The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW

Military

U.S. Department of Defense
Press Operations
News Transcript

Presenter: Brigadier General Charles H. Cleveland, deputy chief of staff for communications, Resolute Support Mission, Afghanistan June 01, 2016

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Brig. Gen. Cleveland via Teleconference from Afghanistan


CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Good morning everybody. We are -- I got to push the Kirby button, here.
(Laughter.)

We are pleased to be -- we are pleased to be joined today by General Cleveland coming to us live from Kabul to give us an update on all that's going on in Afghanistan with Operation Resolute Support.

General, just want to make sure we can hear you and you can hear us.

BRIGADIER GENERAL CHARLES H. CLEVELAND: Thanks, Jeff. I've got you loud and clear.

CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Sir, we'll turn it over to you for any opening comments you might have.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Great. Thank you. And again, good morning to everybody, and as always, thanks for your time.

What I'd like to do kind of as usual is give you a few opening comments and at that point, and I will keep them brief today, but then at that point kind of open it up to you and I welcome any questions you have really on any topics.

So let me begin first with the status of General Nicholson's 90- day assessment. As I think you're probably all aware, we are rapidly approaching the very end of the assessment period, and so General Nicholson is in the process of finishing up his assessment and we expect him to brief his military chain of command very, very soon. In fact, probably in the -- in the next couple of days.

Obviously, I can't -- I still can't tell you much about exactly what has happened with the assessment or where he is with it, but in very general terms, what I would tell you is; number one, he is looking at the overall threat situation; number two, he has taken a look at the mission that he has been given; next, he is taking a look at current operations and really what we project over the coming weeks and months and other big events that will happen in Afghanistan; and then finally, he's looking at the resources available.

And so once he has finished that assessment and he's taken a look at all those things, he'll determine whether or not he wants to make recommendations, and again, he will convey those privately to his military chain of command. And again, we do expect that to happen very, very soon.

The other thing that I wanted to talk to you about today is just give you a snapshot in time on where we are with the ANDSF and specifically where we are with the ongoing fighting season. Let me preface all with the following by saying it's still obviously very early in the fighting season, a long way to go and -- and frankly, there will be bad days over the coming months. There's no doubt about that.

But at this point, we do believe that the ANDSF has performed better this year than they were performing last year, and based on that, we are cautiously optimistic about the coming months because overall we do believe that they have some momentum right now.

And so the real first question is why? Why are they performing better? And again, it's not a night and day difference; it's a small, slow, gradual but steady level of improvement that we're seeing. But the first reason is number one, they have switched from this defensive mindset that they had last year into an offensive mindset. And you don't find that in every single location, in every single corps, but by and large as an institution, you do find the ANDSF has switched this mindset into the offense.

The second thing is that they are getting better in employing their newer capabilities, and that should be expected. As they have more practice and more experience, they are getting better at using these capabilities. And so the first one, again, the A-29 aircraft; they are being used quite a bit, providing close air support. The MD-530 helicopters are being used. The intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capability, particularly down in the Helmand area. And finally, the special operations capability continued to be really the -- the pride of the ANDSF and they're doing exceptionally well.

And so as we look at that, kind of what does that look like around the map? I know a little bit in the past we've talked about Kunduz, but just to review the bidding on that, again, it was late February, early March when the ANDSF initiated their spring offensive, Operation Shafaq. And they launched it about a month, really, before the Taliban launched their offensive.

And what we saw was a series of spoiling attacks that really occurred up in Northern Kunduz, and the intent of that was to again, degrade the Taliban before they had the opportunity to start their offensive. So that when the Taliban did start their offensive in mid- April, what you found was that they had been degraded. And so, they didn't have the combat power, they didn't have the same capability to be able to attack the city.

And so, although the ANDSF did bend a little bit, they didn't break and they were able to repel the Taliban. And once they successfully did that, they were able to reopen lines of communication out to the surrounding provinces.

So, overall, we think that the ANDSF did fairly well in Kunduz, particularly at the beginning of the season. Then the fighting shifted over to Baghlan which is also up in Northern Afghanistan, and that's where the fighting has been ongoing for the last two to three weeks or so, and at times, it was fairly serious.

But as of the end of last week, the ANDSF had actually broken the Taliban there and in the short-term, had defeated them. They'd been able to save several of their locations where they had people, and by and large, they have pushed the Taliban back. Now, I say all of that fully knowing that, again, we are at the very beginning of the fighting season. We will enter Ramadan, or Ramazan, here in the next week or so. And we would expect that the Taliban will try and replenish their capability, and we would expect them to attack again.

But as it stands right now, the ANDSF has performed well up in the north. So, that shifts us down to the south, and specifically in Helmand.

As we've discussed before, the Taliban has shifted their main effort down to Helmand. And interestingly enough, we really expected the fighting season to kick off in earnest after the conclusion of the poppy harvesting season. And that really has not been the case at Helmand.

In fact, even last week, things were fairly slow in Helmand. Now, we did see an uptick over the weekend, and I'll talk about -- more about that in just a minute.

But really, up until the end of last week, the ANDSF continued to try and reconsolidate and prepare for this fighting season. So, I discussed previously that they had cleared a highway on the eastern side, really between Lashkar Gah and up to Sangin. But since we last spoke, we've seen the ANDSF consolidate some additional positions. They were able to reinvest that combat power back into Lashkar Gah, and now they have finished, really training up four of their Kandaks.

And so, as of about a week or so ago, the ANDSF launched their offensive into Marjah, and admittedly, it's going slow. But again, it's offensive, slow, steady progress that we're beginning to see.

Over the weekend, of course, they're having a lot of reports that the -- the police have taken a beating from the Taliban. And at this point, we just don't know what the truth is.

We've seen everything from a handful of police killed, and one or two checkpoints over run, to things on the far end of the extreme of up to 150 killed.

What we do know is neither one of those are true. The truth is some place in the middle. But again, while it does represent an uptick, it is not as significant, frankly, as we thought the fighting was going to be in Helmand.

But shifting over a little bit further to the east, we are concerned about Urozgan, and specifically, the road that goes from Shah Wali Kot in Northern Kandahar up into Tarinkot. That has been an area of emphasis for about the last month or so. There is still a bit of a stalemate, and the Taliban still do control a portion of that road.

There has been an awful lot of fighting there, and it is important right now to the ANDSF that they are successful.

The other area that is of concern to us is really to the west of Tarinkot, and that's over in Deh Rawud and then up a little bit further, north into Shahidi Hassas. And we have seen the Taliban have some success there.

And so, overall, Urozgan is probably what we are looking at the closest right now, because that's a -- it's of a lot of importance to the Afghans, and therefore, it's very important to us.

As you kind of continue counter-clockwise, the overall Paktia, Paktika, Khost area has been by and large fairly calm when you compare it to seasonal trends and so we think the core there, the two authorities are doing pretty well.

As you move further up in the Northeast, Mangalore, we still do believe that the ANDSF is having some positive effects on Daesh and then we also still see Daesh and the Taliban continuing their ongoing fighting.

And then as you move further up into - into Kunar, what we see is, again, not a whole lot in the way of offensive operations. There was some fighting up north in -- near Ghaziabad, but that has somewhat receded and so by and large we see a bit of a stalemate up there.

But as we look at the country at - as a whole, like I said earlier, we do believe that the ANDSF has had some success. They have performed better than they performed last year and right now we do think that they have momentum as we going into Ramadan and as we look at the summer months.

So with that said, Jeff, I'll go ahead and pause there and I welcome my questions from anybody.

CAPT. DAVIS: Let's start in the back, actually, Barbara - Jamie, I got you on the list here, too.

Q: All right, general. Thanks for doing this. Can we talk about your advise and assist mission for a minute?

Since the incident you had down south several months ago, what specifically have -- has the command done to improve security for advise and assist teams when they go out?

What have you done to ensure next time you can get medical care there more quickly than overnight?

Have you had any additional personnel on advise and assist injured? And then I have a follow-up.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure. Yeah, thank you very much. So you know, again, I guess let me put it in context first in terms of the number of these missions that we're participating in.

So really as the -- as the ANDSF SOF goes onto the field, between 75 and 80 percent of their missions right now are conducted unilaterally with no assistance whatsoever from the coalition. Of that remaining 20 to 25 percent, you probably have 10 for -- 10 to 15 percent of that that we would refer to as enabled operations where the coalition will provide some level of planning assistance or logistics assistance or lift or something along those lines.

But it's probably only about 10 percent of the missions where we actually send coalition forces out to partner with the ANDSF SOF as they conduct their missions. So we're really talking overall about a fraction of those missions.

In terms of determining when we send coalition forces out or not, we really look at a couple things. The first off is what is the -- the overall payoff of the particular mission, how important is it.

Number two, what is the risk, because clearly we don't want to send these guys out into an area where we think that they would completely be engaged without the assistance of the coalition.

And then finally we look at how complex is the mission, because clearly they can conduct most missions by themselves so we really only send coalition forces out for the most complex missions.

So in terms of you ask about what are we doing in terms of medevac, that is part of planning process that goes into every single mission and so we don't send coalition forces out unless we've got the ability to get medevac out there to them.

The event you're describing in January, of course, was a bit of a unique situation. They were under heavy fire. Of course, a helicopter had essentially crashed in that compound and that further limited the ability get the medevac in.

But by and large before we send coalition forces out, the commanders at all levels take a look at the risk and that is one of the things that leadership absolutely insists on is the ability to have the medevac as close by as possible.

And then the final question is, have we had any injuries since the mission in January? I -- I would have to go back and check that one more time. I don't believe we have. But we'll try and confirm that for you as soon as we can.

Q: With respect, general, my question, if you could, is, understanding everything you just said, but are there any additional measures you have taken since the January incident to improve security or have additional decision-making points along the way before you send them out on these missions?

And is there anything you are doing differently? That's my question. And also, do you have an update on how many ISIS-related strikes you've conducted?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yes. So, going back to your question. Have we done anything differently? I would tell you, we change and we evolve all the time, so the short answer to your question is yes. Are there any macro-level changes? The answer is probably no to that. So, based on every mission, we'll conduct an after-action review, really try and determine exactly what happened and then make modifications as we need.

But again, have we made any significant or macro level changes since that mission in January? The short answer is no. You asked then, about how many really counter-terrorism strikes have we taken. And while we're still compiling the numbers from the last month, the numbers this month are fewer than what we have been doing up to this point.

And it's probably going to come in about a total of 15 counter-terrorism strikes that occurred, really over the last month. But we hope to confirm that in the next couple of days.

CAPT DAVIS: Next, to Carlo Munoz.

Q: Hey general, Carlo Munoz, Washington Times.

Thank you for taking the time. Quick question, as far as some of the response to the change in the leadership of the Taliban, you have the new leader here kind of sort of coming out of the woodwork. No one expecting that, or more than likely, one of the -- Sirraj Haqqani would be taking over one.

With this change in leadership, how do you see the prospects for peace talks sort of advancing? Is this some thing that you're -- is this a person that your acting counterparts can really work with to come to the negotiating table?

And the other question I had was, there's been a lot of back and forth between Afghans and Pakistanis, particularly Torkham Gate. The gate's been closed to Afghans trying to cross over. Afghanistan has closed their consulate in Lahore. Just wondering, do you see that as blow back from the airstrike that took out Mullah Mansur?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure Carlo, thanks. Let me hit your first one.

And I don't believe that we will see peace talks anytime in the short term with Mullah Haibatullah. You probably know a little about him. Clearly, he's been part of the Taliban for quite awhile. Not really a military guy and really not a money guy. He's been more of the religious guy and also served as one of their judges as part of their Sharia courts when the Taliban was in power.

Now, that said though, we shouldn't you know -- we shouldn't underestimate this guy. He's the one who's been sending Fatwas about sending suicide bombers out. He's the one that issued to Fatwas that it was okay for Taliban to kill Taliban, particularly those who did not support Mullah Mansour. So, as General Nicholson says, "this guy does have blood on his hands."

And in the short term, we don't expect him to come to the negotiating table. But, our real hope right now is that maybe if it's not the quite a sure up, maybe it becomes further at the district level, where you've got Taliban leadership who maybe has 30, 50, 100 Taliban working for them in either a province or a district.

And on one hand of course, they see the prospect of continued violence. They see some of these capabilities that the ANDSF now has, and they see that Mullah Mansur has been killed in a very precise strike. And then, they can also look over and they see Hekmatyar and the negotiations that the HIG has been going through and the very real fact that they may be integrated back into this country.

And they may be able to have some level of sanctuary and peace.

Taliban that when faced with the choice of either continuing this fight against an ANDSF that is slowly but surely getting progressively better versus the ability to follow the path that Hekmatyar has taken and potentially go into peace talks, our hope is that some of those lower-level people will begin to engage on the peace piece.

As it pertains to the blow-back, if you will, from the Pakistanis, the short answer is I'm really not sure. You'd probably get a better answer from those who watch Pakistan exclusively. Clearly, there is still some tension and there is some back-and-forth. What we're trying to focus, though, is sustaining and maintaining the military-to-military relationship that we've already got established. And that really starts with General Nicholson and goes down a couple of different levels.

And so by and large, what we're trying to focus on is ensuring that we maintain a good, positive, healthy military-to-military relationship with the Pakistani military.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Idrees Ali.

Q: Sure. Just to follow up. After the Mansur strike, you know, the Pakistani government, including the military, came out and sort of talked about their displeasure and the sovereignty issues that came up. Have you seen any sort of military-to-military blow-back with this? Have the Pakistanis sort of, you know, decreased their cooperation, especially along the border?

Because in the past, they've talked about it, and then it doesn't have any effect. So in this case, have you seen any impact on military-to-military relations?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: In this case, we haven't yet. And we certainly hope not. And that is part of the effort that General Nicholson takes in terms of engaging his counterparts. But at this point, we have not really seen any military-to-military issues.

CAPT. DAVIS: (inaudible), I've got you.

Q: Actually, Idrees just asked my question, but I have one -- two other things.

On Uruzgan, you mentioned that that's the one area that you're very concerned about. What is the -- what is the U.S. specifically doing? Are you sending additional advisers there? Are you sending SOF guys there? What's the response to the increase in Taliban efforts there?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure. It's a little bit of everything you describe. So as we've discussed before, we've got a train, advise and assist command that is based out of Kandahar. And that is co-located with the corps headquarters that is focused on Kandahar and Uruzgan and Zabul.

And so what we have is with those advisers is the corps kind of moves elements, leadership elements, command and control elements up into Tarinkot to help the fight. We will assist them with that. And so we will continue to provide that advice and assist.

As the Afghans begin to apply more SOF into that area as well, we'll have our coalition SOF, continue to assist them as well. And again, in some instances there are opportunities or there are requirements for the coalition SOF to accompany the Afghan SOF as they move forward. And so by and large, that has become our main effort. And so as we look at what else they may need, we then become prepared to respond to assist them, particularly from an advise or an assist standpoint.

Q: Do you have a rough idea, a rough estimate of how many American advisers have gone to Uruzgan for this? And then one other numbers question. On the 10 to 15 -- or I guess 10 percent of the operations that are -- where the U.S. sends out forces to partner with the ANSF, do you have a number on that? Like, how many, I don't know, maybe for this year, for this calendar year. How many operations has the U.S. sent people directly out with -- to partner with ANSF?

Thanks.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure. On the second question, I'll have to get that. I don't have that at my fingertips right now. But -- and we will work to try and get you that as soon as we can.

On the how many advisers have gone off to Uruzgan, really it's kind of a handful. It's those that would travel with a corps command and control element. And they're really not up there for long periods either. They'll go up there with the corps leadership, spend a day or so, and then come back down to Kandahar, talking, you know -- 10 to 15 at a given time at the most as they assist their core counterparts.

CAPT DAVIS: Next to Kristina Wong, then we'll go to Qasim.

Q: Wondering, can you update us on how many U.S. troops are in Afghanistan currently? And what's the status of General Nicholson's 90-day review? Is that complete yet?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure. So we are either at or below 9,800 U.S. troops on any given day. And we do maintain that of course very steadfastly. In terms of General Nicholson's review, where we are right now is that he is literally finishing it this week as we speak, and he is presenting it to his military chain of command.

At this point he does intend to keep it classified and he does intend to keep it private so that he can have those frank discussions with his military leadership. But we expect that in the coming days it will be completed and he will have presented it to his chain of command.

Q: Thanks, and just one more thing. You mentioned to Barbara there were about 15 counter-terrorism strikes - I think you were going to check on the exact number, but what's the breakdown between ISIS and Al Qaeda for those roughly 15?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure, and again we'll have to provide you something a little bit more precise but the majority are Daesh. But a close minority are Al Qaeda. Again with those numbers you're not talking about a huge difference but the majority continue to be Daesh targets.

CAPT DAVIS: To Qasim.

Q: General, thanks for doing this. My question is in general. How many districts are currently under the control of Taliban in Afghanistan, general?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: I don't have a current update on that. Historically it's been between eight and 10 that we would consider are specifically under the control of the Taliban. But, that said, the Taliban certainly have the ability to contest a lot more of those. And what I mean by contest is they have the ability to conduct operations, they do have the ability to intimidate the local population and they have the ability to have some level of influence.

That number is significantly higher than the eight to 10. Again, those are estimates that are a little bit old but we think those are by and large still fairly consistent right now.

Q: Given that officials have told Congress several times that the situation over there is deteriorating, do you think that compared to past years that the Taliban presence in Afghanistan has increased or decreased?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: I'm sorry, I couldn't completely understand that. Could you ask that one more time?

Q: Do you think that the Taliban has increased its presence in Afghanistan territory or just decreased it?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: I think 2015 serves as probably a year that was difficult for the ANDSF and probably better for the Taliban. As General Nicholson said when he was in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and General Votel said similar things when he was testifying, "that the security situation has deteriorated, or it had as of February."

So we do believe that the Taliban had some gains in 2015 and of course part of the idea of the ANDSF switching over the offense is to try and reverse those gains. I hope that answers your question.

CAPT DAVIS: And next we'll go to Jamie McIntyre.

Q: Two questions for you. The first one is about the A-29s. I know you're getting a lot of numbers questions today, but how many A-29s are operational in Afghanistan? How many strikes they've carried out? And -- and do they use precision-guided munitions?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Jamie, thank you. There's a total of eight A-29s currently in Afghanistan. Four of those have -- have reached their initial operating capability, so as of about the 1st of April, those four aircraft were certified to begin conducting close air support operations. So four are active, if you will, in terms of conducting combat operations.

The other four are still going through their train-up period. I don't know exactly when they will become active, but we think it will be sometime in June. Still to be determined a little bit based on the progress of the pilots and -- and everything else.

In terms of the numbers of strikes, Jamie, I -- I don't have that at our fingertips. Again, the MOD would probably have better information, but I would characterize it as they are conducting multiple strikes a week. When I saw multiple, we're not talking double digits, but they are certainly conducting two, three, four strikes at this point every week, maybe even more on some of those.

And I think those were your questions. Was there another one, Jamie?

Q: Just -- I asked if -- are they using precision-guided munitions?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Right. So at this point, they are not using precision-guided munitions, but that certainly is in the forecast and we -- we expect to see that in the coming months.

Q: And my second question was, just to take you up on your offer at the very beginning where you said you would take questions on any subject, I was reading the -- the redacted version of the investigation in Afghanistan in 2010 of a U.S. special operations forces raid that resulted in the deaths of, according to the investigation, seven innocent civilians, including two pregnant women.

Concluded that tactical mistakes were made, but -- but didn't hold anyone accountable in any way. There was no discipline or anything. And it just seems like even in the -- in the Kunduz hospital attack, where it was acknowledged that that just was a tragic mistake, still some people were held to some level of accountability.

Can you help us understand why there could be an investigation of a -- of a report where seven innocent people were killed and mistakes were made, but no one is being held accountable?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Jamie, I -- I'm not familiar with that specific case and I would have to go back and -- and take a look at that. As a -- in a -- as a general -- in fact, as a constant practice, anytime that there is an allegation of civilian casualties, we do take it very seriously and we conduct what we believe is a very thorough investigation.

And then based on the facts of that investigation, the appropriate military leadership will make the appropriate decisions in terms of discipline, be it criminal, be it administrative, whatever the case may be.

So I'm -- unfortunately, I'm not familiar with the case that you're referring to, but what I would tell you is it's the practice out here that when there's an allegation of civilian casualties, to investigate it very thoroughly and then the appropriate leadership makes decisions on what the next steps are for those involved.

CAPT. DAVIS: Let's go to Lucas with Fox News.

Q: General, do the -- just following up on Qasim's question, putting aside 2015 and the Taliban gains, do the Taliban control more territory today than they did at the start of this year?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: I don't know, Lucas. I -- the -- I think you could probably say, you know, 2015, again, they -- they probably did make progress. But as I look at -- and again, this is -- this is a bit of a swag -- as I look at what the ANDSF has done in Kunduz and up in Baghlan and really kind of what they've done in Helmand, at this point, I don't know that that would be the case.

And again, they have had -- the Taliban has had some internal issues themselves. They have an ongoing insurgency, for lack of a better term, primarily based out west, but it does bleed into Helmand as well and it bleeds a little bit further to the east and to -- you know, into Ghazni where they have had to fight their own.

Look like with this transition in leadership, and so I just don't know for a fact as to where they stand in comparison to the first of January. My gut feeling is that ANDSF has made progress, but we'll have to try and get you some better information on that.

Q: And after the strike that killed the other Taliban, Mullah Mansur, is the US military now actively targeting his successor, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yes, and as you know Lucas, of course we really can't talk specifics of any targeting. But what I would tell you is we have the authority to target by status Al Qaida and Daesh. Anybody beyond that really has to present a specific force protection threat to U.S. coalition forces, and in some cases, Afghan forces.

And so bottom line, is we are not actively pursuing people just because they are members of the Taliban. They would have to have -- be posing some type of direct threat to U.S. forces

Q: Lastly, there's a piece in the Washington Post today about the migration of Afghans, how it's doubled. There's more people leaving Afghanistan then any time since 2013. What can you tell us about Afghans fleeing their homes and why are they doing so? Thank you.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yes, I saw the similar report and I think it was really initially based on an Amnesty International report. And I don't have a whole lot of information on it other than what I -- what we saw. You know, clearly the refugee issue has been -- has been a real issue for Afghanistan.

Our focus on it is, how do we help the ANDSF improve their security? And one of the things that we typically find in security is one of the -- one of the factors that causes people to be displaced of course. And so, our role in it, while I certainly don't know the numbers of all those who were displaced, our primary role in it is assisting the ANDSF as they try to improve the security for the population of Afghanistan.

Q: My name is Mahtab Farid from iWashington News, thank you general for your time.

As you know, we fight a big war on information. What is the U.S. strategy to fight this war, because as I'm following the social media in Afghanistan and reading the news in Dari, there's not a whole lot of hope. As you know, you mentioned -- you sounded pretty hopeful when you said, 75 percent to 80 percent of these missions are done unilaterally by Afghans. But, it doesn't seem like, at least according to the reports, they feel that sense of security by their own government.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yes, the number one thing that were trying to do is just be accurate.

Be it good news or bad news or whatever the case may be, you know, as we've look out really over the last year it would appear to us that there has been just information that's gone out that's just not accurate. And then it's picked up and all of a sudden it becomes fact and it becomes truth. And then that just gets populated really throughout the press.

And so, the first thing that we're really trying to focus on is making sure that we have accurate information. So going back to what you just described for example, just so I'm on precise, you know, as is I described this, when I talk about those 80 percent -- or the 75 percent to 80 percent of those missions, I'm specifically talking about the soft missions, the special operations forces missions.

The larger ANDSF, when the conventional forces go out, we don't have any coalition forces that conduct a tactical train, advise and assist mission. Clearly one of the concerns that I think we all collectively have, is the overall belief by the population of Afghanistan as to whether or not their security forces can secure them.

So, one of the things we work very closely with the security ministries on, is how can we make sure that we're getting factual, accurate information out as quickly as possible to the population of Afghanistan so that they are then informed and they can make their own informed decisions in terms of what the future holds.

Q: One more question sir. I wanted to ask you about getting the Muslim countries involved. As you guys are doing the assist and advise, don't you think it'll be a good idea to get those Muslim countries and the neighboring countries involved both in reconstruction and in training? Because they know the culture better. They can connect better in so many different levels.

Thank you.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure. Yeah, let me first start off by reminding everybody that, again, NATO and NATO-partner nations, there's almost 40 nations that are represented out here.

So there really is a very broad coalition of nations that are out there providing support. And NATO most recently at their chief of defense ministers meeting, or their chief of defense meeting, as well as their foreign ministers meeting, made a number of commitments to continue this mission, Resolute Support, into 2017. And they also made a commitment to continue funding the ANA from 2017 until 2020.

That said, you mentioned some of the neighboring nations. And, you know, the government of Afghanistan has been aggressively reaching out to their neighbors. And it doesn't matter whether it's the Pakistanis or the Iranians. Most recently the Azerbaijanis have been engaged. And so there is an awful lot of dialogue ongoing. Some of it is military, some of it has to do with electricity and how they can come together and come up with solutions to power this region; how they can work together to build infrastructure, to be able to feed into the various ports that are being built, whether it's in Iran or in southern Pakistan.

And so there is a lot ongoing from a regional standpoint. Specific to the military, though, and specific to some of the concerns, I think really a recognition that we all have is that the solutions in Afghanistan, specifically addressing some of these trans- national and trans-regional threats that live on either the Pakistani side of the border or the Afghan side of the border, we've got to have regional security solutions that solve those problems.

Hence, the mil-to-mil relationship that we talked about earlier, and just how important that is.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Jim Garamone.

Q: Hi, sir. Just a real quick question on General Nicholson's report. You said he's going to brief that up the military chain of command.

You're really talking about military chains of command, because he's got one for NATO and one for the U.S., correct?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Almost correct. So, his assessment and what he is passing up is really specific to his U.S. chain of command. And so that, of course, goes to General Votel at U.S. Central Command and then onto the secretary of defense with tremendous input from the chairman, of course, as well.

Now, you did mention the NATO chain of command. And that becomes a different aspect that General Nicholson has to look at. Because now he's looking at, of course, the larger idea of NATO and NATO partner nations and the larger numbers. But what I'm specifically talking about when I describe the 90-day assessment, that is specific and unique to the U.S. chain of command. So that will go to General Votel at U.S. Central Command and then on to the secretary of defense.

Q: Is he doing a separate report to the NATO chain of command?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: He is not.

Q: Thank you.

CAPT. DAVIS: And next, we'll got to Andrew Tilghman.

Q: Hi, general. You mentioned at the top the activity that you're seeing in Helmand and in Uruzgan. I wonder if you could just give us a sense of the nature of the Taliban activity. Are they really amassing large forces, and you're seeing, like, force-on-force engagement? Or is it -- is it a much more low-key thing where you're just kind of -- Afghan security forces are looking for freedom of movement and they're encountering IEDs? Like, what is the -- the size of the Taliban forces you're seeing and the type of engagement that you're hearing about in Kabul?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure, Andrew. Let me -- let me start off with Helmand, because Helmand and Sha Wali Kot to Tarinkot situations are a little bit different.

In Helmand, what we have seen primarily over the week is that you see fairly small engagements. So you see checkpoints or small defensive positions that are still static right now in some locations in Helmand, massing at night, going in, hitting a checkpoint, and then moving out very, very quickly before reinforcements can be sent or anything else.

When you look particularly at some of the engagements that have happened further south, which as you probably know, a lot less populated down there, those are very small engagements. We're talking 50 to 100 people, again going into a town, whatever the case may be, having an engagement, taking it over for a period if you will, and then withdrawing as ANDSF comes in.

So that's kind of what we're seeing in terms of a Taliban offensive operations in Helmand right now. That can change, of course, but that's what we're seeing up to this point. In terms of what the ANDSF is doing --and I mentioned that they have gone on this slow but steady offensive in Marjah. That is a little bit more force- on-force, but it's more along the lines, again, of IEDs, snipers, those types of things that the force is encountering as they try and push further west.

The Urozgan the aspect is a little bit different in that that is a little bit more of a force-on-force. And again, we're not talking hundreds, but what we are seeing is an effort by the ANDSF to clear the highway. And then you find that the Taliban are able to snipe at them, they're able to disrupt them, they're able to, again, leave IEDs in place and simply stated, slow down any offensive movement by the ANDSF.

And they are able to respond -- they, the Taliban, are able to respond and continue to supply their force like that. So, from a force-on-force, again we're not seeing, you know the classic idea of large formations going against each other. You see, you know a little bit a combination of attacking lightly defended checkpoints. And then you see the sniping, you see the IEDs, you see those types of harassment that do end up bogging down a larger forces.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to -- I'm sorry, Corey, did you have any -- were you done?

Q: No, no. Go ahead.

CAPT. DAVIS: If you could send it to Carlo and then to Luis.

Q: Oh, no, no. I haven't asked yet.

CAPT. DAVIS: Oh, you haven't asked yet? I'm sorry, my apologies.

Corey Dickstein, sorry.

Q: Sorry, sir. Okay, my question is, there was a lot of talk around the end of the year about leadership issues, especially in Helmand among the Afghans. Wanted to see -- do you have an update on that? Has there been a lot of leadership change-overs? And then the second question was, I think you said four Kandaks have been trained. How many total are there?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Sure. Let me start with your second piece.

First, there's a total of six Kandaks. So, four of the six have been trained. The last two are going through the training now. And we hope to see them come back into the fight in late June. And again, it's somewhat conditions-based, not just based on a calendar date. Ramadan will slow that down probably a little bit, or at least it will impact on the schedule.

But there's a total of six Kandaks that are going through retraining.

In terms of the first part of your question, the leadership, we have seen a significant change in the 215th Corps. They have essentially replaced the corps commander, and they replaced all the brigade commanders, and they replaced many even further, you know, lower commanders throughout the formation.

And it has made a difference. The current corps commander is more aggressive. He is holding people accountable. Same with those brigade commanders.

The other aspect that has been interesting, and again, really, a little bit outside the lane of the military and Resolute Support, but there's a new provincial governor for Helmand. And he has done, in our view, a pretty good job of number one, trying to bring all of the security institutions together, so that they are all kind of fighting the same fight. And that, of course, is the police as well as the NDS.

But the other thing that he is really trying to do is he is trying to bring in the government to help provide services after the ANDSF has cleared an area.

And of course, that's kind of, you know, an effort that has been ongoing for years. But -- and it has still got a long, long way to go, particularly for this part of Afghanistan.

But at least this governor does recognize the importance of trying to connect the population with the government, so that they're getting some services so as the ANDSF clears to an area and they're able to push the Taliban out, you've got something that comes in to try and assist the population right after that.

Q: Just a quick follow - and I apologize if you already answered this, but do you still expect to see the Taliban - a Taliban offensive in Helmand anytime soon?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: We do and -- and again, we're -- I don't know exactly when it will be again. Ramadan coming up is -- is a bit of a wildcard. It's, you know, historically you've seen a bit of a lull in fighting but in some places, in some locations you see almost an increase and that even picks up a little bit as you get to the end of it.

So I don't know that we will see something much more aggressive as we go a little bit deeper into e June, but it's still a little bit of a wildcard for us and a bit of an unknown.

CAPT. DAVIS: Carlo.

Q: Hey, general. It's Carlo Munoz again. Just a quick follow-up. You mentioned the agreement between Hekmatyar and the (inaudible) government as far as trying to get some peace talks going and hopefully generating some momentum at the district level to get these talks going.

But kind of looking at sort of the state of play of the different groups that are there aside from the Taliban, you have Haqqani networks still, you have al Qaeda trying to, you know, gain a larger footprint. You have (inaudible) people in the west.

Is Hekmatyar's sort of commitment to this and the hopes that it generates some sort of momentum, is that sort of wishful thinking considering where his group is and that kind of pecking order and if so, does it really matter if his group has kind of pledged allegiance to the -- to the (inaudible) government.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Carlo, I would tell you, you know, the larger status of negotiations in the peace process, I really would defer you to the State Department and - and of course out here specifically to the U.S. Embassy. Our biggest role in the peace process from a military standpoint is doing everything we can to make the ANDSF as strong as possible so that they can negotiate from a position of strength.

And I guess the reason I mentioned the Hekmatyar aspect of it earlier is, again, we don't think that Haibatullah or frankly the Haqqanis or al Qaeda or any of these other groups that you mentioned are going to drop everything and come to the - come to the negotiating table.

But what our hope is and -- is that you will have smaller, lower elements within the Taliban who kinda see two examples that they can look at. Number one, they can keep fighting or number two, they can see that Hekmatyar may very well have a path to peace.

And so, our hope is that some of these smaller elements of the Taliban will recognize that there is another choice. Regardless of what the specifics are, there is another choice to this ongoing fighting, that they can kind of follow a similar path that Hekmatyar and the HIG have done in terms of trying to settle with the government.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Luis Martinez.

Q: Hey, general. Luis Martinez with ABC News.

The question has to do with the Mullah Mansur strike. Earlier you talked about the rules of engagement about how you can't target it based on status.

Those rules of engagement, we always thought applied only to Afghanistan . When did they -- have they always applied to Pakistan as well or was this a special case and that the - had new expanded authorities only for this mission? And I have a couple of follow-ups on that, too.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yeah, Luis. Unfortunately, I don't have a real good answer for you. I really would defer you back to the beltway. Those were decision - as the president, you know, announced he made this specific decision, so your -- your best answers are probably going to come from within the beltway -- on those -- on those particular topics.

Q: And now that we have these -- this new role -- rules of engagement for -- that apply, apparently, to Pakistan as well, can we see further actions inside Pakistan of a similar status, if there is a threat perceived to American forces, as there was with the Mullah Mansour strike?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yes, and again, from our perspective, there is no change to the rules of engagement. Our focus is being able to target by status in Afghanistan Al Qaida, Daesh and then anybody who is a threat to U.S. forces or coalition forces. Anything beyond that, really those types of decisions still reside back in Washington, D.C., and so I really would defer you back to the team back there.

Q: And one last one on a different topic, on the Kandaks. How large are those Kandaks that we're training in Helmand right now?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: They are a couple of hundred of -- couple hundred soldiers.

CAPT. DAVIS: Lucas, one last follow-up, there.

Q: General, Lucas Tomlinson, from Fox News. Just a quick follow-up to Louis' question. Were you or General Nicholson concerned that Mullah Mansur was in Iran? And are you concerned about Iran sheltering Taliban officials? Thank you.

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Yes, Lucas. Thank you very much.

You know, our -- our real focus on it, again, continue to be Afghanistan and I know it sounds like I'm dodging your question and I don't mean to, but again, you know, the location of Mullah Mansur and where he was either before or during the strike, et cetera, are really questions that probably the team back in Washington, D.C., has got a better answer for you.

Our real role, again, as I think you're well aware -- Mullah Mansur was a threat to U.S. forces, he was an obstacle to peace. An opportunity presented, the president made a decision and he was targeted and he was killed. And so really, the rest of the aspect of that really is better to answer -- better answered back in Washington, D.C.

Q: And lastly, was the taxi cab driver -- was he part of the Taliban, too? Did he -- did he have that same threat to U.S. forces?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: So bottom line is we are confident, Lucas, in our targeting and we are confident that he was a lawful combatant.

Q: Thank you.

CAPT. DAVIS: And I think with that, we are out of questions.

Sir, over to you. Do you have any closing comments you wanted to make?

BRIG. GEN. CLEVELAND: Okay, Jeff. Thank you very much. And again, I appreciate everybody's time and their questions. I know that we left some unanswered, and so what I'd like to be able to do is follow up with those specific individuals as we have that information. We'll try and do that as quickly as we can and if anybody else has something afterwards, I'm more than happy to entertain those.

Thank you once again.

CAPT. DAVIS: Thank you. Thank you, everybody.

http://www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/788323/



NEWSLETTER
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list