But when we look at what the Taliban has accomplished, by and large they have been very local successes, and they've been temporary because in most instances, the ANDSF has been able to move back out, reclaim the area, and then finally protect their population centers.

DAVIS: Next to Tara Copp, Stars and Stripes.

Q: Thanks, general.

Could you give us a status on the injured soldier? Is that soldier still in medical care or moved out of the hospital? And I have a few other questions as well.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yes, Tara. He is -- he is still here in Afghanistan. He is still receiving treatment, but he is still stable.

Q: OK. And then that 10 percent of Afghan army that still needs assistance and advisers, how frequently are U.S. advisers actually getting out and on these patrols with them? If you could give us some broad terms.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure, Tara. So, if I wasn't clear earlier, let me try and describe that again.

So, at the SOF level, what we're able to do is we are able to go out, if required, out on particular missions. And kind of the criteria we use for that is, number one, determining how complex the mission is. And then number two, determining what is the payoff; what are we going to gain out of this as a larger effort. And then number three, again, what is the risk and trying to figure out what do the Afghans need.

So, out of the Afghan SOF missions, again 80 percent of those missions they conduct completely by themselves. They have no assistance whatsoever from NATO at all. Of that remaining 20 percent, about 10 percent of those missions are those missions we refer to again as "enabled." And what we'll do is we'll essentially help them plan. We'll help provide some ISR perhaps. We'll help try and talk them through a particular aspect of the mission. And then they go out and they conduct the mission.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: And then the remaining 10 percent again we refer to as advised and those are the missions where we'll put NATO forces out with that Afghan organization as they move to an objective. We don't put NATO forces on the objective.

What they do is they stop at the last safe location. The Afghans conduct the operation and then they come back off of that. And so that's really the concept so when we say 10 percent I'm not talking about 10 percent of the military needs assistance.

I'm really trying to describe 10 percent of the missions that the Afghan Special Operations Forces participate in or conduct. We may have people out on the field with them.

Q: General, how frequently are U.S. soldiers getting out and participating in these types of missions?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: I would say again, this is something that we do nationwide and so of course there are corps that are based in the north-east. There's one based in Kandahar, there is one based in Helmand.

There's one based out west in Herat and then there is one based up in the north in Mazar-i-Sharif. And so we probably have and again this is not necessarily true every night. But it's possible that we have some NATO SOF element out in the field on any given night.

I don't really have a good specific stat for you if you will to say 100 percent of the nights or 80 percent of the nights or whatever the case may be. Some of it really of course is all conditions based.

But on average, we probably have somebody out every night or every other night. Some place in the country.

Q: I just had one last one, sorry. In recent weeks, news reports that the Taliban had essentially surrounded the area around Lashkar Gah and that civilians were drawing back into the city.

But based on what you were saying a few minutes ago, is that not still the case? Or what are you seeing on the ground around Lashkar Gah?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure so Lashkar Gah we believe the City of Lashkar Gah is secure right now. And we know that there is commerce ongoing. We see people come in and go. And again, we've got some people that are there to provide this train, advice and assist to the police zone. Outside of Lashkar Gah really what you can find is some locations; there may be some Taliban activity.

The Taliban does have the ability to temporarily block this road or that road. The final piece that we're seeing is that they have laid out an awful lot of IEDs. And so as the ANDSF expands back out what they're trying to do is move slowly, clear those IEDs and they're also trying not to cause any additional civilian casualties.

And so I'm not quite sure if that answers your question completely Tara but it really depends on the time of day of when the Taliban is attacking at this location. Or when the ANDSF is pushing forward and attacking another location.

Q: Thank you.

CAPT. DAVIS: Great.

Next, we'll go to T.M. Gibbons-Neff, The Washington Post.

Q: Thank you sir, thanks for doing this. I have a few questions but I just kind of want to start with Staff Sergeant Thompson I'm sorry for your guys loss.

You kinda were talking about these parameters for when you send out advisors with the Afghans, you know how complex, what's the payoff, what's the risk. I mean could you answer those questions for what Thompson was doing when he was killed.

I mean he was killed in Lashkar Gah and I understand you guys are defending that area. Was he you know, helping defend the city? Was he going after an HVI?

Yeah any kind of clarity I understand that's under investigation.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure, Tom. Understanding it is under investigation. First off, the incident did not occur within the confines of Lashkar Gah. It was near Lashkar Gah.

And what that element was working to do -- it was a SOF element, an Afghan SOF element -- and they were working to essentially begin clearing some areas so that they could be followed along by conventional forces.

So, fairly large operation. Of course, the MOD can provide you more details at the appropriate time. But by and large, it was an effort to clear out some of the Taliban strongholds so that conventional forces could move in.

Q: Great. And on the broader Helmand province, can you just kind of say, you know, does the Taliban have complete freedom of movement in Helmand outside of, you know, these contested areas?

I understand you guys classify, you know, partial control, influence, et cetera, to kind of muddle, you know, how much of the province they actually control. But, you know, all reports indicate that they have, you know, 80 percent, or at least 80 percent they have freedom of movement in.

So can you kind of clarify that for us?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: So, overall, let me take a step back and again hit on what the Afghan sustainable security strategy is and what they're trying to accomplish.

So, kind of the underlying or the undergirding for this effort is a prioritization by the Afghans of locations out there. They refer to it as hold, fight and disrupt areas.

So "hold" areas are areas that they will place troops and they will absolutely do everything they need to do to make sure that area does not fall. And when I say those areas, they are the major population centers, and then they are the major infrastructure.

So, for example, down there, parts of Highway One, but certainly the Kajaki Dam. 

Then the "fight" areas are areas where they may not always have soldiers, but if the Taliban tries to encroach there, what they will do is they will take all effort to make sure that they can go back and repel the Taliban assaults on those fight areas.

And then the "disrupt" areas are areas that if the Taliban tries to encroach upon or tries to move through, what you'll see is the Afghans will put in some effort, but they won't commit everything they've got to it. So their overall focus are these hold, and then some of these fight areas to secure population, and then to also protect critical infrastructure.

So when we hear about the Taliban being able to move in this area or that area, I know you know Helmand very well. And you know that a lot of it is very desolate. And frankly, there's no real tactical or strategic value in holding a piece of dirt or sand here or there.

So, as the Afghans tried to move back on the offense, what they did was they collapsed several of their checkpoints that they had out, and they've tried to be able to mass that.

So when you lose some of those checkpoints, of course, that may very well provide the Taliban some additional freedom of maneuver in areas that aren't quite as important to the government of Afghanistan.

Does that answer your question?

Q: Yeah, it does. And then I guess the final question is, you know, you're talking about this 2016 campaign plan and how it's kind of offensive in nature. But we have two concerted Taliban offensives in two very different parts of the country on two rather large population centers. 

And I'm wondering, after 15 years of conflict with a insurgent group, you know, how they've managed to mass this kind of combat power and, you know, what that, you know, supply chain looks like. I mean, how do they keep getting these kinds of supplies to sustain a pretty -- pretty significant war effort?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yeah, Thomas. 

So, you know, let me take a step back. The characterization of being able to mass all of this combat power, and then conduct sustained offensives, I don't think is entirely accurate. And the reason I say that is, as you know, we have the ability to watch through many different means what the Taliban are doing.

So what we have seen both in Helmand first, and then subsequently up in Kunduz, are again you'll see these bands of Taliban that will come together, 10 to 15 to 20. They'll go out. They'll conduct essentially a short-notice raid. The ANDSF will withdraw and then you'll have the larger ANDSF force come back in and reclaim the area.

And so we've seen that over and over again. And so, the idea that, that again there this invincible force moving forward and claiming territory and everything else, we don't believe is accurate. 

Now I don't want to understate the Taliban capability. Again, Helmand is the main effort and certainly Kunduz is a prize for them as well that they focused effort. 

But when we all of a sudden see the large media splash that this --this district center fell or that district center fell, what typically that is, is a Taliban force that goes in, raids the districts center and in the ANDSF within a matter of hours is able to re-secure that. So, overall, we don't think that there's a massive invincible offensive coming from the Taliban. What we see are some short term, some frankly, some localized successes that are temporary for them. 

Q: With all do respect, I mean, you can fall back and then attack because we give them the air support to do so. I mean, it sounds like a pretty unsustainable tactic given the kind of support they need to let go and then come back. It's not really a question but I guess kind of pushing back. 

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: No, I certainly appreciate that. But you mentioned, we give them the air support, and that is certainly a part of it. But I think, you know, what you may not be as aware of is what the Afghan Air Force is doing. And as you've heard in the last nine months or longer, we probably started late with the Afghan Air Force but what we are seeing is that they are developing as quickly as possible. 

So they now have eight, A29s, that they are using around the country to conduct close air support and then they also have these MD530s. They've got 23 that are operational as of today and then they just received an additional five today. And so they are going to have more capability. 

And down in Helmand, in particular, they are using these MD530s. So, looking at Helmand, there was a period of about two weeks where we did conduct a lot of strikes. But since then, what you've really seen is the bulk of the strikes and the bulk of the air support is coming from the Afghans. 

And so when we think about these new authorities, in many ways, they are also a bridge to an Afghan capability to get their air force further developed, further integrated, further having the ability to use what they refer to as their Afghan Tactical Air Controllers or ATACS and then being able to plot deliberate targets. 

And so, in our view, they are making progress. They absolutely have a way to go, but often times when you'll hear about air strikes being in Helmand, or in Kunduz, often times it's actually going to be Afghan air strikes with us coming in and providing some additional assistance as needed. 

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

Q: Hi general. Actually my questions have been answered, but -- but one thing that we haven't talked about in a long time in these briefings that used to be a huge topic of conversation was Pakistan.

Could you just give us sort of the latest military assessment from there on the threat that's posed on -- by fighters going, crossing back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan? I, we just haven't asked about that in a long time. 

What's your little assessment on that?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yes, so Courtney, obviously, any sanctuary, anywhere is a problem. And it is something that we do work on, and we do focus, and we do maintain an open dialogue with the Pakistanis in terms of how to best address it. So what we do believe is that the problems in this region are not just going to be solved by the Afghans. 

There's got to be a regional solution, and there's got to be work together between all of the -- all of the nations in this region to address any terrorists or any of these violent extremist organizations that do reside within the borders of their country. 

So specifically, you may be aware the Pakistanis are conducting operations in really the Khyber Agency, the Tirah Valley -- that area. So they are conducting operations there. They've also conducted, you know, operations throughout the larger FATA. 

And so they are working towards that as well. But I think what we all acknowledge is that every country in this region has got to be able to address any location where terrorists have sanctuary. 

Q: But are you still seeing fighters going to Pakistan during the winter and coming back in larger numbers? And -- and what are those numbers now? I mean, what is -- are you still seeing them come across into Afghanistan from Pakistan? And who is it? Is it Haqqani? Or are you seeing ISIS do that at all? 

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Courtney, we're seeing a little bit of everybody. So I don't know that that situation has changed dramatically. Of course, there has always been movement back across the border between either side. Certainly, the Taliban in Balochistan, certainly the Haqqani Network based out of North Waziristan. And then the ISIS or the ISK element, we know that that really -- about 70 percent of those people really were TTP. And so they, of course, transited across the border.

One of the challenges that the Afghans had, of course, in 2015, not only were they on the defense, but just as they were assuming control and responsibility for their own security, of course the Pakistanis were in the midst of a large offensive really across the FATA. And that did push a lot of these terrorists across into Afghanistan, which did make it even more challenging for the Afghans to engage.

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

Q: Hi, general. Thanks for doing this. Two quick ones on the AUAF situation, and then a more broader one on the checkpoint strategy.

For AUAF, was that mission that NATO was -- was that considered an enable mission or advise? Which 10 percent did that fall under?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: That would -- that would be really an advise mission, because we did put people in the general area and they were providing that train and advise and assist with them. So that would be an example of an advise mission. 

Q: You mentioned to Lita that they didn't go on campus. But then later, you said they did accompany their partners. Where exactly where the U.S. and NATO forces?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yeah, Carla. I don't have the specific locations here to describe. But bottom line was they went into the larger area. It was the MOI forces that actually went onto the campus and were able to clear. Now, the campus is pretty big. And so I don't know if somebody actually physically walked onto the campus area or not. But what we think is important is they did not go into an area where there was risk.

And so that was really the role of those MOI special operations units to go in and go to the locations where these terrorists were.

Q: OK. And then on the checkpoint strategy, you mentioned that some of the checkpoints were collapsed to focus on the more populated areas. But then you also said that the U.S. is still seeing a lot of situations where the Taliban will send 20 people out and harass a checkpoint, and kick -- kick the Afghans out and steal some more stuff. And I feel like it's kind of like rinse, wash, repeat here. 

Why is the strategy, even though they've collapsed these checkpoints, why are they still not successful there?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure. So, you know, when we talk about, Carla, those checkpoints, the application of the Afghans to withdraw from those checkpoints is uneven across the country.

And so even though that is the strategy, and even though that is the direction they're trying to go, they still do have a number of checkpoints in a number of locations throughout the country. 

And ultimately what it comes down to is, and perhaps understandably so, but local politicians do have a vote in what's happening. And of course, having a checkpoint there may very well mean they think they've got some additional security or other things. And so there is pressure that's applied to the local forces, as well as to the central government here in Kabul about the number of checkpoints.

So, I would tell you, it's not binary. We're unable to flip a light and have every checkpoint reduced, and then mass that combat power. It's been uneven across the country. But as we look at the country, that is the strategy that the Afghans have is to try and reduce these checkpoints and they are working on it. Some places, they've done well; other places they still do have a number of checkpoints.

So when I say that the Taliban is able to identify those, these are some of these residual checkpoints that are out there.

Q: And so, I think you answered this, but would NATO like to see the checkpoints further reduced?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: We would. Of course, every region is going to be a little bit different. And the terrain is different and the enemy threat is different and everything else. But as a general recommendation from NATO, it is to stay on the offense and bring in your forces, mass your forces so you can stay on the offense. And that is where we have seen the ANDSF have its most success is when they remain on the offense.

Q: Thank you.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next we'll go to Luis Martinez with -- there he is -- with ABC News.

Q: Hey, general. Thanks for doing this briefing. A couple of numbers questions, if I could. You said this is the height of the fighting season right now. Metrics-wise, how does it compare with last season? Is it higher, up- tempo than last year? And what's the latest casualty numbers for the Afghan security forces? And I have two other quick questions.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure. Luis, unfortunately, I don't have good information for you on either one of those. Overall, we think, and we'll have to follow up with you and try to get you a better answer on this, but this fighting that we've seen in Helmand and Kunduz we believe is consistent really with the seasonal norms.

Of course, as Ramadan moves around the calendar, you may have a month where Ramadan is there. And so there may not be a one-for-one exchange of August every year at a particular location. But by and large, we think this is within seasonal norms and again, we were, to be honest, we were a little bit surprised, again, that it took so long for the Taliban to really initiate their efforts in Helmand.

But again, they have started that now and this is really the heart of the fighting season. And we certainly have more to come with that. 

As for your second question, you asked about the number of casualties. I really would refer you to the MOD. They keep those. But what we do know is that the pace of casualties for the Afghans this year has been higher.

Q: A quick question about the training effort in Helmand. I think earlier this year, there was a battalion-size element that went down there for training with the corps there. Is that still there? How -- what numbers are we talking about?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure. That element is still there. In total, we have about 700 U.S. troops that are in Helmand right now. And so that element is still there. It actually wasn't a battalion. It was really we refer to it as a battalion-minus, in the neighborhood of 200 to 300 guys. But they are still there and they are still working with that corps to help develop capability and capacity...

Q: And then just real...

(CROSSTALK)

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: ... at Shorab. They're not going out in the field or anything like that. They are on Camp Shorab in Central Helmand.

Q: And then just a quick one on Kunduz. You described the small Taliban elements taking over district centers. But this past weekend, there's a lot of concern up in Kunduz because a Taliban force took the Khan Abad, I think it's called, the neighboring district center there. There are concerns among Afghan officials that the city might fall.

How large of a force was it up there they were talking about? Because it doesn't sound like it would be the 15 to 20 that you're describing in broader terms.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yeah, so when we talk about a district center falling, in many cases what that really means is a building that has the flag out there and is seen as the district center. And so granted, that is the symbol of the Afghan government in that district. But when we talk about it, often times it's a very small area that we're really describing.

I don't have the specific numbers, but it was not a tremendously large force. But again, it was retaken by the ANDSF within a matter of hours. And so I think it was a Saturday. It was Saturday morning when the district center fell. And then by Saturday night that time, the ANDSF had retaken the area.

On top of that, what we've seen is we've seen the leadership from Kabul rapidly get out to Kunduz as well to help those forces on the ground.

On the flip-side of it, what we're also seeing is that the Taliban in many ways are conducting some operations that, quite frankly, are fairly brutal with the population. And so they recently destroyed a bridge north of Kunduz and that's just going to be a huge challenge for the local population as they look at their commerce and as they look to try and rebuild and how to better develop that area.

So, we have seen the Taliban trying to destroy some infrastructure and try and do some things to intimidate the population there. 

CAPT. DAVIS: I think next to Jamie McIntyre with the Washington Examiner.

Q: General, I just want to go back just for a moment to the -- to the mission where the U.S. soldier was killed earlier in the week. And I want to make sure -- one, I take it from what you said that this was one of those 10 percent of missions in which the -- there was an assist. So I just want to make sure I understand that correctly.

But -- but then, so more to the point, you mentioned how, for instance, in the assist mission in Kabul, that the forces were -- there are places where they were not perceived to be at risk. And we're often told here that -- that these assist missions, the U.S. troops or the NATO troops are hanging back. They're not, quote, "on the front lines." And again, recognizing the front lines as kind of not necessarily a technical term. 

In this mission earlier in the week, how close was the U.S. troops who were operating -- how close were they to the so-called front lines when this IED incident occurred?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure. So Jamie, this was an advise mission. That's exactly what it was, where again within NATO authorities, NATO SOF in this case, American soldiers were participating and assisting the Afghans as part of it. So it was an advise mission.

When we talk about not going on the objective, of course, most missions there will be a specific location that everybody gets focused on. Of course, so to get there, they've got to physically move to get there. And so as the secretary said earlier this week, Afghanistan does remain a dangerous place.

And so there are times where, as the teams try and move from one location to the next, in this case on foot, you do encounter IEDs and you do encounter other things. But again, the key thing is the intent of the mission is for the NATO forces to not go onto the objective. Again, Afghanistan is dangerous, so there are risks as you move from A to B, but not to go on the mission.

I hope that kind of clears it up, Jamie.

Q: That does. Thank you. 

CAPT. DAVIS: Next, we'll go to Paul Sonne with The Wall Street Journal.

Q: General, thanks very much for doing this.

I just wanted to ask about these extra -- the 100 troops that were sent to Lashkar Gah. What is -- what is your assessment of what would be happening there if these troops were not sent in? Is -- is there a risk that if these troops were not deployed there that population centers in Helmand would be falling, or Lashkar Gah itself? 

Is that, was that a response to a particular threat that you guys saw?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yes Paul, the short answer is no, this was not a response to a particular threat, other than just the general threat that you find in Helmand as the Taliban are moving out. 

I would tell you we do take force protection, as you can well imagine, we take it very, very seriously. And so, you know, they're, even as we go to a ministry here in Kabul, we will have a security detail that travels along with them just to make sure. 

And so we view it really as prudent military planning, to make sure we've got the capability and the capacity to defend these advisors as needed. So again, they are not really on the outskirts of town conducting offensive operations or anything like that. They are there to provide force protection for that advisory package. 

Q: Much broader question, if -- if these 700 soldiers -- U.S. soldiers that we have in Helmand province right now were not there, what is your assessment of how the Afghan forces would be able to defend or not defend at this height of the fighting season? 

How important is it for these troops to be there which I think a question that, you know, people back here have, when they see American troops leaving such a dangerous place 15 years later in this war. 

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure. We do believe that the presence down there is important. And we do think this training, advise and assist at the core level is important. It's important to be in engaged with that core leadership. But it's also in particularly in the case of Helmand, important to train up these kandaks. 

You know there -- we haven't talked about it today, but of course the announcement was made over the summer that the United States will maintain 8,400 people -- soldiers here in Afghanistan, rather than going down to 5,500. And the real difference between that 8,400 and the 5,500 is the ability to keep conducting the train, advise and assist at the core level. And simply stated, we do think that that is a very important capability and we want to be able to continue to provide that assistance to the Afghans. 

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Andrew Tilghman, with Military Times. 

Q: Hi general. Just, first just a specific question on this Lashkar Gah package, can you say how many troops we're talking about that moved in there and what are they living in some kind of a city center facility with a perimeter? Just give me a picture of what that location and numbers look like. 

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure, Andrew, it's about 100 plus or minus, but it's about 100 and they are based out of the airport there at Bosch. And so it's essentially a security perimeter and then with the ability to provide some tailored force protection as required. 

Q: OK. And also on the draw down that you just mentioned. Is that going to start in the next few weeks? Usually it takes some time to get those guys out of there. Would you expect to see that draw down of -- what I guess of maybe 1,500 troops or so starting soon? And can you say what -- what kind of capabilities are going to be removed? 

You mentioned that the NATO advise and assist capability will remain pretty robust. But what are you actually bringing out between now and the end of the year?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure. Andrew, I don't have a specific timeline for you, as in terms of when those troops will depart. What I do know is certainly by the first of January, we will be at or below 8,400 troops. In terms of the capability that General Nicholson has talked about this as well. 

So we've looked at it from a couple of different directions. Number one, there are what we refer to really as some Title 10 or support functions that we believe can be moved over the horizon. That they don't necessarily have to be here. 

So when I see Title 10 support function, I'm really talking some administrative capabilities, some other things where you don't have to physically be sitting here in Afghanistan to provide that support. 

The other thing that General Nicholson has looked at very closely, is how we can better optimize these train, advise and assist packages that we do -- we being the United States have really in the eastern part of Afghanistan, and the southern part. 

So we have learned a lot of lessons over the last 18 months and we recognize that there are some things that we may need a little more of and there are some things that we may need less of. And so that is part of the effort as well. 

Q: Just one more. You mentioned that the Afghan casualties is, has been up this season, and we've heard for several years that, you know, top American officers saying that was, those casualties on the Afghan side were unsustainably high. 

And yet they continue to seem to be ticking upwards. Is that still a concern for General Nicholson, that, that casualties on the Afghan side are unsustainable high or has something changed in that analysis to make you think that they can sustain this kind of up tempo for the foreseeable future?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yes, Andrew, so General Nicholson does watch that closely and he is concerned obviously. Any casualty is probably going to be too many. But we do and he does watch the number of casualties, and really the trends that are ongoing as closely as possible. You know, what we saw in 2015 was the Afghans, the ANDSF writ large, did take a tremendous number of casualties.

But what we also saw was how resilient these forces are. And overall, we think the Afghans took in the neighborhood of about 20,000 casualties, both killed and wounded. And for many militaries, that would break their back. But what we saw with the Afghans, is that they were able to be resilient. They were able to continue to regroup and they were now of course able to move out on the offense.

And so, again, overall, we are concerned about the number of Afghan casualties and we work with the Afghans as much as we can to try and reduce those casualties. 

CAPT. DAVIS: Yes, Lucas Tomlinson, FOX News. 

Q: Thank you general. Is there any update on two professors who were kidnapped from American University in Kabul. There's one American and one Australian. And since this was the second attack on the University in this month, what does that say about the security around the University in Kabul in general?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yes, Lucas, thank you very much. I don't have any updates. I would refer you to the embassy. They've got the lead for American citizens in country. 

In terms of what does it say about the overall security in Kabul, you know, I think first off, you know, the question is really not and the issue is really not security by the ANBSF of Kabul. The challenge is that you have these violent extremist organizations that are willing just to wantonly slaughter innocents. 

Again literally, college students sitting in class, who have chosen to stay in Afghanistan to try and make this place better. And yet, have these enemies of Afghanistan that are willing to come in and slaughter them. And we find that kind of terror tactic really happening all over the country, in a variety of locations. 

The Afghans, I think, Lucas, can probably tell you a little bit more about what they're doing from a security standpoint. 

But I think we should also remember to, sadly the event that we saw last night here, is not unique to Kabul and it's not unique to Afghanistan. 

We've seen that occur in other parts of the region. We've seen it occur in the Middle East. We've seen it occur in Europe and we've even seen it occur in the United States. And so, the Afghans, of course, will look at this closely.

They are constantly working to figure out how they can improve and increase their security but, ultimately, the problem is when you're fighting an enemy that just has no regard whatsoever for human life, that clearly makes it a challenge.

Q: Just an update on the wounded soldier. Describe his injuries and was he also a Green Beret?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Actually, I'll have to refer you back to the Department of Defense for that. I don't have the specifics for you today and, again, I'd refer you back to the DOD.

Q: And, just to be blunt, things don't seem to be going very well in Helmand province right now. How can you tell us otherwise?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure. Obviously, the level of reporting on this has been extensive and, again, I don't want to sound like I'm understating the Taliban or their capabilities or anything like that, but what we see via our ISR and via our other mechanisms to observe operations is we don't believe that the situation is as dire as perhaps is portrayed in the press and I think you know - and I know many in there know that one of the things that the Taliban is very good at is their propaganda and their psychological operations.

And they are able to push this very aggressively. In many ways, it intimidates the local population because, ultimately, it is a movement of violence and it's a movement of intimidation and that does, of course, unfortunately cascade beyond their actual ground success. Again, they have had some local successes.

We think by and large they have been temporary, but ultimately we do not think that Lashkar Gah is about to fall and, ultimately, as we look at those major population centers that I've mentioned to you earlier, ultimately, the ANDSF is still securing those as part of their plan.

Q: My last question is was Staff Sergeant Thompson killed in combat this week?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yes, so, of course, that has been a question that's bounced around. I would really refer you back to the comments from the secretary of defense and the chairman last May. What we're focused on is really, exactly what our mission is and making sure that we can provide that capability to the ANDSF.

And so, as we stated last May, what you really see is these are non-combat missions but because Afghanistan is a dangerous place, there are instances where U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and marine will find themselves in combat situations.

CAPT. DAVIS: We're about out of time here. General, any final comments from you before we sign off?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: No, once again, I hope this was in some way helpful. If we can help further clarify what's happening out here, please feel free to reach out to us and, once again, thank you for covering this story and look forward to seeing you soon.

CAPT. DAVIS: All right, thank you. Thank you, everybody.