Gen. Nicholson explains what new U.S. South Asia policy means for mission in Afghanistan

24 Aug 2017
KABUL, Afghanistan (Aug. 24, 2017) — "The United States and NATO Allies and partners are with you," said Gen. John Nicholson, commander, Resolute Support, at a news conference alongside Hugo Llorens, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

Gen. Nicholson: Thank you Ambassador – and Sediq – very much to the Government Media and Information Center for hosting us today.

Thank you to the great journalists of Afghanistan who continue to report to their country – reporting on the hopes and desires of everyone for peace.

This morning I wanted to take the opportunity – and add to what the Ambassador already said – to give you some more details on what President Trump’s announcement means for Afghanistan, and the US and NATO mission here.

The United States and our NATO Allies and partners are with you. We will stay with you.

We stand with your security forces against terrorists and the enemies of Afghanistan. They are the enemies of the entire world.

With the announcement of this policy, the Taliban cannot win on the battlefield. It is time for them to join the peace process.

Let me stress our continuing support to Afghanistan, our commitment to the great people of Afghanistan and our confidence in your security forces is unwavering.

The United States and our allies and partners here in Afghanistan value the friendship – and deeply appreciate the hospitality – of the Afghan people and the Afghan government.

We know how you are plagued by terrorism and desire peace.

We offer our prayers to all of the Afghan families who have lost loved ones and for those who have been injured in this long war at the hands of terrorists.

There is a real opportunity now for hope for the future.

The Afghan people want peace and the international community are with you in that journey – it is a shared vision that we can all work towards, together.

With the NATO-led train, advise, and assist mission your security forces can become stronger.

The leadership of the security forces is evolving, is changing – and major reforms are underway to professionalize the military and police.

Corruption is being tackled inside the security forces and across the government.

Your air force is being built up.

And you all know how strong your Special Forces are. They are getting stronger.

We all recognize the need to secure Afghanistan – for your sake, and for the world’s sake.

And so the United States is determined to continue to support the Afghan security forces in the fight against the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Daesh, al-Qaeda, and all terrorist groups.

We are determined to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, who wish to attack the rest of the world from Afghan soil. These terrorists offer nothing but hardship and misery for the Afghan people.

We are determined to pursue the goal of a political settlement. As these terrorist groups realize that they cannot win, they will see that their best option is to pursue peace.

In the coming months, U.S. Forces – Afghanistan and NATO will increase its train, advise, and assist efforts in Afghanistan. And, we will increase our air support to Afghan security forces.

Last Sunday, President Ghani activated the Afghan National Army Special Operations Corps.

This was an essential step in growing the Afghan National Army. We are doubling the size of the Afghan Commandos and Ktah Khas. These brave soldiers have never lost a battle; and they never will.

And with the additional support we will provide them, they will become larger and more lethal.

The Taliban have never won against the Commandos and Ktah Khas. They never will.

Therefore, they cannot win militarily.

The Afghan Air Force is increasing in size and strength. We know the enemy fears air power, and they have good reason to, as the Afghan Air Forces get stronger

Along with our Afghan partners, we will relentlessly pursue ISIS-K and annihilate them. We will continue to crush the remnants of al-Qaeda, and we will increase our pressure on all terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

As President Ghani said, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces own the fight inside Afghanistan.

These forces are protecting Afghanistan and protecting our homelands, and protecting Afghanistan as well.

The United States deeply appreciates and respects the sacrifice and strength of the Afghan people. The United States deeply appreciates and respects the sacrifice and strength of the Afghan armed forces.

We will not fail in Afghanistan. Our national security depends on it, as well as Afghanistan’s security, and our allies and partners. Americans know that our Afghan partners are with us.

To the Taliban, I say you have a simple choice: Stop fighting against your countrymen. Stop killing innocent civilians. Stop bringing hardship and misery to the Afghan people. Lay down your arms and join Afghan society. Help build a better future for this country and your own children.

Afghan Special Forces and air power have destroyed Taliban "red” units in Kandahar, Helmand, Kunduz, and Paktiya. These were the enemy’s elite fighting forces, and they were defeated.

In the rank and file, the Taliban’s losses are even greater than the losses of the Afghan Security Forces.  This is unsustainable.

The Taliban are a criminal organization, more interested in the profits they find in drugs, kidnapping, and murder for hire than offering anything better to the Afghan people.

ISIS is being crushed in Nangarhar and we will pursue them, and annihilate them wherever they go.

And as President Trump said in his speech, and I quote: "These killers need to know that they have nowhere to hide. These killers need to know that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms.”

Why is this approach different than the past?

In his road map for the security forces President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah have committed to reform and professionalizing of the Afghan security forces.

We have a willing and trusted partner in the National Unity Government, one that is committed to reform and transparency.

The international commitment to Afghanistan has gotten stronger in the last year. The Warsaw Summit, the Brussels Conference, and now this robust U.S. policy are proof of our commitment to Afghanistan.

The new U.S. strategy is guided by conditions on the ground and not arbitrary timelines.

It provides for more U.S. and NATO resources.

The momentum is ours.

We are building effective combat capability in the Afghan security forces, and they continue to demonstrate steady progress.

Afghans are leading this fight.

Afghans are not asking us to do their fighting for them, or for the international community. We stand with them.

The Afghan people have rejected terrorism. 90 percent of the people of Afghanistan believe a return to Taliban rule would be bad for the country.  We agree.

We are with you in this fight. We will stay with you.

Again let me say to the brave people of Afghanistan who only wish to live in a peaceful country: the US and your NATO allies and partners are with you. We are firmly committed with our continuing support and we have confidence in your security forces.

And this policy announcement by President Trump is proof of our commitment. Thank you.

Questions and Answers

Q: Mr. Ambassador, regarding the new strategy for Afghanistan, most Afghans believe that America will put more pressure on Pakistan, which they did not in the past. To Gen. Nicholson, I think you said at end of 2017 would be the end of Daesh in Afghanistan. Can you give us an exact timeline that U.S./NATO will succeed in the longest war in American history in Afghanistan?

A: Mr. Llornes: Thank you for your question. I would prefer not to comment any further on Pakistan. I think the statements made by the president, by our senior leadership in Washington – Secretary of State Tillerson and his press statements. I think their press statements were very clear. I’ve addressed Pakistan here and clearly Pakistan is an important part of the equation. As you know, the president’s in-depth review of South Asia policy when he was looking at Pakistan, he very much thought about looking at the Afghanistan problem in the broader regional context. And clearly we all know in this room that Pakistan is a key element in having any success in Afghanistan. It is very important to have Pakistan’s cooperation. It’s important to have India’s continued cooperation and it’s important as much as possible to bring in the region in a collective approach so we can achieve – first of all we can continue to fight the terrorists and we can ultimately achieve peace and stability in the country. So, the way ahead I think on Pakistan I think our leaders have been very clear. Thank you.

A: Gen. Nicholson: In response to our pressure. Daesh has attempted to move to other places around the country. Our focus has been on the steady annihilation of the enclave that they have in southern Nangarhar. And we are doing that. So, the number of fighters killed is over 2,000, the amount of space has been reduced. They are being pushed into the mountains of southern Nangarhar. From this location, they no longer are able to rule and terrorize the people in southern Nangarhar. So they have been pushed into the mountains of southern Nangarhar. Now, will they be able to conduct like other terrorist organizations – where they’re hiding and trying to operate from some sanctuary? That’s possible. However, the caliphate – the caliphate that they attempted to create with Jalalabad as the capital, and Nangarhar as the ground where they would generate revenue – terrorize people – this is gone. And this has been our objective in 2017 – the steady elimination of this attempt by Daesh to create a caliphate. Now, we will continue to pursue Daesh wherever they go inside Afghanistan until they are completely annihilated.

So, the policy announcement by President Trump addressed this directly. And the fact that the United States is going to engage in a dialogue with Pakistan to eliminate this external enablement. I don’t have anything to add to what the president said or what the ambassador relayed. I think these statements have been quite clear. The dialogue with Pakistan will be done in private. It’s already started and so I will leave it to my national leadership to talk about the steps with Pakistan. But I acknowledge this elimination of their safe haven and support outside of the country is essential to our success and we’re pursuing that now. And that is something that is different about the new U.S. policy. Thank you.

Q: Ambassador, you mentioned the bilateral compact. Is that a direct follow-up of the strategy? The Afghan government’s statement mentioned about 200 commitments. You mentioned a few of them. Can you mention whether they come with a timeline to those commitments, whether aid is going to be tied to those commitments? And, Gen. Nicholson if I could ask you a question, also. In the six months since President Trump took office, have you had a direct conversation with him? Have you had a direct briefing with him, or has it only been through your chain of command? And, also, can you give us a sense of numbers? When you mentioned the increase in the train, advise, can you give us a sense of exact numbers?

A: Mr. Llorens: Very good. The compact was really discussed many months ago when we had the visit of National Security Advisor McMaster. And it was a proposal by Mr. Ghani. What he wanted to do is he wanted to strengthen Afghanistan’s relations with the United States with His reaffirmation of his government’s commitment to more reform. So the concept is something we have worked quietly with both governments over the last couple of months and you know there are four areas of work that the Afghans lead out for. One is governance. Another is economics. Another one is security. And peace and reconciliation. So those four areas the government proposed a series of measures they would take – a series of reforms. And so very much they took advantage of our policy review to give more impetus to their reform efforts. So very much the president and the chief executive are very keen with the last two years of the government to get a second wind on reform. And I would I’ve mentioned these four key areas… and that I’ve mentioned the cross-cutting issues in all of them are – for example corruption. The government to use the opportunity of this new U.S. policy to strengthen their own reform efforts – and a key element of that is corruption. As well as the strategic communications piece. I think that President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah are very mindful that this government has done many great things. This has been a reformist government. No government is perfect, but it has a substantial record on reform. But they want to really accelerate that. But I think the story is doing a better job of informing the Afghan public – in telling, informing the American public. This is an obligation we have. And the progress of the world is being made here in Afghanistan. As you know last night President Ghani convened the executive committee of the compact timed to the executive rollout. And there was a joint announcement between the U.S. and the National Unity Government. And there’s going to be a lot of work ahead. And I agree there is a lot of these reforms should be short, medium, and long term. And again I would advise you to discuss the specifics of the matrix and reforms to the Afghan government. And you will see over the next three, four, five months you will see a number of measures in all the areas. And again I would advise you to Gen. Nicholson if he wishes to comment because a substantial amount of this – as the general has commented – is in the modernization and reform of the security forces. [to Nicholson] I don’t know if you want to add anything to that.

A: Gen. Nicholson: The compact is a very important document. It identifies and puts on paper many of the milestones, benchmarks, steps we’re going to take to improve the performance of the Afghan National Security Forces, reduce corruption, improve the leadership, professionalize … so, a very important step. It codifies, it’s a compact. It identifies the steps we’re going to take together going forward. It’s an excellent document. There are literally hundreds of specific actions that are identified in this in the security arena and we’ve already accomplished many of them. For example, the announcement of the Afghan National Army Special Operations Corps. The beginning of training, the doubling of the size of Commandos and the Ktah Khas (kha-tay-has). We’ve recruited additional forces. We’ve started the additional training. So, much of this has already in train. But it’s a useful way for us to benchmark and track our progress.

To your other question, I provide my input to the president through the chain of command. As you probably know, my boss is Gen. Votel. He reports to the secretary of defense, who reports to the president. This is how we operate in the U.S. military. This system works well, And I am confident that all of the inputs – not only from me as the military leader here, but the interagency team – that our inputs were fully considered and were key in shaping the policy that was announced by the president.

[Interrupted by reporter starting another question]

A: Gen. Nicholson: Sorry, that’s okay. [to reporter] I won’t specifically talk about numbers. Of course, the president announced in his speech that we would be providing additional forces, but he has left that decision up to the secretary of defense. As I said today, there would be additional capabilities. Some of that is already arriving. But we’re not going to talk about the specific numbers. We’re not going to telegraph to the enemy what it is we’re going to do and how we’re going to influence the battlefield.

Q: Fakhruddin Qazizada (Journalist Weekly/Haft-e-nama-e-journalist): Mr. Ambassador Hugo Llorens, most of the political parties in Afghanistan which have formed a coalition are blaming the National Unity Government – especially President Ghani for monopolizing power. What is your assessment in regards to these claims? And if the National Unity Government is really going towards dictatorship and you become certain that the National Unity Government is really going that direction and is going against several values of the Afghan people, would you still be supporting this government?

A: Mr. Llorens: Again, it’s not appropriate for me to comment on internal Afghanistan politics. It’s just enough to say that we all know that Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic society and very much in the president’s address to the nation he mentioned the idea of having a more inclusive government and the fact that all ethnic groups in all regions of Afghanistan should be represented in the government. The fact is that this is a National Unity Government. It is a coalition government. It’s necessary. You are in a situation where you are fighting for your very existence. And all Afghans need to be involved. And, you know, I’m confident that in the time that I’ve been here I’ve seen a very good relationship – a very strong and productive relationship between President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah and this is what gives the legitimacy of this government is the fact that last time the Afghan people spoke was in the election of 2014 and while we all know that election had significant flaws, no one doubts that the two individuals who received the most votes were President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah. So it’s right in our view that these two individuals are working together and leading the nation. And, as you say, it’s very important to be inclusive and bring all Afghans together.

Speaker: Thank you so much. Now we have the final question from this woman.

Q: Shogofa Sediqi (Zan TV): My question for Gen. Nicholson is that for the past 16 years, despite many efforts of the United States and U.S. strategies for eliminating terrorist organizations, the security situation has deteriorated. In your opinion, how much should the Afghan people be optimistic toward President Trump’s new strategy or roadmap? My other question is how many new soldiers will arrive to Afghanistan?

A: Gen. Nicholson: Thank you for the question. This has been a long war. And we first recognize that we have great respect for the stamina, for the strength, for the endurance of the Afghan people. It’s not only the last 16 years, but the 20 years before that. Close to four decades of war. So, first I want to stress that we acknowledge and respect this, and that we respect and support the Afghan people for peace. And we view this policy as helping to advance this country towards a peaceful settlement. There have been a number of reasons why I don’t want to go over the whole history of the war. There are a number of reasons why we are where we are today. What I would like to say is that looking forward what you heard from President Trump was a commitment to Afghanistan that is not based on time, but is based on conditions on the ground. And you heard the president say that ultimately we want to have – we want to see a peaceful settlement here in Afghanistan. Why? Not only is that in the interest of the Afghan people, but it is in the interest of the United States and all the allies. So this is why I would say to the Afghan people that they can believe this will be different because we have removed the calendar from the equation. We are now focused on a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. And part of that has to come from the enemy realizing they cannot win. They cannot win militarily with this commitment by the United States and our allies. So, this I hope would give the encouragement to the Afghan people that this new policy is different. It’s conditions based, not time based. And our end state is a peaceful reconciliation. That means there will be no terrorist attacks emanating from this region against the Afghan people or the United States and its allies.

Speaker: Thank you very much. Just one final question and we will be done.

Q: Amsar (TOLOnews): I wanted to ask Mr. Llorens that many U.S. officials have spoken about terrorist sanctuaries or safe havens in Pakistan. But, earlier you mentioned that to succeed in this war, Pakastani cooperation is necessary. On the other hand, the Pakastanis are denying the presence of sanctuaries on their soil. Finally, in this situation if you believe that there are terrorist safe havens or sanctuaries will you eventually launch military operations there [Pakistan]? What would be your stance toward Pakistan?

A: Mr. Llorens: Again, I think that President Trump and our leadership has been very clear in their statements about Pakistan policy and I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to elaborate, but clearly there is an issue of sanctuaries longstanding where insurgent groups and terrorist groups are operating on the other side of the border. I think it’s important and that’s an issue that is a very important part of the equation. And part of the administration’s new approach will be to reengage with Pakistan in a way to seek their cooperation. Because, as Gen. Nicholson said – and I fully, fully, agree – you really cannot have success in Afghanistan if you do not receive cooperation from the other regional actors.

[Thank you so much]

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