Pam Constable (PC): You are the face of this mission, you are said to have a passion for it, a passion for something that many people view as a hopeless military quagmire in a country that is riddled with corruption and divided by ethnic warlordism. Where does your passion come from, what gives you hope, and why have you kept coming back?
Gen. Nicholson: I believe in the Afghan people, for starters, and so from my first experience here in 2006, I came to have great respect and affection for the Afghan people, who have endured an incredible amount of hardship for the last four decades, yet still in spite of all that are incredibly pious, hard-working, hospitable and truly want a better life for their children, so these are all things any of us can relate to and share. Coupled with that, as a soldier, is the concern I have about terrorism emanating from this area and when we have the potential to work with people like the Afghans to bring about stability who are so grateful for our presence here and our help then we have the ingredients for a successful outcome, where we reduce the potential for terrorism coming from the region that can threaten our homeland and those of our allies.
PC: You have seen both high and low points in your four or five tours here, when we first met you were a colonel and just landed in Laghman to inaugurate a bridge. It was a time of optimism, with a sense of Afghan support and cooperation. Since then there have been a myriad of setbacks that have strained relations and caused a buildup of Afghan frustration and resentment against foreign forces. There have been numerous green on blue attacks, even by members of the Afghan Special Forces, on which your mission is banking so much. Perhaps the low point for you was the airstrike on the hospital in Kunduz in April 2016, shortly after you assumed command, for which you personally apologized to the Afghan people. Can you briefly talk about that incident and other setbacks and what lessons came from them?
Gen. Nicholson: Sure, just one point of fact, the airstrike occurred in October of 2015, before I took command and then the report came out after I took command. So I was the commander when the results of the investigation were released and then I went up there with Norine (MacDonald, Nicholson’s wife) to apologize. So let me take this down to a human level. What I found is quite often, in the case of green-on-blue attacks, you actually find a troubled individual, a confused individual, who has been influenced in a negative manner to conduct these attacks. I have never seen this green-on-blue phenomenon reflect a broad or concerted effort on the part of a general reaction to our presence. It has typically been an individual acting often on his own or maybe with one or two others; that’s it. Therefore, I don’t universalize this green-on-blue phenomenon. I don’t believe the green on blue reflects any trend across the Afghan security forces, rather it reflects the actions of individuals who for a variety of reasons choose to do that. So moving on to the visit to Kunduz, this has been a long war and these people have endured an incredible hardship and in spite of that, the vast majority of these people, close to 90 percent reject the Taliban. They don’t want to see a return of the Taliban rule and they appreciate, genuinely appreciate our help. So when we make a mistake, as occurred in October 2015, and strike a hospital, it is the right thing to do, to reach out to them on a personal basis. In this case we apologized, once the investigation was complete; we determined that, yes, we had made a mistake. It was the appropriate thing to do on a number of levels; on a human level, it is the right thing to do. On a cultural level, in this culture, when you make a genuine apology for your actions — and that is normally almost always accepted — and then you are able to move on in the relationship. On the other hand if you don’t apologize, if you try to characterize the event as something else than you do irreparable damage to your relationship. So it was extremely important to do that with not only the community, which my wife and I did, and we met with the individual families who lost their loved ones, and that, as you can imagine, was a very emotional and personal event, but that was important to the healing process. That needs to happen in this long war, and then, since then, my wife stayed in touch with the families to remain in contact with them. So we care about these families, we care about these on a personal level so I will give you another example. So after the 31 May bombing, when seven Afghan policemen died protecting the government and diplomatic community by not allowing that huge bomb into the green zone, and they did their job. This individual had paperwork that would have allowed him into here and potentially could have been even worse than what it was and so we invited the families to those who were killed and those who were wounded to personally express our appreciation. This is really important that we do this, and they know that we do care about them as people and as individuals and we respect and honor their sacrifice and know they are fighting on behalf of us, and also the reason we don’t require so many forces here is because the Afghans own the war, and these are the words of President Ghani: “We own the war; we want to own the war.” They just ask for our help in this, so, therefore, I think that given the threat of terrorism coming from the region and their willingness to fight against these terrorists with our help is the key reason why we should stay, not only to help them but to protect our own homeland and those of our allies.
PC: Your recent comments, as well as President Trump’s, seem to be describing two wars against two enemies in Afghanistan … the Taliban and the forces of international terrorism … there are two separate audiences for these messages: the Afghan people who are desperately seeking peace and the American voter tired of the Afghan war but who understand the need to fight terror. Are these fights complementary or contradictory?
Gen. Nicholson: The president, in his speech, has acknowledged that we have not been attacked in this region since we got here. I think fundamentally that requirement to keep pressure on these terror groups to prevent another attack on our homeland, I think that fundamentally … that is why we’re here, and that is because of the Taliban. So the Taliban had provided that environment, they maintained the relationship with these terrorist groups, even though these recognize that the reason they were removed from power is because of their hospitality to al-Qaeda; they had maintained that relationship … so they don’t talk about it publicly, but they still cooperate and work together on the battlefield. So a return to Taliban rule in Afghanistan is a return to al-Qaeda. And a return to al-Qaeda would mean another threat to our homeland … and, of course, another thing President Trump mentioned in his speech is the presence of more than 20 terrorist groups, one of the highest concentrations in the world. So another dynamic we’ve seen over the last 16 years is the emergence of a variety of these groups. And so this also is a reason to remain here. And this is also a something the Afghan people reject as well. The best example is Daesh. Islamic State, the membership of ISIS-K, is mainly Pakistani, Pashtu from TTP and Islamic Movement Uzbekistan, two foreign groups that came together to form this group and then attempting to take over parts of Afghanistan. So their method of operation, their barbaric behavior, is all abhorrent to Afghan culture, so they’re totally rejected by the Afghans, but they need our help to defeat them. But they’re the ones leading the fight against Daesh, typically in the form of their special forces, advised by our special forces, but together they have effectively squeezed Daesh into one third of the space that was occupied, killed over half of their fighters, killed their last three leaders, and so on … so this in an area where Americans need to be concerned about Islamic State emerging from this region. The Taliban enable them exist, and if the Taliban were to return they would flourish, al-Qaeda would exist here once again, and therefore, if we have a willing partner in the Afghans with a modest investment from the U.S., then this is a good investment in our eyes.
PC: My point was more the Afghans are seeking a peaceful settlement.
Gen. Nicholson: Oh, sure.
PC: … with the Taliban, where the terrorist thing is more of a fight to the death. These are two really different kind of wars.
Gen. Nicholson: On that point, the president mentioned that we would welcome a reconciliation, certainly, as a part of our desired end state here; that’s how this war ends, with reconciliation between belligerents. That reconciliation will occur when the Taliban realize they cannot win. Them realizing they cannot win is a condition that leads us to reconciliation … They need to recognize that the door is open for reconciliation, that needs to be put out there and it has been. And I see many Afghans working this every day, but we need to keep military pressure on the Taliban so they realize they can’t win and their best choice is to rejoin society.
PC: Let me go back to the other questions that I was going to ask … you said this week that you had communicated with President Trump essentially through the chain of command, mainly Gen. [Joseph] Votel at CENTCOM, implying that you had never spoken with him directly. In a recent White House meeting, the president reportedly threatened to fire you and was frustrated by the lack of progress in the war. Do you believe today that President Trump has your back?
Gen. Nicholson: That’s an interesting question … yes.
PC: Anything else? I’ll take that as a yes … President Trump spoke on Monday about being determined to win in Afghanistan. Others, including Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson and yourself, have framed the issue on how to prevent defeat or failure, what would success or the acceptable avoidance of failure look like to you in Afghanistan?
Gen. Nicholson: Well first it would mean that ISIS-K and al-Qaeda are defeated, destroyed and that other terrorist groups have no freedom of action to pursue their agendas from Afghanistan. That’s one. Second is external enablement of these groups and terrorists would be reduced or hopefully eliminated. External enablement. Third, the Afghan security forces grow in capacity, and that’s primarily through the special forces, and the air force would expand their control of the country to say … at least 80 percent. This then leads to a set of conditions for reconciliation. So the insurgents are then increasingly marginalized, frankly, either die or reconcile. So next would be an adequate level of political and economic progress to enable the government to be self-sustaining, and this would include the conducting of fair and credible elections in 2018 and 2019. Those are the elements I think success would look like over the next few years.
PC: You have placed a tremendous amount of faith and confidence in President Ghani, you have worked closely with him on the four year military road map, you’ve especially pointed to his efforts to fight corruption and bring professionalism to the security sector. But President Ghani is struggling and is distracted by internal and external opposition, much of it is motivated by pushback against his reform efforts. His government lacks a popular mandate and constitutional legitimacy. Do you think he is going to be able to deliver?
Gen. Nicholson: Yes, I do. So first off, President Ghani has already delivered international support for Afghanistan. Starting on the July 2016 Warsaw summit, where the coalition, largely because of their belief in President Ghani and the Afghan people, extended their mandate by four years, to resource the security forces and to extend the presence of NATO troops and coalition troops for four years. And second, the Brussels donor conference, where again President Ghani invested a tremendous amount of personal effort, and by him and his whole government team, and they received $15 billion in pledges for economic developmental assistance over the next several years. And third is the recently concluded policy process with the United States, which President Ghani and his team were key partners in producing that. And this one example is one of the things we talked about yesterday the compact between the U.S. and Afghanistan, and this was offered by President Ghani, he said hold us accountable, here’s what we will do, and we will work together on this compact in the security arena. There are literally hundreds of milestones and benchmarks that the Afghans have agreed to meet, for which we will hold them accountable. So I think the answer to the first question: He has delivered. He has delivered international support and extended the mandate. And the United States policy that supports Afghanistan. And he has done this because he has been a very willing and capable partner and working with us for the security of Afghanistan and the security, indeed, of all of the coalition. This is extremely important. On the reform and counter-corruption agenda, I think this is extremely important. It has been a big part of credibility within the international community and certainty, and certainly when you implement such a rigorous reform effort, there is going to be people who will resist that, and I think that can explain some of the political resistance that he has experienced as he has gone forward with his reform agenda. And so within the security sector, the reform agenda has been absolutely critical to success, and so we support this reform agenda, and I think that over time this is going to be — the results of this are going to be demonstrated, the results will be appreciated by the Afghan people, the impact of this reform agenda. I know I am speaking for the security sector in particular, we’re already seeing a difference on the battlefield.
PC: You are basically saying that time will tell. It will become clear over time. Because you know, right now we got all this controversy over people like [Vice President Abdul Rashid] Dostum and [Gov. ] Atta [Muhammad Nur] — these different people who have gone rogue, essentially — and bringing in this whole other big problem with this whole ethnic rivalry and violence that has nothing to do with the war.
Gen. Nicholson: So on this, this is why we work very close with President Ghani. I have seen him, you know, typically four times a week along with Chief Executive [Abdullah] Abdullah and the security ministers, but we also meet frequently with members, political elites who are outside the government, so that they know and believe, and it’s true that we are engaged with all Afghans, those in government as well as those outside of government, and so what I ask them is to say that please do not allow ethnic or political agendas to affect the cohesion of the military. That the military and police should be national forces and that police support the security services and do not allow these forces to affect their ability to secure the nation. And universally, they agree with us. I have been very encouraged by that. While there are political differences that you would expect in the year before an election, you are going to see a more intense political cycle emerge. But in spite of that, there is almost a universal support for the military. And this reflects in the the polling we are doing: 76 percent of the Afghan people have high confidence in their military and police; 87 percent believe the return to be Taliban would be bad for the nation.
P.C. I had a long interview recently with someone you know (name inaudible) who had just come from a long meeting with you, just by chance, and we were discussing this very issue. He was making those same points.
Gen. Nicholson: He, Minister Salay, professor Sayaf, former government officials like Vice President Kununi, Minister Bizmala Khan Wardak, I mean I meet with shuras in different parts … down in Kandahar with the provincial council members I know well, and we host them here when they come up. We maintain an active dialogue with all these groups of Afghan society. I am always encouraged by their strong support for the security forces.
P.C. They probably say the army more than the police.
Gen. Nicholson: Yeah it’s interesting. The young police officers, like these brave seven that died out here, I find they are doing their job every day, and that is the — when I hear complaints about the leadership and that is why back to President Ghani’s focus on anti-corruption, the replacement of leaders at senior level both in MoI and MoD have been crucial. I will give you a couple of examples. We have two new corps commanders in the south, Brigadier General Amidzi, now-Major General Amidzi in Helmand, and MG Azir in Kandahar … so these two core commanders of the 205th and 215th fundamentally changed the environment down there. And (name inaudible), who’s an Uzbek in Kandahar, works extremely well with other security leaders there, and there connecting with the people. So what we’re seeing there is a soldier of the nation who is connecting with the people, who happens to be an Uzbek, who’s in the heartland of the former Taliban, and largely delivering security for what is mostly a Pashtun population. This, to me, is indicative of a focus on quality not ethics. There was some discussion about do you put an Uzbek in Kandahar; he’s turned out to be great. And then General Ahmadzi’s Pasthtun, but from a different part of the country, and he’s being successful in Helmand. And we have General Mobin, who’s Hazaran, who’s the corps commander in the north. And that’s a very complex and difficult area. But he’s doing, where he goes out and does military operations, he’s having success because he’s a very good commander and he’s been selected based on merit. When Ghani did this, when he selected the corps commanders, he lowered the age by an average of 10 years. So it’s a younger generation, and what he’s after is sort of a generational change, and the leadership of the military and police.
PC: And just coincidentally on the other side of the coin, I just covered the trial of the commander from Helmand, and it was very interesting.
Gen. Nicholson: He’s the guy I replaced. I mean, look at the contrast, right. This guy was selling food to his own soldiers, stealing fuel. I mean, it’s unbelievable.
PC: The allegation that he had forced, that he had required, 30 active troops under his command to go guard his house and drive his kids to places is crazy.
Gen. Nicholson: He was relieved by President Ghani and was replaced by Brigadier General Ahmadzi, who came out of the brigade in Kunar and was sent to Helmand. And Ahmadzi has turned that place around and the 215th Corps, in terms of its effectiveness on the battlefield, through personal leadership. And this is why the selection that Ghani is making based on merit is so important for the future of this country.
PC: This is something you may not want to discuss in detail, but perhaps some of it you can. You have repeatedly pointed out the critical role of Pakistan in being a part of the problem or part of the solution of the Afghan conflict, especially in terms of sanctuary for insurgents and terrorists. President Trump has warned he will take measures against Pakistan if they do not stop halt such support. But previous American administrations have made the same warnings, with little effect. Pakistan now has strong backing from China. The primary concern remains Indian hegemony and how to counteract it. Do you have any sign that Pakistan is more likely to respond to U.S. pressure on Afghanistan now or signs that its thinking may be changing?
Gen. Nicholson: First, I’d say that the Pakistanis have suffered grievously at the hands of terrorists, and they have their security forces that fought and fight bravely, and courageously against certain terrorists inside their country and we respect that. On the other hand, President Trump laid out the current state of U.S.-Pakistan relations, and I really have nothing to add to that. I think we are at a crucial point in our relations, and this’ll be managed from Washington to Islamabad. That’s about all I have to say about that.
PC: Actually it was your testimony, about the Haqqanis and others, but yours, I think, was the salient one that got everyone’s attention. So it’s not as if it’s something you haven’t talked about or expressed concern about.
Gen. Nicholson: I’ll say historically, if an insurgency enjoys external enablement, it’s very difficult to defeat. So concerns about external enablement are extremely important to our chances of success in the conflict. I’ll just leave it at that. Sorry, Pam, maybe another time.
PC: President Trump did not talk about the other important regional players, especially Iran and Russia, which are keenly interested in influencing Afghanistan and the conflict and which I’m sure concerns you. In your view, what should the U.S. be doing to help ensure that these powerful regional neighbors do not interfere?
Gen. Nicholson: I think the regional neighbors share common interests with the coalition and Afghanistan. Number one would be the spillover of terrorism. So we share in interest in counterterrorism, and especially the concerns about Daesh, so I would hope that the neighbors realize that the Afghan special forces, enabled by U.S. counterterrorism forces, are the ones who will defeat Daesh, not the Taliban. So, in the context of CT, the support of neighbors should be going to the Afghan government and its forces, and the defeat of these terrorists. The Afghans and their U.S. advisers are fighting the fight that will benefit the neighbors, and so therefore our efforts should be supported and not undermined by support to the Taliban.
The second concern is counternarcotics. So, the narcotics trafficking out of Afghanistan and into Iran and Russia sadly results in tens of thousands of deaths every year. You’d think that these nations would work closely with the government of Afghanistan to cooperate against the flow of narcotics.
That would be issue number two, and then, with respect to Afghanistan and Iran in particular, you have areas of mutual interest like water. Water from Afghanistan into Iran. You have areas of mutual interest like economic development, the port of Chabahar, and the potential economic route from central Asia through Afghanistan, out through Iran to Chabahar. So there are areas of mutual interest. So I would hope that these areas of mutual interest would be used to build a positive relationship that would reinforce the stability of Afghanistan, not undermine it.
PC: It’s very complicated, especially with Iran. They have so much interest, positive interest here, with this huge Hazara community, and all of these attacks that are happening now, like the one today, against all these Shiite targets — and yet, there are all these accusations that Iran is actively fomenting support for Taliban, even in Syria. It’s very tricky.
Gen. Nicholson: It is. Historically, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they murdered Iranian diplomats. So it’s surprising to hear of Iranian support to these people who are not their natural allies.
PC: Most Afghans I’ve spoken to are appalled at the idea of the U.S. sending in private contractors to substitute for government troops here, saying it would destroy Afghan trust and goodwill in the United States. Do you think there’s still any chance that the Trump administration will decide to bring in such contractors?
Gen. Nicholson: As the president discussed, he considered other options before deciding on this course of action. But now that this course of action has been selected, that’s not a part of this. I would point out that we have a significant number of contractors performing many functions beyond those envisioned in those proposals you referenced.
PC: So you think that’s really off the table now?
Gen. Nicholson: That’s my read. I mean, the president made a decision.
PC: That’s all the questions I have.
Gen. Nicholson: You asked about India, and I didn’t say anything about India. I did want to mention the tremendously positive role that India’s played here. As you probably are aware, they’re one of the top donors, with over $3 billion in donations or pledges; they’ve done significant infrastructure projects like parliament, like the road from Delaram to Zaranj, the Psalm and Friendship Dam, the education of literally thousands of Afghans, and then a small amount of military support in the form of those helicopters. So my belief is that India was the first nation to conduct a strategic partnership with Afghanistan — I think it was in 2011 — so there’s a friendship and a support from India and Afghanistan, that I think can lead to greater stability in Afghanistan and the region. And it’s not a threat to the neighbors; this is something that’s regional nations helping each other, which I think is very positive. I was heartened to hear the president support this relationship with India and India’s role in Afghanistan because I agree it can be very important.
PC: Of course it is, as one person put it, a red flag to a bull with the Pakistanis. They see everything as an absolutely zero-sum game in terms of India. The enemy of my enemy … you know what I mean.
Gen. Nicholson: I’m sure that this is part of the dialogue that’s going on bilaterally between Washington and Islamabad.
PC: I just wonder. I just wonder what will happen there. I’ve heard there was some sort of huge celebration today in Pakistan, or not a celebration, but some sort of big gathering of religious leaders calling for, you know, “We’re going to defend our nation against Trump.” The Pakistanis are incredibly nationalistic, and it’s amazing to hear everyone from right-wing leaders to Imran Khan saying … “We can’t be bullied by America.” So they all come together when it comes to that, even when they all hate each other and criticize each other constantly. It’s a very interesting country.
Gen. Nicholson: I hope, you know, as the president said, there’s much to gain by working together with us.
PC: Is there anything else you would like to say?
Gen. Nicholson: I know you’ve done a lot of articles, I read your stuff, I think it’s very accurate. You’ve touched upon a lot of stuff over time — I mean, the ANDSF[, or Afghan National Defense Security Forces,] planning, the different events that have occurred … I’m trying to think of anything you’ve not covered, or we haven’t discussed here, but honestly I don’t see much. We’ve talked about reconciliation, we talked about external enablement, you know, President Ghani has a willing and valued partner in this cooperation.
I would like to mention the alliance. Because that’s something we didn’t talk about.
PC: You mean NATO?
Gen. Nicholson: Yeah, so, we have a coalition of 39 nations, and last year when the U.S., when President Obama decided in June of '16 to raise our investment of troops from 5,500 to 8,450, you’ll recall that the alliance immediately pledged to remain at the same level, and in some cases we even had increases. So, the legitimacy we get from the presence of 38 other nations, and the physical support, which is sometimes underestimated. The number tops 7,000, so not all these are counted against the NATO requirement, but there’s over 7,000 allies here, so this is significant. And let’s take the role of Germany in the north. Germany has a coalition of 19 other nations up there with them, in the north, very committed to the north. So this alliance is critical to the effort going forward. So as the NATO commander, number one, I really appreciate them being here. They bring capacity that we couldn’t provide, to be candid. So the presence in the north and the west, and the presence in Kabul … so you‘ve got the German lead in the north, the Italians in the west and the Turks in Kabul… they provide the framework for all of our operations in those areas. And they have been steadfast in their support. Even in this June of '17. So in July of '16 they immediately pledged to stay at the same level or higher. And in June of 17, when the U.S. policy was under consideration, they pledged another 650 troops above the current pledge. So, we’ve seen a steady level of support from all the allies for this mission. [NATO] Secretary General [Jens] Stoltenberg’s comments, you know, you can just look at them to see the steady support that they’ve had for this. So I think we should, we need to acknowledge and value their support as well because it’s not just the United States going along here; this is 39 nations here together. We all see the benefits of protecting our homelands and, frankly, reducing migration. Afghans were the second-largest group of migrants into Europe, behind Syria. So this investment here, it’s not just the United States, it’s the United States plus 38 other allies, that have been here along with us for all this time. So, I know your audience is back in the states primarily, but I mean that’s something important for them to understand. These nations have remained with us.
PC: Particularly since President Trump has been harping for a long time on getting them to step up to the plate, on various things, not just this.
Gen. Nicholson: You know, the Warsaw Summit, they all pledged another four years of financial support to the security forces. At Brussels they pledged $15 billion in assistance, and then with this U.S. policy announcement, on the margins of this, when this was being discussed, and allies knew it was important that the U.S. see additional contributions. Another 650 were pledged in advance, and now we have another half-dozen nations that have indicated they’re ready to pledge more too. So I think we’re going to see in the coming months more pledges from the alliance to augment what we’re going to provide. So this is really important. I think it needs to be acknowledged.
PC: Can you envision a time when there will be a government here that will include the Taliban? That may be truly representative of all the segments of this nation?
Gen. Nicholson: Absolutely. A reconciliation is just that, and most wars end with belligerents joining together in the future governance of a nation, so absolutely that could happen. Now, this is a conversation that needs to happen between Afghans, and then the Afghan government needs to put provisions on the table, such as agreement with the provisions of the Afghan constitution, with protections for human rights, so there are some fundamental things — a renouncement of violence and support to terrorism — so there’s been some pretty clear conditions put on the table, but if those are met, then absolutely. And you know, I get these, in many of the leaders that I talk to out of government in particular, they talk about they are having conversations with members of the Taliban who do want to rejoin — I’m sure you’ve heard the same thing.
PC: One thing they always say, the one giant caveat, is always, “but American/foreign forces have to leave.” That’s always there, big sticking point.
Gen. Nicholson: Yeah, but this conversation needs to begin, or continue. So I think, there is a perception … Well, some are irreconcilable; well, they just won’t want to reconcile under any conditions. Some believe they can win militarily, so they need to understand they can’t win militarily — now that we’ve gone to a conditions-based presence and not a time-based presence — they cannot win. So if you put the irreconcilables aside, then really what we’re talking about are those that, once they realize they cannot win, will say, look, we want a better life for our kids. And they can’t help but miss what’s been going on in Afghanistan in the last 15 years. You look at pictures of Kabul in 2001 and pictures of Kabul today, there’s no comparison. When you look at the education, the health care, the benefits, the life is better for the average Afghan. And then increasingly, the Taliban, as you know, Pam, has become very involved in the drug trade and criminal activities, and so the Taliban are not a political movement supported by the people inside the country. Ninety percent of them reject the Taliban. And then the Taliban’s activities of killing civilians, and being engaged in narcotics trafficking, illegal mining, kidnapping, murder for hire, all of these things are moving them further and further away from any kind of legitimacy with the Afghan people. So when they stop engaging in those activities and rejoin the government, then yeah, I think … there are former Taliban that, of course, are a part of Afghan society and governance.
PC: I hope it happens in my lifetime.