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Presenter: General John W. Nicholson Jr., commander, Resolute Support and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan November 28, 2017

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


STAFF: Good morning, everyone.

Today, we're joined by U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson. Gen. Nicholson is the commander of Resolute Support and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, and joins us from Kabul, Afghanistan.

We'll start with a quick radio check. Sir, how do you hear us?

GENERAL JOHN W. NICHOLSON: I got you loud and clear, Mike. Thanks. How me?

STAFF: Sir, we're hearing you great. Please take it away.

GEN. NICHOLSON: Hey, good morning. It's good to be with you all again.

Last week when we met, we talked about the strikes that we prosecuted against the Taliban's economic engine in Helmand. That engine's fueled by narcotics.

In just over three days' worth of operations, the Afghan 215th Corps, their Special Forces commandos, their air force, in close cooperation with U.S. forces, removed between $7 million and $10 million of revenue from the Taliban's pocketbook. And the overall cost to the drug trafficking organizations approached $48 million dollars. So these strikes were just the first step in attacking the Taliban's financial engine, and they will continue.

Now shifting to the subject for today -- is the South Asia strategy, looking at 2017 and ahead to 2018, these strikes that we did last week were just one small part of a larger strategy that President Trump announced in August, the South Asia strategy, that granted us authorities to conduct the strikes I just spoke about.

However, it's much more comprehensive than that. It is a regional strategy in which Afghanistan figures prominently.

The key things to take away from the strategy that I'd like to cover would be, number one, we are now conditions-based, not time-based. We will be here until the job is done.

The U.S. approach aligns with the NATO approach.

And, as I said last time, war is a contest of wills. The president has left no doubt in terms of our will to win.

The goal of this strategy is reconciliation, a negotiated settlement which lowers the level of violence. We achieve this by applying three forms of pressure on the enemy: first, military pressure, through offensive operations and stronger security institutions; second, diplomatic and other forms of pressure on the enablers of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network; three, social pressure, in the form of elections over the next two years, which, if done credibly, will further enhance the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of the people.

So, as I said before, there's a regional dimension to the strategy, to limit interference and seek cooperation with Afghanistan's neighbors. We have to realign resources and to execute this strategy well across the whole of the U.S. government and, of course, the coalition, if we are to succeed.

I'd point out that the military effort is necessary but, by itself, not sufficient for success. We must work together with all of the parts of the U.S. government and the coalition in order to be successful.

It has been just under a hundred days since the announcement, and we can see the impacts already, especially in terms of our adversaries' reactions.

So we saw two changes to the enemy's strategy over the last year. As you know from 2016, they started off trying to seize provincial capitals. They suffered heavily when they did so, so they therefore shifted their strategy in 2017 from attempting to seize capitals to a district-focused strategy.

And then by August, with the losses that they suffered with that approach and the announcement of the U.S. policy in September, we saw another enemy shift to a guerrilla-style of warfare, with hit-and-run attacks, suicide attacks, et cetera. Each of these shifts represented to us a lowering of ambition by the enemy.

Now, reconciliation will take some time. We'll have to continue to apply the three types of pressure, engage within the region and leverage all of the instruments available to meet our goals.

In the face of this pressure, the Taliban cannot win. Their choices are to reconcile, live in irrelevance, or die.

Let me shift now to a little context for 2017.

First, the Taliban is not a popular insurgency. The Afghan people outright reject them. Up to 90 percent believe that a return to Taliban rule would be bad for the country.

And notice that I didn't use the word "govern." The Taliban do not govern, they rule through force. They impose their rule on the people. And, increasingly, they are primarily interested in making money. And they are making more money than they need to operate.

So we believe that the Taliban, in some ways, have evolved into a criminal or narco-insurgency. They are fighting to defend their revenue streams. They have increasingly lost whatever ideological anchor they once had.

They fight to preserve and expand their sources of revenue. This includes narcotics trafficking, illegal mining, taxing people throughout Afghanistan, kidnapping and murder-for-hire: all criminal endeavors.

Now, population control remains roughly the same as last year. About 64 percent of the population is controlled by the government, about 24 percent live in contested areas, and the Taliban control the remaining 12 percent.

But it's worth bearing in mind that Afghanistan has never had a strong central government. The absence of government control doesn't equal Taliban control. It is not a zero-sum equation.

So why did things stay roughly the same through August of this year?

Well, we fought most of this year, through Aug. 21, at the lowest level of U.S. force and capability, and, therefore, the highest level of risk, in our 16-year war in Afghanistan.

Yet, in spite of that, the Taliban strategy was not successful. It was essentially defeated by the Afghans.

After suffering heavy casualties from attempting to take provincial capitals, the Taliban shifted, as I mentioned, to districts. And then they shifted, again, to guerrilla-style warfare: suicide attacks, hit-and-run, designed to maintain relevance and to inflict casualties, but not to gain and hold new terrain.

So we're seeing the nature of the Taliban's efforts changing across the board. I mentioned a steady decline in the level of ambition. Meanwhile, the Afghan Security Forces have become more capable this year.

I want to reiterate something that President Ghani often says: The Afghans own the fight, and are proud to. They are willing to fight and die for their future, their country, their families. And in so doing, they're not only fighting on behalf of themselves, but they are fighting against the terrorists who have threatened our homeland and the homelands of our allies as well.

So the Afghan Security Forces went on the offensive this year. This was a result of leadership changes that President Ghani made in May, when he changed out five of six corps commanders, as well as a new chief of general staff and a new minister of defense.

These new leaders led offensive operations, and many times throughout the year we held offensive operations in all six corps areas. Absolutely new in the last three years; never happened before.

These changes in leadership, strengthened and supported by the renewed international will and the U.S. policy announcement, have shifted the momentum in their favor.

So did airpower. And thus far in 2017, the U.S. has tripled the amount of air-delivered munitions that we've employed.

As assets free up from Iraq and Syria and the successful fight against Daesh in that theater, we expect to see more assets come to Afghanistan.

So on that subject, I want to take a moment to address the issue of civilian casualties.

First, I'd say, we go to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian causalities. We have a rigorous process in place to investigate any allegation, from unit plans to aircraft gun tapes, to any interviews, even things that appear in the media. We investigate thoroughly every single allegation.

Now, there were allegations of increased CIVCAS by aerial fires produced by UNAMA this year. We have great respect for UNAMA, and we work closely with them, but we don't always agree on the figures. And in fact, we disagree on some of these numbers regarding aerial casualties.

An example of why we would disagree, for example, would be an allegation occurs in a particular place at a particular time, we go back and review and find that we did not drop a munition on that day in that location, for example. This might be one of the reasons that we would disagree.

But -- but increasing, of course, the Afghan's are building better accountability of every place and time that they drop a munition, and of course we have almost 100 percent accountability on the U.S. side every time we deliver an aerial munition. This would be one of the reasons why we would disagree on the numbers.

Keep in mind that the U.S. tripled its munitions, but the Afghan Air Force has also grown significantly in its capability to deliver fire since 2016. We are training their pilots. Their pilots are not only getting better at their missions, but also at their reporting. I've personally talked to many Afghan pilots who refuse to drop when they identify civilians on the objective.

If you look at airpower in relation to what's happening on the ground and with the enemy and the enemy's lack of respect for human life -- again even by the UNAMA account, 6 percent of CIVCAS were caused by aerial fires. The vast majority of the 8,000 allegations that UNAMA has of civilian causalities were caused by the Taliban, Daesh and other anti-government elements.

So the takeaway here is that the Afghans have significantly improved in 2017, again with all six of their corps on the offensive simultaneously and the stand-up of the new special operations corps as well; so in effect, seven corps on the offensive taking the fight to the enemy.

And within a few days from now, Afghan Special Forces, along with U.S. Special Forces, will take the fight to Faryab in the northwest part of Afghanistan and they will support the Afghan efforts -- the Afghan government's efforts there to destroy Daesh, where they have appeared in Jowzjan and Faryab. And of course we're committed to their destruction wherever they appear across the country.

Daesh has been unable to establish a caliphate in Afghanistan. This was their ambition two years ago. And we see no evidence of fighters making their way from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan, because they know if they come here they will face death.

We've isolated them largely from their outside finance and support, and they're having trouble replacing their leaders.

Nevertheless, they do still recruit locally. These are primarily non-Afghans, some members of Islamic Movement Uzbekistan, and many former members of the Pakistani Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

Since March, we've conducted about 1,400 ground tactical operations and strikes, removing over 1,600 Daesh from the battlefield and reducing over 600 of their structures, facilities, fighting positions, et cetera.

And again, it is Afghans who are leading the way in this fight against Daesh; Afghan commandos in particular.

Looking ahead to 2018, President Ghani is bringing about a generational change in the leadership of the security institutions. In keeping with its new inherent law, the Afghan government has notified over 2,150 colonels and generals from the Ministry of Defense that they will retire with dignity within the next year. The goal here is to shift the leadership of the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior from the generation of the 1960s to the generation of the 1990s.

We're also working closely with the government to reconstitute the force over the winter, so they'll be ready for renewed offensive operations in the spring.

We have mechanisms in place in the U.S.-Afghan compact to assure transparency and accountability, and new fiscal tools that we can use to look inside of the personnel, pay and fuel systems of the Afghan government.

On Aug. 29th, we signed a memorandum of agreement with the Afghan government, which allows audits of the Ministry of Finance and the banking system to assure that U.S. taxpayer dollars are going to their intended purpose. That first audit is ongoing right now.

This is coupled with an effort where we are biometrically enrolling every soldier and policeman -- 10 fingerprints, two retinal scans and detailed family data -- to assure that we eliminate ghost soldiers from the rolls.

Now, this process is going to play out through April, so by the middle of next year we expect to have much, much better visibility on all ghost soldiers and the true strength of the forces. And then be able to follow the pay when it goes from the United States into the Ministry of Finance through the banking system down to an account that belongs to a biometrically identified soldier.

So this will be a first, and again we have President Ghani's strong reform agenda to thank for that.

Now, regarding the U.S.-Afghan compact, it is more than just a counter-corruption effort. It also provides milestones -- several hundred of them -- that will play out over the next several years to track the specific progress of the Afghan security institutions as they improve.

Thus far, out of a possible 172 milestones, the Afghans have accomplished 163 of them; a very good performance rate. And we continue to track these on a monthly basis, we review them with the president, and then the president reviews them with the leadership of our government.

This coming Saturday, the acting minister of defense, Minister Bahrami, will sign a child protection policy which will set clear procedures and hold those accountable who violate the rights of children.

This policy sets out procedures for monitoring, reporting and investing violations by any Ministry of Defense personnel. And additionally, we are implementing an enhanced reporting system to that end in USFOR-A. We have implemented a new reporting system, we're ensuring that all soldiers are trained, and every American soldier knows what's right and wrong, and they know that if they see a violation they are to report it. And we're providing them the training and the means with which to do just that.

The Afghan air force took delivery of its first four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters earlier this fall. They will eventually receive approximately 150 of them.

Six new UH-60 pilots graduated this week, so we now have Afghan trained pilots on the UH-60. Twenty-five more are in training right now.

We will graduate another 800 commandos by the end of December on top of the 900 we already graduated last month. This is part of the doubling of the Afghan National Army Commando Force, and that doubling of that force is what'll give them new offensive power. These are all under the new Afghan National Army Special Operations Corps that was stood up in August.

The Afghan commanders who make up that corps have never lost a battle against the Taliban and they never will. They are the most feared and respected force in Afghanistan today and they're the best special operations force in the region.

Now, looking ahead to 2018, as President Ghani said, he believes we have turned the corner and I agree. The momentum is now with the Afghan Security Forces and the Taliban cannot win in the face of the pressures that I outlined. Again, their choices are to reconcile, live in irrelevance, or die.

To the service members who have served in Afghanistan, and especially those who've been wounded and to the families of our fallen comrades, you have earned our eternal respect and gratitude. We will deliver on your sacrifice.

Over the next two years the Afghan Security Forces will expand their control of the population to 80 percent. They will do this through increased offensive action. And that offensive capability comes from doubling the size of the commandos, increasing the size and capability of the air force, and embedding U.S. advisers down to the kandak level and select units of the Afghan National Army. This is the force that takes the field over the next two years and expands control of the population.

These U.S. advisers, with the Afghan Special Forces will be able to bring U.S. combat enablers to bear in support of Afghan National Army units.

My final message is really to the Afghan people who have suffered so long and still bravely take up arms against terrorists who threaten the entire world. We are with you and we will stay with you.

With that, I'd like to take your questions.

STAFF: Tom Bowman, NPR?

Q: Do you have a little more details about the next fighting season in 2018. You're having hundreds of advisers, again 800 to 1,000 training now at Fort Benning. And I'm wondering, once they head over, what percentage of those will be down at the lowest level, the kandak level? And what will their mission be?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Right. Thanks for the question, Tom. And thanks for your coverage of this campaign.

They are part of the Army's first security force assistance brigade. The Army will produce six of these. These brigades are made up of volunteers who are then specially trained in a range of skills to provide combat advising at the tactical level. So they'll go down to the kandak level, the battalion level, which is really where we have operated successfully for the last couple of years with our special forces advisers.

So these advisers will operate in teams. So you'll have a team that would go to the kandak. We will move these teams to those units that are conducting offensive operations, and then those teams will be backed up by U.S. combat enablers, not only for the protection of our own force but for the support of the Afghans as well.

And so, this will enable us to help the Afghans with their offensive operations simultaneously in multiple corps.

And so, the intent is really over the winter, we'll maintain some limited offensive operations, but also focused on regeneration of the force. And then as we roll into the spring, March, April and beyond, they will go on the offensive.

So these offensive operations are designed to secure the portions of the population that are in contested areas primarily. Two purposes: one, expand control of the government over the population to increase the government's legitimacy and to protect the people; but also secondly, in advance of the elections, this will help for a more secure election, which should set the conditions for a more credible election. So when we have greater security around the polling places, we can have more observers at those polling places, which again can add to the legitimacy and credibility of the elections.

So, that's what's going to play out over the coming months, Tom.

Q: I'm wondering how many of these advisers will actually be down at the kandak level. Can you give us a percentage? Is it a hundred, a couple of hundred?

And from what you're saying, they'll be going outside the wire; they'll be on offensive operations. Which means they're at greater risk.

GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah, as far as advisers, you know, they all might not be out at the same time. But we're talking about between the Afghan National Army conventional corps and the special forces, you're looking at well over a thousand advisers out at any given time, and then on top of that all the additional enabling capabilities that will be in support of them.

So, we're going to great lengths, of course, to assure their force protection. So this is done by all the ways that we would normally assure force protection, through the use of what we know as combat enablers. So, any time a U.S. soldier, Marine, sailor, airman sets foot on the battlefield, there is always a whole array of support behind them. This includes, you know, ISR assets, it includes command and control. It includes fire support, in the form of artillery, air attack aviation. Includes the logistical support, in the form of medevac.

So this is how we'll be recomposing the force over the winter, to enable us to do that, so that these advisers can be out there with the Afghans to enable those offensive operations that, again, will maintain a tempo that will -- that will enable them to start retaking the -- 80 percent of the country over the next two years.

Q: Advisers going outside the wire will clearly be at greater risk, because right now, most Americans are inside large bases.

GEN. NICHOLSON: Yes, there will be greater risk. Absolutely.

So -- but we've been doing this the last few years, as you're aware, Tom, with our special forces. So and then this year we have also been doing advising outside the wire around the county. So, we conducted this at the brigade level typically, because we weren't established, but this has been part of the NATO structure since last year. This billets have primarily been filled by Americans, but we have been doing this to some extent over the past year. Next year, however, this will increase dramatically over what we've done in the past year.

STAFF: (inaudible), Reuters.

Q: Unless we deal with Pakistan, the war in Afghanistan can't be won. Have you seen a change in Pakistan's support for militants since the new South Asia strategy? And if not, how do you get them to change, because whatever's been done in the past 16 years clearly doesn't seem to have worked.

GEN. NICHOLSON: Right. I got the question.

So, as you're aware, President Trump make some pretty straightforward statements during his speech. We've had a lot of senior-level engagement, Secretary of State, General Votel. We've had senior delegations from the State Department and National Security Council travel over there as well. They've all met with the Pakistani leadership.

Pakistani leadership has come to Kabul and met with President Ghani. They identified certain steps that they were going to take. We've not yet seen those steps play out.

This is very much a dialogue capital-to-capital right now. We'll have other senior-level visits coming up.

And then as far as the timeframe for actions on either side, I'll leave that to our senior leadership to discuss.

But we've been very direct and very clear with the Pakistanis. I know at the senior level, again, you can read President Trump's statements. So the expectations are out there.

Now, we have not seen those changes implemented yet. We're hoping to see those changes. We're hoping to work together with the Pakistanis going forward to eliminate terrorists who are -- who're crossing the Durand Line.

The Pakistanis have many concerns about the border from their side. We also share those concerns. And so, there are some common equities we have: obviously counterterrorism, border control, refugee returns. All these issues are on the table.

But in terms of changes thus far this year, again, policy was announced August 21st; it's now a hundred days later. So, no, we haven't seen those changes yet.

Q: Just to follow up, I remember in 2011 -- Mike Mullen who said the ISI -- or the Haqqani Network is a veritable arm of the ISI. It's now been six years; could you just talk about the ISI and its support for the Haqqani Network, and have you seen that change specifically over the past few months?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Well, to bookend that comment, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of defense were asked these questions on the Hill recently. I think they affirmed that those relationships still exist. So I'd leave it at that and I concur with their assessment.

Q: General, critics in Washington and within (Off mic) say your approach to defeating the Taliban and ISIS has been too cautious. How do you respond to those critics?

GEN. NICHOLSON: I'm sorry; I didn't hear the first part of your question. Can you say again, please?

Q: Critics in Washington and within the ranks say that your approach to defeating the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan has been too cautious. How you respond to those critics?

GEN. NICHOLSON: I haven't heard those criticisms. And I would say, as I said, the Taliban have three choices: reconcile, face irrelevance, or die. You can look at the numbers of munitions that we've dropped this year. I think that answers your question.

Q: How many air strikes that get put before you do you reject on a daily basis, generally?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Say again?

Q: What percentage of air strike plans that are put before you do you reject on a daily basis, generally?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Did you say, do we reject? Was that the question?

Q: What percent of air strikes do you approve on a daily basis, generally?

GEN. NICHOLSON: There's no percentage to attach to that.

We use munitions whenever they're necessary to defeat the Taliban, the ISIS or whomever we see on the battlefield in line with our authorities. So those authorities enable us to use U.S. combat enablers in support of the Afghans on the offensive operations.

As I said, six corps were on the offensive simultaneously this year. So we made extensive use of munitions in support of the Afghans.

In previous years, we've used aerial-delivered munitions to repulse the Taliban from cities, for example. So we make extensive use of air power and very seldom do we wave off an air strike, unless there were a risk of CIVCAS.

Q: Finally, with this new war on drugs using B-52 bombers, why did it take 16 years for this new strategy to go after Taliban drugs as going after their revenue streams? Why now?

GEN. NICHOLSON: This is not a war on drugs, this is a war on Taliban revenue. So, there's about 13 drug trafficking organizations in Afghanistan, seven of them connected to the Taliban in Helmand alone. And so, we are striking those specific organizations that are linked to the Taliban, Taliban cartels if you will, that now provide the majority of their revenue.

This is allowed under the authorities that I was granted under the new U.S. strategy. I could not do that previously.

Q: Back to my colleague's question on Pakistan, if the poppies and opium are going to Pakistan for refinement and processing to turn into heroin, why don't you conduct air strikes there against those facilities?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Of course, as you know, Afghanistan is producing about 85 percent of the world's opium that's transferred into heroin. A lot of that processing takes place in Afghanistan. There's plenty to strike inside Afghanistan.

About 40 percent of it does go out through Pakistan, about 30 percent through Iran, about 30 percent through the north. Our law enforcement agencies and Drug Enforcement Agency are trying to work closely with all those governments to restrict the flow and to cooperate with them on interdiction of these organizations.

I agree completely. We would want to have greater cooperation when it comes to interdicting these narcotics flows as they leave Afghanistan.

STAFF: Ryan Browne, CNN.

Q: Thank you, General, for doing this.

Just one quick one on -- well, just one quick one on the Taliban's leadership. Where do you currently assess the Taliban's leadership to be? Do you believe it to be in Afghanistan or Pakistan?

GEN. NICHOLSON: I think their tactical-level leadership is in Afghanistan in the field.

But there's a reason that the two leadership centers of the Taliban are called the Quetta Shura and the Peshawar Shura. Those are cities in Pakistan. So I'd say the senior leadership still resides in Pakistan.

Q: For Afghan special forces, I know part of the long-term plan is to double the size of the commandos and the -- and the other Special Forces groups. How is that going? Are you finding that there has to be any kind of sacrifice in quality to grow? Do you have the number of trainers you need from NATO to grow the Special Forces? And are they still doing over 80 percent of offensive operations?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Thank you.

The growth of the Special Forces is on track. We've graduated almost -- by the end of December it will be almost 2,000 additional commandos this year. We have a steady flow of new recruits.

Now, the demographics of Afghanistan, as you're probably aware, are very different from the demographics in the United States. 70 percent of the people are under the age of 27, so you have a lot of unemployed males who are intelligent, educated, fit, who are ready to join the Special Forces. So the recruiting pool is pretty significant.

There is an appeal to joining the Special Forces and the commandos. They're better trained, they've never been defeated, they get higher pay, and they're widely respected. So we're not having any trouble filling ranks; in fact they're having to turn away some recruits. They're also receiving recruits from inside the Army, so this is important.

The growth of these units, though -- we need to take the right amount of time to train them properly. They receive an initial amount of commando training, they then receive specialty training.

We're going to see -- all of this growth is going to take two years, but we'll have a significant number of new commandos showing up on the battlefield next year. So we're going to see some growth in the -- in the existing commando kandaks.

We stood up the Afghan National Army Special Operations Corps this year. We stood up the National Mission Brigade this year. The National Mission Brigade is a country-wide counterterrorism force that -- that has Special Forces battalions and Katahas, their high-end counterterrorism force.

We are doubling the number of commando brigades; we'll go from two to four. And we're also doubling the number of special police units. So the special police units, 222, 333, 444, are the high-end urban CT forces that they have. And there will now be one of these forces for all of the major urban areas in Afghanistan: Jalalabad, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and so on.

So this this process in its entirety will take two years. All these forces will be on the battlefield in 2019. And a good portion of them will be on the battlefield next year, which will increase the offensive ops.

But I don't anticipate they're going to be doing the 70, 80 percent of the operations in the past. And this is because we're going to see a greater number of offensive operations performed by the conventional Afghan corps. So just like you saw in Helmand this year with the 215th Corps going on the offensive, we're going to see that now in other corps as well.

And this will -- this will mean the probably overall percentage of commando offensive operations as a part of the total will drop somewhat.

STAFF: Nancy Youssef, Wall Street Journal.

Q: You mentioned earlier, General that you disputed the UNAMA numbers of civilian casualties, and I was wondering if you could give us your numbers. How many civilian casualties have happened this year, according to the U.S. assessment? Ideally aerial strikes specifically. How much has been paid in condolence payments? And how many military personnel are dedicated to investigating civilian casualties?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah, whenever there's a civilian casualty incident, we immediately stand up an investigation board that we dispatch to the appropriate area to investigate. So we have a standing team that initiates the investigation as soon as we get the allegation. They have other duties, but when this duty comes up, they immediately move to do this.

We coordinate closely with UNAMA; I'd say on a weekly basis.

When I say that we dispute their figures, I explained an example of one of the reasons of why we might dispute. UNAMA has its methodology, we have our methodology, and the methodologies are different.

And then UNAMA, out of respect for the confidentiality of their sources -- and we understand this -- does not want to share the names of many of the sources because that could expose them to repercussions or reprisals.

So we understand that in order to protect the people who offer this information to UNAMA, we aren't always able to see the same evidence that they have. So this means we, then, need to go through a separate investigation, almost in parallel, to examine this.

And, of course, we have access to information that UNAMA doesn't always have. For example, we have gun tapes, we have records of when munitions are dropped, we know precisely where a U.S. munition is dropped, for example. We have a very good idea of where Afghan munitions are dropped. So something that's reported as an airstrike in one area, we may not have any record of a bomb being dropped there. So that would be an example of why we would disagree on the allegation.

And so there are always in the -- within the total UNAMA numbers, there's a percentage of the numbers that even UNAMA concedes cannot be attributed to one side or the other.

And of course -- so, again, different methodologies. We have great respect for UNAMA.

We'll -- I'll have to follow up with you in terms of the numbers. From our perspective, though, again, the overall UNAMA figure was 6 percent of total CIVCAS by aerial fires, and we -- and we come in at something less than that.

But we can get back to you with more specifics on the numbers.

Q: You'd mentioned that you tripled the number of munitions. Have you in any way expanded the number of teams that investigate civ casualties -- civilian casualties -- accordingly, given the tripling of munitions drops?

GEN. NICHOLSON: We haven't seen a tripling in the number of allegations. Again, our reports of CIVCAS are running roughly the same as previously, and we're right-sized to be able to deal with that.

Q: Lastly, I'm curious, do you follow the price of opium on a weekly basis? And if so, have you seen a change in that price since these strikes have begun on opium production facilities?

GEN. NICHOLSON: I haven't seen the price of opium on a weekly basis, but my guess would be there has not been a change.

The thing to remember about the Afghan narcotics trafficking organizations is that they have a lot of inventory and storage. So they don't always immediately process and transport their inventory.

The yield was up this year, as you saw in the UNODC report. So we expect that, you know, the economic rules of supply and demand, much of this inventory might be put into a form of opium paste, which can be stored longer. As soon as they begin the refinement process into morphine and more refined types of heroin, then they need to move the product.

So we believe a significant amount of opium is stored, awaiting refinement based on market demand.

STAFF: Tara Copp, Military Times?

Q: Could you talk about remaining ISIS pockets in Nangarhar province? What are your estimates for the number of ISIS fighters that remain there? And what sort of percentage of U.S. airstrikes are targeting those remaining ISIS fighters?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah. The significant portion of our airstrikes go in support of our counterterrorism efforts. And so these airstrikes, a lion's share of them go against Daesh. Because, again, Daesh attempted to establish a caliphate, so they make themselves targetable, frankly, when they do this. They attempt to seize and hold terrain, raise the flag and rule the population.

So they attempted to do this in southern Nangarhar. As you know, at one point they expanded out to nine districts. Now we've got them down to portions of three districts. But it's like a balloon: We squeeze them in this area and they'll try to move out elsewhere.

What we've done now is in the southern Achin Debella district we've pushed them south into the mountains that border Pakistan. We're seeing them move up into those valleys in those mountains, and they're attempting to move west into the area of Pachaweragam and where they can also try to access some passes through the mountains into Pakistan.

Remember most of these Daesh fighters came from Pakistan. They were from the Orakzai agency of Pakistan in the tribal areas. So they go through the passes of southern Nangarhar and they move back to their home agency.

We are seeing Daesh presence in Kunar and in Jowzjan -- these are two other provinces -- but we think those numbers there are small, 300 or less, in those areas.

And then in the southern Nangarhar area we think we're looking at 600 to 800.

I do need a caveat, though, in saying they are actively recruiting from the Tehriki-i-Taliban Pakistan. So as you'll recall, when the Pakistan army and their Zarb-e-Azb operation in 2014 pushed a lot of the TTP into Afghanistan -- hundreds of thousands of TTP fighters and their families pushed into Afghanistan and it's from these ranks that Daesh has been recruiting heavily.

But from their height, we have reduced their presence significantly and we'll continue with their fires over the winter. In particular fires and aerial-delivered fires focused on them over the winter to further reduce their numbers.

Q: Could you give us any sort of ballpark percentage of the number of airstrikes that are targeting this particular region and ISIS fighters?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Well, half of our aerial fires are going to our counterterrorism mission, and of the ones going to our counterterrorism mission, the majority of those are going against Daesh.

We can get back to you with some more specific numbers, though.

STAFF: Tom Watkins, AFP?

Q: We're hearing that recently some ISIS fighters of European and Algerian origin came to -- and I'm going to say this wrong -- Jowzjan province in the north directly from Iraq and Syria. Do you have any additional information about that? And does it change your assessments that you've previously given us that Iraq and Syria were not conduits to Afghanistan for ISIS fighters?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah, I'll have to follow up on that, because I have not heard that report, and I would be surprised at that.

The Jowzjan element -- what we're seeing in the case of some of these is fighters switching allegiances, declaring themselves to be Daesh or ISIS as it suits them. This element in Jowzjan, again, numbered -- we were tracking 150 -- there were fights with the Taliban, there were fights against Hazarans, or in the Hazaran/Tajik area, I should say, where Taliban were involved. We're seeing what we call red-on-red fighting there now.

But Syria and Algerian; have not seen those reports, but will certainly follow up on that.

Again, we have not seen any significant migration of fighters from Syria, Algeria. We think a lot of these -- or from Syria and Iraq. We believe that we have seen migration into -- into Africa, Libya, other areas to the west, but not here at Afghanistan.

STAFF: Joe Tabet, Al Hurra?

Q: Could you give us an update on the level of interference from Iran and Russia in Afghanistan? Have you seen any evidence of direct support from Iran for the Taliban?

GEN. NICHOLSON: So, let me address those.

The first thing I'd say is we have shared interest with Iran and Russia in Afghanistan. So we have the shared interest of counter-narcotics, the shared interest of counter-terrorism. You know, one of the concerns we hear from both nations is the concern about Daesh and their desire to see it eliminated.

This is our, one of our top counterterrorism focuses, along with al-Qaida -- the remnants of al-Qaida. So this is an area where actually our work the Afghans is precisely what the Russians and Iranians want.

Now what's counter-intuitive here is the legitimizing or working with the Taliban, which we see in both cases. Because, again, the Taliban, when it comes to narcotics, are the principal traffickers of narcotics into those two countries. And as you're aware, Afghan heroin kills tens of thousands of Russians every year and the addiction rates in Iran are extremely high too.

So again, by legitimizing or supporting the Taliban, they're doing harm to their own citizens. Additionally, the support to the Taliban is destabilizing to the government and it's the government who is being principally effective against Daesh.

The thing to understand about Daesh is of course, is they're totally repugnant to the culture of Afghanistan. The majority of these fighters are non-Afghans. They're Pakistanis, they're Uzbeks, they're others. Their brutality, their cruelty is totally against Afghan culture. They're rejected by the majority of Afghans. So we're seeing a minority of the fighters in Daesh are actually Afghans. So Daesh will not get a strong showing -- or will not have a strong showing here in Afghanistan.

And then of course they are at the top of our list in terms of our counterterrorism effort. And I've talked about the results we've achieved before.

So these -- to these are the basis of a dialogue we think on our common interests in Afghanistan with those two nations.

I would additionally point out that in the case of Iran and Afghanistan, they are neighbors. There are important common equities they share beyond Daesh. This would include water rights. So Iranians need and desire water, they're allowed water under certain water treaties that exist. This is an area of potential cooperation.

There's the Port of Charbahar which just opened up in Iran, through which the first shipments of wheat from India to Afghanistan flowed a few weeks ago.

So there's economic equities, there are water equities, there's shared interest in counter-narcotics, there's shared interest in counterterrorism. So we hope that all these issues add up to a normalized relationship between Afghanistan and Iran where they work together against these terrorists.

And again, it was -- there's no love lost between the Iranians and the Taliban. The Taliban murdered Iranian diplomats. The Taliban have provided sanctuary for other terrorist groups in addition to al-Qaida. So the Taliban represent a destabilizing element in Afghanistan, not a -- one in -- that would produce greater stability if you're a neighbor of Afghanistan.

Q: Quick follow-up, sir. Given what you have said now about the common interest, is it fair to say that there's no any sort of relations between Iran and the Taliban?

GEN. NICHOLSON: No, I think there are relations between Iran and the Taliban.

We see some evidence of that in the western part of the country. We have reports of that that come from locals in the western part of the country. In Farah province in particular, we've received many reports of Iranian-backed Taliban fighting in Farah with some advanced equipment. So we're watching this very closely.

At the same time, I would say we also see a bilateral dialogue going on between the governments of Iran and Afghanistan, which we encourage in the interests of these common interests that I discussed.

STAFF: Tony Cappacio, Bloomberg.

Q: Can you give a fair assessment of what progress the Pakistan military has made in your time there, and over the last decade, in reducing the sanctuaries? They say they've lost thousands and thousands of troops, the U.S. has acknowledged that. So what progress have they made?

And going forward, what initiatives, at the tactical and the strategic level, do you need to see them initiate or reassert in order to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah, so there are 21 designated terrorist groups in this region, in Afghanistan and Pakistan together. And they exist within a combined population of well over 300 million people. And many of these people don't have, there's not high employment, there are many other difficulties that they face in their life. A shortage of hope would be in a case of many of these people. So it's fertile recruiting ground for these organizations.

So, as you mentioned, many of these terrorist organizations are fighting against the Pakistan government. The most prominent of them would be the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, but there's many others: TGG, JUA and others.

So the Pakistanis have been engaged in a very tough fight against extremism inside their own country. And so one of the major successes they had against these extremists was the Zarb-e-Azb Operation, where they went into Waziristan -- south Waziristan and the majority of north Waziristan and displaced, fought and displaced a lot of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Unfortunately, many of them then came into Afghanistan across the Durand Line.

So they did displace many of those terrorists who were fighting their own government. But at the same time, we've seen the ones who weren't displaced were the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, who continue to reside on that side of the Durand Line.

And so, we want to work together with the Pakistan government and with the Pakistan military in reducing this.

One of the principle issues that we want to work together on is border control. And so, the mechanisms for securing the Durand Line, the border. And this is an ongoing dialogue between these two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have exchanged SOPs and proposals for how to do this.

When ISAF was in the country in a large way, we helped with this process in establishing border crossing points and so forth. Unfortunately, since the rather rapid draw-down of ISAF, many of those policies, outposts, et cetera, that were in place have fallen off.

One of the ways that we're working to help the Afghans improve border security is the transfer of the Afghan border police to the Afghan army. So now the Afghan army, which is a more advanced and professional organization for a variety of reasons, is going to take control of border security.

And so this is ongoing as I speak. The transfer will occur in the coming weeks. And then the army will be responsible. This will now allow better coordination on the Afghan side, with respect to the border security force, and better -- and cleaner coordination with those on the Pak side.

Nevertheless, big problems remain. We are currently experiencing operations close to the border by the Pakistanis, which have involved cross-border shelling. This has, unfortunately, displaced hundreds of Afghan civilians from villages in close proximity to the border.

It's also undermined the political space for political dialogue between the two countries. It's a constant source of conversation and dialogue between the political leaders.

So, again, I'd say right now, for that reason, these border issues, the relations are strained right now.

So, again, we have common equities we want to work with the Pakistanis on, counterterrorism being number one. We're also ready to work on border issues, refugee returns.

But, as you've heard our president say, as you've heard all of our senior leaders say, we have got to see movement on this reduction of sanctuary and support for those insurgents and terrorists operating from Pakistan who are attacking our forces and our coalition diplomats and forces, as well as the Afghans, inside this country.

Q: Do you need to see then a greater offensive military operation from the Pakistan army into those sanctuaries? And what leverage does the United States even have now to force those types of actions?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Well, the Pakistanis are conducting offensive operations at various points along the border. When we get enough notice, we try to work with them on this. One example would be their KhyberFor Operation which they conducted last year on the southern part of Nangarhar, at the same time that we were conducting our operations against Daesh on the northern side of that border.

So this is an example of what I would call, a complementary operation, both sides of the border at the same time with one enemy being squeezed in between, Daesh.

And so, in that particular operation, we squeezed the ISIS-K into the southern part of the province, into the mountains, at the same time as the Pakistanis reestablished control in the Khyber agency of a number of the border crossing points. So that, I would say, would be a high point, in terms of cooperation.

Currently, there's a Pakistani operation going on in the vicinity of Kunar province, to push their forces up to the border there. And, unfortunately, this is the one where we've had the cross-border shelling and the displacement of civilians.

So we're ready to work with them whenever we have the opportunity.

The offensive operations against sanctuaries would be in other areas that we've identified with the Pakistani leadership on a number of occasions, and I'll just leave it at that.

STAFF: We only have time for two more questions. So if we can get Cami and then we can get Wes.

Q: You were talking earlier about the goal being reconciliation. And then you talked about how the Taliban has lost its ideological anchor and become a criminal narco-insurgency. So it seems very different to try to reconcile with a narco-criminal group than with an ideology-based group. How do you -- how do you reconcile with criminals?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah, so I'd say that what we see today is the leadership of these organizations, of these Taliban, have been the ones that have evolved into a narco-insurgency or criminal insurgency, if you will.

The fighters many times at the lower levels are, I would say, confused, you know, recruited out of madrassas, where they are made to believe that their endeavors are a jihad being conducted in Afghanistan against foreigners. Many of them come across the border and find they're not fighting foreigners; they're fighting their fellow Muslims.

And so there's a veil of legitimacy that they drape over themselves based on their former roots, but increasingly now what we're seeing is fighting amongst the senior leaders over the proceeds of the narcotics revenues.

So, a perfect example would be Abdul Manan, who's a shadow governor in Helmand from the Ishaqzai tribe, refusing to give money from drug revenues to the Quetta Shura. And the Quetta Shura is sending down teams to demand revenue and to try to force his compliance and him resisting this.

So these kind of disputes are going on over the drug revenue at the senior levels of the organization, while at the lower levels, the foot soldiers are the ones who are suffering and dying, and of course believe they're waging a jihad, when in fact they're fighting their fellow Muslims.

And so what we're hearing from the battlefield -- I was just up in Kunduz yesterday, and what I was being told by the leaders up there -- the social leaders, not the military leaders -- was that they're seeing these leaders come in from outside the country, who are well-paid, and trying to then recruit locals, and it's the locals who are becoming disillusioned with some of this.

So, we get reports of this occurring around the country. I would not want in any way want to represent this as any kind of a critical mass or a groundswell, but we're starting to see these reports of small groups of Taliban that are becoming disillusioned with their leadership, who are living in comfort outside of the country with plenty of drug money, and they're inside the country fighting and dying.

And so this friction does exist. And -- now, whether that friction -- under the pressure that I talked about, that friction, that'll turn into fissures and fractures and lead some of these folks to just say, "Hey, I've had enough. I'm rejoining society." That is our objective, is to get to what I would call, a horizontal fracture, if you will, between the fighters and the leader as they decide they've had enough and want to rejoin Afghan society.

And then some of these leaders, who are now committed to their narco-revenues and narco-organizations, clearly are not going to be reconcilable. And they're the ones that either have to be forced into irrelevance or will die on the battlefield or just remain outside of the country.

STAFF: Wes Morgan, Politico

Q: General Nicholson, this is Wes Morgan from Politico. Thanks very much for doing this.

Nowhere in your remarks today or last week did you mention al-Qaida. You hear a lot about Taliban and Daesh. I'm wondering if you would give us an update on the al-Qaida presence in the country? You know, what are they doing up in Kunar and Nuristan? Are they active in other provinces? What are you doing about them? And has Farouq al-Qhatani been replaced since his death last year?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah, thanks, Wes.

So, al-Qaida's still here. We also had the affiliate al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent. Let me first talk about the relationship between al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Obviously on 9/11, the Taliban were hosting al-Qaida in the country. They launched the attack on the United States. Since then, you know, many of the Taliban blame al-Qaida for what's happened to them, being kicked out of the country.

But what we still see is a degree of collaboration going on between al-Qaida and the Taliban. So even though the Taliban will not publicly acknowledge the relationship, what we see at the tactical level is still a close relationship.

So, now, this is primarily in the form of the al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent. But they tend to provide some of the expertise, the training on specialized weapons or IEDs or bomb-making. Its al-Qaida Indian Subcontinent fighters who are the ones who are training a lot of the local Taliban, and in return for this the Taliban afford them sanctuary.

So we've recently been doing operations against al-Qaida. We continue to hunt them and strike them wherever we find them, primarily in the eastern part of the country.

I don't want to get into operational details, but as you've mentioned we have continued to find and kill senior-level leaders in the al-Qaida organization inside Afghanistan.

And then typically what you find when you find them is they're existing within a friendly environment created by the Taliban. And so, even though the Taliban won't publicly acknowledge this -- and I would contrast the actions of Mullah Mansour with Mullah Hibatullah.

So, Mansour publicly accepted buyout from al-Zawahiri. Hibatullah did not, but his guidance to his commanders was, "Continue to work with them," even though they didn't publicly acknowledge the relationship.

As you're aware, we occasionally find these al-Qaida enclaves. In the fall of 2015 in Shorab -- Shorabak district -- excuse me -- of Kandahar, again we see some of these in the -- generally in the eastern part of the country close to the Durand Line.

And then again most of the al-Qaida -- not al-Qaida Indian Subcontinent, but al-Qaida -- are trying to hide, essentially. Its al-Qaida Indian Subcontinent that is more active with the Taliban and then therefore more targetable on the battlefield.

Q: Okay, quick follow up. So when you kill a major Daesh leader, we often get a press release about it, like the last two emirs and the guy who was going to be the next emir.

Why haven't we seen any releases about, senior al-Qaida or al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent leaders being killed in recent months, if they are being targeted as you say?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah, we keep that information classified because of the nature of that organization, and because, of course, any successful strike usually leads to more strikes. And so we don't want to give the enemy the advantage of knowing what we know about who we've struck, who we've taken off the battlefield and so forth.

And I'm afraid that's about the best answer I can give you, Wes.

STAFF: Sorry. Sir, thank you very much. Sir, thank you for your time. Do you have any closing remarks for the group?

GEN. NICHOLSON: Hey, thanks, Mike. And again, thank you for the questions. And I wanted to say a couple things.

Again, this -- this policy really is a game changer. So, this policy, the pressure on external enablement; conditions-based not time-based; the end state of reconciliation; the diplomatic, military, social pressure, is really fundamentally different. And that's why I express confidence that we are on our way to a win.

And so, this -- the next two years are going to be critically important, not only because of the elections, but because of this increased offensive tempo that we're going to see. So that from a military perspective, this is going to really be pushing us towards the end game of reconciliation.

Now, obviously reconciliation processes follow long and complex paths and this one undoubtedly will do the same. But it's fair to say we are on a path to a win in accordance with what I've laid out.

Now, what we're going to do is offer over the next several months, about every two weeks, different subject matter experts on different aspects of the campaign, because they understand that war's been going on a long time, you've got a lot of questions, you want to understand in greater detail how this new policy and how our plans are going to lead to a win, and we want to be prepared to do that in a variety of subject matter areas.

So we're going to offer that to you coming up, and look forward to seeing many of you at those.

Again, I wanted to finish up with a couple of thoughts.

We need to execute well, you know. And we're going to be really focused on that. And we got to do this across the whole of government, so we're going to be very focused on working with our interagency teams on doing this.

I want to reiterate, you know, the Afghan people want peace, they reject the Taliban, they reject Daesh. They want peace, they want a better life for their families and their children. They're willing to fight our enemies in their country. They are deeply grateful for our help in this endeavor. And I frequently get expressions of respect and gratitude for our country that they ask me to pass on, so I'm passing them on to you.

So and I also know I speak for all of us here -- have great respect for the Afghans, what they've been though, their strong desire for peace. And my message to them is, we are with you and we're going to stay with you, and we're going to accomplish this together.

So, again, thank you very much for your time today. I'll look forward to seeing you again in the future. And again every couple of weeks, we're going to have another expert from U.S. Forces-Afghanistan to speak with you.

Have a good day.

STAFF: Thanks, General. Thanks, ladies and gentlemen.

-END-

http://www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1382901/



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