Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Nicholson via teleconference from Kabul, Afghanistan
General John W. Nicholson Jr., Commander, Resolute Support and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan; Colonel Rob Manning, Director, Defense Press Office
COLONEL ROB MANNING: Good morning. My name is Colonel Rob Manning. I'm the director of press operations here at the Department of Defense.
Thanks for joining us today for an update brief by General John W. Nicholson, who is the commander for Resolute Support and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. And he is joining us from Kabul, Afghanistan.
Sir, how do you hear me?
GENERAL JOHN W. NICHOLSON: Hey, doing great, Rob. Thanks very much for your time.
COL. MANNING: Absolutely, sir. Thank you. I really appreciate it. And thank you for being with us, and over to you, sir, for your opening comments.
GEN. NICHOLSON: Well, thanks again, Rob.
And good morning, everyone. It's great to be with you all again, and update you on the current situation here in Afghanistan.
The last time we spoke was in May, and since then there's been progress on the peace process that I wanted to update you on, and of course to put all this in context for you.
Right after we spoke last time, we had our first cease-fire in many years of war in Afghanistan. President Ghani announced this cease-fire to take place over Eid al-Fitr, and this was in response to the religious ulema's fatwa on June 4th.
The response to the cease-fire was, frankly, overwhelming. For the first time in 17 years, the Afghan people, the Afghan security forces and the Taliban all celebrated Eid al-Fitr together in peace.
So this first cease-fire really unleashed the Afghan people's desire for peace and an end to violence on -- on really a national and unprecedented scale. And numerous groups across Afghanistan -- the People's Peace Movement, religious ulemas, civil society, youth activists, women's groups -- are all calling for peace.
And in response, Secretary of State Pompeo stated that the U.S. was prepared to work with the parties to reach a peace agreement and a political settlement that brings a permanent end to this war. And as you know, since then the State Department has been exploring all avenues to advance a peace process in close consultation with the Afghan government.
At the end of the day, any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and the Afghan government. This must be an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process, with Afghans talking to Afghans. And the U.S. is prepared to support, facilitate and participate in these discussions.
We've also seen a clear progression in the Taliban's public statements, from their 14 February letter to the American people to the recent Eid al-Adha message, where Emir Hibatullah acknowledged for the first time that negotiations will, quote, "ensure an end to the war," end quote.
We have an unprecedented opportunity, a window of opportunity for peace right now, so President Ghani is working to take advantage of it. He offered a second cease-fire on August 19th, and while this first cease-fire was in response to the religious ulema's call for peace, this second call represents the entirety of Afghan society, all of the groups I mentioned previously: women's groups, peace activists, civil society, youth, everyone. President Ghani consulted with these groups and spoke on their behalf in offering the cease-fire.
His announced cease-fire could last potentially up to November 20th, the birthday of the prophet Mohammed. However, this cease-fire will only --
GEN. NICHOLSON: -- cease-fire. So far, we've not heard if the Taliban will accept or reject the cease-fire --
COL. MANNING: (Off mic) technical issues on this end. You dropped off. If you would just give us a minute, please.
COL. MANNING: Sir, we're going to drop the call. We'll call you right back.
Apologies. We'll work through this. Appreciate your patience.
Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen.
Just on -- OK, ladies and gentlemen, we were trying to work through some technical issues. We do have now just audio. So we will -- we'll continue.
General Nicholson, we lost you when you talked about the cease-fire and Eid. I don't know if you want to start from the top, but that's when you dropped off, sir.
GEN. NICHOLSON: Hey, Rob, it's General Nicholson here. Can you hear me?
COL. MANNING: (Off mic) Nicholson, we have you loud and clear. How do you have us?
GEN. NICHOLSON: I can hear you. Yeah.
So I guess the DVIDS isn't working. I'll switch over here to the phone.
COL. MANNING: Yes, sir. Thanks for your patience, sir.
Sir, we lost you when you were talking about this cease-fire and Eid. I don't know if you want to start from the top, but that's when you dropped off, sir.
GEN. NICHOLSON: OK, stand by just one second. (CROSSTALK)
Hey, Rob, I'm back again.
The cease-fire and Eid, so -- (inaudible) -- just the first. OK, let me -- did you all get the part about this was the first cease-fire in 17 years?
COL. MANNING: Yes -- yes, sir. We got that.
GEN. NICHOLSON: OK, let me pick up there.
So the -- the point is, this cease-fire really unleashed the Afghan people’s desire for peace and an end to violence, and it was on a national and unprecedented scale. So numerous groups across Afghanistan -- the People's Peace Movement, religious ulemas, civil society, youth activists, women's groups -- all joined this call for peace.
In response, Secretary Pompeo stated that the U.S. is prepared to work with the parties to reach a peace agreement and political settlement to bring a permanent -- permanent end to the war. And as you know, since then the State Department's been exploring all avenues to advance to advance a peace process, in close consultation with the Afghan government.
At the end of the day, any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and the Afghan government. This must be an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, with Afghans talking to Afghans. And the U.S. is prepared to support, facilitate and participate in these discussions.
And we've also seen a progression in the Taliban's public statements, and I'm -- I'm going from the 14 February letter to the American people, to the recent Eid al-Adha message. And in that message, Emir Hibatullah acknowledged for the first time that negotiations will, quote, "ensure an end to the war," end quote.
We have an unprecedented window of opportunity for peace now, and President Ghani's -- (inaudible) -- advantage of it. After the first cease-fire, he -- (inaudible) -- broadly across all of Afghan -- (inaudible), and so when he offered the second cease-fire on August 19th, he did it on behalf of not only the religious ulemas, but on all these other -- (inaudible) -- across Afghanistan: women's groups, peace activists, civil society, youth, even political opposition. (inaudible). They all have clearly indicated they want peace.
President Ghani's announcement stated that the cease-fire could last potentially up to November 20th, the birthday of the prophet Mohammed. However, the cease-fire will only occur if the Taliban reciprocate and -- and only for as long as the Taliban participate in the cease-fire.
And so far, we have not heard if the Taliban will accept or reject the cease-fire, and we're prepared for either case. And like the first cease-fire, this only applies to the Taliban. Our other counter-terrorism operations will continue.
And on that subject, I want to highlight a recent success since we last talked, when over 250 ISIS-K fighters and their family members surrendered to the Afghan security forces in Jowzjan, which eliminated one of the three pockets of ISIS in Afghanistan.
Therefore, we are fighting and talking. The Taliban are fighting in order to increase their leverage in the negotiation and to maintain their cohesion.
Now, militarily speaking, they made two attempts this year to seize provincial capitals. They both have failed. In 2016, you remember, there were eight attempts to seize provincial capitals.
These attacks in cities bring great hardship on the Afghan people. The Taliban repeatedly claim not to cause civilian casualties, but their actions show otherwise. And in January, they used an ambulance loaded with explosives to attack a hospital. In March, they attacked a civilian wrestling match in Helmand. And this latest attack has left 150 innocent civilians dead. The Taliban pulled people from their cars and summarily executed them. And when they failed to take any of their objectives, such as the prison, the airfield, the governor's palace, they invaded people's homes, burned markets and placed IEDs on the roads, disrupted electrical and phone service.
But ultimately, they were driven out of the city, losing more fighters in the end than the ANDSF.
They claim to be fighting foreigners, but the ones who suffer at the hands of the Taliban are their own countrymen.
Lastly, then, I want to acknowledge the bravery and the courage of all the Afghan security forces and the Afghan people, who fight terrorism every day. And they do this on our behalf for the entire world. It's been an honor to serve alongside them for six years, and I thank them for their hospitality.
I'll look forward to taking your questions.
Back to you, Rob.
COL. MANNING: Thank you very much, sir. Appreciate your opening comments.
And we'll start with Lita Baldor with the Associated Press.
Q: Hi, General. It's Lita Baldor with the AP. It’s good to hear you.
I -- I wanted to give you the opportunity to look back over the past year of this new Afghan strategy. Some would say that there hasn't been a lot of advancement over the past year; that the Taliban have been able to continue to conduct high-profile and deadly attacks.
I'm wondering if you could give us your view of what advancements you believe this strategy has made over the past year.
And as you get ready to turn over control of the command, are there some changes that you think should be made to the strategy? Are there major changes, or are there tweaks, smaller changes that you think are needed as you move into the next year of the strategy?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Thanks, Lita.
Yeah, I -- I believe the strategy is working, and -- and I'd bring you back to the fundamentals of the strategy.
One -- one of the key fundamentals is to make progress on reconciliation. And, you know, this strategy is called 4R-plus-S, so a regional approach, reconciliation, realignment, reinforcement and sustainability.
So -- so the reconciliation progress is -- is significant. And ultimately, wars end with a political settlement. So -- so the progress towards reconciliation is key. And the fact that we had been able to make this kind of progress -- a little bit of an outline here -- is significant.
So let me recap. So -- so, the strategy was announced about a year ago. Within six months, we had two peace offers on the table: an open letter from the Taliban to the American people, and -- and President Ghani's peace offer. Then within 10 months, we had the first cease-fire, which -- which unleashed these social pressures which I have talked about before; really, the -- the demand of the Afghan people across all society for peace. And now we're entering a window where a second cease-fire's been offered; not taken yet. But the point is to enable a political dialogue to begin.
And so, I don't want to speak for the State Department on that, but I think we're -- you know, that process is beginning, in terms of that.
So the progress towards reconciliation, which ultimately is what we want -- a political end to the war -- which will enable a political end to the war, is perhaps one of the greatest successes of the strategy so far.
Now, there will be ups and downs, there will be leap-aheads, there'll be frustrations, there'll be, you know, two -- two steps forward, one step back from time to time, but the process is started.
And it wouldn't have happened without the South Asia Strategy. So I'd say that this -- the -- the reason I say that, is because the resolve indicated by the United States with a conditions-based approach, building on top of the conditions-based approach already articulated by NATO and then reinforced at the Brussels summit, when 41 nations, the heads of state, all committed to a conditions-based approach, where they extend security assistance out to 2024, this has affected the enemy's calculus. And this is one of the contributing factors to why they're now willing to -- to begin talking about an end of the war.
COL. MANNING: Thank you, sir.
Q: Well, as a -- as a follow up -- sorry, I just -- can you address what changes you think need to made in the strategy? And how does this -- how does the -- the expansion of ISIS in the region complicate that?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah, I'd say I'll -- I'll leave any discussion of adjustments to the strategy to the secretary of defense and the -- and the leadership in Washington.
I personally think the strategy is working, as I just outlined, for -- for the reasons I gave.
With respect to ISIS, that is a concern. You know, ISIS did not exist in Afghanistan three years ago, so it is a new dynamic.
One of my concerns we always have and why this region remains so important is that there are 21 terrorist groups here and -- and we see members shift allegiances between the groups. So keeping pressure on the entire system is important in order to prevent the emergence of some new threat to the homeland.
So -- so, our presence here does protect the homeland and prevents another 9/11. Firmly believe that.
And then the -- the movement towards reconciliation, if that can be achieved, which is -- would lower the violence and enable us to really better protect the homeland through our counterterrorist operations, because the support that many of these groups enjoy amongst themselves would be diminished were there a -- a peace agreement and a lowering of violence by a reconciliation with the Taliban.
COL. MANNING: Thank you, sir.
Barbara Starr, CNN?
Q: General Nicholson, a couple of questions.
Let me start by asking you, you -- you talked about the reconciliation piece, but on the security piece, the most recent Pentagon IG report says the Afghan government, and I'm quoting, "has made no significant progress increasing the percentage of the population living in areas under government control or influence. 35 percent of the Afghan population still lives in areas under Taliban control, influence or in contested areas."
So how is this anything, at this point, but a stalemate, which is what General Votel several weeks ago called it?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah. So the -- that -- that is correct. There has not been a significant change one way or the other with respect to population control.
And remembering that's predicated on a couple of works in progress. One is the growth and the commandos and the growth in the air force, which are improving the offensive capability of the Afghan forces. And those -- those are undertakings that will continue to play out over the coming year plus as we grow those forces. And those will contribute to the offensive capability of the Afghans to expand control.
But again, despite that, we -- we have seen other forms of pressure emerge -- social, religious, et cetera -- that are advancing the peace process. So whereas the strategy talks about the military pressure, because, of course, those are some the variables that we control, these other -- these other variables, the social and religious pressure, have emerged because of the strategy and, in fact, have helped to advance the progress toward reconciliation.
So -- so I think we're -- we're seeing the strategy is fundamentally working and advancing us towards reconciliation, even though it may not be playing out the way that we anticipated.
Q: Very quick follow-up.
You mentioned that none of this would have happened without the South Asia Strategy. So why in the months and the years before that, why -- even during the final years of the Obama administration, why did neither -- why did nobody in the military recommend this change of strategy? Why did you not suggest this South Asian Strategy sooner if you knew that you needed something that would work better?
And as you wrap up your tour of duty, had -- had you ever made any fundamental suggestions about a change in strategy? Did President Obama or President Trump ever reach out -- setting aside the formality of chain of command, did either president ever reach out to you and ask you directly your opinion of what needed to be done?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Well, the -- of course we have numerous ways of making our input to -- to the chain of command. And one -- as you -- as you know, Barbara, in the time that I joined this mission as the last commander appointed by President Obama, we were on a glide path to reduce our forces and eventually to close down the mission.
And so, at that time, the enemy had no incentive to negotiate because we were leaving. So in war, which is a contest of wills, the enemy believed that we had lost our will to win and that all they needed to do was wait us out.
And so, in the first months of the next administration, of the Trump administration, there was a very robust dialogue about the way forward. And I was engaged many times during that period by the -- by my chain of command. Provided my input.
I believe the South Asia Strategy is the right approach. And now we see that approach delivering progress on reconciliation that we had not seen previously. And I think that was because we clearly communicated to the enemy they could not wait us out. We were backed up by our allies. Over 29 of the -- of the 41 nations increased their troop contributions after the South Asia policy was announced. And, of course, we've see the Afghans be steadfast in their commitment to this fight.
So I think those things happen because of the South Asia Strategy, in terms of the commitment of our allies and the commitment of the Afghans. And those things have contributed to the strong demand for peace that we're now seeing by the Afghan people.
So I hope that addresses the question. I mean, there definitely was a robust dialogue about the policy going forward that occurred in the early months of 2017 that resulted in the strategy. And now we're in the process of implementing what I think is the right approach.
Q: (Off mic) neither president ever ask you directly your view, your recommendation, your best military advice?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Well, I provide those through the chain of command. I had an opportunity to do that with both presidents.
COL. MANNING: Idrees Ali, Reuters?
General, as you know better than I, you can't win Afghanistan without Pakistan. And in your confirmation hearing in 2015, you talked about wanting to put pressure on militants and their sanctuaries in Pakistan. Two years later, it sort of appears that you, much like your predecessors, have failed in doing that, and the Haqqani Network and its sanctuaries essentially are largely untouched, with a new prime minister in Pakistan who's openly anti-American; he's talked about shooting down American drones if they come into Pakistani airspace.
I mean, the simple question is - Do you think there's any way to change the calculus of Pakistan going forward? And is -- if there was something, why didn't you do it in your two-year tenure that could have, sort of, made more of an impact on the cross-border militant movement?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Right.
So, Pakistan is key to the solution in Afghanistan, as -- as I've commented before and others have. Pakistan is a part of the regional dimension of the South Asia Strategy.
As you've heard from leaders well above me, up to the president, the vice president, the secretaries of defense and state, they have all addressed what our requests are of Pakistan. And that has included numerous actions to incentivize that over the months.
Now, the -- the statements and actions to be taken vis-a-vis Pakistan are not mine to give. Those are -- those are done by the secretary of defense and state. I'll -- I'll certainly leave that to them.
But we are encouraged by what we're seeing is an improvement in -- in some levels between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And this has been a result of President Ghani's outreach to Pakistan with the APAPPS, the -- the -- the improving -- not -- not where we'd like to see it be, but improving coordination between the militaries. And again, the -- the strong demand of the Afghan people for peace.
So all of the fundamental issues between Pakistan and Afghanistan are being addressed by Afghanistan. They're -- I know the Afghan leadership is hopeful that they can build upon the initial good dialogue that has started between the new prime minister and President Ghani in going forward.
But you're absolutely right, we -- they are key to the solution. The Taliban enjoy freedom -- freedom of action there. They -- they occasionally come over from there, casualties are taken back there. These are things we are concerned about.
But again, I'll leave that to the secretary of state and defense to address directly with their Pakistani counterparts.
COL. MANNING: Thank you, sir.
Tom Bowman, NPR?
Q: Hey, General, thanks for doing this.
You and others keep saying that the Taliban haven't reached any of their, you know, efforts, you know, over the past year or more.
But the bottom line is that Ghazni fell, the Afghan army collapsed, the police collapsed, the Afghan commanders had to go in and save the situation along with dozens of U.S. air strikes. And you also had one or two Afghan army posts in the north that collapsed.
So what does all that say, after all this training, all this money, about the competence of the regular Afghan army?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Yeah, Tom, I disagree with your characterization of what happened in Ghazni.
So, that was a -- that was a tough fight that lasted about four days. And then they were driven out with higher casualties than they inflicted. And as I mentioned, what the -- what the Taliban did was they failed to take the prison, they take to take the governor's palace, they failed to take the police station that they were after. So they didn't seize their objectives.
They -- they then moved into people's homes. They -- they hugged the population. They endangered and kill civilians.
So -- so this was -- was not a -- a military victory by any stretch. They were driven out of the city and it was done in about four days.
So can they launch an attack for four days? Yes. Do those attacks succeed in gaining and holding new ground? No.
So, the other attacks that you referred to are done in more remote areas. And what we see is in the majority of those cases, those attacks fail. Where those attacks are successful in seizing a district center, typically the district centers are retaken. There have been a few that have fallen to the Taliban this year.
Taliban casualties are high and not -- and we don't talk about casualties, because that's -- that's not a -- that's not a proper metric, I think, given our past history.
But the -- the point is they -- can they conduct attacks? Yes. Can they hold what they take? No.
So as, you know, General Votel said -- said a few weeks ago in his last conversation with you, yes, it is a bit of an impasse. But despite that, we're seeing progress towards reconciliation.
So what I would say is, focus on the -- the talking part of this, and perhaps peeling that back and understanding it more might be -- might be a useful exercise, to understand the progress of the strategy, given that the -- the traditional metrics of fighting are not explaining why the Taliban are willing to talk now.
Q: Well, the Taliban were able to mount a major attack on a city. What happened to the Afghan army and police?
GEN. NICHOLSON: They -- they fought back, where they -- they took casualties, too. About -- over a hundred of them were killed fighting back. They -- they -- they lost lives because they were fighting on behalf of the Afghan people, and they were fighting to defend the Afghan people of Ghazni.
Yes, the commandos came in. This is part of the operational approach of the Afghan army, is the commandos and the air force are the forces that move to the threatened areas to reinforce the police and the army when they come under attack.
And so, again, I acknowledge that the Taliban can launch attacks in cities. They've done it twice this year, but that's only twice in a year. Previously -- again, we've seen much higher numbers of attacks on cities in previous years.
One of the things they've tried to do is avoid our air power. And then when they do move into an urban area, they hug the population, because they know that we are extremely judicious about using our air power around -- around the population. And this is one of the reasons why then the fight gets extended.
So the -- the -- because the Taliban are in and amongst the population in a fight like this, the Afghan army is very deliberate and careful about how it clears those areas, so as not to endanger the population and try to keep the civilian casualties down.
Urban fighting is tough, and it -- and it's -- it's up close and personal. And, of course, there is always a higher risk of civilian casualties. So they -- so these urban fights do tend to take a little longer.
But they were driven out within four days.
COL. MANNING: Thank you, sir.
Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg?
Q: Sir, I wanted to talk to you about the -- the various claims of progress over the last decade.
"Turning the corner" is a very famous term. When Scott Miller was up in his nomination hearing back in June, Senator Elizabeth Warren recounted a number of these "turning the corner" phrases, including, you know, yours from last November. And she said, "General Miller, we've supposedly turned the corner so many times that it seems we're going in circles."
So my question is this: In retrospect, have U.S. political leaders and U.S. military been too optimistic over the last decade in saying we've turned the corner, only to see the situation deteriorate and credibility lost for claims of progress?
GEN. NICHOLSON: Right.
So we certainly wanted to see this war be over many years ago.
I think it's important to go back to first principles. We are protecting the homeland. Al-Qaida, Islamic State, 19 other terrorist groups are present here. Our presence here is keeping pressure on them.
Our U.S. troop presence is a fraction of what it once was at 15,000, when, as you know, we had 140,000 U.S. and allied troops there years ago. The Afghans are doing the fighting. They are leading the fighting. We're advising and assisting them, and in some cases, combat-enabling them. But this is an Afghan fight.
And so the progress they've made this year, especially in terms of their commando force, which is in the process of being doubled, their air force -- the air force is doing over half of the airstrikes in the country. This was never the case before. When I arrived in Afghanistan, we had 30 companies of commandos. We're now up to 45, and -- and continuing, and by next year, we'll have -- we'll have doubled the number of commandos. These commandos are the ones that are able to turn the tide in any fight that they join.
So we are seeing progress in terms of the Afghan capabilities here. This is not a -- a -- a purely U.S. or coalition fight, as it once was. And so -- so that's what we are referring to when me and my predecessors have talked about the progress in the Afghan security forces.
Again, I think the other thing is -- is to expand the aperture and look at the progress towards reconciliation. So, the South Asia Strategy and the -- and the -- the will demonstrated by the United States and our allies and the Afghans is what is moving us forward towards -- towards reconciliation and -- and the peace process.
And so I think it -- it is -- this has gone on a long time, and -- and we have looked at the same metrics over time. So -- so now, as we begin to change those metrics -- things like social pressure, religious pressure, reconciliation -- all of these factors, you know, are part of the South Asia policy, they are things to be examined. And I think they are things contributing to the progress that we've seen towards reconciliation.
If we get a peace process initiated, then I think we -- we are seeing the payoff for all these many years of war. If the violence then goes down because we achieve a reconciliation with the Taliban, this creates a much better environment, not only for the Afghan people, who've suffered so long, but also for us to assist them, work with them in keeping the pressure on the terrorists so they don't threaten the United States or our allies.
Q: But was "turning the corner" too strong of -- of a phrase? It's been repeated ad nauseum.
GEN. NICHOLSON: I'm sorry, Rob?
Q: Is "turned the corner" numerous times, in retrospect, an overstatement, and should have been more nuanced?
GEN. NICHOLSON: I -- I just gave -- I just gave the reason why we outline progress with the Afghan security forces. And so this -- the -- the growth of capability, the fact that they own the fight -- these are the reasons we talked about progress in the Afghan security forces. And we are seeing that progress.
They're in a tough fight, but despite the tough fight, we are seeing the progress towards reconciliation and a peace process that we have never seen before.
So I'd -- I'd, you know, recommend you all to take a look at that. It's -- it's not something we've traditionally looked at in past years, but it's significant, and it's a result of the strategy.
Thank you very much.
And thank you, Rob.
COL. MANNING: Sir, appreciate it.
Carla Babb with Voice of America?
Q: Thank you, General Nicholson, for doing this.
I have a question on ISIS. But first, if you'll allow me just to follow up on what you had said to Barbara and Lita, I'm trying to figure out how the Taliban could increase their control of both the population and the -- the terrain, even though it was just slight increase, nine to 12 percent, or 16 to 19 percent, depending on what you're looking at.
And I think that what you were telling them is that you have been and Afghan forces have been building up their capability, and that is how the Taliban was able to make these increases, because your focus has been on the capabilities with the commandos and the air force.
Am I reading you right, or is that an oversimplification of -- of how the Taliban has managed to still gain some ground?
STAFF: Hello? Yeah, this is Colonel Garcia. I'm trying to get in touch with Rob.
COL. MANNING: Colonel Garcia, this is Rob Manning. Can you hear me?
STAFF: Are you still in the room? -- Yeah, yeah, sorry. Sorry, yeah. The general had a hard stop. So if there's any other questions, if -- if you could just send those to us -- (inaudible) -- but my apologies. He had a hard stop at 20:00.
COL. MANNING: Colonel Garcia, thank you so much.
Ladies and gentlemen, apologies for the hard stop. If you do have questions, let us know, and we'll make sure that we get your responses to those.
Again, thank you so much for time today and for bearing through all the technical issues as well. Thank you.