Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Nicholson via Teleconference from Afghanistan

General John W. Nicholson Jr., commander, Resolute Support and U.S. Forces Afghanistan; Captain Jeff Davis, Director, Defense Press Office


CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS:  Just a quick introduction.  Pleased to have General John Nicholson, our top commander in Afghanistan, here in Washington and eager to provide you all an update on what's going on in Afghanistan.

Without further ado, General Nicholson will have some opening remarks and then turn to your questions.

GENERAL JOHN W. NICHOLSON:  OK.  This is the Peter Cook button?

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. NICHOLSON:  OK.  That is the Peter Cook button.  OK.

Well, welcome everybody, and thanks so much for covering our mission in Afghanistan.  It's a pleasure to be with you here today.

Before I get started, though, I want to say today's special also because I understand it's the last day for Jim Miklaszewski.  Is that right?

Q:  Pretty much.

(Laughter.)

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Pretty much?  OK.  Yeah.  Well, to the extent he'll ever really leave.  But I just wanted to pass on my congratulations to him and thanks for his long service here.

And I remember back in 2003 when I was a lieutenant colonel running into Mik in the hallway and at that time, we had a commander in Army Central who was named Miklashek and we all thought he had the inside scoop because they were related.  But it wasn't, it was because Mik was such a -- such a professional and he's just such a good person.  So please give him my best and congratulation on his great career.  So it's been great to work with him.

So again, thanks for covering our mission in Afghanistan.  It's great to talk with you today.  I thought in my opening comments I'd just kind of review some of the fundamentals about the mission before we get into questions.

As you all know, we have two missions in Afghanistan.  So I'm the commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan and also command of Resolute Support.  So in the U.S. mission, which is Operation Freedom Sentinel, we're primarily focused on counterterrorism operations.  Why is this important?  Well, of thee 98 U.S. or U.N.-designated terrorists organizations around the globe, 20 of them are in the Af-Pak region.  This is the highest concentration of the numbers of different groups in any area in the world.

And so while the numbers may be higher in some of these groups elsewhere, the concentration of -- of groups in this region is important.  So our presence there is critical to keeping pressure on these networks so they cannot realize their international ambitions.

Secondly, on the Resolute Support mission, it's important to remember this is a 39-nation coalition, most of whom have been with us in this region for the last 10 to 15 years.  And this commitment to the region not only has spanned the last decade-plus, but was just reaffirmed at the Warsaw Summit going forward that this coalition will go forward.

And then in the next couple of weeks, we'll have the Brussels donor conference where nations will recommit to donor funding to Afghanistan in some of the non-security areas.  So the international commitment to Afghanistan has been significant and continues to be significant going forward.

The Resolute Support mission is primarily focused on training, advising and assisting the Afghan security forces, and this has been particularly important as we grow them to take over this mission for themselves.  And I would highlight again, I know you're very familiar with this, but from our height of 140,000 international troops, we are now down to roughly one-tenth of that, and our mission has changed from counter-insurgency to train, advise and assist.

And now, we are able then to help the Afghans with their taking over the fight in Afghanistan.  So there is some tangible progress here we can point to in terms of especially their special forces, their police special units, their air force, just to name three examples of the way in which they are conducting most of their operations in an independent manner, and in the case of the special forces, quite successfully. 

So, shifting gears at little bit, I'm in -- I've been in Afghanistan about seven months so just to give you an update on where we are, this roughly coincides with when the Afghans began their campaign for 2016 called operation Shafaq which means dawn.

So, this campaign has essentially been on plan through the end of July and it was -- the three phases we ran to that point, number one, which was the defense of Kunduz that occurred in April and May in which the Afghans successfully defended against another Taliban attempt to take that city.  They then shifted their main effort to the south to Helmand, Western Kandahar, Uruzgan to expand their security zone in the south.  Again, this was conducted successfully in the June, July timeframe.

And then, in late July, they shifted their effort to Nangarhar to the east to conduct counter-ISIL operations, counter-Daesh operations.  These operations were very successful.  They were conducted by Afghan Special Forces enabled by U.S. counter-terrorism forces and these succeeded in killing the top 12 leaders of Daesh to include there Amir , Hafasayad Khan, and trading roughly 25 percent of the organization of their fighters and reducing their space in Nangarhar.

So, then at the end of July, early August, the enemy has attempted to take another provincial capitol and what we've seen in the last month or six weeks are attempts to take Lashkar Gah, Kunduz in the north, and Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan.  In every case, they've failed but I want to flag these because these have been an -- an important point of the campaign for the Afghans. 

So, they've been able to respond to each of these events, to restore and stabilize the situation and, of course, retain the provincial capitols throughout, important point.

The -- also in this time, our counter-terrorism operations have continued to be successful throughout the past six months.  I mentioned the killing of Hafasayad Khan.  There was also the strike against Mullah Mansour, a designated U.N. terrorist in Pakistan and Omar Khalifa who was the head of the TGG, the Tariq Geedar Group which perpetrated the horrendous attack on the Peshawar Army School which killed over 130 children.  Our C.T. Forces also rescued the son of the Pakistani -- former Pakistani prime minister, Haider Gilani in a raid against Al Qaida in Eastern Afghanistan.

So, the high profile attacks is another favorite technique of the Taliban, of course, and while there have been some horrendous high profile attacks this year, the numbers overall are down from last year so about 16 this year in Kabul as compared to 23 last year.  Now, a lot of this has been possible because of the decisions that President Obama's made in support of our campaign and I want to highlight those. 

First was the decision to strike Mullah Mansour inside Pakistan on the 21st of May.  This had a disruptive effect on the Taliban, in particular on their finances, and it took them some time to get themselves sorted out and recovered from that. 

Second was the authority granted in early June which allowed me to use U.S. combat enablers in support of Afghan forces to achieve a strategic effect.  So, this authority is extremely important.  It's enabled us to use air power in particular but also rotary wing and armed ISR platforms, unmanned aerial vehicle platforms, in support of the Afghans.

And then of course there was the president's decision on troop levels.  So, as we went into the Warsaw summit.  So, the decision to maintain our troop levels at 8,400 enables us to conduct -- continue to conduct advising to the corps level, and in the case of special forces and other units, even below the corps level going into next year.  So, these have all been important decisions which then contributed to the renewed international commitment at the Warsaw summit in early July.  And just as a -- as an anecdote, what we saw after the Warsaw Summit was an increase in the property values inside Kabul.  

So the -- the confidence of the Afghan people, the confidence of their security forces within the government and I think also the effect on the enemy has been important of these decisions by the administration and the consequent effect of these decisions on the battlefield.  So again, let me just sort of wrap it up there and say I look forward to your questions.  And again, thanks for covering our story.  

CAPT. DAVIS:  Lita ?

Q:  General, thanks for doing this.  

A couple questions.  One, I was wondering -- I wanted to give you the opportunity, if you wanted to make any comments on the latest peace deal that the Afghans have just signed, if you wanted to do that, but then I have a couple questions on --

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Right.  So, this is an agreement that's been tentatively reached between the Afghan government and Hekmatyar's group.  And of course, the -- this is encouraging in my mind, in a sense that, you know, we have a country here that has suffered from 30 years of war and there's many belligerents who -- people who in the past have fought against each other.  

In fact, some of these belligerents are in the government together now, but this is positive in the sense that this represents a group that is residing largely outside of Afghanistan, that is now reaching a reconciliation agreement with the government, which will eventually involve a reintegration into Afghan society.  

And of course, this is the -- one of the most important steps we see towards an eventual resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan, that -- that these groups, these belligerents -- to include the Taliban.  And as we know, President Ghani has done a significant outreach to the Taliban earlier this year through the quadrilateral process to try and get the Taliban to come to the bargaining table.  

And I know that this continues to be a goal of our international policy and our desire, that we encourage this kind of reconciliation and eventual reintegration.  So in that -- in that context, this is a very positive step.

Q:  Great.  

Just yesterday, the -- the chairman talked about the Afghanistan fight as being a stalemate.  I'm wondering if you could say whether or not you agree with that?  And he said that there are more Afghan casualties than he's comfortable with, an assessment I think you have made in the past when we've seen you in Afghanistan, that the numbers have been high.  You talked about 900, I think, in July.  

Has that level continued in August and into September?  Can you give us an assessment of what their casualty levels have been?  And what do you think the U.S. and the coalition can do to stem that part of the problem?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Last year, the Afghans suffered high casualties, we talked about those previously.  And then over the winter, we engaged with them in what we call a force regeneration effort.  For example, in Helmand Province, we went down there with the 215th Corps, and we -- we did a focused effort with the Afghans, where they brought in new leaders and soldiers; we re-equipped, we retrained and got those units back into the field.  

So this is the model that we're using to work with the Afghans going forward this winter, to help them regenerate units that have suffered high casualties.  Many of these casualties have been suffered by police forces, so this is something we're focused on going forward, is how we can help regenerate the police.  This will be done in concert with our police reform efforts, so this will be extremely important.  

I am concerned about the high casualties, but thus far, I'd point out that despite the high casualties in 2015, the Afghan security forces were able to be -- prevent the enemy from accomplishing their goals in 2016.  So, while casualties are a concern and we certainly want to lower the casualties, we also see resilience in that the Afghan security forces have been able to continue to fight in spite of these losses.  

So, we believe that with improvements in leadership and a system like supply systems and so forth and through a reduction of dependency on check points, that this will reduce the potential for casualties.  This is where many of the casualties have been suffered in a small, you know, 30 to 50 man checkpoints.  They get overrun by a larger enemy force.  

So we're working with our Afghan partners on that on how to adjust their tactics and their systems to lower their casualty.  So that's extremely important.  

This was one of the factors I mentioned before when we talked about concerns is the casualties, the convergence of enemy units, the role of external actors and the government's stability as being critical, too, as well.  So we watch these factors closely, and I think we have a good plan in place with the Afghans to address the casualty issue going forward.

Q:  Is 900 a stable number in the stalemate issues ?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  OK.  On the -- so as a characterization of the conflict, so I'd -- let me talk about this in a couple terms.  I think we, you know, another way to think about stalemate is you've reached some sort of equilibrium.  And so, what is the equilibrium?  

So as you heard yesterday from the SECDEF and the chairman, we believe the Afghans control or heavily influence 68 to 70 percent of the population.  We believe the enemy control or influence about 10 percent of the population.  And then the balance, you know, roughly a quarter, is in play, is contested.  So, the fact that it's contested doesn't mean it's controlled by either side, but it's indeed contested.

So this stalemate that the chairman referred to yesterday is a stalemate in which the government's controlling 70 percent of the population and the enemy is controlling 10 percent of the population, and then they're fighting over the balance.

And so, this is a positive in the sense of the majority of the population's under control of the government forces, and this is primarily the population centers and so on.  And then the enemy is primarily in more rural areas that have less impact on the future of the country.  

So, we clearly want to help the Afghans next year and beyond to gradually increase the amount of control they exercise over the population as we also help them become more self-sustaining.  So, yes, it's something we're concerned about, but it is something that we're addressing with the Afghans and hoping to help them move forward next year and increase the amount of control they have.

Q:  Thank you.  First thing, do you have any more details on this strike that took place earlier in the week that seems to have killed about eight Afghan police soldiers?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  This strike was in Tarin Kowt.  It was a strike down at the request of our Afghan partners.  It's under investigation by them.  We work closely with them in the identification of the target and the approval of the strike.

I don't want to get in front of the Afghan investigation, but these individuals who were struck, there's some question about who they were and where -- their target was clearly an Afghan security post.

So they were attacking an Afghan security post who then requested our support in self-defense.  And so, this is -- these are generally what we know about the strike thus far, and I think there will be more coming at us as the Afghan investigation is completed.

Q:  Second question. You talked about the Afghan forces being able to repel attacks in some prevention centers.  Are you concerned that the Taliban and other terrorist groups are able to make it that far that they're able to challenge prevention capitals?  And us this sort of sustainable where the Afghan security forces have to keep on repelling them?  I mean, how long can that continue for?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yes.  When I say repel, I mean provide a little more detail for you.  So, what -- in the case, so let's take Kunduz in April and May.  So what this -- it was not a case of the Afghans were dug in trenches around the city.  They were conducting offensive operations in the surrounding district.  So in the case of Kunduz in April and May, they conducted operations into (Archi ?) District to the northeast, for example, they conducted operations to the west and to the -- to the northwest.

So they -- the -- the way in which the Afghan forces defended Kunduz was to conduct offensive clearing operations into the areas around the city, particular -- likewise in Helmand they did the same thing with offensive clearing operations to go into Marja, down to the southern part of Sangin District and elsewhere in Helmand to expand the security around the city.

And then what's happened when the enemy's attacked is the technique that they use is to attack specific checkpoints, typically along highways.  and then what we see if an effective use of information ops and PSYOPS, psychology operations, by the enemy against these checkpoints in which they will -- they might overrun a checkpoint and then call the next checkpoint and tell them, "If you leave, we'll leave you alone."

And so this has -- these checkpoints have been vulnerable to this because of poor leadership at the lowest levels, and this -- when I saw poor leadership, I mean by the Afghan security forces, where soldiers are not properly supplied, they don't have enough ammo, they're not, you know, kept well informed or well-led so they become more vulnerable to these styled attacks.

And then, of course, the way they're distributed, as I mentioned before, in small packages makes them more vulnerable to this as well.

So this is something we've been working closely with our Afghan partners on is so that -- the way in which they array their forces makes them susceptible to these kinds of attacks.  There's a political and social reason, though, for why they array their forces that way, because the Afghan population, while there are a number of population centers, they generally are distributed more -- more widely than you see in other countries.  So these checkpoints are usually done at the request of a local community that wants to feel more secure by having a ring of checkpoints around their community.

So this is the tension we have in working with our Afghan partners.  So these police and isolated checkpoints are the ones that are most vulnerable.  We have to -- to work then with the governance and you know, with the governors and the provincial leaders to -- to reach out to the people and deal with this.  So it's really more than strictly a military situation, there's social and political aspects to it as well. 

Then when something happens, when a checkpoint is overrun, quite often, local leaders in order to attract attention to their area will call the media in many cases and relay hey, you know, the community's being overrun, the city's being overrun.  This results in what I -- what I'd characterize as exaggerated reports about how dire the security situation is, which then the government has to respond to and then they typically stabilize the situation. 

So this pattern I just described is what we've see in Helmand, around Lashkar Gah, we've seen in Kunduz around Kunduz City and we saw most recently in Tarin Kowt.  And so we're working closely with our Afghan partners on this, on how they can help better secure these areas, how they can react quickly, how they can reassure the population, how they communicate their message more effectively. 

Q:  Last question, sorry.  Have you --

CAPT. DAVIS:  (inaudible) -- questions.

So please, David?

Q:  When these attacks on provincial capitals are repelled, are they repelled with the help of American airstrikes and American special forces as -- as advisers at the unit level? 

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yes, David.  The -- what we -- what we typically see is the Afghans rely on their special forces to -- for reinforcement on offensive operations.  The -- the special forces are doing most of the offensive operations around the country.

And when I refer to the special forces, I'm talking about 17,000 special forces, which include Kotehas, which is their high-end counter-terrorist unit; the commandos, who are significant portions; and the special police units.  So these units are advised by Americans, and in the case of the police units, by our NATO special forces partners.

And so when these units go into action, say a commando kandak, they -- 20 percent of the time -- 10 to 20 percent of the time will have American advisers with them.  And then these advisers can employ combat enablers.

So to describe this to you, 80 percent of the special forces operations they do independently.  About 10 percent are enabled meaning we would use our intelligence platforms and air support for example but no one on the ground.  And then finally the 10 percent would be where they're actually advised. Where people are out there in the field with them.  So they may not have advisers on the ground, but they may have the benefit of our intelligence resources and they may have the benefit of air support.

Q:  So are the Afghans capable of defending their provincial capitals on their own?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yes, I think so. I think what we've seen is the Commandos in some cases are sent are sent without U.S. support to stabilize the situation.  And then in the case of Lashkar Gah, for example the governor, Governor (inaudible) who's a very effective governor has mobilized the (inaudible) and the local population.  He's worked closely with his security counterparts, so they have defensive forces inside the city, and outside, and along the routes of Lashkar Gah. 

They've done a sort of social outreach as well as a security outreach to help stabilize the situation. So the answer I think is yes.  Now we do use our enablers in support of them if we get in a situation where that's appropriate.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Courtney?

Q:  Just one quick clarification.  You keep talking about combat enablers, you mean air -- from the air right?  You're not talking about enablers on the group right?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  So the authority I've been granted by President Obama for combat enablers would include air support so that would be the F-16s that we have, it would include rotary wings, so Apache helicopters, it would include our unmanned aerial vehicles that would provide either intelligence or in some case they can provide fire support.  And then we also have advisers that can be on the ground with them. 

And then -- but these advisers when they go on the ground.  Are not -- they accompany but they are to remain, for example if the group is closing on an objective, they are to remain at the last covered and concealed position prior to the objective.  This doesn't mean though that they won't get in dangerous situations, because the battlefield is very fluid they may find themselves sometimes in a situation where their in direct contact with the enemy.

Q:  You mentioned that 12 leaders were killed and 25 percent of the fighters are gone.  So what's the estimate of how many ISIS are in Afghanistan, are they primarily in Nangarhar and are they still presenting the same threat to the government and to U.S. forces there as they were six months ago or?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  They are primarily in Nangarhar.  We estimate their numbers are 1,200 to 1,300 fighters.  They're primarily Pakistani Pashtun from the Agoricsi Agency, who were previously part of -- (inaudible) -- Taliban Pakistan, TTP, who then changed alliance to ISK.  They were joined by some fighters from Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, who joined them as well. 

They have some enclaves in Kunar Province but primarily they're in Nangarhar Province.  Their goal was to establish their caliphate the Khorasan Province, with Jalalabad as the capital and Nangarhar as their initial caliphate.  Now they've been frustrated in that by us and the operations in July have pushed them down into the mountains of southern Nangarhar.  And it's primarily in three to four districts.  As you know, Courtney, there was a time when they had spread out to nine to ten districts last year in 2015.

So the operations this year have helped to push them down.  And we will continue these operations into the future.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Yes, Joe.

Q:  Yes, two quick question.  Have you seen -- to follow up on Courtney's about ISIS -- have you seen any evidence that foreign groups outside Afghanistan are supporting the Islamic state?  And if there is any clear link between the Islamic state inside -- in Nangarhar and the Haqqani network and the Taliban?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  We have seen linkages between Islamic state and the Khorasan and the main Islamic state back in Syria.  So we have seen those linkages.  And the only linkages with a groups locally are the ones I mentioned, where we had fighters change allegiance from one group to another.

As far as cooperation, this is something we watch very closely, but we haven't seen any large scale convergence with --

Q:  Linkages between the Islamic state in Syria and Afghanistan?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Financial and leadership and strategic communications.  So the -- and the, and the one issue of Dabiq magazine, which was the Islamic State magazine, they had an article about Islamic state Khorasan Province.  We've seen some financial support and leadership and guidance going back and forth.

Q:  Ask the question, if we want to talk about percentage, what's the percentage of treasuries that are currently under control of Taliban in Afghanistan?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Ten percent.  So what we see is 10 percent of the population is under their control.  But they contest another 20 percent -- 20 to 25 percent.  So we view 20 to 25 percent of the country is contested, meaning the government and the Taliban are fighting for control of that.

The Taliban clearly control 10 percent and the government controls roughly 65 to 70 percent.  So, these are rough percentages.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Gordon?

Q:  Quick question on draw down.  Can you give us a quick update on where the numbers are for U.S. forces in Afghanistan?  Your kind of current assessment of what capabilities you're losing with that -- I know some of it's kind of administrative.

But also, if a new commander-in-chief was going to come in January and want to make changes to those numbers, i.e. go up, what structure are you losing potentially that would make it hard to undo these cuts?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Well, we're currently at 9,800 U.S. forces in the country.  As we -- and we're going to stay -- we're at that now, we'll continue at that until the end of the year.  And then as we rotate units in and out, which we will do between now and the end of the year, we'll come in to that new configuration.

One of the, one of the ways which we'll address that is with over the horizon capabilities, as you've heard me talk about before.  So, some of the resources would be available if required to come in from the Gulf region, if that were necessary.  So, we also then have looked at realigning our forces and how they're arrayed.

And so, what, what the, what you'll see as we transition from 9,800 to 8,400 is a -- an actual expansion of our advisory effort.  So, focus on advising.  So the advising would be right now you'll see a similar footprint occur in all four of the corps in the east and the south.

So, as you know, the U.S. is responsible for the four corps in the east and the south.  The Germans for the corps in the north.  And Italians for the corps in the west as framework nations with allies supporting all those efforts.  And then the Turks have the -- the capital area.

So the four corps in the east and the south, we will -- as we rotate units in, we're going to rearrange our advisory structure so we can cover down on all those cores.  And then we have support from allies in the south of and the east who help us with some of the key functions like force protection.  And then we have some capabilities.  I'd rather not get into the specifics of which capabilities we're putting over the horizon for operational security reasons, but this is what's enabling us to -- to restructure. 

Q:  (off mic.)

Q:  Colonel Nicholson, could you go back over some of what you were talking about ISIS?  And in two cases, you seem to be mentioning there's foreign outside influences, so I just want to understand that better.  You said -- I believe you said you're seeing Uzbek fighters move in if I understood correctly.  

So number one, where else from are you seeing foreign fighters come back into Afghanistan and either affiliate with ISIS or Al Qaida?  And on the issue of getting support, leadership, you said, from the Islamic State in Syria, can you expand on that a little bit?  Are you actually seeing people move in from Syria?  Do you have sort of proven lines of communication that you're seeing, electronic communication?  What are you really talking about here?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  So in answer to the first part of your question, Barbara, the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan was more prominent early in ISK's emergence.  Their role, I think, has somewhat declined a little bit, but there are -- there are still some that are present.  

But what you had early on was -- (inaudible) -- the leader of ISK initially, formally applied to -- to the -- to ISIL for membership as a franchise, if you will, of -- an called Islamic State Khorasan and there is a formal application process that these -- that these satellite organizations go through.  And I believe the number's around eight of them now.  And they -- and they have to meet certain criteria.  

So he brought with him -- Hafasayad Khan was the leader of the TTP in -- (inaudible) -- agency of Pakistan, so he and his fighters and (inaudible) formed the initial nucleus of Islamic State Khorasan.  And then they attracted in other fighters, and so IMU would be the other group of foreigners, if you will.  And then -- and then part of this was they did this through higher pay.  So some -- some of this was, you know, allegiance to a particular leader as he moved over, some of it in terms of the other fighters out that they've -- that they've attracted has been through higher pay than the Taliban are paid. 

So there was a mixture of reasons for why people joined ISK.  And then over the last year, their numbers have attrited heavily.  So some of the appeal of this, you know, fighting for money has worn off.  They do have effective information operations, if you will, an effective advertising campaign to attract fighters.  So this is -- this is continuing to be part of their appeal. 

So what we've seen is then as far as foreigners -- and it's really those two primary groups.  With respect to external leadership -- so one, they applied for membership, so there was a dialogue that occurred and an approval and an acceptance and then a publicizing of their effort -- (inaudible).  There's been money that's been sent and --

Q:  Are you talking about mainstream ISIS in Syria now?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Yeah, money from the parent organization to the satellite organization.  Now -- now again, this -- I don't want to get into details and so forth, but there has been financial support.  And when -- for example, when we killed their Amir and there was a leadership succession process that occurred, and there was consultation that occurred, with the parent organization -- over who the next leader would be and was that person acceptable to the parent organization, so forth.

So, there is a degree of command and control provided from the parent organization to the satellite.

Q:  Have you seen anybody move in -- have you seen any fighters move in from Syria?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  No.

Q:  And very quickly, may I also ask you about the Haqqani Network?  Your current assessment about the Haqqanis at the moment -- I think the Afghans are holding a major, or significant, family member of the Haqqanis --

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Anas Haqqani is in Afghan custody.  He's been sentenced to death, and his death sentence is going through the appeals process right now.

Q:  Is there a sense that if the Afghans commute that -- I know this may be very difficult to answer publicly -- that you might have some success with getting the American hostages back?  And your assessment of the strength of the Haqqani Network at this point.

GEN. NICHOLSON:  So, on the, the trial and the subsequent appeal process is entirely in control of the Afghan government.  So that's up to them how this, how this plays out.  This -- the trial and appeals process kind of wrapped up, and the appeals process just began.

So, I would expect this to continue into 2017 because of the appeals process.  As far the strength of the Haqqanis, we, as you know, the Secretary of Defense in August in his response to Congress as a result of the National Defense Act and Authorization Act of 2015, he was required to respond to Congress on whether there was adequate pressure being placed on the Haqqanis by the Pakistan government.

And he said he was unable to certify that there was sufficient pressure being placed on them to justify additional coalition support funds to Pakistan.  Kind of a lengthy explanation, but it was his way of saying that there's not, not adequate pressure being put on the Haqqanis.

And I concur and with the Secretary's assessment on that.  Then we, that the Haqqanis operationally have been able to conduct operations inside Afghanistan -- they constitute the primary threat to Americans, to coalition members, and to Afghans especially in and around Kabul.

Q:  Is there more we can do?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Is there more?

Q:  Is there more U.S. forces can do?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Oh, so as part of our, our -- the authorities have been granted by President Obama enable us to take any measures necessary to defend against the Haqqani threat.  So, we have authorities into terms of force protection, so we can act against them when we identify them.

We track their actions very closely.  Especially as relates to the Kabul threat streams.  And so, we -- you know, I have the authorities I need to defend us against that threat.

CAPT. DAVIS:  We have time probably for two more.

Lucas?

Q:  General, how many senior Al Qaida leaders remain in Eastern Afghanistan?  And are there any restrictions on striking them?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  No, Al Qaida remains at the top of our list along with Islamic State as a -- and I mentioned these 20 terrorists organizations, those two are at the top.  And we continue to hunt them every day.  And so, there are senior leaders, as far as the numbers, I really don't want to get into matters that would affect future operations.

But we -- we have seen Al Qaida, for example, last year in October of 2015 as you know there was an operation conducted down in the Shorabak District of Kandahar where there was Al Qaida and Al Qaida Indian subcontinent were present in that locale, in that training base that was destroyed.

We continue to go after these -- this network.  The raid in which we rescued Haider Gilani, the son of the former Pakistani prime minister, that was -- was against an Al Qaida target, and so Al Qaida was holding that individual hostage.  We -- we see them in the east, stretching from you know, to Zabul, Paktika, Ghazni area in the Southeast and then up in the areas to the Northeast which you are familiar with, Kunar, Nuristan, Nangarhar, there's some very mountainous area which -- which lends itself to a sanctuary.

QUESTIONS:  Are there any restrictions in going after these leaders? Your predecessor, when he came to the Pentagon told reporters he had some challenges working with the White House, so I was wondering if you are experiencing anything similar?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  No challenges. 

Q:  I just want to clarify the enabler part of the equation of your new -- new authorities.  That's conventional U.S. troops going out with conventional Afghan troops correct?  As far as you know, like an attack controller control party, JTACs, et cetera?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  They go in an advisory role, they're not accompanying them to conduct close combat, but they are there, for example, as special forces ODA, you know an Operational Detachment Alpha, with its 12 members would go out with a commando can act and then that ODA is, you know, would have the capabilities to call in air support or provide terminal guidance for you know, bombs, armed ISR, or anything of that nature. 

Q:  An ODA could be 10 mountain guys as well, correct?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  No, primarily -- with the Special Forces, it's special - it's our special units, so it's primarily Special Forces.  So as far as what we have in terms of conventional advisers would be in what we call "expedition advisory packages", and these are primarily focused at the headquarters level, so at the brigade or Corps level. 

So what we might do, as we did recently in the essence of Tarin Kowt, is deploy a package up to Tarin Kowt with advisers for the 205th Corps and the fourth brigade of 205th, but they weren't actually going out on operations.  They were at the headquarters advising them on how to utilize these enablers and the enablers were used that case -- and in that case included you know, close air support from F-16s, rotary wing support for Apache helicopters and armed UAVs to provide direct support of the ground.

Q:  And then just the last -- last part.  You mentioned this kind of breakdown at checkpoints, and you were talking about poor leadership and how you know, maybe these guys didn't have equipment and ammo and just, we're two weeks from the 15th anniversary of this whole thing, kind of wondering how you can have Afghan security forces that are, you know we pumped X amount of millions or billions of dollars into this, I'm wondering if you can get to that point?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  So, when I first served in Afghanistan as a Colonel 10 years ago, we had about -- you know I had -- I had one brigade in Afghanistan, and at that time we had 15 brigades in Iraq, OK and we had at that time -- this was in 2006 -- about 25,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops and about as many Afghan security forces.  So the police were untrained and the Army had only 20 -- 25 to 35,000 troops.

So then as you know, we surged up in 2009 and 2010, where we raised our presence to 140,000 troops in order to grow the Afghan army.  And so we -- we now have been able, through that huge investment that we've made, to draw down our numbers to 1/10 of what they once were, and in the meantime grow the Afghan security forces to over 300,000. 

Now the analogy is -- is the old building aircraft while in flight, these guys been fighting the entire time, and so we're fighting as we're trying to build the Army so their being -- the units are being built, the leaders are being trained, they're going directly in the combat, a certain percentage of them are becoming casualties and then we're starting all over again. 

So when I think the Western armies and the decades and centuries it's taken to build the professional Western armies that we have today, and given that we started, you know, 10 years ago -- (inaudible) -- but we really started in 2009 when President Obama decided on a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy and a significant investment.  It's only been seven -- seven years.  And so in relative terms, this is a short amount of time for an army that's fighting everyday.

So as a professional soldier, would I -- would I like to see fast progress?  Of course.  And we're going to work very hard and we continue to work very hard with them on this.  But I also see progress in the sense that we've drastically reduced our presence and -- and they -- they are willing and able to fight.  They take casualties and they keep going back into the fight.  And this is -- this is something money can't buy, is their willingness to take the fight to the enemy. 

And so one of the things that I'm most impressed with about the Afghans is this desire to fight for their country.  They view it as a matter of personal honor that they are the ones defending their country, not us.  And they deeply appreciate everything we're doing with them.  They know they have things to work on.  But they're very committed to -- to winning this war on their own.

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. NICHOLSON:  I'm sorry?

Q:  Average percentage of casualties for -- (inaudible)?

GEN. NICHOLSON:  I'd have to get back to you on -- on that.  I mean, it really varies.  The policy suffer higher casualties than the army.  I think this is a reflection of training and professionalism.  And -- and the reform efforts in the MOD have been -- have had longer to take hold than the MOI.  We've got more work to do on the MOI.

CAPT. DAVIS:  General Nicholson, I promised to keep you on schedule.  Thank you, sir, for your engagement --

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Thanks.

CAPT. DAVIS:  -- engagement and thank you also, sir, for your -- your team as well in Afghanistan -- (inaudible).

GEN. NICHOLSON:  Thanks a lot, Peter.  And again, thanks to all of you for your -- for covering our story and look forward to seeing many of you in theater.  Bye.

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