Senate Armed Services Committee - The Situation in Afghanistan - Full Transcript

9 Feb 2017
WASHINGTON (Feb. 9, 2017) — General John Nicholson, commander, Resolute Support, briefs the Senate Armed Services Committee on the situation in Afghanistan. 

SEN. MCCAIN: This committee meets this morning to receive testimony on the situation in Afghanistan.

And I'm pleased to welcome Gen. John Nicholson back to the committee. We thank you for your many years of distinguished service and your leadership of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan at a critical time. And we would ask you to relay to the brave men and women fighting under your command how appreciative and how proud we are of their service.

America has been at war in Afghanistan for more than a decade and a half. But it's always worth remembering that American forces went to Afghanistan because that was where, under the sanctuary of the Taliban regime, Al Qaida planned and then trained for the Sept. 11 attacks that killed 3,000 innocent civilians on American soil. Our mission was to ensure that Afghanistan would never again be a safe haven for Al Qaida or other terrorist groups to attack America or our allies and partners. That mission has been successful for 15 years, but it's not over.

American forces are carrying out that mission today by performing two critical tasks; counter-terrorism and training, advising, and assisting our Afghan partners. Both of these tasks are vital to achieving our strategic goals and protecting our homeland. We're taking the fight to America's enemies in Afghanistan while, at the same time, building a sustainable Afghan security forces (sic) that can stand on its own, take on violent extremists, and deny terrorist safe haven in their country.

Unfortunately, in recent years, we tied the hands of our military in Afghanistan. And instead of trying to win we settle for just trying not to lose. Time and again, we saw troop withdrawals that seemed to have a lot more to do with American politics than conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. The fixation with the so-called quote, "force management levels" in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq and Syria seem far more about measuring troop levels than measuring success. Authorities were also tightly restricted.

Until last summer, our military was prohibited from targeting the Taliban except in the most extreme circumstances, taking the pressure off the militants and allowing them to rebuild and re-attack. Indeed, while we were fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, authorities in Afghanistan were so restrictive that it took an entire year before American forces were finally given authority to strike ISIS fighters in Afghanistan. In short, for too long our strategy in Afghanistan has been "don't lose."

Meanwhile, the risk to American and Afghan forces has only grown worse as the terrorist threat has intensified. The Taliban has grown more lethal, expanded its territorial control and inflicted heavy casualties on Afghan forces. In October, the Taliban launched multiple concurrent offensives that seriously threaten four provincial capitals. While Afghan forces, with U.S. support, successfully defended those capitals, the Taliban seized the initiative, kept the pressure on Afghan forces and captured new ground. In Afghanistan, as we have seen elsewhere around the world, as America pulls back, vacuums have opened up and have been filled by more of our enemies.

Al Qaida and the Haqqani Network continue to threaten our interest in Afghanistan and beyond. ISIS is trying to carve out another safe haven from which it can plan and execute attacks. Iran is reportedly arming and funding the Taliban. And, as if the situation were not complicated enough, Russia is now meddling in Afghanistan in apparent attempt to prop up the Taliban and undermine the United States.

I wanna stress an important point, Afghans are in the fight. They're not looking to us or anyone else to do their fighting for them. They are proud people, want to defend their own country and they're taking significant casualties. At the same time, they want and need our continued assistance. It is in our national interest to help our Afghan partners become capable of standing on their own, defending their own country and defeating our common enemies with less and less assistance.

Securing Afghanistan and preventing another attack on our homeland requires the right number of people in the right places, with the right authorities and the right capabilities. This new administration has the opportunity to turn the page and finally give our commanders the resources and authorities they need, to seize the initiative and force the enemy to react, instead of the other way around.

This will likely require additional U.S. and coalition forces and more flexible authorities. And it will require sustained support to the Afghan Security Forces, as they develop key enabling capabilities, including intelligence, logistics, Special Forces, airlift and close air support.

We, in the Congress, have a vital role to play in providing this support, especially for the Afghan aviation initiative. Succeeding in Afghanistan will also require a candid evaluation of America's relationship with Pakistan. Thousands of Pakistanis have served and sacrificed in the fight against our common terrorist and enemies. Many gave their lives, in recent counter-terrorism operations in North Waziristan. But the fact remains, that numerous terrorist groups still operate within Pakistan, attack its neighbors and kill U.S. forces.

Put simply, our mission in Afghanistan is immeasurably more difficult, if not impossible, while our enemies possess a safe haven in Pakistan. These sanctuaries must be eliminated. As Pakistani leaders have committed to doing, the new administration must work with the Congress to determine what additional actions are necessary, to ensure that the enemies we continue to fight in Afghanistan can find no quarter in Pakistan or in any other country.

America has been at war in Afghanistan for 15 years. Weary as some Americans may be of this long conflict, it's imperative that we see our mission through to success. We have seen what happens when we fail to be vigilant. The threats we face are real and the stakes are high, not just for the lives of the Afghan people and the stability of the region, but for America's national security.

Senator Reed?

REED: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I'd like to join you in welcoming Gen. Nicholson.

Thank you, general, for your service and for your presence here today. As Gen. Nicholson often points out, Afghanistan and the Pakistan area is home to the highest concentration of designated terrorist organizations in the world. And given this context, it is important that the United States, in conjunction with NATO and our other allies, continue our commitment to the security and stability of Afghanistan.

Furthermore, Pakistani support for extremist groups operating in Afghanistan, whether it is passive or deliberate, must end if we and Afghanistan are to achieve necessary levels of security. Decisions made last year by President Obama to maintain approximately 8,400 groups in Afghanistan into 2017 and to provide robust support to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, laid the foundation for sustainable U.S. and international presence in Afghanistan.

REED: The decisions also sent an important message to Afghans, the Taliban and others in the region, including Pakistan, regarding the commitment of the United States to continued progress in Afghanistan. Assuming the continued invitation of the Afghan government and the support of its people, I believe we should adopt a conditions-based approach to our presence in Afghanistan that apprise – provides flexibility and a number of military personnel deployed there in support of our longer term strategy.

January 2017 marked the second year in which the Afghan security forces were the chief guarantors of security in Afghanistan. These forces continue to demonstrate determination and operational cohesion, even as they have been confronted by an array of challenges including intensified urban combat, increased casualties and nearly continuous conflict that has hindered their ability to reset and refit. This sustained operational tempo is also a challenge to the ongoing coalition training efforts and contributed to the difficulties of recruiting and retraining troops.

In addition sustained combat operations have taken a particular toll on Afghan special operations forces, the most capable of the Afghan security forces, who have been relied upon heavily to retake territory from the Taliban. An over-reliance on their special capabilities is resulting in an unsustainable operational tempo and a high level of cash lost.

Gen. Nicholson, I look forward your assessment of the performance of the Afghan forces over the past year and plans for sustaining the force and addressing the remaining capability shortfalls. Afghanistan is and must remain a key pillar of our long-term global counter-terrorism strategy.

We continue to observe more aggressive Taliban operations capable of pressuring the Afghan security force – forces simultaneously on multiple fronts. This is compounded by elements of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in the Koruscant (ph) province, or ISILK, who remain in Afghanistan, despite suffering from significant battlefield losses over the past year.

Recently, the Pakistani military has increased operations on their side of the border. This resulted in an increased number of fighters moving into Afghanistan which is ironic, but the actual outcome of their operations. In addition, elements of Al Qaida, the Taliban and other associated groups continue to enjoy safe haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

General, it will be important to hear your views on the status of our counterterror fight and the resources you require to continue this mission. The national unity government led by President Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah has demonstrated the will to work through a complex set of issues with the goal of addressing much-needed political and governmental reforms. I hope they will continue to do so. Particular with respect to anti-corruption, economic development and other governance initiatives which will be central to long-term success.

General, I look forward to your assessment of the current political context in which our operations are occurring and the progress made by government efforts to help the Afghan civil forces build and reform Afghan institutions, which are critical to our long-term security.

Once again general, thank you for your service to the country and I look forward to your testimony.

MCCAIN: Thank you. Welcome general.

NICHOLSON: (OFF MIKE)

MCCAIN: I think you need to punch the – there you go.

NICHOLSON: Thank you sir. Chairman McCain, Ranking Member Reed, members of the committee, thank you for the honor of appearing before you today. I appreciate this opportunity to update you on our mission in Afghanistan.

NICHOLSON: First, I want to thank the committee for your leadership and your dedication to the men and women of United States Forces – Afghanistan and the NATO Resolute Support mission. We deeply appreciate your visits to Afghanistan and your steadfast support protects our homeland.

Your commitment is also in building an enduring partner in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, or ANDSF. They know that we support them, and it gives them the confidence they need to do their job.

I would like to start by honoring the men and women who have served in Afghanistan and who are currently deployed there; our U.S. service members, our NATO allies and – by the way, the NATO allies who invoked Article 5 after 9/11 and have been by our side ever since in Afghanistan. And our NATO partners who have joined the mission in Afghanistan.

I particularly want to highlight the role of the NATO Framework Nations; Italy, Germany and Turkey; who provided leadership, manning and funding. And our non-NATO partners, such as Georgia who is the largest non-NATO troop contributing nation. We should also remember, that as we sit here today five Americans and two citizens from our coalition partners are being held hostage at unknown locations in the AfPak region by the members of the Taliban aligned Haqqani Network.

I would also like to highlight the case of Dr. Shakeel Afridi, who's been unjustly imprisoned. I want to acknowledge the brave men and women of the Afghan Security Forces and the people of Afghanistan who are fighting for a secure and stable country. The success of our mission depends on their courage, determination and sacrifice. We especially remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country and Afghanistan. Their strength, and the strength of their families, inspires us to do our jobs. And our pledge is that we will deliver on their sacrifice.

Our main objective in Afghanistan is to prevent our country from being used as a – or prevent this country from being used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack the United States and our allies. We perform two complementary missions; the U.S. counter-terrorism mission Operation Freedom's Sentinel and the NATO train, advise, and assist mission Operation Resolute Support.

Of the 98 U.S. designated terrorist groups globally, 20 operate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region along with three violent extremist organizations. This is the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world, which underscores the importance of our counter-terrorism platform in the Central Asia-South Asia region which protects our homeland.

We remain very focused on the defeat of Al Qaida and its associates, as well as the defeat of Islamic State Khorasan Province; which is the ISIL affiliate in Afghanistan. Last year, the Afghan forces developed and implemented a detailed campaign plan to take the fight to the enemy. It was a hard fight, but the Afghan forces prevailed. They prevented the Taliban from accomplishing any of their strategic objectives, and the authorities and airpower which I was granted in June were absolutely critical to the success of the fight last year.

The Afghan special operations forces also played a crucial role. As a result of our training, equipping, and partnering, the 17,000-strong Afghan special forces are the best in the region. They now operate independently on roughly 80 percent of their missions. The Afghan Air Force is also rapidly gaining capability. Their first ground attack aircraft entered the fight in April. And they're now integrating intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance assets into their new targeting processes, so they're are making great progress.

Congressional approval of the funding for the Afghan Air Force is key to improving the offense of capability of the Afghan national defense and security forces. There is an urgency to this request in that – in order to get these aircraft and aircrews into the fight as soon as possible. I do remain concerned about the influence of certain like external actors, particularly Pakistan, Russia and Iran who continue to legitimize and support the Taliban. And undermine the Afghan government's efforts to create a stable Afghanistan.

Our complex relationship with Pakistan is best assessed through a holistic review. Many nations are committed to the success of Afghanistan. At the Warsaw Summit last July, NATO reaffirmed its commitment to sustain the ANDSF for four more years, through 2020. At the Brussels Conference in October, 75 countries and organizations confirmed their intention to provide $15.2 billion to Afghans development needs and this plays a very positive role, going into the future. India has dedicated another $1 billion on top of the $2 billion that they have already given to Afghan development needs and we appreciate their support.

These expressions of international commitment reflect the importance which the world places on stability in Afghanistan. And in the – and confidence, in the Afghan people and Afghan government. The Afghan Security Forces fought bravely in 2016. They will do the same this year and in the years ahead. The Afghan people have confidence in their security services and they do not want the Taliban to return. They know all too well, what that means.

We have an exceptional partnership with President Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah, the security forces and the people of Afghanistan. President Ghani is making bold reforms and implementing anti corruption measures to professionalize and improve the Afghan security forces. The government of Afghanistan is committed to achieving peace through reconciliation.

However, so long as external support and safe haven persist, the path to reconciliation will be extremely difficult. Afghanistan wants peace and we hope that their neighbors realize that their best interests are also served by peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.

Mr. Chairman, committee members, it's a privilege to appear before you and I look forward to answering your questions.

MCCAIN: Thank you very much, general. In your overall commander's assessment, are we winning or losing?

NICHOLSON: Mr. Chairman, I believe we're in a stalemate.

MCCAIN: Thank you. And of course, our Afghan partners have been sustaining very significant losses. And I'm not sure that's sustainable, the level of losses that the ANA is experiencing.

NICHOLSON: And Mr. Chairman, we're very concerned about the level of losses. The recurrent recruitment replaces the level of losses that they're experiencing. However, it does not allow them to get to their fall authorized strength, which they are below.

MCCAIN: According to the IG, the Taliban controls 15 percent more territory than they did in 2015. Do you agree with that?

NICHOLSON: Yes, Mr. Chairman, I do.

MCCAIN: As you know, and the committee knows, 8,400 U.S. troops and 5,000 coalition troops, that's 13,300. And I'm fully aware, general. I know the numbers are the numbers are just one parameter. It's what they do, how they do, how they're equipped and all that. But it is an important parameter. How many more do you need to get this stalemate reversed?

NICHOLSON: Mr. Chairman, I have adequate resourcing in my counter-terrorism mission. In my train, advise and assist mission, however, we have a shortfall of a few thousand. And this is in the NATO Train Advise Assist mission, so this can come from the U.S. and its allies.

MCCAIN: It's of concern, shouldn't it be, to all of us that you now have Russia, Iran and Al Qaida now playing significant roles, some – one more than the other? But that wasn't the case a couple of years ago was it?

NICHOLSON: Mr. Chairman, I agree, there have been an increase in external actors interfering in the Afghan obtainment of peace and stability.

MCCAIN: And the Russian involvement?

NICHOLSON: The Russian involvement, this year, has become more difficult. First, they have begun to publicly legitimize the Taliban. This narrative that they promote is that the Taliban are fighting Islamic State and the Afghan government is not, and that therefore there could be spillover of this group into the region. This is a false narrative.

The Afghan government, along with U.S. counterterrorism forces are successfully fighting against Islamic State in Afghanistan. And this year alone we have reduced their fighters by half, their territory by two thirds, we've killed their leader, in fact their top 12 leaders and continue to disrupt their operation.

MCCAIN: And what's your view of what we need to do concerning the safe haven issue in Pakistan?

NICHOLSON: Sir, it's very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven. I think we need to continue to work closely with Pakistan.

MCCAIN: And they did do – they did some good work in North Waziristan right?

NICHOLSON: They did, sir. And we have great respect for the operation they conducted in Waziristan. It was a very large and significant operation and they suffered heavy casualties.

MCCAIN: But the problem is the Haqqani Network, especially in places like Quetta.

NICHOLSON: Sir, that's correct. We still have enemy sanctuary in areas like Quetta, like you mention, with the Taliban leadership, and other cities within the tribal areas for the Haqqani leadership.

MCCAIN: And did – and recently have your rules of engagement been to the point where you have a greater ability combat the enemy?

NICHOLSON: Sir, the rules of engagement I gained in June were instrumental to our successes here, they clearly helped us throughout the year. These rules of engagement or authorities involve the use of U.S. combat enablers, most notably air power, and support of Afghan Security Forces and their campaign.

MCCAIN: As you pointed out in your opening statement, the Afghans want to fight for themselves, right?

NICHOLSON: Absolutely – absolutely.

MCCAIN: They don't want us to go in and fight for them.

NICHOLSON: Right.

MCCAIN: And so – but if they're going to be effective, they need the kind of assistance and capability, including , you might mention air capability we're now training them for. For example, I'm proud that many of them are training in F-16s in Tucson Arizona, but isn't that an important – isn't their air capability an important component of their capability of assuming the responsibilities from us?

NICHOLSON: Yes, Mr. Chairman. If I may elaborate on that just a little bit. Offensive capability is what will break the stalemate in Afghanistan. The key offensive capabilities in the Afghan Security Forces are their Special Forces and their Air Force.

This investment, which we are requesting, in the Afghan Air Force will help them, as you mention, take over responsibility for their own close air support. And even more important, this then will lead to an offensive capability that allows them to over match the Taliban or any other group on the battlefield, anywhere around the country.

MCCAIN: And it might be nice if they could come to the United States to train.

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir and they look forward to this.

MCCAIN: Which they are not allowed to do at the moment.

Senator Reed.

REED: Thank you very much Mr. Chairman and thank you general again for your service and please relay our thanks and gratitude to the men and women that you lead.

NICHOLSON: I will, senator, thank you.

REED: Not only U.S. forces, but NATO forces.

NICHOLSON: Thank you, sir.

REED: You have stated that your counter-terrorism platform, both personnel and equipment, are more that adequate for the task. Is that your view?

NICHOLSON: That's correct, senator. We have adequate resources. And I would add, when we need to do additional operations, we can surge assets into country. And this is why it's adequate, Gen. Votel and Gen. Thomas ...

REED: Yes.

NICHOLSON: ... from Central Command and Special Operations Command have the ability to move assets in coordination with the department. And so this has proven to be a successful tactic.

REED: Very good. So the need for more manpower is a train, advise and assist area ...

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

REED: At this juncture, you are operating at operating at the corps level ...

NICHOLSON: That's correct, senator.

REED: ... with some exceptions? There – are there any exceptions?

NICHOLSON: Senator, in the last summer, since we gained the new authorities in June, we began developing what we called we called "expeditionary advising packages," which we would push down below the corps level.

NICHOLSON: Now, this was something we put together based on the authorities and have prove quite successful last year, but we would like to be able to advise below the corps level. This is something the NATO has agreed to. In our guidance, it's strictly a question about manning at this point.

REED: So that you would be able to essentially have more of these teams below the corps level ...

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

REED: At the tie-in level, but not down at the individual company/platoon level, certainly.

NICHOLSON: Sir, it would most likely be at the brigade level ...

REED: Brigade level ...

NICHOLSON: But we think that would be adequate for what need to do.

REED: Right. And our NATO allies are prepared to help out too, in terms of the bulking up these forces?

NICHOLSON: Sir, I'd use as an example our German allies developed an expeditionary advising package that they placed in Kunduz last year; this was a great help. Our Italian allies in the West are looking at something similar. And – but we've been able to integrate U.S. expeditionary advising packages around the country as required in a seamless manner.

REED: Both the chairman myself and you in your opening statements have commented on the criticality of dealing with Pakistan. And it is a very complicated situation. As you have pointed out, they have conducted very serious and very credible operations.

(CROSSTALK)

REED: But, on the other hand, they seemed at times – particular the ISI, their intelligence service, to be aiding and assisting Haqqani Network and others. You have had some dealings with the new chief of staff at the army. I don't know if you've had any dealings with the new head of ISI, but does it make sense to focus our persuasive efforts on – not the overall country, but on specific sub-elements within Pakistan?

NICHOLSON: Sir, I have a great respect for the Pakistan military and its leaders. I'm developing, I believe, a positive and constructive relationship with Gen. Bajwa and his team. And again, we have great respect for the operations they've conducted in the FATA.

As both you and the chairman have mentioned, the Pakistani people have also suffered from the scourge of terrorism. And I quite sincerely want to eliminate those terrorists that are attacking their society. If I may, I'd like to highlight one example.

This year, U.S. counter-terrorism efforts killed someone name Omar Khalifa. Omar Khalifa was the head of the Tariq Gidar Group who perpetuated the horrendous attack on the Peshawar Army School. This was the attack which killed over 130 children in Peshawar and was – the two year commemoration occurred in December.

So this is an example of how the United States is working out with Pakistan against our common enemies. We also, in a raid this year in eastern Afghanistan, liberated the son of the former Pakistani prime minister – his name was Haider Gilani – and return him to his family in Pakistan.

So I highlight these as examples, of how the U.S. is working with Pakistan against common enemies. But we need to improve in the areas that you mentioned. We need to improve the pressure applied on the Haqqanis and the Taliban on the Pakistan side of the border.

REED: Again, General, thank you for your service and I continue to look forward to your continued service. Thank you.

NICHOLSON: Thank you, senator.

MCCAIN: Senator Inhofe?

INHOFE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I mentioned three things when you were generous enough to come to the office and we had a nice visit. And (inaudible). Two of the things have been really responded to and so I won't bring them up. One was, of course, the fact that the Afghan Security Force districts that they control has gone down to 57 percent from the 72 percent, which you did respond to in the chairman's questions.

The second thing, which you've pretty much answered, is the talking about the troop levels. Except, as it is right now, we have about 8,500 of our guys over there?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

INHOFE: And about 12,500 total?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

INHOFE: And – and when you said a minute ago, that the shortfall is a few thousand. Is that that you – that we need to correct, in order to accomplish what we're trying to accomplish right now? When you say a few thousand, would that be referring to ours or to the total allies in that total figure?

NICHOLSON: Sir, this is in the area of the train, advise, assist mission, which is a NATO mission. So these contributions could come from our allies, as well as United States. We have identified the requirement and the desire to advise below the corps levels. So these additional forces would enable us to thicken our advisory effort across the Afghan ministries and do more advising below the corps level.

So this is an area that I am in discussion with my chain of command, with Gen. Votel, Gen. Scaparrotti, Chairman Dunford, Secretary Mattis. And I know that in the coming weeks, when Secretary Mattis has a chance to attend the defense ministerials next week and consult with allies and visit the theater, then we're gonna be able to discuss this in greater detail.

INHOFE: OK, that clarification is good, I think it's necessary because the media will be covering this, we wanna make sure they know what we're talking about, here.

NICHOLSON: Thank you, sir.

INHOFE: Now, the main thing I wanted to cover and it's one that is, you know, we – we have these meetings. We have private meetings with you and all the great people that are – we're depending on and I'm very proud of all of you and what is going. We have that opportunity. You also, have the opportunity to consult with us, because we have a little closer contact with the people out there who are paying for all this.

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

INHOFE: And one of the problems that we have is, even in my state of Oklahoma, I'll go back in – and though – though talk about, all right we've been there 15 years, now. We've been doing this. Why is it worth all of that? The strongest thing that I can say, is something I honestly believe in my heart and that is, if we don't do it over there, it's gonna be done in the homeland.

You address this, in your written statement. Yeah, when you said your predecessor Gen. Campbell, said if we don't stay engaged here to build the Afghans capacity to fight this threat, keep the sanctuary down; it's coming back to our homeland. Then you reemphasize that in your opening statement.

INHOFE: Now, what I'd like to do is, I think it's worth getting into the record here, as to how this might affect something on our homeland. We understand this. We've gotten a lot of things in confidential briefings. But I think it's very important for the country to know that. Any comments you can make on any specifics, I know that when you had the death of – let's see – that they had made – had plans for an attack on the mainland, can you comment on that?

NICHOLSON: Yes senator thank you, and thank you for the opportunity to articulate this. We believe, as we said, that our operations in Afghanistan directly protect the homeland. The individual you're referring to is named Faraq al Qatari.

We killed –

(CROSSTALK)

INHOFE: Yes – yes.

NICHOLSON: Yes sir – we killed him on Oct. 23 in eastern Afghanistan in a remote area of Kunar province. Faraq al Qatari was the external operation director for Al Qaida, he was involved in plotting against the U.S. homeland.

So this is one example, without getting into classified details, of a specific terrorist operating in Afghanistan who was involved in plotting against the U.S. homeland. More importantly, his organization, Al Qaida and it's affiliates have been severely attrited and degraded as you know. And our objective is to destroy them in Afghanistan. We will continue to keep pressure. But in order to do that we need to maintain the counterterrorism platform that we have in Afghanistan and enduring matters. So this is how it directly relates to our national security at home.

I would also add, senator if I may, that from the height of our engagement in Afghanistan over the past 15 years, we were over 100,000 troops, we are now down to about 10 percent of that. So as we look at this commitment over time, that surge that we did into Afghanistan enabled us to build the Afghan security forces and, as the chairman mentioned, now it is they who are doing most of the fighting.

From the height of our assistance to the Afghan Security Forces was 10 to 12 billion, in those years that we building, we're now down to about 3.5 billion for the Afghan Security Forces Fund, with additional funds to support our troops. So there has been a reduction in the overall cost of this mission.

INHOFE: Yeah and I appreciate that. My time's expired but it's the homeland connection that we need to be armed with. You've done a very good job, thank you.

NICHOLSON: Thank you senator.

MCCAIN: Senator Warren.

WARREN: Thank you Mr. Chairman and thank you Gen. Nicholson. Thank you for taking command of our mission in Afghanistan and thank you for meeting with me earlier this week, I appreciate the generosity of your time.

We officially ended our combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of 2014 but obviously we still maintain a substantial presence there. And one of our primary objectives in Afghanistan is to help build and sustain the capacity of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, to secure their own country, as you've discussed. And that includes paying salaries for Afghan personnel.

Now, I understand why this kind of support is powerfully important when you're trying to build a local force but in a report issued last month, identifying the greatest threats to the success of our mission, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, repeated the nagging problem of salaries being paid to nonexistent or so-called ghost soldiers and ghost police officers.

To succeed, I understand that the Afghan forces must be trained and capable. But above all they must be fully manned, there must actually be people there. And although they're authorized at 352,000 reports have estimated that there are still tens of thousands of those ghost personnel who are getting salaries and included in those numbers.

So that means the strength of the Afghan forces must be substantially less. It's dangerous for our troops, obviously, damaging to the missions. It's also just plain old corruption and the American tax payers are footing the bill. It – general, I know that you recently identified corruption is a serious problem that you wanted to tackle; one of the biggest challenges facing the Afghan Security Forces.

And so I wonder, could you just speak to the question of how we're helping the Afghan ministries of defense and interior develop a fully operational system to help eliminate this problem?

NICHOLSON: Thank you, senator, for highlighting this issue.

And it is a critical issue. In fact, as we looked at the high casualty rates last year, the principal causes that we identified were: number one, failures in leadership on the battlefield. Second was corruption, as you've highlighted. So the corruption primarily has occurred in the pay system and the personnel system, as you've highlighted, ma'am. And also in the supply system. The third factor of high casualties was tactics – and primarily the reduction of the checkpoints out there. The isolated checkpoints are – that become more vulnerable to attack.

So back to the point of corruption, how to improve this? And this is where my opening statement I commented on President Ghani's courage in going after this. So we have done a number of things; on the specific issue of ghost soldiers, you are correct. We believe there are some tens of thousands fewer soldiers in the field that have been reported.

WARREN: Yes.

NICHOLSON: And we work closely with the SIGAR on this going forward. And with the government of Afghanistan. So specifically this year, in response to this problem, we have issued a letter to the Afghan government advising them that we are withholding the funding for those soldiers who we cannot biometricly account for. So the biometric enrollment of soldiers creates an identity in the system that is hard to fake, basically. Whereas previously, we paid based upon the number that they stated that they had.

WARREN: Yes.

NICHOLSON: So the biometric enrollment is ongoing and we look to have that complete in the next four to five months. And that this – but then we will give them the money for those soldiers who were actually biometricly enrolled. We've additionally asked for capabilities to better follow our money through the Afghan ministries. To follow the money, to ensure it's not being inappropriately diverted, so we can be good stewards of our taxpayer resources.

WARREN: Good. Thank you very much, general. You know, we've been in Afghanistan for 15 years. We've spent $117 billion in American taxpayer funds. And, according to the special inspector general, we're spending $13 million every day to be in Afghanistan, $13 million. More than 2,000 American service members have made the ultimate sacrifice there. More than 8,400 American service members are there today along with thousands of diplomatic personnel and contractors. Our military and our – it cannot and should not be in Afghanistan forever.

Our end goal must be to help Afghanistan build a self-sustaining force that's capable of securing the country so our U.S. troops can come home. And I appreciate your work in this direction.

Thank you, general.

NICHOLSON: Thank you, senator.

WARREN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

MCCAIN: (OFF-MIKE)

FISCHER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, general, for your service and thank you for the service of those that you command.

It is appreciated by everyone in this country. When you and I had our conversation in my office, and we talked about possible additional capabilities that you would need. And we specifically kind of focused in on the contractors...

NICHOLSON: Yes.

FISCHER: That are in Afghanistan now. Could you talk about the consequences of the so-called "boots on the ground limitation" that we're looking at? Particularly with respect to the reliance we have on contractors.

NICHOLSON: Thank you, senator, for raising that issue and it has two implications. Of course, it has an implication for us on the ground in Afghanistan, but also for overall readiness of our armed services, which I know is of a great concern to this committee. So specifically, as the force manning levels have taken effect, what we have done in some cases, is substitute contractors for soldiers in order to meet the force manning levels.

I'll give you an example of that, in the case of our aviation brigade, So we have the Combat Aviation Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division from Fort Riley, Kan., is in Afghanistan. They deployed with their helicopters and their pilots and their staffs. But because of our troop limitations, we left their mechanics back in Fort Riley and substituted contract mechanics. And this was in order to optimize the amount of actual uniform soldiers we're allowed.

This contract for maintenance runs into the tens of millions of dollars. And then the soldiers who were trained to be mechanics are sitting back at Fort Riley, not having the opportunity to do their job. So this has a direct impact on Army readiness and it also, costs us more money. So as we have begun these discussions with the administration and with Secretary Mattis, this is one of the issues that we have put on the table, is how to optimize readiness and our performance in the battlefield by managing by objective and not by force manning level.

Currently, with contractors, we have roughly a two to one ratio of contractors to soldiers. And if we look at the deploying whole units, instead of portions of units, then this would enable us to reduce our contractor load, somewhat. And it would be better for Army and service readiness.

FISCHER: I would imagine you're going to raise those concerns about – and ask for more flexibility then, from these limitations when you are able to have those discussions?

NICHOLSON: Yes, senator.

FISCHER: You spoke about the increasing Russian involvement in Afghanistan and that growing relationship that they're having with the Taliban. Can you elaborate on that a little bit more for us, please?

NICHOLSON: Yes, yes ma'am. So in addition to the public legitimizing of the Taliban, which is surprising given the Taliban have evolved over the years into a narco-insurgency and one that engages in extensive criminal activity, narcotics, kidnapping, illegal mining and other forms of criminal activity to fund their their operations.

Russia has legitimized them with this false narrative of fighting ISILK. They also, have initiated a series of meetings in Moscow to which the Afghans have not been invited, for the first several meetings, in which to discuss the future of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is trying to work with all of its neighbors and all of the stakeholders. They've reached out to the Russians about this. And we believe, that a peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan should be Afghan. And this has been the position of the United States government and these are the – we – we believe this will be the most lasting, enduring effective peace arrangement.

So ultimately, where we're trying to go and help the Afghans go, is to get to a point where they reconcile with the belligerence and this is long war that they've experienced and be able to move forward with a peaceful and prosperous country.

FISCHER: Thank you, general. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

MCCAIN: (OFF-MIKE)

PETERS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And general, wonderful to have you here and I appreciate the time that we had yesterday in my office, as well, talking about a number of these issues.

During this hearing, a number of folks have referenced the Inspector General's report about what's been happening in Afghanistan, and I just want to highlight some of those findings that I find particularly striking and then ask a question. But, as others have mentioned, since 2001, 2,247 U.S. military personnel have died, 20,000 have been wounded. Adjusted for inflation the U.S. has spent more on Afghanistan's reconstruction than it did on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.

Reconstructing Afghanistan has now become the largest expenditure to rebuild a single country in our nation's history. The Afghan Security Forces are not capable of providing security for the whole country. The Afghan government can not sustain many of the investments that the U.S. taxpayers have made in the country. And despite a U.S. investment of $8.5 billion dollars, in counter-narcotics, Afghan opium production is now at an all time high.

Despite $70 billion in U.S. investment in Afghan Security Forces, only 63 percent of the country is under government control, corruption continues to erode legitimacy, limiting effectiveness, bolstering support for the opposing insurgency. And after 15 years Afghanistan still cannot support itself financial or functionally and long term financial assistance will be required if the country is to survive. Not a good record after 15 years of involvement in Afghanistan.

And after I – what I've heard today and what we talked about yesterday, it's becoming even more involvement with the Russian involvement, Chinese involvement and natural resources and the list goes on. If you could just say what – and what I've heard is a lot of what I've heard over the last 15 years of the United States will be doing in Afghanistan.

What are we going to do that's different, that has not been done in 15 years given this – I think pretty damaging report about what's happened over the last 15 years.

NICHOLSON: Thank you, senator.

And I appreciate the – reviewing this and the chance to talk about President Ghani's plan for the way ahead. So one of the – and I acknowledge and again express our appreciation for the great support from this body to sustain this effort. Our number one objective has to been to protect the homeland and we have not had another attack on the homeland from Afghanistan in the 15 years that we have been there, so I'd say that's point number one.

As I mentioned before senator, I acknowledge fully the significant cost we have paid in Afghanistan. I would mention that we now are at about 10 percent of what we once were in terms of troop commitment and have reduced those other expenditures significantly. Yes, the problems persist and I don't want to, in any way, minimize those. What we have with President Ghani is a partner who is willing to boldly go after these problems. And this is significant and the – I offered the example of the ghost soldiers.

This was something that he was willing to do that previously we had not been able to do. I also want to share the plans we are working with the Afghan government, which President Ghani calls the ANDSF Roadmap, four-year road map. After the Warsaw Summit this summer, in July of 2016, when the allies granted four more years of commitment to Afghanistan, President Ghani sat down with his team, and us, to say, how are we going to achieve success in the next four years. We're working on that plan now.

This plan involves expanding the amount of control that the government has over the population. I should point out that, this investment that we have made has resulted in an Afghan population who universally – well almost universally, 87 percent reject the Taliban. They do not want to return to the Taliban. Three quarters of the population have great confidence in their security forces. So this is a population and a government who want to work with us and need our support. Geo-strategically, it's a critically important region of the world.

This is a tough neighborhood: Iran, Pakistan, China, Central Asia. Once removed, you have other conflicts now (ph). We have a partner in Afghanistan, a moderate Islamic republic, that wants to partner with us against terrorism. We have a population who rejects terrorism and we have an ability to have a counter-terrorism platform in a critically important part of the world.

So success going forward, we believe, means helping the Afghans to achieve this greater population control. That then will enable us to have the enduring counter-terrorism platform to help to continue to protect our homeland and those of our allies. We also see, if we can get to a place of reconciliation, that we then bring a degree of stability to this critical region that will benefit the entire neighborhood to include India, China – everyone. So in my initial conversations with my new chain of command, we have touched upon all of these areas.

So your concerns and the concerns this committee are at the top of the list as we discuss this going forward on how we can achieve success in Afghanistan going forward to a protect our national interest along the lines I just outlined.

PETERS: Thank you, general, appreciate it.

NICHOLSON: Thank you, senator. Thank you.

MCCAIN: And, general, I might add that there's some of us who predicted exactly the scenario that has taken place.

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

MCCAIN: As a previous president withdrew our forces to levels that put the remaining troops lives in danger and were doomed to failure because of everything. Ranging from incredible rules of engagement that required a National Security Council approval to repel an attack, to the unilateral and unnecessary and unwarranted reduction of forces which led us to the position we're in today. Which was predicted, predicted by many of us who know something about warfare.

Senator Cotton.

COTTON: General, welcome back.

NICHOLSON: Thank you, senator.

COTTON: You obviously have heard some skepticism from this committee today, as you have the past, about the ongoing mission in Afghanistan. We have accomplished a lot of things there that benefit the Afghan people. You know, they're safer. They have more GDP per capita. They have better education, especially for girls. Those are all great things. We have to worry more, though, about the safety and the prosperity and the education of the American people.

So could you just tell us in plain language – you know, what are the American people – what are – you know, what are working folks out in Arkansas getting from more than 15 years of our presence in Afghanistan?

NICHOLSON: Yes, senator. Thank you for that question for your support and your service in Afghanistan.

Our number one goal to protect the homeland from any attack emanating from the region. And of course we have achieved that in the last 15 years. However, we need to stay on top of that, because of this confluence of 20 terrorist groups in the region. I believe this is an enduring commitment to keep pressure on these groups and help the Afghans move towards a successful end state.

What would that look like? Success might be the maintenance of this enduring counter-terrorism effort to keep pressure on these groups. It means that we would destroy Islamic State and Al Qaida inside Afghanistan. Which – something which we're actively pursuing every day.

It means that we would help the Afghan security forces and government to extend their control to a larger and larger percentage of the population. It means that we would help Afghanistan to become, ideally, a place where reconciliation is achieved with the belligerents. And then they become – can become a more stable and prosperous entity in a critical part of the world.

I recognize the distance of Afghanistan and the length of this has been challenging for the American people to support, However, I personally believe that this effort there we're undertaking, there is protecting the homeland and preventing these terrorists from bringing their fight to our doorstep.

COTTON: If the United States just said we've had enough, you know, 15 years is long enough, let's just roll up our operation there and come home. Do think that we would face the risk of a attack planned and directed from Afghanistan?

NICHOLSON: Yes, senator, definitely.

COTTON: That's a pretty big success then, in our 15 years of operations, there.

NICHOLSON: Yes, senator.

COTTON: A year ago, your predecessor Gen. Campbell testified about his concern of the role Iran was playing in Afghanistan. Could you give us your view of what Iran has been up to in the last year since he testified?

NICHOLSON: Iran is directly supporting the Taliban in Western Afghanistan. There's a complex relationship between Afghanistan and Iran. And it not only involves security matters like this, Iran is also recruiting Afghan Shia to fight against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. On the other hand, there are also areas of a cooperation between Iran and Afghanistan.

Number one, would be economic cooperation. The governments of India, Iran and Afghanistan signed an agreement over the Chabahar Port in southern Afghanistan. Actually, this initiative would be very beneficial to Afghanistan, in terms of economic development. There's also, ongoing conversations about water treaties between Afghanistan and Iran. Iran needs Afghanistan's water.

So it's a complex relationship. It has areas of potential synergy and benefit for both parties, but it also has important security equities. And so the Afghan government is raising these issues with the government of Iran and asking them not to support the Taliban and undermine the Afghan government.

COTTON: Is Iran's support for the Taliban primarily or exclusively located in Herat and Farah? Are they supporting the Taliban throughout the country?

NICHOLSON: Without getting into a lot of classified material in an open hearing like this, senator, I'd say it's primarily in the west. But their financial inroads are – go around the country in the North and in Kabul, in particular.

COTTON: So Iran, which is a Shitte-led government is supporting a Sunni-led movement, the Taliban in Afghanistan but recruiting Shiite from Afghanistan to travel to Syria and fight? Seems like a complex act from Tehran, united by a single consideration which is undermining U.S. interests.

NICHOLSON: Yes, senator, I'd agree with that. I think a number of – when we look at Russia and Iranian actions in Afghanistan, I believe that in part there, to undermine the United States and NATO and prevent our – this – this strong and partnership that we have with the Afghans in the region. But it is complex, as you point out.

NICHOLSON: They are recruiting Shia, the Afghans are concerned about the Shia fighters returning to Afghanistan, at some point and what – will they become a destabilizing factor or not? And this is of great concern to the Afghan government.

COTTON: Thank you, general. Be safe, downrange. Say hi to the troops.

NICHOLSON: Thank you, senator.

MCCAIN: (OFF-MIKE)

GILLIBRAND: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I wanna continue this discussion about ISIL, specifically. The Afghan Interior Ministry in early January, said that the Islamic State Khorasan was now active in at least 11 of the county's 34 districts. And we've seen reports that Russia, China and Pakistan recently met in Moscow to discuss the growing influence of ISIL in Afghanistan and the deteriorating security situation, there.

What's your understanding of the size and lethality of ISIL's presence in Afghanistan and what, if any, was the U.S. government's role in the Russia meeting? And what counter-ISIL coordination have you seen between the Afghan government and its regional counterparts to date?

NICHOLSON: Thank you senator.

There's no U.S. role in the Russia dialogue as far as I understand, with respect to ISIL. This was a conference where they invited China, Pakistan and now other regional countries. And I believe for the next meeting they have extended an invitation to Afghanistan.

So, back to ISIL, so we saw Islam State Khorasan Province, was formed of existing fighters from existing groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, primarily their membership has come from the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, the TTP, which is a Pakistan based opponent of the Pakistan regime. From the oric-side (ph) agency, these fighters, en masse, joined ISILK and formed the initial group of fighters who then moved into Afghanistan, into Nangarhar province and their spread was out to about 11 districts initially.

They have had recruitment activities around the country, but they attempted to establish their form of the caliphate starting in Nangarhar province with Jalalabad as the capital. So this was their aspiration but they failed to achieve it. When authorities were granted for the U.S. to begin striking Islamic State, since that time, we have worked closely with the Afghans, doing several deliberate operations against Islamic State in Afghanistan.

During the time of my command we've done three of these operations and we have shrunk their geographic space from this larger 11 district number down to a smaller three to four districts in southern Nangarhar, but they are still there. And they have shown an ability to conduct suicide attacks inside Kabul and elsewhere around the country.

So – they have attacked Shia targets primarily. They attacked at a peaceful demonstration, they've attacked at Shia mosques, they've attacked on Shia religious holidays. So we see a definite ISILK Shia connection there. I would comment that this group is universally rejected by the Afghan people. These are primarily non-Afghans in this group.

In addition to the TTP, we have members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, are there some Afghans in there? Yes, but very few and generally I'd say they'd been attracted by the money, ISIL pays their fighters more. And by the ideology and the effective information operation.

GILLIBRAND: Which countries are they from?

NICHOLSON: They're from Pakistan and Uzbekistan. So the Islamic Movement Uzbekistan and from Pakistan.

GILLIBRAND: And can you amplify a little more about the Pakistani Afghan bilateral relationship and the Afghan government's ability to take control from the irreconcilable Taliban in parts of the country where they're dominant? And what's your assessment of Pakistan's commitment to deny sanctuary to Afghan Taliban?

NICHOLSON: Ma'am, this is a complex relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As President Ghani has said, he wants peace in the region. Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the past, have worked together on a process for peace that most recently called the Quadrilateral Process, last spring. And this progress to a certain point but then the Taliban rejected the peace process.

I think at that point, we were working very closely with Pakistan, the United States, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan working together on this process. And since then we've lost ground. And so, I will say that the Pakistani leadership has articulated that they support our objective of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. All of their leaders have said they are committed to this, but thus far we have not seen this translate into any change in terms of behavior, if you will. In terms of Taliban or Haqqani freedom of action, to operate from sanctuaries in Pakistan.

GILLIBRAND: And with my last few seconds, there was a report that the first female Afghan fighter pilot sought asylum in the U.S. last December. And so the question is – and her quotes were, "Things are not changing for the better in Afghanistan, things are getting worse." What are – what is the status of women Afghanistan today? And have the successes we've made been unwound?

NICHOLSON: I think we have made a lot – many successes with women in Afghanistan, ma'am. And let me expand the aperture beyond the services, although I'll come back to that. When the Taliban were there, only one million children were in school; that's expanding out. About nine million children, 40 percent are women. You have women parliamentarians, women ministers, women governors, women members of the provincial councils. We have 3,000 women in the ministry of interior. We are making progress across the board on the role of women in society and throughout their military.

This is a high priority for President Gahni and his wife, Mrs. Gahni. Her Excellency and I chair a meeting on a quarterly basis called "women in security" and all of the ministers come to this. My wife has attended this meeting. We work together on these issues frequently. And we appreciate the support from this committee and the Congress on funding women's initiatives. They've been very important going forward.

Thank you.

MCCAIN: (OFF-MIKE)

ERNST: Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Gen. Nicholson, thank you so much. It's great to see you back on American soil. And I thank you for your continued service. But I also want to take the time to thank your family who is with you today as well. For their support of you, and for sharing you and your talents in a leadership capacity in a very difficult theater of operations.

NICHOLSON: Thank you ...

ERNST: So thank you and your family very much. I like to pick up where we left off in Afghanistan when I visited a couple months ago. And you better than most understand – coming out of 2nd Ranger Battalion, you understand that Gen. Creighton Abrams had directed the establishment of the 1st Ranger Battalion many years ago.

And that is established in the Army and – and he said that this unit was to be, and I'm gonna quote him, "An elite light and the most proficient infantry in the world. A battalion that can do things with its hands and weapons better than anyone. Wherever the battalion goes, it must be apparent that it is the best," end quote.

And today the Army does continue with the Abrams charter. And we send our Rangers into regular units all around the globe and we know that this is for the betterment of as units and to boost their performance. We had a discussion about the Afghan regular forces and how they were performing, maybe as they should be. But the Afghan special forces were performing quite well, but and they were being over-utilized.

Do you think it's time that the Afghan Army introduce a – per se an Abrams charter into its own forces and start sharing some of those talents with the regular units so that they can boost their performance as well?

NICHOLSON: Thank you very much, senator. And I also want to thank you for your service in our army and in Afghanistan. And thank you for the visit. And it was great that the unit that you commanded was in Afghanistan at the time you visited. And they deeply appreciate your visit.

ERNST: Thank you.

NICHOLSON: I also appreciate very much your sentiments for my family. Thank you, I'll pass that on to everyone. And with respect to the Ranger regiment; I think of the reason I was smiling is you're hitting on an exact theme that we're working with the Afghans ...

ERNST: Yes.

NICHOLSON: First, I want to acknowledge the great contributions that the 75th Ranger Regiment are making to our campaign in Afghanistan, and have done for years. In fact, my personal security officer, Master Sgt. Joe Locknet, is a member the 75th Ranger Regiment. And, as an example, he has 15 deployments to Afghanistan. 15 deployments to Afghanistan. And the rangers are key in our counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan, going forward. You're exactly right, about the Abrams Charter.

And in fact, in working with President Ghani, we have worked closely on how to leverage the excellence that we have seen in the Afghan Security Forces/Afghan Special Forces and leverage that for the good of the rest of the Army. So one of the hallmarks of the four-year road map which we are working together on, is to increase the size of the Afghan Special Forces, because these units have proven so effective on the battlefield. So we can't produce these units overnight.

As you well know, ma'am, it takes years to grow a special operations soldier or ranger or a commando. So we are embarked upon a plan where they are recruiting more commandos now and we are expanding those units, one company at a time, so that in the four years we've gained by the Warsaw Summit, we will almost double the number of special forces units.

When we couple that with the Air Force capability, this gives an offensive punch to the Afghan Security Forces that the enemy will not be able to stand up to. So this – the nucleus of special forces will provide the offensive capability to the Afghan Army, to enable it to expand to break the stalemate and expand their control over the country.

ERNST: Very good. I am glad to hear that. In the spring, 300 Marines are set to deploy to the Helmand province.

NICHOLSON: Yes, ma'am.

ERNST: And that is quite a historic and a symbolic place, for our Marines. And as you know, some estimates project 80 percent of Helmand province is now controlled by the Taliban Province that supplies the Taliban with approximately 60 percent of their funding. And it's my understanding that the Marines are replacing an equally sized Army unit, that is currently deployed in the region.

The chairman stated something about, you know, we're not really trying to win, we're just trying not to lose. Do you see this as moving the ball forward in the ability to help the Afghans? Or are we gonna continue to see losses in Helmand?

NICHOLSON: Ma'am, first off, to echo the conversation I had earlier with the chairman, we want to succeed in Afghanistan. We believe that success in Afghanistan is critical to the United States, to our NATO alliance and of course, to the Afghan people.

Helmand, as you pointed out, is important to the Taliban because as a narco-insurgency, this is where they get their money. And the principal poppy-producing provinces in Afghanistan are Helmand, Kandahar and to the west, increasingly Farah province. And we've seen a move by the Taliban to try to gain ground in Farah because of this.

So the advisory effort, at the end of 2014 as we drew down our presence, we shrunk our advisory effort in Helmand and other places around the country, quite significantly. So in the last year, it became apparent that we needed to instead of advising on an adhoc basis, we needed to go in there with a permanent structure, really purpose-built to advise.

And so when we reach this conclusion, I reached out to the commandant, Gen. Neller, to request his assistance with this, because the Marine Corps has deep experience in Helmand. They have a lot of skin in the game. They did a great job down there. We wanted to see if the Marine Corps could come back and help us with this critical area that's been so important and their impressive legacy.

NICHOLSON: So we are very grateful that the Marines have stepped up to assist in Helmand. And we look forward to getting the team over there. They'll be arriving this spring and when they come on they'll have a more for – structured advisory effort than we've had up to this point. The – we have suffered casualties in Helmand in our advising capacity this year, sadly. And this was in our Special Forces units who were accompanying Afghan commandos on missions in Helmand.

But overall we're going to work hard to keep those – keep the potential for casualties to an absolute minimum. Sadly, there's been some recent fighting in Sangin, and we had another American Special Forces soldier severely wounded in Sangin this morning, just before I walked into the hearing. So this just highlights the criticality of this region and the need to keep focused on the Afghan success down there.

The final piece I'd add is that the 215th Corps, which is the corps in Sangin, after the tough fight in 2015, we did a significant regeneration effort on the 215th Corps. And again, we are embarked upon a significant regeneration effort now because that is where the Afghans are suffering very high casualties. We put in a new commander, his name is Gen. Ahmadzai, he's been doing a great job with the unit down there, but they do need our help with regeneration and building.

We have a great governor down there, Gov. Hyad who's doing a very good job. But, we have experienced problems with police corruption, to a significant extent, which are undermining our efforts. So this is an area, in relation to some the earlier questions I answered on corruption and ghost soldiers in particular, that we're very focused on, is Helmand. So it's a comprehensive effort to try and get Helmand back on track and the Marines are going to play a key roll in it.

ERNST: Thank you general.

Thank you Mr. Chair.

MCCAIN: Let me just be sure. Right now, you say at the beginning that we're at a stalemate. Do you believe we are developing a strategy to break that stalemate?

NICHOLSON: Yes, senator.

MCCAIN: Senator King.

KING: Thank you Mr. Chairman.

Want to move to a sort of higher strategic level. The original justification, and the one that you have emphasized today, is the sanctuary argument, that we have to go after and stabilize Afghanistan so that it can not be used as a sanctuary for terrorist attacks on the homeland. My concern about that strategy is, that if it's not Afghanistan it could be somewhere else.

That's a strategy that could justify significant investment and occupation, if you will, and I don't use that in the military term ...

NICHOLSON: I understand.

KING: ... but, presently, you know, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Mali, eastern Pakistan, where does it stop? In other words, our original mission was Al Qaeda, we were very successful, Al Qaida was broken up, but it's moved to other places. Now we're in the business of keeping Afghanistan afloat from an enemy, from the Taliban and all these other groups. I – I'm – help me out with where this – where you draw the lines on this sanctuary strategy, which could be anywhere in the world?

NICHOLSON: Yes, senator. And thank you for that question. And this is a – I think there are some aspects that are unique to Afghanistan that don't apply elsewhere in the world.

Number one would be the number of terrorist groups. So, again, the U.S. has designated 98 groups globally, 20 are in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So this is the highest concentration anywhere in the world. So this policy of creating an enduring counterterrorism platform applies to this region in a way that it would not into some of the other areas that you mention, that don't have this high concentration of terrorists.

I would suggest that some of these other areas could be handled by our global counterterrorism strategy and I don't want to speak for Gen. Thomas, the special operations commander, or the Chairman of the Joint Staff, I know they're working on this. But this is – we think, because of the high concentration of terrorist groups in this region, that it would necessitate an enduring counter-terrorism platform.

The conditions in this region also lend themselves to the growth of these organizations. These 20 groups sit on top of a population, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, of over 200 million people, 70 percent of them are under the age of 30. You know, employment is low, there's radical forms of Islam ...

KING: Fertile ground.

NICHOLSON: And so it's very – it's like a petri dish, if you will,into which you drop the 20 strands of DNA of these terrorist groups. And then what we see happening is convergence and growth in connections develop these ...

KING: But you understand the concern.

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

KING: And I think you've articulated why Afghanistan. Let me change the subject somewhat, as I understand opium production is up.

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

KING: The fields are up. I would argue that we are being invaded every day. We're losing four people an hour in this country ...

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

KING: ... to overdose deaths; heroin, opium, grown in places like Afghanistan. If the fields in Afghanistan were terrorist camps, killing four people an hour in the United States they'd be gone. They would be long gone. Why don't we take that out? Why doesn't airpower just eliminate those – that source of this scourge in our country?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir. The counter-narcotics policy is – not the purview of the Defense Department. I don't want to get in front of those agencies or the administrations that consider this. But you have highlighted area that's extremely important to the outcome in Afghanistan. And senator, it ...

KING: I don't want to make Afghanistan safe for shipping heroin to the United States.

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir. Senator, I agree with you and I support that. This is a topic that we raised with our chain of command and it needs to be a part of, I believe, the policy consideration of the way forward in Afghanistan.

KING: And I think President Ghani has to understand that part of our support rests upon the control of that – of that industry. Which is destructive around the world, but especially destructive in this country. Finally, you mentioned several times Pakistan's – we're never gonna win this fight as long as Pakistan is acting as a sanctuary, resupply base, all of those things.

What can we do to get Pakistan off the dime on these issues? They were good in Waziristan. But, as you pointed out, there's plenty of areas they've left untouched. What do we have to do? Cut off funding – you know, have a summit or something? Because we're doing all of this work in Afghanistan which will never achieve final success – or thorough success as long as Pakistan sitting there enabling a lot of this activity.

NICHOLSON: Senator, I agree with you. We need to do a holistic review of our Pakistan policy. And sit down with Pakistani leaders. And, of course, we have an opportunity for such a review; given the new administration and the new chain of command. And we have many areas where we could be working together and our mutual benefit. And I think this is a key to the future.

I know I'm personally committed to this and working with my Pakistani counterparts. I know that President Ghani wants to work with Pakistan towards a peaceful resolution. And, in my initial conversations with my chain of command, this is a high priority for all of us.

KING: Well, Pakistan is a substantial recipient of U.S. foreign aid ...

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

KING: And it seems to me there ought to be some connections draw. Because they're endangering American lives and the viability of the country of Afghanistan.

KING: Thank you very much Mr. Chairman.

MCCAIN: (OFF-MIKE)

PERDUE: Thank you, general and I really appreciate our time this week. Let me ask you a couple questions: is Osama bin Laden walking the face of the Earth today?

NICHOLSON: I'm sorry?

PERDUE: Is Osama bin Laden walking the face of the Earth today?

NICHOLSON: No, no sir, he's not.

PERDUE: Have thousands of Al Qaida fighters been taken out of the fight?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

PERDUE: Has Al Qaida admitted a major attack on the homeland here, in the United States?

NICHOLSON: No, sir.

PERDUE: Will you go home and remind your troops that those facts are not lost on us here, in Washington? That's very important to us, sir.

NICHOLSON: Thank you, sir.

PERDUE: I have a question about Russia. I'm very concerned that – that it's confusing and what we saw them do in Syria and it's not lost on us here, that they have now established, it seems like, permanent presence there in Tartus (ph) and Lattakia that make something that we don't have in the area, makes them positioned to do very nefarious things in that area going forward. And I'm very concerned that in Afghanistan, now, after years of being out, they're back in there. And I'm concerned that it looks like, sir, in the north and northeast of Afghanistan.

Is Russia – it seems like Russia is coordinating with and helping ISIS in the north and northeast, is that a fact, sir?

NICHOLSON: Sir, we don't have that information, we know they're overtly legitimizing the Taliban. And we have reports of support to the Taliban, but anything more than that sir, I'd ask to discuss in another forum.

PERDUE: You spoke in, I think, well it was December, I think. You said that you condemn the malign influence that external actors, particularly Pakistan, Russia and Iran. You said quote, "Russia has overtly given legitimacy to the Taliban by claiming that the Taliban is fighting ISIS."

Do you believe Russia's intent in Afghanistan has anything to do with ISIS?

NICHOLSON: No, Sir. I think it's to undermine the United States and NATO.

PERDUE: Thank you.

Gen. Campbell spoke – before he left over there, I believe in 2016, that and I quote, "One of the greatest tactical challenges for the Afghan Security Force has been overcoming the Afghan Air Forces extremely limited, organic close air support capability." I know a lot of the pilots over there, Afghan pilots, are being trained on the A-29. How is the A-29 being successful in close air support in Afghanistan?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir. The A-29s were first introduced in April. We've grown our pool of pilots to around 20. We have eight aircraft there and these eight aircraft have done an excess of 800 missions – I mean it's been a significant effort. The system that does this though, is more than pilots and aircraft. It also involves the Afghan tactical air controllers on the ground and the Afghan maintainers back at the base. So we have seen progress in all these areas. In fact, it's been very impressive for such a young capability.

PERDUE: Speaking of that, you talked about training and advising below the corps level earlier. And two areas that you've said that you're doing in, is aviation and special forces. You've already talked to the special forces.

In Helmand province, you – I think you learned when you were down there, helping to rebuild the 215th Corps, is that one of the things that you came back with and learned, your forces came back and learned from that that you have to be at the – below the corps level in aviation training and assisting?

NICHOLSON: Absolutely, Sir. So the authorities I was granted in June, to use combat enablers in support of Afghans, necessitate that I be able to push advisors below the Corps level if we are to accurately provide and effectively provide and in a way that avoids civilian casualties, the use of these assets below the Corps level.

PERDUE: Sir, in closing I'm about out of time. But what are the three to five things you would advise this new president to consider that you need to be successful against the counter-terrorism fight that you have, defeating Al Qaeda and finding some solution with the Taliban in Afghanistan?

NICHOLSON: Sir, thank you.

The – well, first, the viability of an enduring counter-terrorism platform in Afghanistan is critically important to our national security in preventing an attack on the homeland. There's some objectives that we would seek going forward, the destruction of Al Qaida in Afghanistan, the destruction of Islamic State in Afghanistan, helping the Afghans to extend the control over the population to at least 80 percent of the population going forward, working closely with the Pakistanis to eliminate or reduce sanctuary for the Taliban, Haqqani and other groups inside Pakistan, and then working with the Afghans and the international community for an Afghan led peace and reconciliation process.

I think if we can get these elements into our plan going forward, and indeed we're working on that – that then we can bring this fight to a successful conclusion going forward that enables us to continue our CT efforts but in an environment of a prosperous, stable Afghanistan.

PERDUE: Sir, thank you for your professionalism and for your leadership over there.

NICHOLSON: Thanks.

PERDUE: I look to see you there soon.

NICHOLSON: Thanks.

PERDUE: Thank you Mr. Chairman.

MCCAIN: (OFF MIKE)

MCCASKILL: Thank you Mr. Chairman.

Thank you general. Thanks to your family and, most importantly, please tell all the men and women that you lead how much we respect the choices they have made to protect our country.

I'm going to be a broken record again and get to contracting. I've had a chance to review the SIGAR report that just came out and, even though we have made progress, and I will acknowledge we have made some progress, there are still some problems that I think we've got to talk about. And we're talking about a $100 billion dollars to contractors in Afghanistan in the last eight years.

I mean this is real money, this is a significant amount of taxpayer resources that are going to contractors. The report cites problems that are cited over and over and over again. I think one of those problems we have corrected and I want to make sure, on the record, that you can confirm that. We put in the NDAA a provision that you cannot spend money building anything in areas of the country where we cannot get oversight personnel there to check, to see the progress and to make sure the money is not walking away.

In fact, are you confident now that there is no project that is ongoing with contractor money, right now in Afghanistan, paid for by U.S. dollars, where our oversight personnel, our civilian oversight personnel, can not get to it to look at it?

NICHOLSON: I believe so ma'am, but I'd like to take that one for the record and go back and verify that give you a more thorough answer.

MCCASKILL: That would be terrific. Because what we learned is that there were areas that we were paying contractors many of which were ...

NICHOLSON: Yes, ma'am.

MCCASKILL: ... local contractors, in areas that we couldn't get to ...

NICHOLSON: Right.

MCCASKILL: ... because of security concerns. And that's where the money was disappearing and – things were not getting built.

NICHOLSON: Yes, ma'am.

MCCASKILL: And money was being wasted. 17 of the 45 construction projects that have been inspected since 2009 did not meet contract requirements and specifications. And, apparently, the DoD has acknowledged that, in many instances – that the U.S. forces lack the capacity to administer, oversee and close contracts to ensure proper performance.

I know you're being asked to do a lot and I know it's hard, but do you think you have adequate forces to do the oversight necessary on this contract work that is so incredibly expensive?

NICHOLSON: Ma'am, the limitation on forces limits our ability to do oversight. There's not question about it. In fact, we're in a situation where we're trying to – we have to substitute contractors for service members to do functions that normally service members would do. So I offered a couple of examples earlier.

For example, on aviation maintenance, we bring in contract mechanics to maintain our helicopters because we leave their mechanics back in the states because of force manning limitations. Now, I acknowledge I have authority to move these forces around. But the overall limitation puts us in a situation where we try to optimize doing – having uniformed service members doing only things that they can do and substituting contractors wherever possible, so we can maximize our advisory effort.

But we have gotten to a point now where, I think, I – I from a – from a commander standpoint, would rather see soldiers doing what soldiers are trained to do and then not spend the money on contractors. Which is inevitably more expensive inevitably as ...

MCCASKILL: Inevitably.

NICHOLSON: Yes, ma'am.

MCCASKILL: And – and it's one of those things that  – we do this a lot government. Under the guise of – you know, saying, "Well we're gonna limit how many employees we have, or how many – what our ground strength is." That doesn't change the requirements of a federal agency. And it certainly doesn't change the mission of our military ...

NICHOLSON: Right.

MCCASKILL: So we just plus up contractors ...

NICHOLSON: Right.

MCCASKILL: Many times without adequate scoping, without adequate work on the contract, without oversight. Paying contractors bonuses when they've done a terrible job. So I just didn't want to let this moment pass without telling you that there's somebody that's still paying really close attention on the contractor side. And I'll look forward to working with you on that. What – corruption is a big part of this.

Do you believe that we have made any progress overall in Afghanistan on the corruption front?

NICHOLSON: I think we've made some progress recently. President Ghani's very committed to this ...

MCCASKILL: I know he's started that agency at – the government agency, right? The corruption the – the development phase of the ACJC, the anti-corruption effort he's doing?

NICHOLSON: So for example, the Anti-Corruption Justice Center you just mentioned stood up by President Ghani. And, with support of the international community, we had our first trial of a two star general in the Ministry of Interior. He was convicted to 14 years in jail for engagement in bribery concerning a fuel contract. We have pulled back fuel contracts under CSTC-A instead of the ministries because of the corruption that was linked to them. We are going after the reduction of ghost soldiers ...

MCCASKILL: Right.

NICHOLSON: And we are holding back the money in pay – in terms of pay accounts, until they can verify they have the people. So these efforts alone – for example, fuel contracts total $200 million. By putting them under the control of our contracting officials, we can reduce that space for corruption. Same with the pay ...

MCCASKILL: That's great.

NICHOLSON: These are the two greatest areas. I should point out, President Ghani initiated a body called the National Procurement Council. And he now – because of the corruption surrounded contracting, he personally oversees the awarding of the large government contracts in a committee that's transparent. We attended, SIGAR attends it, our own contracting officials attend it. And they worked through a very rigorous process to try and reduce the space for corruption.

In am the contracting process. So, back to your original question, I do think under President Ghani's leadership, we have made progress. Are we finished? Absolutely not. We do have a lot more level work left to do.

MCCASKILL: Thank you. And if – for the record, if we could get the relative strength in numbers of the 20 different terrorist groups that you say are on the ground ...

NICHOLSON: Yes, ma'am.

MCCASKILL: ... I think it'd be good for us to get in perspective where the numbers are. And even any help that you can give us in a non-classified setting in terms of ...

NICHOLSON: Yes, ma'am.

MCCASKILL: ... geographic location. Thank you.

NICHOLSON: We've got that.

MCCASKILL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

MCCAIN: (OFF-MIKE)

TILLIS: Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Gen. Nicholson, thank you for your leadership and for your concise answers to tough questions. If this has been asked before, just – and you've answered it, just refer and we'll go to the record rather than re-answering a question.

NICHOLSON: (OFF-MIKE)

TILLIS: I'm sorry I wasn't here, I had three competing committee meetings right now. But would – would that – with the authorization for the use of military force and the presidential policy guidelines when I was in Afghanistan. It looked like there were some kinks, at least two years ago, in terms of you being able to take the fight to people that maybe should be targeted.

Are – do you feel like we're getting to a point where you have all the authorizations, one, under presidential policy guidelines which I assume are being modified as we speak, or at least being assessed. And two, could you talk a little bit about the need to revisit an authorization for the use of military force, particularly in the area that you're concerned with? What would be the benefit or the disadvantage?

NICHOLSON: Senator, right now I feel I have the authorities necessary to strike in the areas where we need to. I do – this will be an issue we'll discuss with my chain of command going forward. And as we discussed earlier, we're engaged in those conversations right now, about the AUMF and about the authorities going forward.

So I would ask, sir, your diligence to let those conversations play out. On the specific authorities, the ones I was granted in June were instrumental to our success this year. And in that with those authorities, I can strike in the areas where we need to, when we need to. But if I could come back to you, Senator, in another forum on the specifics, I would request that.

TILLIS: Well, thank you and I think that those were some authorities that we were talking about when we visited ...

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

TILLIS: ... Afghanistan almost two years ago, so it's – glad to say they finally come; long time coming. With respect to, you mentioned earlier the investment by other nations in the economic side, in the -- in the development side and Afghanistan. I know that about two years ago, we were talking about a potential cliff that we were running over in 2017 because of funding just to get infrastructure in place, to get rid of corruption, to continue to build.

Are – do you feel like we've overcome that threat and that we've got the adequate amount of nonmilitary funding flowing in from our partner nations or the United States to keep the economic revival going?

NICHOLSON: Yes, senator, this year we had the Brussels Donor Conference in October. And this – the Afghan government made a significant effort in engaging with all the donors. We had over 75 countries and organizations there. And they expressed an intent to commit $15.2 billion to Afghans development needs, this was a significant success story for Afghanistan.

I think this built upon the success of the Warsaw Conference, a NATO summit, at which the alliance committed to four more years. And I believe that there was a connection between us, that the confidence demonstrated in the Afghan Security Forces at the Warsaw Summit to commit to four more years, provided assurance to the donors that there would be a more secure environment going forward.

Now, our job of course is to work with the Afghans to improve the security situation, break the stalemate, get to a place where they can apply these development dollars most effectively.

TILLIS: And just the questions, I think Senator McCaskill is writing down, I'll go back and listen to the dialogue; I got on the tail end. But in a yes/no way, are we on a positive path in terms of corruption and other sort of government agency issues in Afghanistan?

NICHOLSON: Positive, but a lot of work left to do, sir.

TILLIS: Thank you.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

MCCAIN: (OFF-MIKE)

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman and thanks for having this hearing which is so important.

And Gen. Nicholson, I join my colleagues in thanking you for your service and everyone who works with you and under you, thank them, as well. You mentioned in your testimony and I'm quoting, "Of the 98 U.S. designated terrorist organizations globally 20 are located in the Afghanistan Pakistan region. This constitutes the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere of the world and demonstrates the importance of this mission."

Are we getting the kind of cooperation that we need from the Pakistanis?

NICHOLSON: Senator I – we'd like to see greater cooperation.

BLUMENTHAL: Where, specifically, in your view, has it been deficient?

NICHOLSON: Specifically sir, with respect to the Haqqani network and the Taliban sanctuaries and presence inside Pakistan.

BLUMENTHAL: And that would be the northern area of Pakistan?

NICHOLSON: Sir, this would primarily be in what they call the tribal areas of Pakistan, north and west, primarily western areas. So in the – around the city of Quetta, which is in Balochistan, where Taliban leadership resides, and in other areas of the tribal areas where the Haqqani leadership resides.

BLUMENTHAL: And that area has bedeviled us for years ...

NICHOLSON: Yes, senator.

BLUMENTHAL: ... over the past decade correct?

NICHOLSON: Yes, senator.

BLUMENTHAL: Are we doing enough to bring pressure to bear on the Pakistani government to be more aggressive and active because my understanding is that the materials for IEDs, a lot of the other kind of support for our adversaries in Afghanistan continue to come from that area of Pakistan?

NICHOLSON: That's correct Senator. And with respect to pressure I think we need to do a holistic review of our relationship with Pakistan. There's many areas of common interest, where we could work together. And we want to achieve progress in these areas but you're absolutely right it's been frustrating.

BLUMENTHAL: And I know, Gen. Nicholson, that you are sincere and you're absolutely right in that statement. But I've heard that view from ...

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

BLUMENTHAL: ... commanders in your position repeatedly over the years, as have my colleagues and I'm just wondering what will and can be done to change it?

NICHOLSON: Sir, I think this is a key discussion with my chain of command and with the secretary of defense, with the White House, I think this is a – needs to be at the top of the agenda when it comes to the future of our policy in the region. And I know I've teed this up, I know my chain of command is ready to have that conversation.

I would ask your indulgence, sir, to not get in front of my chain of command on this particular topic. But I know that this is at the very top of our list, when it comes to the future in the region.

BLUMENTHAL: I appreciate that you can't be ahead of your chain of command, but you're an integral part of that chain of command and one of the most able parts of that chain and so I hope that you will convey the urgency ...

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

BLUMENTHAL: ... of that message. I know you feel it more than we do but I think that a lot of Americans are frustrated that the bordering nation which purports to be allied on so many areas is still the source of hostile resources and fighters and ...

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

BLUMENTHAL: ... others who commit the kinds of acts that you related just this morning with the serious wounds suffered by one of our special operators.

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir, it's the number one factor that could produce a positive result in Afghanistan and so it is critical and you mention, you know, a range of actions and I think this is exactly what we need to consider, you know, on both ends of the spectrum.

BLUMENTHAL: I appreciate that and thank you for your frankness to the committee. I want to just ask briefly about one other area concerning helicopters .

BLUMENTHAL: As you know, because you responded to our letter, Senator Ernst and I wrote to the Department of Defense asking that it develop a plan to field an American alternative MI-17. Which it has done; the Department of Defense announced its intention to replace the MI-17 helicopters with upgraded Blackhawks as part of the F.Y. '17 supplemental funding to support overseas contingency operations submitted to Congress in November 2016.

Could you comment briefly on the status of that effort?

NICHOLSON: Sir, I am told that this will be a part of the next supplemental submission that will be made. But this – it has not been completed yet. But it is an issue I've raised because this is critical and there is an urgency to getting this program going.

There – there will be – it will take, from the time the funding is approved until the aircraft arrival on the battlefield, over 20 months. And so we want to get these aircraft and these crews into the fight as soon as possible. I'll be critical to the offensive effort to regain the territory and the population that the government seeks to regain to break the stalemate.

So this is why this particular aviation initiative is so critical to the way going forward. And as you pointed out, senator, the use of U.S. airframes, U.S. training deepens the relationship with the Afghans and the United States. And, of course, much of that funding goes back to the U.S. economy.

BLUMENTHAL: My time is expired, but I appreciate your efforts in that regard. And I'd like to stay current on them.

Thank you very much.

NICHOLSON: OK, we'll keep you updated, senator.

BLUMENTHAL: Thanks, Gen. Nicholson.

NICHOLSON: Thank you, sir.

REED: On behalf of the chairman, Senator Graham.

GRAHAM: I thank you very much. To you and to all those under your command, thank you for what you do in protecting our nation. I cannot thank you and those who serve in Afghanistan enough.

NICHOLSON: Thank you, sir.

GRAHAM: You mentioned in your testimony that you see a change in Russian behavior for the worse. Is that correct?

NICHOLSON: Yes, senator.

GRAHAM: What do you think their goals are in Afghanistan? Why are they changing?

NICHOLSON: Senator, I think their goal is undermine United States and NATO in Afghanistan.

GRAHAM: OK, I agree with you. What about Iran?

NICHOLSON: Sir, the – of course the – in Iran also, but it's a little bit more complex. So there are mutual interests that Iran and Afghanistan share; water rights, commerce. We welcome the recent economic treaty between Iran, Afghanistan and India the Chabahar port. We think this offers Afghanistan economic alternatives to going through Pakistan ...

GRAHAM: So they have backyard issues.

NICHOLSON: Yeah – yes, sir.

GRAHAM: But they also have a strategic goal of stopping democracy when you – would you agree?

NICHOLSON: Sir, I do think they – their are actions are undermining the Afghan government, similar to what the Russians, very ...

GRAHAM: Is it fair to say the Iranians do not want democracy on their border?

NICHOLSON: Sir, I think it will be a threat to them.

GRAHAM: OK.

Do you think, generally speaking, the Afghans want democracy?

NICHOLSON: Yes, senator, they they want a representative form of government. They have a form of social democracy that's existed for centuries and centuries ...

GRAHAM: But in the democracy that they're practicing now is relatively new to the country. Is that fair to say?

NICHOLSON: It is. Yes, senator.

GRAHAM: And it's hard.

NICHOLSON: Absolutely.

GRAHAM: It's hard here.

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

GRAHAM: We need to be patient with people in Afghanistan, because they're just starting a process we've been doing for 200 years. Can we win?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

GRAHAM: Briefly describe what winning would look.

NICHOLSON: Sir, number one, the presence of our enduring C.T. platform protects our home land. Number one. I think the ...

GRAHAM: So winning for American's to have a footprint in Afghanistan to protect the homeland against terrorist organizations in the region?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

GRAHAM: And they're willing to do that?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir. Absolutely.

GRAHAM: OK.

NICHOLSON: They – they want – they call this their foundational partnership.

GRAHAM: OK. So that's winning for us, winning for them?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

GRAHAM: Continue.

NICHOLSON: Sir, it would involve the destruction of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The destruction of Islamic State in Afghanistan, helping the Afghan government to expand its control over the population ...

GRAHAM: Is it fair to say that most Afghans want the same thing when it comes to Al Qaida?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir. Yes, sir.

GRAHAM: So we're aligned with the Afghan people?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

GRAHAM: So that's winning for them and winning for us?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

GRAHAM: OK.

NICHOLSON: Sir, the Taliban are the ones who are connected to Al Qaida. The Afghan people, 87 percent of them, think a return to Taliban rule would be bad for the country.

GRAHAM: Do you believe that we should designate the Taliban as a terrorist organization?

NICHOLSON: Sir, that's a conversation I need to have with my chain of command of that organization. They are definitely our enemy in Afghanistan.

GRAHAM: It's fair to say that the Taliban aided bin Laden dramatically?

NICHOLSON: Absolutely.

GRAHAM: So if we designated them as a terrorist organization, would you have more authority when it comes to engaging them?

NICHOLSON: Sir, if I was granted those authorities by administration, I would.

GRAHAM: Would you use them if you were granted ...

(CROSSTALK)

NICHOLSON: Absolutely.

GRAHAM: ... them as a terrorist organization, would you have more authority when it comes to engaging them?

NICHOLSON: Sir, if I was granted those authorities by the administration, I would.

GRAHAM: Would you use them if you were granted ...

(CROSSTALK)

NICHOLSON: Absolutely.

GRAHAM: Do you think that could change the momentum on the battlefield?

NICHOLSON: It would help, sir.

GRAHAM: OK. What does losing look like?

NICHOLSON: Sir, losing would be an attack emanating from this region, I guess on our homeland or our allies.

GRAHAM: Is that possible if we leave?

NICHOLSON: Absolutely.

GRAHAM: Is it likely if we leave?

NICHOLSON: I think so, sir, it's just a matter time.

GRAHAM: OK. So when it comes to staying, do you feel like you have the ability now to ask for more troops?

NICHOLSON: I think the conversation's open to that, yes, sir.

GRAHAM: Do you think this administration is more open to troops from what you can tell, in the early stages?

NICHOLSON: Sir, I – my initial impression and again, these conversations are ongoing, is that we're open to a discussion of an objectives-based approach and conditions-based approach ...

(CROSSTALK)

GRAHAM: Rather than an artificial number?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

GRAHAM: So your goal is for the chain of command to convey to our new president, that the best thing that could happen for our success in Afghanistan is to have troop levels married against the objectives?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir, against the objectives and the conditions on the ground.

GRAHAM: And the objective is to win?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

GRAHAM: The objective is to stop terrorism from being – growing over there to attack us here at home. The objective is to keep Afghanistan stable and on a trajectory of a rule of law, a democratic nation, is that correct?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

GRAHAM: And you believe you can do that with less than 50,000 troops?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

GRAHAM: You believe you can do that with less than 30,000 troops?

NICHOLSON: Sir, that's a conversation I need have with my chain of command, but yes. That will be my ...

GRAHAM: Is it fair to say general that success in Afghanistan will be judged not based on the day we leave, but what we leave behind?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

GRAHAM: And you think we can leave behind a stable Afghanistan?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

REED: On behalf of Chairman McCain, Senator Nelson?

NELSON: General, if the Russians stated goal is to undermine the influence of the United States, when did this effort start?

NICHOLSON: Sir the – with respect to Afghanistan ...

NELSON: Yes.

NICHOLSON: That there – they have not stated that as their goal, they have stated the ...

NELSON: No, I understand, that's your opinion and I agree with you.

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir. Sir ...

NELSON: When did the evidence of them cozying up to the Taliban start?

NICHOLSON: Sir, it started in 2016. So just within the last year, this has started and it was a gradual progression.

NELSON: And is that progression increasing?

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

NELSON: I think we better let President Trump know that.

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

NELSON: If Russia is cozying up to the Taliban, and that's a kind word, if they are giving equipment that we have some evidence that the Taliban is getting it and other things that we can't mention in this unclassified setting. And the Taliban is also associated with Al Qaida.

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

NELSON: Therefore Russia, indirectly, is helping Al Qaida.

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

NELSON: In Afghanistan.

NICHOLSON: Sir, the support of the Taliban – the Taliban are the medium for many of these other terrorist groups to operate because of the convergence of these groups. So your logic is absolutely sound sir.

NELSON: Does that include ISIS?

NICHOLSON: Sir, there's not – we don't see that same level of cooperation between the Taliban and ISIS. They are in conflict with one another but the Taliban is not achieving the key effects in reducing ISIS that is coming from the United States and the Afghan counterterrorism effort.

NELSON: In response to Senator Graham, you said, when we leave – restate what you said. When we can leave, in your opinion, we can leave a stable Afghanistan when we leave?

NICHOLSON: Sir, I think key would be the reconciliation as the ultimate goal between the belligerents in Afghanistan. So this is what the government wants, is a reconciliation with the belligerents. Of note, this year, there was a reconciliation with the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin group and 20,000 of them are returning to Afghanistan to be reintegrated into society.

So if this goes well, then this, hopefully, would be a catalyst for further reconciliation. So that's the ultimate goal. When I say stability it means ultimately a political reconciliation and so how – our objective will be to assist the Afghans to achieve that. Part of that is military pressure. So President Ghani's approach to this has been fight, fracture, talk.

So we need to keep military pressure on them and I articulated some of the ways in which we would do that, through the use of Special Forces, Afghan Air Force, to increase their control, through diplomatic engagement with the Pakistanis to increase pressure on that side of the border. So this would be a whole of government approach but it would – the objective of this would be an eventual reconciliation. This will take some years I believe.

NELSON: Does that reconciliation include the Taliban?

NICHOLSON: Ideally the Taliban would reconcile. And then that would remove there support for these groups who then couldn't exist without them.

NELSON: How does the Taliban reconcile with the government of Afghanistan when in fact they're being aided and embedded by the Russians to counter all of our efforts?

NICHOLSON: Sir, you're exactly right. This is the challenge and so this requires a whole of government approach, diplomatic as well as military to fundamentally get us to a place where we can have a reconciliation.

NELSON: So you really don't see a dynamic between ISIS and the Taliban?

NICHOLSON: Sir they're ideologically in conflict and then, in practical matters, they're vying for control in certain areas. But I don't see an effective effort by the Taliban against ISIS.

NELSON: But you have to be careful about that in the future because obviously ISIS, just like Al Qaeda, would be against our interests ...

(CROSSTALK)

NICHOLSON: Absolutely, sir.

NELSON: ... U.S. interests.

NICHOLSON: Absolutely, sir. And what we have seen is fighters changing allegiances. So I think this is an important point to note ...

NELSON: That's interesting.

NICHOLSON: ... that one of the dangers of this area is that fighters would change allegiance. For example, from the Pakistani Taliban and join ISIS. So the majority of the fighters in ISIS right now came from the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban, and joined the banner of ISIS.

NELSON: Do you think there's any reason that the Russians – other than trying to undermine us – would be wanting to expand their sphere of influence and take back the territory that they got whipped and had to leave Afghanistan with their tail between their legs?

NICHOLSON: Senator, I think they are concerned that if there's a coalition and U.S. presence in Afghanistan that this affects their ability to influence the Central Asian states to the north. So I do ...

NELSON: Yep.

NICHOLSON: So I do think that this is part of their concern.

NELSON: Yeah, I agree. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

REED: On behalf of Chairman McCain, let me recognize Senator Shaheen.

SHAHEEN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And, again, thank you, Gen. Nicholson, for being here and for your service. I just want to pick up a little bit on Senator Nelson's line of questioning. Because – as you said in your testimony, we're seeing Russian influence in Afghanistan only in the – recently. I mean, earlier in – four or five years ago, we were actually bringing in our supply line through with Russia's help into Afghanistan. So what's changed the dynamic there to ...

NICHOLSON: Ma'am, so it – within the last year is when we've seen this shift to this overt legitimizing of the Taliban and then reports of support provided to the Taliban and others in the north. So I think – getting a little – little bit out of the purely Afghan context; undoubtedly, the issues were saying in Iraq and Syria in terms of cooperation with the Russians in that effort are – perhaps there's some spillover from that.

Secondly would be, again, this concern about Central Asia and the desire to maintain their influence in Central Asia. And so this narrative of a threat spilling over from Afghanistan is touching a nerve with the Central Asian republics. Because, during the anti-Soviet jihad and followed, they had this concern.

And then, in Central Asia, there is a concern about terrorism. And I think it's fair to say there are legitimate concerns that Russia has about the region with respect to counter-narcotics. Because much of their ...

SHAHEEN: Sure.

NICHOLSON: ... narcotics flow from Afghanistan into Russia. And then, secondly, the spread of terrorism. It is a legitimate concern, but we are dealing with that concern. So there's no acknowledgment that the U.S. government, the Afghans, are working together to contain this terrorist threat.

SHAHEEN: And is there any evidence that the Russians are providing money, material, fighters, to the Taliban?

NICHOLSON: Ma'am, we don't – we don't have that – there's some classified reporting that I'd request to share with you at another venue. But we are concerned about, in general, a support and I'll – I'll just leave it at that.

SHAHEEN: And what does this mean for the dynamic between Russia and Pakistan? Are we seeing additional engagement in Pakistan because of what's happening in Afghanistan?

NICHOLSON: Ma'am, we are seeing additional engagement by the Russians with Pakistan. I think – there was recently a training exercise conducted in Pakistan with Russian troops. And we have, again, reporting of an increased conversations going on in the country about potential support to these groups.

SHAHEEN: Well, clearly, given Pakistan's nuclear arsenal that should give us all much more reason ...

NICHOLSON: Yes, Ma'am.

SHAHEEN: ... to be very concerned about what's happening in that region.

NICHOLSON: Yes, Ma'am.

SHAHEEN: I had the opportunity, when we had the confirmation hearing for Secretary Mattis, to ask him that our special immigrant visa program for Iraq and Afghanistan. Which, as I'm sure you're very aware, has made a huge difference for our men and women serving on the ground. My understanding is that we are soon going to run out of visas – SID visas for Afghans who are in the pipeline to come to the U.S. who are being threatened. Can you speak to how important you think that program is? And why we should extend it to make sure we address those people who have been so helpful to us?

NICHOLSON: Thank you, senator, for your support for that program. As you may be aware, I wrote a letter to Chairman McCain last year on this program.

SHAHEEN: Right.

NICHOLSON: We're strong supporters of this program. Because these brave Afghans who've fought alongside us and served alongside us, we believe strongly, they deserve the opportunity – if they wish – if they so desire, to -- to participate in this program. We do have a backlog and we do have many, many Afghans who would like to -- to come to the United States. And I know many of these him Afghans who have -- have come and join our society. They're very productive citizens and (ph) great contributors. And so I strongly support this program and will continue to do so and -- and offer my help in any way that I can.

SHAHEEN: I really appreciate that. Can you also talk about what you think the message would be if we end the program and refused to allow in anymore people who have helped us?

NICHOLSON: Yes, ma'am, I think this would be the wrong message to send to our Afghan partners. Its – just to give one data point – on the other fighting – the difficulty, the fighting. As has been mentioned several times here today, the Afghans are willing and want to fight for their country. And so in one year – in this period we've just have the last two years, they have suffered almost twice as many casualties as we suffered in the previous 10 years.

And I just mentioned that, not to highlight the casualties, but as an indicator of the depth of commitment of these Afghans to our common cause. They don't want to terrorists in their country. They want a peaceful and stable environment for their families. They want to improve the world that they live in for for their children. I mean, they share many, many objectives with us.

So these Afghans; who have worked alongside us, who taken great risks; I think deserve this opportunity if they so desired to come to the United States.

SHAHEEN: Thank you very much, general. Thank you.

NICHOLSON: Thank you, ma'am.

REED: On behalf of Chairman McCain, Senator Kaine. Kaine, that's my accent, forgive me.

KAINE: Thank you, Mr. Chair. General, wonderful testimony. I was backing and for things to the foreign relations committee and actually took your testimony. We were having a hearing about Russia.

NICHOLSON: Yes, sir.

KAINE: And I took your testimony up and read it to our witnesses. And I wanted to ask you about it. I know some others of asked you, but I'm curious. On page 10, "Russia's become more assertive over the past year overtly lending legitimacy the Taliban to undermine NATO efforts. And bolster belligerence using the false narrative that only the Taliban are fighting ISILK. Similarly, neighboring Iran is providing support to the Taliban while also engaging the Afghan government over issues of water rights, trade and security."

Are you seeing any coordination between efforts of Russia and Iran in this way? You mentioned them back to back in the same paragraph. You don't draw causal link, but I was curious about your thoughts on that.

NICHOLSON: Sir, I – there may be. But I have not seen it. So I think these are two separate issues but we know there is a dialogue, we know there is a relationship between Russia and Iran. You know, Russia's selling advanced weapon systems to Iran.

So we know there's communication between them.

KAINE: Russia and Iran are deeply engaged together and ...

NICHOLSON: Yes sir.

KAINE: The campaign in Syria.

NICHOLSON: Yes sir.

KAINE: Iran allowed Russia to use air bases in Iran ...

NICHOLSON: Yes sir.

KAINE: For the Syrian campaign.

NICHOLSON: Yes sir.

KAINE: So it would seem to be a little bit unlikely that they would be both engaging in efforts to bolster or prop up the Taliban, you know, completely independently of one another, at least they'd probably be communicating about those efforts, wouldn't you think that's a fair assumption?

NICHOLSON: Absolutely senator. We believe they are communicating about the efforts, we believe. And that the effect of their efforts would – are undermining the Afghan government.

KAINE: There was a statement that the president made a couple weeks back, maybe 10 days ago, that he thought he could ally and potentially use Russia as a check against Iran.

Tell me, you know if you don't feel that you can comment on that, that's a fair answer, but I wonder, do you think that that's realistic? That given all the areas where Russia and Iran are now working to – at least promote a similar purpose including, according to your testimony, in Afghanistan.

Do you think it's likely that the U.S. could peel Russia away from its cooperation and coordination with Iran?

NICHOLSON: Sir I haven't had the chance to discuss that with my chain of command. That hasn't been something we've looked at as an option. The – I look at it from an Afghan perspective.

I think there's an area of interest that Iran has with Afghanistan ...

KAINE: Because of being on the border and all sorts of the things, water rights.

(CROSSTALK)

NICHOLSON: Exactly. Water rights, trade. So I think the Afghans are trying to establish a state-to-state relationship with Iran to deal with these matters of mutual concern.

KAINE: Anti-opium production, that's another important one to work together.

(CROSSTALK)

NICHOLSON: Yes – yes sir. So the counter-narcotics, the trade and then, what the Afghans would seek to reduce is eliminate the support to the Taliban, let's deal with each other as neighbors and let's work on these areas of mutual interest.

So I think there's potential in the Afghan Iranian relationship for a more positive outcome than what we see with the Russian relationship. The Russians of course, lack legitimacy in Afghanistan, because of the – what the ...

KAINE: Clearly.

NICHOLSON: ...the anti-soviet Jihad. Millions of Afghans were killed by Russians and Russian backed forces in Afghanistan. So there is a legitimacy question when it comes to Russia's involvement in Afghanistan that is right at the forefront of this conversation with the Afghan people.

KAINE: Although the case – it shows how anti-NATO Russia is, that they would engage with elements of the Taliban, some of whom were responsible for kicking the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, that they would try to bolster the Taliban as a check against NATO influence in Afghanistan.

That would – that's a pretty bold statement of how much they hate NATO.

NICHOLSON: It is surprising senator, especially when you also consider the Taliban's involvement in the narcotics trade and how detrimental the narcotics from Afghanistan are on Russian society.

KAINE: I met with the Afghan ambassador to the United States yesterday and we had a good visit.

And one of the things he said to me is, and I just am curious as to your opinion on this – sometimes you know our military or intel don't see it the same way as they see it, as they're describing it – but he said the thing that is most exciting now to Afghans is that they really have a national identity, a national voice, they're discussing tough issues, some of which are hard to solve, but they're discussing them openly and publicly.

He painted a pretty positive view of the civil government and the relationship between the co-members of the coalition; I'm curious if your view is as positive.

NICHOLSON: Yes senator. We have an extremely positive relationship and – with the government. We work very closely on the security equities going forward. I think that the tough fight they experienced this year and the that threw us together in ways, use of our authorities, our soldiers, advising and assisting them on the ground in the way that we did.

And the way that they prevailed. There's nothing like going through a difficult shared experience to bring you closer. And I think the Afghans are convinced of our commitment to them. They saw the international community at Warsaw commit to four more years in Afghanistan.

And then the international donor community came together with $15 billion dollars. So I think the Afghan people took those as very reassuring signs, despite the difficulty of the fight, what they saw was strong commitment at the strategic level by the international community to peace and stability in Afghanistan.

KAINE: Great. Thank you so much. Thanks Mr. Chair.

NICHOLSON: Thank you senator.

MCCAIN: General thank you for your testimony. Thank you for a very informative exchange you've had with the members here. I think there's one point that's very obvious as we found – discussed at the beginning is that, we're not winning.

And I know that you have been asked by our secretary of defense and others for a strategy to change that equation. And I know you haven't fleshed all that – all of that out but you've been faced with this situation for quite a period of time.

We look forward to sharing with you – for you sharing with us the elements of that strategy and we, on both sides obviously, are committed to seeing this situation resolved in a more beneficial fashion.

As we said at the beginning we've been there many years and there's been a great sacrifice made by Afghans and our brave Americans and we need a strategy to succeed. And if we can know that strategy, which is being developed I hope, I can assure you, you will receive this bipartisan strong support from members of this committee and the Congress.

But we've been there many years and there's been a great sacrifice made by Afghans and our brave Americans and we need a strategy to succeed. And if we can know that strategy, which is being developed I hope, I can assure you, you will receive this bipartisan strong support from members of this committee and the Congress.

But we need to develop that strategy and we need to know what assets and capabilities and support that the Congress can give you. So we thank you for your service. We thank you for your testimony this morning and unfortunately, tragically for you, some of us will be visiting you in Kabul.

Thank you, general.

NICHOLSON: I look forward your visit, senator. Thank you very much for the opportunity.

MCCAIN: Really? Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

END

Speakers:

Sen. John McCain, R-ARIZ.

Chairman

Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-OKLA.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-MISS.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-NEB.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TEXAS

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-ARK.

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-IOWA

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-ALASKA

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-NEB.

Sen. David Perdue, R-GA.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.

Ranking Member

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FLA.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CONN.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-IND.

Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-HAWAII

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-VA.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MASS.

Sen. Gary Peter, D-MICH.

Sen. Angus King, I-MAINE
 

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