General John W. Nicholson, USMA ‘82, serves as the Commander, Resolute Support and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan. During his 33-year career, he has commanded at every level, and led or served within NATO four times. He previously commanded NATO Allied Land Command, the 82nd Airborne Division, and was Director of the Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell on the Joint Staff. In Afghanistan, he served as Deputy Commanding General for Operations of U.S. Forces Afghanistan and Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations of NATO’s International Security Assistance Forces, and Deputy Commander of Regional Command South. He also commanded 3rd BCT (TF Spartan) of the 10th Mountain Division, the only U.S. BCT in Afghanistan in 2006, conducting counterinsurgency operations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
CTC: Given the current focus on the Islamic State in the Levant region, can you talk a little bit about why Afghanistan, and particularly the counterterrorism mission, is still relevant? What impacts has this focus on Iraq and Syria had on your efforts in South Asia, positive and/or negative?
Nicholson: The reason Afghanistan remains important is the concentration of terrorist groups in the Afghanistan/Pakistan (AF/PAK) region. Of the 98 U.S. designated terrorist groups globally, 20 are in the AF/PAK region. This is the highest concentration anywhere in the world. So even though in other places, some of these particular groups may have more members—ISIL is a perfect example—many terror groups are still active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The particular danger this presents is the convergence of these groups. Because these groups exist in this medium of a high-youth population, low employment, the presence of narcotics and other criminal enterprises, the extremist teachings in some of the religious schools, it creates kind of a petri dish within which these different strains of terrorism—the 20 designated groups and three VEOs [violent extremist organizations]—all converge, recruit, and morph into more virulent strains. Our presence keeps pressure on that system. That’s critical to prevent another attack on our homeland or our allies.
Certainly there’s been a great focus on the ISIL-Main presence, but they’ve created eight affiliates, and ISIS-K [Islamic State in the Khorasan Province] is one of them. So as we continue to pressure the center, we don’t want to see fighters and resources move to our theater. We have been conducting a series of operations against ISIS-K on a regular basis since the beginning of 2016 and have succeeded in reducing their number of fighters almost in half and their territory by two-thirds. We’ve killed their top 14 leaders. Now, obviously, they regenerate, and there still are existing financial networks that link ISIL-Main to ISIS-K. There’s information support. There’s guidance. There’s still active communication back and forth between ISIS-K and ISIL-Main.
GEN Nicholson at a security shura with the head of Kandahar Provincial Council
CTC: You mentioned 20 designated foreign terrorist organizations in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. Diversity of agenda is really complicated in the militant environment. Which organizations are you the most concerned about and why?
Nicholson: The top two organizations we’re concerned about are al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State. These two have transnational ambitions. They have ambitions against the U.S. homeland and the homelands of our allies. So that’s why they’re at the top of the list. The others obviously concern us as well. Many of them have regional ambitions. For example, al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) attacks regionally. The Haqqani network goes back and forth. We have the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] Quds Forces operating inside Afghanistan, supporting the Taliban. Many of these groups are based in Pakistan, and then some of them fight in Afghanistan. Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba—we find these operatives showing up in Afghanistan, and so this is the convergence.
Let me give you an example. Al-Qa`ida is linked to the Taliban, who are not a designated terrorist organization but a violent extremist organization, and the Taliban provide a medium for designated terrorist organizations like the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and AQIS. These five form a loose sort of confederation that complement one another and work together. The Islamic State, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have also formed a loose configuration. So we see these alliances of convenience or where they have complementary goals come together, and this is one of our big concerns.
U.S. policy in the region is to maintain a regional counterterrorism platform. I believe the policy is very, very sound and very important because having a regional counterterrorism platform—we call that CASA CT (Central Asia South Asia Counterterrorism)—keeps pressure on these groups. We do a lot of work with our neighbors. I’ve been to India three times. I go to Pakistan monthly. The Central Asian republics are very concerned about the spillover. We find external actors like the Russians promoting a narrative, a false narrative, that the Afghan government is not effective against ISIS-K, therefore the Russians are legitimizing the Taliban as being the most effective against ISIS-K. They use this as an opportunity to undermine the U.S. and NATO. Iran is supporting the Taliban, particularly in the western part of Afghanistan, and the Quds Force, IRGC, is working with the Taliban. There’s also a nexus with criminal organizations through which the Taliban get most of their funding. Almost two-thirds of their funding [comes] from the opium trade, illegal mining, extortion, kidnapping, et cetera. So what you find is this kind of toxic mixture of terrorist, insurgent, criminal activity operating in this medium. The huge youth bulge—210 million people between Pakistan and Afghanistan—probably two-thirds are under the age of 30; and economic development is not keeping up with the demographic growth—you add in the extremist teachings in the madrassas, and you’ve got a very toxic mixture.
As the commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, I control the CT effort. And as the commander of Resolute Support, I do the training, advising, and assisting of the Afghans to include their CT forces, which are the most effective in their military. In the U.S. CT effort this year, of the 20 groups, we’ve killed five emirs of these groups in the last nine months. So we’ve had a fairly effective CT effort going on. However, as we know, they regenerate quickly and produce new leaders. On October 23, we killed Farooq al-Qahtani, who was an external operations director for al-Qa`ida and was actively involved in the last year in plotting attacks against the United States. There’s active plotting against our homeland going on in Afghanistan. If we relieve pressure on this system, then they’re going to be able to advance their work more quickly than they would otherwise.
CTC: Can you speak about the relationship between AQIS and AQ senior leadership? Obviously AQIS is more regionally focused, but can you speak about how you assess the threat that part of the organization poses?
Nicholson: A good example would be the raid that we conducted in October of 2015 in Shorabak District of Kandahar, which uncovered a camp where AQIS and Taliban were working together. AQIS had a fairly sophisticated media effort. There was a lot of exploitable material that came off of that objective, and that material revealed just how sophisticated these folks are. Yes, they have a regional agenda, but this region is very important to the United States. With our growing relationship with India, we’re concerned about the instability in Bangladesh, and we’ve seen a lot of AQIS interference in Bangladesh. In this Shorabak objective, there were congratulatory notes going back and forth about some of these activities in Bangladesh. There is a linkage to core al-Qa`ida. Of course, al-Qa`ida is very focused right now on the survival of their senior leadership, but they are connected to these guys as well. They all share the same agenda and the same focus.
With AQIS, in return for the sanctuary and support they get from groups like the Taliban, they do lend assistance to the Taliban. They’re lending expertise to the people that we’re concerned about inside of Afghanistan. This is back to that convergence factor that we’re very concerned about inside Afghanistan. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
CTC: When you say convergence, do you include the possibility of a convergence between those two different conglomerations that you talked about? Do you see that maybe as ISIS-K gets reduced in its capability, these networks (ISIS-K and the Taliban) could potentially come back together again in the future?
Nicholson: I don’t see those two groupings coming together. Haibatullaha has made statements telling the Taliban to attack the Islamic State. Al-Baghdadi’s rhetoric is pretty clear. So we don’t see some sort of accommodation between the Taliban and Islamic State. What we do see are more radicalized elements of other groups ready to join the Islamic State for two reasons: one, they may agree with the ideology; or two, the money. There’s direct financial support flowing from Syria to Afghanistan. An Islamic State fighter is paid almost twice as much as a Taliban fighter.
In some cases, in southern Nangarhar Province, for example, this has meant they’ve been able to recruit local Taliban fighters who live in the area and are faced with a tough choice: Do I move away from my home, or do I just join these guys? Some of them join. But the vast majority of Afghans reject the Islamic State, and most of the Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan are from the Orakzai Agency of Pakistan.b They’re actually TTP; they’re Pakistanis. So they’re viewed as foreigners.
CTC: Have you seen that pay issue change over time? There’s been discussion, in Iraq and Syria, as the Islamic State has been under increased military pressure there that they have not been able to pay their fighters as much in that location. How has that flow of funding and even the overall support to Khorasan changed as the caliphate has been constricted?
Nicholson: That’s a good point. They have had some financial difficulties, but there’s still money getting through. It’s a big focus of our effort. My intention would be to defeat Islamic State in Afghanistan in the next year. I’m setting the bar high for us. Money is flowing today. We don’t want fighters flowing tomorrow.
CTC: And you do not see fighters flowing right now?
Nicholson: No, we do not. We see operational guidance. They receive funding. Dabiq magazinec had an issue where they highlighted ISIS-K, so they do get that support. We’ve been striking them and eliminating people, but they are adapting. We have reduced their financial flows, but we haven’t eliminated them.
CTC: You’ve spoken about the sophistication of many of these different groups, whether it’s AQIS or al-Qa`ida in the northeast, as well as our concerns about collaboration. There’s been a lot of innovative use of weapons and technology in the Levant with core Islamic State. We talked about the sharing of financial resources between ISIL and ISIS-K—how concerned are you about the sharing of tactical, technical know-how from the Levant to the AF/PAK region?
Nicholson: I am concerned about it. Let me mention three examples. One would be the use of UASs [Unmanned Aerial Systems]. We’re seeing an increase in UAS activity in Afghanistan. I wouldn’t link that just to ISIL. It’s across the board. The Taliban’s doing it. They filmed an attack in Helmand, for example. So we see reconnaissance being conducted by these means. Second, I’d mention the sophistication of their suicide attacks. We are seeing, within ISIS-K, a fairly sophisticated ability to conduct suicide attacks.
The third I would mention is the targeting of Shi`a. This carries over from ISIL. This is a concern that doesn’t get a lot of play, but we’re concerned about it because we have a Shi`a minority in Afghanistan. The Iranians are recruiting from the Shi`a minority to fight ISIL in Syria, and now ISIS-K in Afghanistan are attacking the Shi`a. I see this as clearly connected. What happens if and when these Shi`a fighters return to Afghanistan? The ISIS-K attacks on the Shi`a also create a political problem for [Afghan] President [Ashraf] Ghani. Generally speaking, the Shi`a areas of Afghanistan are relatively stable because they reject the Taliban and extremists. But now they are being targeted by ISIS-K, so this is creating a security issue and a political issue for the Afghan government. The Shi`a minority are demanding greater protection from the government. If they don’t protect them or if these attacks continue, the government’s inability to protect the Shi`a minority will become more and more of a political issue in terms of support for the national unity government.
CTC: When it comes to our counterterrorism mission, we’ve been in Afghanistan for a long time. We’ve become exceptionally skilled at removing the “players”—the individuals and groups—of the insurgency, which can change and be replaced. What else do you think the United States could do to get after the “league,” whether that’s the ideological, financial, or other logistical infrastructure that helps to, over time, to sustain the insurgency and just refill the ranks?
Nicholson: I think we’re playing multidimensional chess. We’re not playing on just one board; we’re playing on multiple boards. And some of the boards we’re not showing up on. We’re not taking on the ideology as effectively as we need to. You mentioned financial. Financial is extremely important with not just ISIL but anybody—such as the Taliban profiting from the narcotics trades, the illegal mining, or taxing locals. Without that financial support, they can’t conduct these operations.
We’ve got to be more sophisticated and effective in how we go after these networks because simply killing fighters and removing them from the field isn’t enough, they can be regenerated because of these underlying conditions I mentioned. Some of those are things we can do locally, but most are more AOR-wide.d CENTCOM and SOCOM are very focused on that. We work very closely with them on these issues. They have specific teams looking at these issues that we work with. Financial flows from Syria to Afghanistan, it’s not us tracking those. We’re tapping into a larger enterprise effort to interdict that. So that’s extremely important.
Part of the reason the Haqqanis are effective is their business enterprises, to include significant enterprises in the Gulf and elsewhere that fund their operations. So, this enables them to be a corrupting influence on various governments. I think the financial piece in particular and the ideological are the two we’ve got to get after.
CTC: One topic that has come up in the news recently is the idea of safe zones in Afghanistan. What is your reaction to this idea?
Nicholson: Reconciliation is the end state we’re after. The classic approach is you militarily incentivize them to reconcile. Of course, the problem with that is they enjoy sanctuary inside Pakistan. So whenever the pressure gets too great, they just move back across the border. This is why an insurgency that enjoys external sanctuary and support is seldom defeated expeditiously. But the casualties have been so high for both the Taliban as well as the Afghans that the Afghan people are saying to the enemy, You’re not fighting Westerners. You’re not fighting crusaders. You’re killing Muslims. And we’re killing Muslims. What are we doing?
The specific notion of a safe zone emerged from a peace jirgae that was held in Kandahar in the last few weeks that was widely attended from representatives from across the Pashtu community, the south, the east, and the west, about a thousand of them. It was a non-governmental meeting, and out of it, there was an outreach to the Taliban. Despite the public pronouncements you see from the Taliban that they’re unwilling to reconcile, there’s a conversation going on inside the Taliban about this. They’re at a bit of a stalemate. The government holds about two-thirds of the population. The enemy holds a solid 8 to 10 percent. And the rest they’re fighting over.
I think [Abdul] Raziq, the police commander in Kandahar, mentioned this idea of a safe zone, and the idea was if you’re willing to come back, we’ll create a safe environment for you. We’ll create a safe zone for you to come back with your families. We’re fully in support of that. We want to see reconciliation. This year, we had the HIG [Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin] reconcile. The next step is to successfully reintegrate them. And that’ll be harder, but 20,000 fighters and families will move back into Afghanistan this year, primarily in the Nangarhar/Kabul area, beginning with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar himself. This reintegration will be a significant test for the Afghan government, but it could also serve as a catalyst to demonstrate to the Taliban what’s possible.
Now, I don’t think it’ll lead to some grand bargain with the Taliban. What form I think it might take is what Ghani calls “fight, fracture, talk.” We go at them hard. They go at us hard. Then we start peeling people off. The HIG this year, the IEHC, or Islamic Emirate High Council, was another group, and then this peace jirga starts to create fissures. Then we start to get leaders coming in. Over time, you’ll gradually erode them—horizontally, vertically, a fracture, a peel-off. The national campaign plan spans five years and calls for reconciliation. With the roadmap, we’re working with Ghani on how to improve the effectiveness of their forces to bring more pressure to bear to expand the amount of population controlled by the Afghans. We think [if] we get to about 80 percent or more, we start to reach a tipping point where the insurgency becomes more irrelevant. If they’re relegated to less than 10 percent of the population and the government’s at 80, it looks kind of like other countries that have successfully fought insurgencies. That’s not a bad outcome. Then we get to a point where that’s sustainable over time.
CTC: [Now former] Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has identified the United States’ primary goal in Afghanistan as being the prevention of an attack ever again arising from Afghan territory. You have identified the Afghan government’s goal as being reconciliation with enough of the belligerents that the remainder can be managed by Afghan security forces. Much of the public focus seems to be on the latter, and the struggles we and the Afghans have experienced in achieving it over the past 15 years. Can the former be achieved without the latter, or are they inextricably linked? Must reconciliation be achieved for U.S. security from attack to be assured?
Nicholson: Well, I’d say we are achieving the former without the latter right now. But there’s a higher cost associated with it. I think it comes down to cost. The issue is if they view this as a sort of insurance policy where you’re trying to prevent an attack on the homeland and you’re paying a certain amount of money and investing a certain level of lives and funding to sustain it, is that worth it?
If you look at the cost of a 9/11, depending on how you calculate it, it was anywhere from $2 to $4 trillion, if you count the cost of the wars. And then what are we paying every year in Afghanistan? It’s obviously a fraction of that. Is that worth it? The Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] would say, it’s term life insurance. If you reduce the investment, the risk goes up. I tend to agree with that analogy.
Game changers to that equation would be reconciliation. Also a change in Pakistan’s behavior—if Pakistan no longer allows sanctuary and enablement to these organizations—that would make it much harder for them to operate. There are some independent variables that could make a difference. I’ve identified these as kind of non-security, civil factors that affect the level of investment we need to make. These include demographics, economic development, counter-narcotics, reconciliation, and corruption. Then the things that could cause the Afghans to fail include casualties, the stability of the government, the convergence of these terrorist organizations, and the role of external actors. As I’ve articulated this to the administration, it’s been in those terms, saying to prevent failure, you’ve got to mitigate against those factors. To succeed long-term, it’s not purely military. You have to invest in these other areas. So then the question is, “Is it worth it?” That’s a policy decision. I certainly think it is.
Then there are some intangibles that are hard to place. We have a willing partner in a tough neighborhood. The Afghans want us there. We work in close cooperation with their national director of security, their judiciary, their military, their CT forces. This is a very cooperative environment. Compare that to what’s going on Iraq right now. In Afghanistan, they want us there. In fact, they want more advisors. Afghanistan is important geostrategically. It’s important because of the number of terrorist groups. It’s important because we have a willing partner there in the Afghans. So for all those reasons, then you get into the investment level.
CTC: Can you explain further the interaction between the advising part of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and our CT efforts there?
Nicholson: In my view, the train, advise, assist piece enables the CT. The two missions are complementary. This train, advise, assist part of the operation is a critical enabler to having a CT operation because with the forces we use, the Afghan forces, all of the operations we go on are partnered or enabled. The Afghans are on them. I have the authority to go unilateral against certain groups, but we seldom do, except if it’s a strike, an airstrike. But on the ground, it’s Afghans with advisors doing these operations. So this training, advising, assisting investment with their military is essential to having a viable CT platform.
My view is you can look at this as a prototype for what a regional CT platform looks like and where else you might want them globally. In my view, even with this CASA CT platform in Afghanistan—critical region of the world, 20 terrorist groups—you have to do the train, advise, and assist. And there are allies who are willing to come in and play that role. In this case, we currently have 39 nations doing train, advise, assist; it’s much more politically acceptable domestically for these nations to come in and do train, advise, and assist. And it actually helps us enormously. So I think there’s a formula that we ought to take a look at for how we might do this elsewhere. We have the coalition of nations against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, but we don’t have the host nation in Syria. So we may end up with different models in different places. But I would recommend looking at the train, advise, assist part of this mission and how it enables the effectiveness of the CT platform. CTC
[a] Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada has been the leader of the Taliban since May 2016.
[b] Agency is an agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
[c] Dabiq magazine is the Islamic State’s propaganda magazine.
[d] Area of Responsibility
[e] A jirga is a non-governmental council of Afghan tribal leaders.