U.S. Department of Defense Press Briefing by Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch via Teleconference from Kabul, Afghanistan

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch, assistant deputy air commander for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and vice commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Afghanistan, speaks with the Pentagon press during via teleconference June 27, 2018.
28 Jun 2018

 STAFF:  All right.  OK, well, good morning.

 Today we have the U.S. Air Force -- Force's Brigadier General Lance Bunch, assistant deputy commanding general for Air, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, and vice commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Afghanistan, U.S. Forces Central Command, to provide an update on the U.S. counter-threat finance campaign and the U.S. air operations in Afghanistan.  At the conclusion of the general's opening statement we will provide all approximately 30 minutes to take your questions.

 And with that, Brigadier General Bunch, the floor is yours.

 BRIGADIER GENERAL LANCE R. BUNCH:  Thanks, Koné.

 And good morning, everyone.  It's a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak to you today from here in Afghanistan and give you an update.

 As Koné said, my name is Brigadier General Lance Bunch, and I'm the vice commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Afghanistan here at Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul.

 Part of our mission is training, advising and assisting the Afghan Air Forces as they build -- both build their -- and train their air force, while simultaneously fighting this war.

 Building on our last conversation back in December, we are witness to the growth of the Afghan Air Force in capacity and proficiency as they continue to target the Taliban across this country.  The Afghan Air Force continues to add new capability, from dropping laser-guided bombs, to combat air drops, to integrating the UH-60 into their operations.  This is an air force that gets better every day.

 Under the authorities of the president's South Asia Strategy, coalition airpower has expanded the targeting of Taliban forces, finances and infrastructure using new methods.  Whereas prior to the announcement of the president's policy last year our forces could only target the insurgents when in direct contact with coalition or Afghan forces, now our airpower can destroy insurgent targets wherever they are found.

 The entire purpose behind our air campaign is to pressure the Taliban into reconciliation, and help them realize that peace talks are their best option.  We kept the pressure on them through the winter and into this spring.  Before the recent cease-fire began, Operation Iron Tempest, the name of our air campaign, had destroyed 154 Taliban targets.  The Afghan Air Force also participated by conducting 19 strikes against Taliban revenue targets with their A-29 attack aircraft.  The targets destroyed included narcotics production, storage and trafficking locations, weapons and explosive caches, headquarters and staging areas.

 We are seeing that the South Asia Strategy's new authorities have enabled our increased military pressure, and that military pressure has been amplified by the diplomatic and social pressure that is manifesting itself across the country in the form of the Afghan people calling for peace.

 Iron -- Operation Iron Tempest is just one element of the military pressure we've been putting on the Taliban, and I believe a contributing factor to the recent cease-fire; that we're still under, by the way.

 As you've heard General Nicholson and others say, the cease-fire and more talk of a peace are clear indications the South Asia Strategy is working.

 It was the combination of this military pressure, coupled with diplomatic and social pressure, that has brought us to this point, where for the first time in four decades, the people of Afghanistan were able to celebrate a peaceful end to the holy month of Ramadan.

 Now that the Afghan people have had a taste of that peace, their calls for a lasting peace have multiplied across the country and been heard worldwide, increasing pressure on the Taliban to reconcile.

 I'm sure you've all heard of the peace protesting marchers who walked from Helmand Province to Kabul.  But there are also marchers headed to Kabul from Peshawar, Pakistan, and Kunar Province, and a peace sit-in in Faryab Province.  You have likely also read the statements from the international community all calling for the Taliban to support this cease-fire and to enter into peace talks.

 All of this is having a clear effect on parts of the Taliban.

 For our part, the airstrikes and other operations have hurt -- hit them where it hurts:  in the wallet.  By all estimates, these air operations have taken over $45 million in revenue away from the Taliban in the strikes leading up to the cease-fire.

 Additionally, the Afghan National Interdiction Unit's raids, advised by the Drug Enforcement Administration, has seized or destroyed another $11 million from the Taliban's illicit drug enterprise.

 I also want to point out during these 154 strikes, we have no credible allegations of civilian casualties.  Obviously I can't discuss the specifics of the execution of our operations, but our airstrikes and raids are targeted very specifically in order to avoid civilian casualties while putting maximum financial pressure on the insurgents.

 Unless the Taliban join the government of Afghanistan in negotiations in extending the cease-fire, we will continue to pursue them and their illicit revenue streams at every turn.

 I want to be clear:  We are not here conducting counter-narcotics operations.  The South Asia Strategy gave us extended authorities to conduct counter-threat finance operations.  There is a difference that I want to emphasize:  whatever sources of revenue the Taliban draws upon, that's where we'll strike them.

 One more item I want to re-emphasize from the last time we spoke is that the Afghans are leading this fight.  It's been an honor to watch them own this fight and want to own it.  Every day, they're only getting better and more capable, on the battlefield and in the air.  They are fighting for the future of their nation and for the rest of the world, as well.

 This is a country that just a few years ago didn't even have an air force, and now they're to the point they are pressuring the enemy strategically and significantly wherever the enemy show themselves.  This is a big leap forward.

 Together, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and our coalition are showing the enemy that we have the will and the staying power to see this through.

 The war is not going well for the Taliban.  Before the president's South Asia Strategy, the Taliban thought they could wait for us to leave because we lacked the will.  We are showing them otherwise, the Afghan people are showing them otherwise, because the overwhelming desire of the Afghan people and the entire world is for peace and stability in this great nation.

 And with that, I'll be happy to open (sic) your questions.

 STAFF:  OK.  And with that, for all questions, as -- as we've frequently stated, please provide full name and agency prior to asking your questions.  We should have enough time to get questions from just about everyone, and we'll provide an opportunity for one question and up to two follow-ons in our limited time.

 With that, from A.P.

 Q:  Good -- General, Bob Burns with Associated Press.

 You mentioned that the cease-fire is still in effect and that you're -- you're not -- therefore, you're not conducting airstrikes against the Taliban revenue targets.

 How are you compensating for this loss of momentum against this -- against these targets?

 GEN. BUNCH:  Well, during the cease-fire, Bob, we are continuing to both train the Afghan Air Force, whether they be maintainers or do training flights with their pilots, and continue to do things that continue to build the air force and take advantage of this time.

 On the coalition side, we continue to fly our aircraft in sorties for intelligence and keep situational awareness on the entire battlefield so that we see where the Taliban are potentially moving.  And then we'll look to, as -- if the cease-fire does end, then we'll look to take advantage of the information we gathered at the -- during this time.

 STAFF:  With that, go ahead, Idrees.

 Q:  Idrees from Reuters.

 You said you would carry out strikes in self-defense.  So, over the past month, I guess, or few weeks since the cease-fire started, have you carried out any self-defense strikes against the Taliban?

 GEN. BUNCH:  So, the cease-fire -- unilateral cease-fire started on 11 June and continues to this day.  And there have been 38 instances where the Afghan Air Force has been airborne and conducted self-defense strikes in support of the -- their ANA forces on the ground.  So 38 instances where the Taliban didn't honor the cease-fire and took offensive action, and the Afghan national forces -- or the Afghan Air Force was there to -- to help out.

 On the coalition side, we've conducted no strikes because the Afghan Air Force has been so agile to support their own forces.  We have conducted strikes against ISIS-K during this timeframe, around -- a little over 80 of those strikes, as we continue to do counterterrorism operations against ISIS-K, who is not part of the cease-fire.

 Q:  On ISIS-K, General Nicholson had said there would be an increase in operations against Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan.  So is that 80 number an increase from prior to June 11th?  Or how has that played out?

 GEN. BUNCH:  There had been a slight increase.  I'd have to go back and get you the exact numbers of strikes in that increase.  We have increased our operations against ISIS-K.

 Just the beginning of this month, the Afghan Special Forces put four companies of commandos on the ground in Gurgoray and Deh Bala, which was where ISIS-K is trying to establish their caliphate.  This is the second time this year that they've tried to establish their caliphate -- previously, in Mohmand Valley.

 This is the single largest deployment of commandos on the battlefield ever in a joint special operations type of an operation.  And they were able to dislodge ISIS-K from there.

 Part of -- some of these 84 or 80-something strikes were in support of those operations.  And, of course, ISIS-K did -- was unable to establish a caliphate there.

 STAFF:  Yeah.

 Q:  Going back to the 34 instances or so, in that -- instances -- were Taliban fighters killed?  I mean, what were they -- and how many Taliban fighters were hit or targeted in -- (inaudible) -- self-defense strikes?

 GEN. BUNCH:  It was a total of 38 strikes.  And I don't have the number of Taliban killed during those strikes.  We can look to get that for you later.

 STAFF:  OK.

 With that, CNN.

 Q:  Hey, General, thank you for doing this.  Just to follow up quickly on one of Idrees' questions, on the 38 instances where the Afghan Air Force had to conduct self-defense strikes, was that -- are those strikes during the days that the Taliban said they were participating in the cease-fire?

 Or was that -- was that spread out during the whole -- do you have it kind of broken out?  Or was that just during the part where the government and the coalition were honoring the cease-fire?

 GEN. BUNCH:  It was during the unilateral part of the cease-fire, where just the government and the coalition was conducting the cease-fire.

 Q:  Thank you.  And then, just on -- on the -- there was a couple of reports of strikes carried out in Kunar, one on kind of the eve of the cease-fire that reportedly killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, and then another one, I think, during the cease-fire that targeted members of LET.

 Can you confirm -- obviously, the Afghan government has said the leader of the TTP was killed in that strike; the Pakistanis have said it.  But we haven't heard from U.S. Forces Afghanistan.  Can you confirm that that actually did take place?

 GEN. BUNCH:  We've seen lots of reporting that that -- that he has, in fact, been targeted and killed, and I don't have any awareness of the second strike you just mentioned.

 Q:  Thanks.

 STAFF:  (inaudible) -- for Stars and Stripes -- (inaudible).

 Q:  Hey, sir.  Thanks.  This is Corey Dickstein with Stars and Stripes.

 You mentioned in your opening that the cease-fire was having a clear effect on parts of the Taliban.  Can you provide any more, like, specifics on what effect you're seeing and what kind of parts of the Taliban are, I guess, impacted here?

 GEN. BUNCH:  Yes.  I mean, in open reporting, many instances of various factions or various pieces of the Taliban that are talking to their local leadership in -- in different regions about, you know, potential to continue the cease-fire -- all that is mostly reported here, locally, in the news, and we continue to follow that closely.

 Q:  And then the -- the 38 self-defense strikes that the Afghan Force has -- yeah -- against the Taliban since the unilateral part of the cease-fire -- can you say generally where those are?  Have they been all over the place?  Are they concentrated more in one specific area?

 GEN. BUNCH:  They -- they were across the country.

 STAFF:  OK.  With that, Fox News?

 Q:  General, Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News.

 Is this cease-fire by the United States military the longest cease-fire since the war began in 2001?

 GEN. BUNCH:  I believe it's the first unilateral cease-fire since the war began.

 Q:  And you mentioned strikes against ISIS-K are continuing.  Are U.S. military aircraft still targeting al-Qaida?  And have there been any al-Qaida strikes?

 GEN. BUNCH:  We continue to target any of the counterterrorism-type targets.  I -- I don't have those specific strikes broken out for me here today.

 Q:  And, finally, earlier this month, two Air Force pilots were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions in a large battle in eastern Afghanistan a year ago.  Can you talk about that mission and -- and what those pilots did to receive those awards?

 GEN. BUNCH:  Unfortunately, it was before my time here, and -- and I'm just not completely familiar with that mission.  Unfortunately, I'm unable to comment on that.

 Q:  No problem.  Thank you.

 STAFF:  With that, for NBC.

 Q:  Hi, General.  This is Courtney Kube with NBC News.

 On the -- both the coalition and the Afghan Air Force strikes, are -- when -- when there -- when there are strikes that are conducted by the Afghan Air Force, are there always Afghan military JTACs that are calling those in?  Are they doing that all completely by themselves?

 GEN. BUNCH:  Great -- Courtney, that's a great question.  So the Afghan Air Force is trained and advised and assisted by the coalition under the Resolute Support mission, but the actual direction and control of the Afghan Air Force is done completely by the Afghan National Defense Security Forces.

 So, when the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces want to strike a target, they develop that intelligence themselves.  They'd create the target package.  We then -- they then pass that to the air crews that then go talk to what the Afghans call ATACs, which is their rough equivalent, on the ground, where they talk to the crews and call in the strikes to -- to be successful.

 Q:  And then, on the -- the coalition strikes, again -- the counterterrorist strikes, can -- I'm so sorry.  I cut off the last sentence that you just said.

 GEN. BUNCH:  I -- I just said that it -- it -- the whole cycle is run and controlled by the Afghans themselves.

 Q:  OK, thank you.

 And then, on the -- the counterterrorist strikes by the coalition, can you give us a sense of what kind of platforms you're using for those?  Are most of them manned, or are they unmanned?  Or is it a combination of both?

 GEN. BUNCH:  Courtney, we'll use whichever aircraft we need at the time to put the right weapon on the target to minimize collateral damage and any kind of collateral concerns that we have.

 So we use -- we've had a wide range of aircraft, both manned and unmanned, available to us, and, honestly, we would take which was the most precise to use for the particular mission.

 Q:  And -- and the ones that you've mentioned, the roughly 80 or so, would you say that the -- (inaudible) -- would you say that, rough -- those 80 or so coalition ones -- are they -- are they mainly manned or unmanned?

 GEN. BUNCH:  I would say it's a mix of both, mostly manned.

 Q:  Sorry, I've had too much coffee today.  I'm -- I'm speaking too quickly for you.  Thank you.

 STAFF:  All right.  Sir, we have a question from Task & Purpose.

 Q:  Thank you.  General, Jeff Schogol, Task & Purpose.

 There's been some criticism that the Black Hawk helicopters that the Afghan Air Force are getting are too complicated to be maintained by the Afghans and don't -- they can't go at the altitude that the Russian helicopters they used to be using could do.  Could you talk about that a bit?

 GEN. BUNCH:  Yes, Jeff, a great question.  So the Afghan Air Force is currently flying the Mi-17, the Russian helicopter you're referring to, and they are coming to the end of their life and are unsustainable, so needed to be replaced.

 The -- the choice was made to use the UH-60A+, and, depending on where in Afghanistan and the loadout of that particular helicopter, in some it -- I mean, the Mi-17 and the UH-60A+ have completely different flight envelopes.  They're -- they're completely different helicopters.

 But in -- in some instances, depending on how the UH-60 is loaded or the Mi-17 is loaded, the UH-60 actually has a better altitude or load capacity, depending on the environment.

 Both helicopters work here in Afghanistan.  The UH-60A+ is going to be a fantastic addition to the Afghan Air Force.  They've already got 16 of them here.

 They've already graduated their first combat crews, to include -- you know, four of the 15 that were graduated in the very first class were selected because they did so well and immediately made aircraft commanders.

 So, as they're bringing on a brand new helicopter, they -- you got brand new air crews flying them, and they're already flying combat missions with those -- those four integrated crews.  And then they've got the 16 helicopters, and they continue to train, and we get about two more a month.

 Q:  So, just one quick follow-up.  Given that a lot of Afghan service members are illiterate, how do you teach them to maintain a UH-60A+?

 GEN. BUNCH:  So, as part of their initial training, they get six months of English training to start -- to -- as they very first come in.  It's one of the advantages we see in the Afghan Air Force.  As we bring in the -- the recruits and we train them, we give them those skills, and we see that the retention rates are very good when they come into the Afghan Air Force.

 But it starts with learning English.

 Q:  Wouldn’t it be easier to teach them in Pashto?

 GEN. BUNCH:  We teach in -- in -- English is the language that we teach in all the aviation here in Afghanistan.

 STAFF:  OK.  With that, are there any additional questions?  Go ahead.

 Q:  Eric Rowe with the Asahi Shimbun.

 My question is, with the training and equipping of the Afghan Air Force, what do you see as some key capabilities that are still lacking and that need to be improved?

 GEN. BUNCH:  Actually, the Afghan Air Force continues to improve in capability every day.  I mean, you know, they flew the first combat sortie with their A-29s in April of '16.

 In March of '18, this year, they dropped their first laser-guided bomb, a significant increase in their capability and their precision as they go after the Taliban targets wherever they are in the country.  They've dropped up to 75 of those now.

 We see them also with their C208, which is a Cessna light cargo aircraft, where they've modified them so they're able to do combat air drops.  And, just this year --

 (AUDIO GAP)

 GEN. BUNCH:  -- drop for forces that were in a remote location up in Badakhshan, where the Afghans planned the mission, they packed and loaded the pallets, flew up to Badakhshan and dropped all of the pallets into the drop zone to be recovered by the -- the Afghan forces.

 They followed it up about 15 days later, up in Faryab, all the way on the other side of the country, where, within six hours of notification for an emergency resupply, the Afghans planned, again packed the pallets, and then executed the sortie where they dropped supplies to isolated Afghan forces.

 They got it in the UH-60, which they will continue to build up until they get roughly 169 of those, of which the fixed forward-firing version of that will be significantly more capable than the fixed firing forward capable Mi-17.

 And, later this year, we're going to see the Afghan Air Force bring on the AC-208, which will bring a precision strike and intelligence capability to the Afghan Air Force that they've not yet had and will continue to increase their lethality and precision as they go after the Taliban.

 STAFF:  OK.  With that, sir, I -- I think you've exhausted the room, and there's no more questions here.

 Sir, we've got an opportunity for you to have any final words for the group, sir.

 GEN. BUNCH:  It -- you know, it's a very exciting and interesting time to be here in Afghanistan as we see the first-ever cease-fire in the -- in the time of this conflict.

 And as we see the Afghan Air Force and all the Afghan forces continue to increase their capability, the capability gap between the Afghan government forces and the Taliban continues to grow.

 And so as we've said, the opportunity for the Taliban to come to the table and look to reconcile is now, because their -- their offensive operations have proven a few things:  They cannot hold ground, and they are taking lots of casualties.  And they've resorted all the way back to just hitting disparate checkpoints or remote district centers, all of which is not a winning strategy.

 And so, as you see with President Ghani, even his op-ed today in The New York Times and his continued offer to have talks with the Taliban anywhere, at any time with reasonable discussions, the opportunity is there.

 And so, I thank everybody for taking the time today.  It's been a pleasure to talk to you.  And I will be back in the Pentagon shortly, and see some of you personally there.

 STAFF:  Sir, thank you for your time, and -- and have a great day.

 GEN. BUNCH:  Thank you.

 

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