Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Shoffner via teleconference from Afghanistan
Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications, Resolute Support Mission, Afghanistan; Captain Jeff Davis, Director, Defense Press Office
BRIGADIER GENERAL WILSON SHOFFNER: It sounds like we've got a good connection on audio now, so I’m ready if you all are.
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: We do, and I've got you on speaker here, and you're with -- we got a little informal, impromptu gaggle going in the press office. So we'll turn it over to you, sir, for any opening remarks you have.
GEN. SHOFFNER: Well, thanks, everybody, yet again. Appreciate your patience, and I apologize for the delay this morning, but I -- I did appreciate the chance to give you a quick update here on Afghanistan. So I'll talk for just a few minutes, and then go to you for your questions.
So we’re going to focus mostly on what's happened since I -- I talked to you last, about a month ago. And I'm gonna hit on a couple topics, and we can come back to any of these during your questions.
You know, since the authorities change in mid-January, we have continued to keep the pressure on Daesh in Afghanistan, and have had continued success with that. Daesh remains contained in Nangarhar province, and the -- the strikes that we're having continue to have an effect.
But I also want to point out that -- and emphasize that it's the Afghan security forces and the Taliban -- the combination of those three factors that are having the effect on Daesh that we're seeing right now.
As far as the Afghan security forces, they've had some success in Baghlan in the north. There's a part of Baghlan province that has contained some power transmission lines that transmit power from Turkmenistan to other parts of Afghanistan, to include Kabul.
The Taliban cut two of those transmission lines earlier in the year, and the Afghan security forces have been engaged in an effort to retake that ground, and they've been successful in doing so -- in fact, so successful that the Taliban that were in that area have essentially retreated north up to -- around the Kunduz province.
As far as Helmand goes, Helmand remains contested, and activity there has -- has spiked a little bit in the last couple of weeks. You're probably aware of some reports of an attack in Gereshk, and happy to provide more detail on that.
With regard to what we see in Helmand, the main effort for the Afghan security forces continues to be the rebuild of the 215th Corps. To give you an update on that, there are six kandaks -- a kandak is roughly equivalent to an Afghan battalion. It's got about 600 soldiers in it. Some more -- some a little more, some a little less.
So as part of the rebuild of that corps, six of those kandaks are going through rebuild and retraining. Of them -- six, two of them have completed their training, and those two are now moving out, conducting operations.
So the -- the thing that makes it challenging for Afghan security forces in Helmand is they're doing this rebuild as they're fighting -- as they're conducting security operations.
They've used the Afghan Special Forces to mitigate that gap a little bit, and they've also repositioned some forces from around Afghanistan into Helmand to help ease the pressure on 215th Corps.
They have replaced a lot of key leaders throughout the Afghan security forces. They replaced a lot of them there in Helmand. Those new leaders are part of that training and rebuilding that's going on. The new leaders are going through the training, and there are still some changes to be made.
In fact, as some units go through their training, that exposes some additional leadership changes that need to be made, and -- and we continue to see them make those. In some cases, they're making some tough calls. And it is going to take a little bit of patience to see -- to give them time -- those new leaders time to get the units where they need to be.
The spike in activity we've seen in -- in Helmand, particularly in central Helmand, over the last two weeks really is tied to the poppy harvest, and is -- is in large part expected.
The poppy harvest, we think, will start here in late March, and once the harvest gets underway, they expect there will be a lull in activity. So what -- what we're seeing now is the Taliban moving to position themselves so that they have control over the roadways, the networks, the ways and means that they need to get the -- the poppy crop to harvest.
I'll point out that over half of the Taliban's income comes from poppies, and so the poppy cultivation is obviously very important to them.
One of the things that is -- that has been a development over the last few months is that the fracturing of the Taliban has resulted in different Taliban groups, and we see that manifest itself in Helmand, as well.
In fact, in northern Helmand, we're seeing the emergence of three separate Taliban groups, largely not loyal to Mansour. So it will be very interesting to see where their revenue goes, if amongst those -- amongst the three groups, and -- you know, where their loyalties lie.
Afghan security forces have continued their -- their pressure against the Taliban. There's been some rebalancing going on of the forces in -- in Helmand province. We fully support that. The rebalancing is absolutely necessary.
Afghan security forces are stretched thin across Afghanistan, not just in Helmand. They have way too many soldiers on checkpoints. They've got to reduce the number of soldiers on checkpoints so that they can become more maneuverable.
And that's one of the reasons why the commander, General Moeen Faqir, in -- in -- I'm sorry, 215th Corps in Helmand has been repositioning and rebalancing his forces, so that he can have an effect where he needs to have an effect.
We -- we totally support his decision to do that, and we believe it's prudent. And when he does this, despite what you may have heard in some of the press, the -- the Afghan security forces are not abandoning cities. There's still police that's left behind.
I won't get into the tactical details there, but we've stuck to something -- an ongoing effort, at least until the 215th Corps is -- is fully rebuilt and up to full strength.
I talked previously about some raids that the Afghan Special Forces have conducted -- one in December, down in Helmand province, and another one in -- in January.
There was a third raid conducted in the past 90 days, on the 28th of February, by Afghan Special Forces, also in Helmand province, this one a little bit different for a couple reasons.
One, the hostages that they freed were civilians -- 35 civilians that had been taken hostage -- of that, five men, five women and 25 children. I don't have a lot of details because there were no coalition forces involved -- not even in an advisory capacity.
This was a purely Afghan operation -- very successful, conducted at night, no -- no one injured on the part of the Afghan security forces, and none of the hostages injured as well.
Here with Resolute Support on the 2nd of March, we had the change of command between General Campbell and General Nicholson. A couple points on the change of command.
What -- what we can expect -- what you can expect going forward is a seamless transition. And let me just provide a little bit of context in terms of what's different now, compared to the last time that Resolute Support changed command.
So when General Campbell took command here, the government had just gone through a major transition -- from the Karzai administration to the Ghani administration. So the national unity government under President Ghani and Dr. Abdullah was brand new, as was the relationship with -- with General Campbell, and then the ISAF headquarters and staff.
Shortly after General Campbell took over, in August of '14, IJC -- the International Joint Command -- a three-star headquarters that we had here merged with -- with ISAF. So that was a significant internal change within the headquarters.
And then a few months after that, on the 1st of January 2015, we changed from ISAF to R.S. -- to Resolute Support. And the important part about that is that it was a mission change. So within the first four months, General Campbell went through a mission change, along with the fact that he was looking at a brand new Afghan government.
So General Nicholson finds himself in a very different position than General Campbell did when he came on board. That said, General Nicholson has a tremendous amount of Afghanistan experience. This is his fourth tour here.
He was here as a brigade commander, he was here as a brigadier general, as a deputy commanding general. He was also here as a two-star major general, as the deputy chief of staff for operations.
So you've got a tremendous amount of experience here. It would be hard for the U.S. military to find anyone else to replace General Campbell other than General Nicholson. Tremendous choice for the job.
I will say, though, that -- you know, his last time here, it was -- was with ISAF, and it was a different mission. We had a whole lot more forces here -- over 100,000 forces when he was here before.
So the -- the nature of the fight is different. The mission is different, and so naturally, he will take some time to do an assessment. He said he will have an assessment done in -- in 90 days. That will be a classified report that will go up through DOD channels to the administration.
He's conducting that assessment now, and, like any commander, we'd expect him to do that when he comes on board. I -- one thing about the assessment is it'll be a continual effort.
As with General Campbell, this will not be a one-time event. We expect him, once the initial assessment's done, deliver that, and to continue to -- to assess the situation here.
You know, he also has -- he knows a lot of the senior Afghans, particularly in the military, and perhaps more importantly, they know him, and so that's -- that's very encouraging, and -- and he's quickly rekindling those relationships.
One of the notable attendees at the change of command was General Raheel, the chief of the army from Pakistan. We were encouraged to see him here. General Campbell's had a close relationship with him, and in fact, the Afghan government's relationship with Pakistan has been improving.
One of the primary drivers for that has been the quadrilateral talks -- the talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan on peace -- on peace with the Taliban, with the U.S. and China participating in an -- essentially an observer capacity.
We just finished -- or they just finished -- the fourth round of peace talks, on the 23rd of February here in Kabul. The next round is scheduled for later in March, in Islamabad.
The next step here year will be direct meetings with the Taliban. That hasn't happened yet. The Taliban has stated publicly that they've got conditions for that. But we're -- we're hopeful that the Afghan government can -- can work through that.
We support all individuals and parties that will peacefully come to the table and negotiate a political settlement. The one thing that I would emphasize, and that -- that is a positive development is Pakistan's insistence and the pressure that they are putting on the Taliban for peace talks. So we're encouraged by that.
We also had International Women's Day here, which we celebrated along with the Afghans. One of the things I'll -- I'll point to is the -- is the progress that they have made in terms of getting women into the Afghan government.
Some of the money provided by U.S. Congress goes toward expanding opportunities for women, and so there are programs underway to open up positions in the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior for women.
Those are growing, and we're seeing more women -- not just in the -- in the security forces, but also working in government, which we think is -- is critically important.
So, with that, I'll pause, and happy to take your questions.
CAPT. DAVIS: Sure. We'll work around here.
Start with Lita Baldor with the Associated Press.
Q: Hi, General, it's Lita Baldor with A.P.
Can you talk a little bit more, though, about the U.S. role, particularly in the spike of violence in Helmand, and what if anything, U.S. forces are doing to help bolster the Afghans as they try to deal with this spike? And also with the projected, increased traffic as they try to move the poppy crop?
GEN. WILSON: Yeah, Lita, that's a great question. And you know, they're rebuilding the 215th Corps, and operations in Helmand are the Afghan Security Forces' main effort, and it's our main effort, it's a Resolute Support main effort.
The Resolute Support Mission, our primary mission here is train, advise and assist at the Afghan Corps level, and that's exactly what's happening down in Helmand.
And so, we have done everything we can to try to maximize the effect that we can have in our train, advise and assist efforts down in Helmand, and that primarily is focused on the 215th Corps and the rebuild of that unit, and getting it to where, up to the right level of capabilities in terms of equipment, in terms of manning levels and in terms in you level of training.
And so, we have -- we positioned some of our advisers down there. We have repositioned some of our forces to ensure that they have the adequate force protection, and we're going to continue to do everything that we can, within our current authorities to train as smartly, and as effectively and as efficiently as we can.
And that will be part of the assessment that General Nicholson provides, is perhaps a way to do that more efficiently and more effectively.
Q: Well, have there been any additional U.S. strikes, particularly against ISIS, and/or any additional U.S. operations to help counter this spike by the Taliban?
GEN. WILSON: Well, the strikes, there have been additional U.S. strikes against Daesh. But those have primarily been in the Nangarhar province.
We do have U.S. close air support that is available to protect our forces, and our forces have the force protection that they need, and we have the ability to provide air strikes for the U.S. forces, should we need to.
Q: Can you just --
GEN. WILSON: I think it's fair to say that we have increased our special forces advising. Part of that is due to the fact that the Afghan Security Forces have increased the number of Afghan Special Forces in Helmand. And so, there has been a commensurate increase in the -- in the number of coalition advisers, also with those special -- Afghan Special Forces units down there in Helmand.
Q: Can you give us any numbers on both the increase in strikes and the increase in advisers?
GEN. WILSON: Well, on the strikes -- and again, those are particularly against Daesh, those would be in Nangarhar.
GEN. WILSON: I -- I don't have a hard number to give you. I can tell you, we have substantially increased the number. Now, I realize that you're getting different numbers from other parts of the world -- Iraq and Syria, in terms of strikes against ISIS.
But one thing I'll point out here, is that in Afghanistan, the situation is somewhat different. Daesh is much more contained here than in other parts.
We want to keep it that way, that's why it's important to keep the pressure up on them. But the main fight here is really the train, advise and assist mission. That will -- and in helping the Afghan security institutions.
CAPT. DAVIS: Next, to Carla Babb from Voice of America.
Q: Thank you, General, for doing this.
I wanted to follow up on what you had said about three separate Taliban groups being in Northern Helmand. Are you concerned, since their apparently not tied to Mansour, are you concerned that they could turn to the Islamic State?
And also, you mentioned about the 215, that the second kandak had now completed their training. When do expect all six of them to complete their training?
GEN. WILSON: Thanks, Carla. Excellent questions.
Now, on the separate Taliban groups that we're seeing in Northern Helmand, we're not sure, yet. We're watching that closely.
What we don't know is, we don't know where their loyalties lie. We think the splintering of the Taliban may provide opportunities for reconciliation, but the Afghan government has got to figure that out.
In terms of -- you know, whether or not that would be an inducement for them to join Daesh, we did see Daesh attempting to do some recruiting and some propaganda in Helmand in 2015. The Taliban were relatively successful in stopping most of that.
So, that is a potential outcome. We're seeing that primarily more in the east than we are in Helmand -- although we did see some attempts of that in 2015.
The -- with the Taliban, Daesh does not have a fundamental ideological appeal to them. It may have appeal with regard to being able to provide better funding, better weapons, better leadership. But we're not seeing an ideological appeal, certainly, to the Taliban in Helmand from Daesh, at least yet.
And then, in terms of how long it will take for the rebuild, it will be sometime into the summer. We don't have a hard date yet, so the idea there is to train them right, to train them into standard, and if they have got to retrain them, they've got the time and the ability to do that.
But midsummer is our guess right now for when that will be done.
Q: Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Andrew Tilghman from Military Times.
Q: General, can you just offer a little bit of detail on what the 215th corps is seeing, in terms of Taliban activity -- the size of the units that the Taliban is mounting?
I mean, are these like scatter skirmishes they're having, or is the Taliban, you know, putting together pretty large units and mounting significant operations?
What is the nature of the activity in the conflicts they're seeing down there?
GEN. WILSON: Hey, Andrew, great question and good to hear from you.
It has been fairly small units with the Taliban, felt fairly elements. I wouldn't call any of them organized, large units.
There was an attack in Garmsir. Garmsir is the -- essentially the economic capitol down in Helmand. That was reported out a couple of days ago with some suicide bombers.
The good thing about the outcome of that is that the Afghan Security Forces killed all of the attackers. I think three of them blew themselves up, the rest were killed by Afghan Security Forces, so it was a combined effort by the Afghan National Army and Afghan National policy.
But Garmsir is important, because as I said, it is the economic capitol. So, the Taliban has not been able to threaten Garmsir, it has not been able to threaten the provincial capitol, which is Lashkar Gah.
We've seen -- continue to see attacks on check points -- Afghan Security Force check points. We see the Taliban attempting to control road networks.
Most of the activity, lately, has been what we would call harassing attacks. Attacks that are aimed at disrupting the Afghan Security Forces' ability to resupply themselves, checkpoints that they perceive as vulnerable. Sometimes the checkpoints are attacked so that the Taliban can seize weapons and supplies.
So that's sort of the nature of it. It's low-level harassment, although we have seen -- we have seen a spike the last two weeks, but primarily tied to the poppy harvest. A little bit more on the poppy harvest, and this really is dictated by the weather.
Traditionally, the harvest goes from -- within the province from south to north as the weather allows, and we expect to see the same sort of pattern this year. And so we anticipate that spike in activity will continue until about the latter part of March and then there should be a lull as the harvest gets under way.
CAPT. DAVIS: Thanks. Yeah, Mik, go ahead.
Q: General, Jim Miklaszewski with NBC. Could you better -- could you better -- help us better understand the status of Daesh there in Afghanistan. They're opposed by the Afghans, by the U.S. and even the Taliban, and who are they? Are they Afghans who have been recruited into Daesh? Are there foreign fighters? Do they use the same kind of punitive and brutal methods that we've seen in Iraq and Syria. Just who are they, and are they -- are they making any progress whatsoever?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Hey Jim. Good to hear from you. Yeah, so our overall characterization of their status is to characterize them as operationally emergent. So they do not have the ability to orchestrate operations in more than one part of the country at a time. We're also not seeing what we would consider command-and-control by Daesh elements in Iraq or Syria dictating or orchestrating operations here in Afghanistan.
We're not seeing a significant amount of external funding. That's one of the reasons why Daesh has struggled here in Afghanistan, because they are attempting to fund themselves in large part by generating revenue streams within Afghanistan. When they do that, they come into conflict with the Taliban, and we see Daesh struggling to gain control for the same ways that the Taliban generates revenue, whether it's illegal checkpoints or the narco trade or trade of other illicit goods.
Who are they? A lot of the -- again, most of what we see in Afghanistan right now with Daesh is confined in Nangarhar Province. We have seen low level attempts at both propaganda in recruiting in over 20 other areas in Afghanistan. None of that has really taken root, it's mostly contained to Nangarhar Province.
A lot of them are former TTP, former Pakistani Taliban that have changed allegiance and sworn allegiance to Daesh. So why is it? Why do we have former TTP swearing to Daesh? Part of it is due to the fact that Pakistan has been a push over the last couple of years, put a significant effort against the Taliban. Some of that Taliban that was in Afghanistan, either Afghan, Taliban or Pakistani Taliban has been pushed into Afghanistan, and we've seen some of those elements re-brand themselves as Daesh.
I would also say, though, that in -- to kind of give you a frame of reference, if you'd asked me a year ago to categorize Daesh in eastern Afghanistan, I would've said -- oh, last summer I would've said they were in roughly six to seven provinces. If you'd asked me that question two months ago before the authorities changed, I would've told you it was four to five provinces in Nangarhar -- I'm sorry, four to five districts in Nangarhar Province.
If you -- if you ask me that question, I will tell you that Daesh is primarily contained to one district in Nangarhar Province. And so that's one out of 404 districts within the entire country where we see Daesh. That doesn't mean that they're not a strategic threat to Afghanistan, that doesn't mean they're not a strategic threat to the region, that doesn't mean we take them any less seriously. We continue to take them very seriously, we continue to keep up the pressure.
The change in authorities has really given us significant increase in the flexibility; we appreciate that. That's a result of the continual assessment and dialogue that the leadership here, primarily General Campbell, has had with the U.S. administration and the DOD. And so that change in authorities was helpful.
In terms of whether or not there are foreign fighters, well again, since most are former Taliban -- at least those in the east -- so yes. But, you know, that -- the border there between Afghanistan and Taliban (sic) is very fluid. Some of the tribal areas exists on both sides of the border, so the term foreign fighter may be a little different than it might be in some other parts of the world.
In terms of their brutality, absolutely. Every bit as brutal as things we've seen in other parts of the world. In fact, their brutality has worked against them. There were some pretty horrific acts committed by Daesh in Nangarhar that really were unpopular with the population, and that is also a factor in why they have not been able to take hold, because their brutal tactics have definitely backfired on them.
You know, in terms of foreign fighters, the foreign fighter dynamic is something that existed long before the coalition forces were here. It probably goes back at least 400 years. But I hope that answers your question in terms of how we categorize Daesh.
Q: And numbers. Any estimate on numbers?
GEN. SHOFFNER: You know, our estimate in the fall was somewhere between 1,000 to 3,000. It's reasonable to say it's probably on the lower end of that. And that's as far as I'll go on number.
CAPT. DAVIS: Great, thanks. Yeah Corey, go ahead.
Q: Hey sir. Corey Dickstein with Stars and Stripes. I have a question. We heard a little bit about the leadership issues, obviously, with the 215th Corps. Can you characterize those issues? Are we talking about, you know, just poor leadership or are we talking about corruption? Can you talk a little bit about what those issues are?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Yeah Corey, that's a great question. And it's all of the above. And so there are multiple reasons why those leaders have been -- have been replaced. Some are not corrupt, some are just aren't -- some just aren't effective leaders. Some are older and just aren't effective. In a peacetime Army, they did okay, but when they're -- when they've got to train a unit and get it to fight, they -- some of them have been replaced simply because they're ineffective.
Some are -- are corrupt. And, you know, an example of that, we also see in 215th Corps problems with attrition. Some of the units before they started the re-build were attrited fairly significantly, and with units that have attrition problems, in almost all cases, it's traced back to poor leadership.
And what we see is the good leaders have got to make sure that the soldiers are paid on time, that they're fed on time and they get leave. What compounds the fact -- the problem for the Afghan army in Helmand is that most of the soldiers are from either the eastern part of Afghanistan or the north. They're not from Helmand.
So, leave is really, really important to them. And if soldiers don't get leave, they sometimes will leave on their own. And if the commanders can't count on having troops there when they need them, then obviously, they're not going to be effective.
And so, replacing the leaders is an important step, but it's only one step. And then the leadership has got to follow through to make sure that those three fundamental things are done. And then units -- it has got manned, it has got to be trained properly.
On the corruption piece, part of that goes back to the -- some of the institutional issues and challenges they've got. So, pay. Pay is a big one; the pay really depends on having a good accountability system.
So, they've got to have a way to make sure that they've got the right number of soldiers on the rolls, first, that their rolls are accurate. If that -- if that is not happening, then you can't make sure you're paying soldiers properly.
The old method of payment had been a paymaster who would arrive at the unit with cash on had. Obviously, that lends itself to corruption; so if you have leaders that are unscrupulous, then not only did you have leaders perhaps -- you know, taking off with some of the money, that means the soldiers that need it are not getting it.
And if your rolls are accurate, then you're paying soldiers that aren't there. And so, in addition to those fundamental things the leaders have to do, they've got to get an accountability system implemented, and they're working on putting in an Afghan Security Forces ID card. It's an ID card that has got a scannable strip on the back that has got all of the soldier's biometric data.
And so, the soldiers have to provide your data that goes into a data base -- their biometric data that goes into a data base.
And then, for accountability, that ID card is scanned. The ID costs about a $1.70 each. It works very, very effectively. And that allows them to have this automated computer database that is auditable, that's searchable, and it makes it much, much more efficient in accountability.
For pay, one of the things they're going to is a check the bank system, or every soldier has to have a bank account, and his pay goes automatically to his bank account.
So, the tough thing for the Afghan soldiers, especially when they're on operations in a place like Helmand is getting access to their money.
One of the things we've seen, if you're paid in cash, sometimes, you know, they'll take their entire pay in cash, and they won't want to put any of it in the bank.
Well, if they're paid electronically, that discourages that. So, the key for them is to have access. So, if they're on operations in a remote area, they've come up with a system, in the Afghan police, that they're looking to implement with the Afghan army, and it's called mobile money.
So, mobile money uses a phone, a cell phone. And through text messages, the soldiers can access their bank account, figure out what their balance is, make sure they've been paid, and get access to that money that way.
So, they still, to withdraw money, would have to get to a bank or an ATM. But that is an example of one of the systems that we're working with them to implement there.
CAPT. DAVIS: Kasim ?
Q: Hi, General, this is Kasim -- (inaudible).
Are you -- you spoke about the Pakistani efforts to put pressure on the Taliban offshoots in the Pakistani and Afghanistan border. But could you just tell us, does the U.S. provide any support to Pakistan to put -- to do this, to put more pressure on the Taliban offshoot and Haqqani network?
GEN. WILSON: I -- I think -- if you probably just repeat the question, because I didn't hear the first part of it, and I didn't catch your name, I apologize.
But what I think I heard was talk about how the U.S. has provided support to Pakistan, and how the U.S. has gotten after the Haqqani network?
Q: Yeah. But basically the question --
CAPT. DAVIS: I can -- I'll help a little bit. So, it's Kasim from Anadolu News Agency, Turkey, asking if the U.S. is providing any assistance to Pakistan to put pressure on the Taliban?
Is that fair?
Q: Thank you.
GEN. WILSON: Well, again, we support the quadrilateral peace talks as the surest way towards ending the violence here in Afghanistan. Diplomatically, the U.S. has been engaged with Pakistan with regarding the peace process.
In fact, General Campbell met with General Raheel recently to discuss Pakistan's role.
We have been pleased with Pakistan's efforts in two ways: one, their pressure against the Taliban in Pakistan. And then also their agreement to put pressure on the Taliban to join the peace process.
They have been a willing partner with the Afghans, which we're encouraged by. And so, I just go to -- the important point here is that the Afghan government and the Pakistani government have a regional approach to dealing with problems in the area. It can't just be an Afghan approach or a Pakistan approach; it has got to be a regional approach, because the international terrorists here do not -- or the terrorists here do not respect the international boundaries.
As far as Haqqani, the Haqqani network remains a concern. You know, the number two person in the Taliban is a Haqqani member, pledged loyalty to the Taliban.
And so, you know, we see Taliban and Haqqani network continuing to work together, and oftentimes, it is difficult for us to distinguish exactly, you know where the loyalties lie and what the relationships are between the Taliban and Haqqani, because, in many cases, they are so intertwined.
But it goes back to the peace process. And whether it's Haqqani or Taliban, the solution here is for those groups to join and seek a political settlement, here.
CAPT. DAVIS: General, I know your time is tight. How many more minutes do you have? We have a couple more who still want to ask questions?
GEN. WILSON: We can probably take two more, Jeff.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay, perfect. So, let's do Lucas and Richard.
Go ahead. I'm sorry. Did I miss -- you good? Okay.
Q: Lucas Tomlinson, with Fox News.
General, you mentioned the increased special forces advising in Helmand. How many more troops have gone to Helmand since we last spoke?
GEN. WILSON: So, we -- we have repositioned some forces here, and we've provided some force protection in Helmand as we have increased the number of advisers.
I'm not going to get into the specifics of what the dispositions are, especially with operations continuing in Helmand.
I will say, though, with troop levels, overall, they remain what they were in 2015, no change for that. And we expect to have what we have through 2016. And that's one of the reasons why we're really pushing hard, now, to maximize the effect we can have with our available forces in 2016, especially as the rebuild of the 215th Corps is going on.
I mentioned General Nicholson's assessment that he has underway. He is going to provide that. He'll make a recommendation to the Department of Defense and the administration, and then he'll provide continual assessments as the year goes on.
But mentioned here, it hasn't changed. And we don't expect it to change anytime soon. You know, we will have Afghan special operations forces conducting operations in 2016, and we're going to continue our -- our train, advise and assist efforts of -- of Afghan special forces.
And so, like you've seen in Helmand, locally within Afghanistan, the numbers may go up and may go down. They've gone up in Helmand. We -- we expect to see that effort continue as -- as, again, we try to maximize our effect there in 2016, especially our TAA and -- of 215th Corps.
Q: So have the number of -- of troops in Helmand increased since the last time we've spoken?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Not substantially, Lucas.
GEN. SHOFFNER: Not substantially. Overall, the number of troops in Afghanistan has remained the same. It's going to stay constant through 2016.
There's been -- there's been some repositioning, and that's -- that's a combination of forces that are there for train, advise and assist, it's -- it's some force protection for those train, advise and assist, and it's coalition special forces that are doing the train, advise and assist of the Afghan special forces.
Q: Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay, Richard Sisk from Military.com.
Q: Hi, sir. Who's the commander of the 215th now?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Hi, Richard. It's -- it's General Moeen Faqir -- F-A-Q-I-R.
Q: And you -- you spoke, sir, to the problems of attrition with the 215th. In years past, when the Marines were there, one of the problems they had -- that bands have had with attrition was that when poppy harvest time came, a lot of them would go home to help their families with the harvest.
Is that a problem with attrition for the 215th? Are soldiers leaving to help with the harvest?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Well, the -- it's a problem throughout the country, and it's a problem throughout the Afghan security forces. It's less of a -- of a factor in terms of -- so attrition is a in 215th Corps. I won't - I won't try to disguise that.
But the cause of it, really, is fundamentally the leadership issues. Part of that is due to the fact that the Afghan National Army is not from Helmand. They're mostly from the north and the eastern part of Afghanistan.
So some of -- and clearly there are poppies grown in some of those places, but it is definitely not the driving factor in attrition. It's really failure of leadership to ensure that the soldiers are properly cared for, that they're properly led, although the -- the poppy harvest will affect the entire country.
Q: And sir could I ask quickly, what's -- what's the situation -- the stands with the A-29s and Tucanos? Are they flying? When do you expect them to be operational?
GEN. SHOFFNER: Yeah, they are flying. In fact, I was outside today, and I saw one flying overhead. So they're operational in the sense that they're -- we're able -- the pilots are able to fly.
They should be employed in the next couple of months. The pilots are -- are well into their final checks on those aircraft. They've got four of them. They'll have another four arrive later this year.
So these are Afghan pilots that -- undergone two years of training in the United States. The fact -- the -- the Afghan security forces did an air-show-like demonstration here recently, where they had the A-29s flying by. And we think it will be a matter of weeks, probably before they're employed for the first time.
One of the things I want to point out is -- and then I should have perhaps mentioned this earlier -- is we've seen an increase in Afghan airstrikes for Afghan forces. We've seen it in the east; we've seen it in Helmand province.
That's primarily the MD-530 helicopter -- that's their new helicopter -- you know, similar to the Little Bird -- and also their MI-17 helicopters that have forward-firing machine guns mounted.
And so the important thing there is that they're learning how to integrate close air support, which is not just having an aircraft -- it's having a forward air controller on the ground -- in this case, they call it an ATAC -- an Afghan Tactical Air Controller -- that can employ that.
We'll be happy to provide more information to you on that -- on the Afghan Air Force, on the A-29s, and -- and that piece as well, if you're interested, because that -- that is progressing, and -- and again, we should -- bottom line, it should be a matter of weeks before those are employed -- the A-29s -- for the first time.
Well, guys, that -- that's really all the time I have. I -- I do appreciate your time there.
CAPT. DAVIS: And, General, I --
GEN. SHOFFNER: Please follow up --
CAPT. DAVIS: -- I would -- General, I want to be -- I would be remiss if I didn't mention -- I think you're coming home soon, right? Is this the last time we'll hear from you over the -- over the phone line from Afghanistan?
GEN. SHOFFNER: It -- it is, and next time you -- you see me will be in the halls of the Pentagon.
CAPT. DAVIS: Great.
GEN. SHOFFNER: Job hasn't been announced yet, but I do expect to be assigned to the Pentagon, and -- and will be there in just a few weeks. And so what I see in the hall copies on me -- I appreciate the -- the relationship.
I appreciate the -- the patience you've had with me, and -- and -- and thanks very much for -- listening to what's happening in Afghanistan, helping us get the word out.
CAPT. DAVIS: Thank you, General, for your time, and apologize -- apologies, everyone, for the technical problems, and safe travels home, sir.
GEN. SHOFFNER: All right. Take care, everybody. And again, follow up, please, with me and Mike Lawhorn on e-mail or phone, if -- if there's anything that we can -- we can add to or provide further information on.