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Colonel John Nicholson (USA) Holds Defense Department News Briefing in Afghanistan to Discuss Operations Among the Afghan People and the March 4 Incident


WHITMAN:

Good morning, and welcome.
And good afternoon to you, Colonel.
This is Colonel John Nicholson. He's commander of 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. He and his unit are part of Task Force Spartan, our response for security and stability operations in eastern Afghanistan. Colonel Nicholson's been commanding his unit in Afghanistan since January of 2006.
This is also, I understand, your birthday.

NICHOLSON:

I can't believe they told you that. But it is; that's correct.

WHITMAN:

Can't imagine a better way to spend your birthday than with our Pentagon press corps.
Actually, this is not even his first birthday in Afghanistan. This is his second consecutive birthday in Afghanistan.
And we appreciate the time that you give us this morning to talk to us about what your unit has been doing, and to answer some of our questions.
Colonel Nicholson is speaking to us today from Forward Operating Base Fenty in Nangarhar province.
And, like I said, we all appreciate you giving us some time today, particularly on this special day for you.
And with that, let me turn it over to you for some opening comments before we get to some questions.

NICHOLSON:

OK. Thanks, Bryan. And thanks for that very nice welcome.

And this is -- I am speaking to you from Forward Operating Base Fenty, which is named after Lieutenant Colonel Joseph J. Fenty, one of our battalion commanders, killed on May the 5th, 2006. We just dedicated this forward operating base to his memory here a few days ago, so it's very meaningful for us.
We are on our 16th month here. Our soldiers miss their families very much, but morale is good. It's good because we have a very cohesive unit. It's been a very gratifying experience thus far.

Why is it gratifying? It's gratifying because we'd humbly suggest we're winning here in Afghanistan.
What does that mean in a counterinsurgency environment? It means we've defeated the enemy every time we've met him over the last 16 months, we feel genuinely appreciated by the Afghan people, and our soldiers, by and large, know they're making a difference for the people and the government here.
It's important to note that the Afghan people are our center of gravity, not the enemy. Our objective is to get the people to believe that their own government offers the best hope for the future, and then to buy in to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as their choice for the future, to provide better lives for their families.

We are in a struggle for that popular support with an enemy who broadly defined is anyone who opposes the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Now, that would be terrorists, insurgents, druglords, criminals: anyone who would benefit from instability on the part of this government to gain personal profit.
We work with and through the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces in this endeavor. We thus seek to build their capacity as we accomplish our aim with respect to the population.
We follow three basic steps in our methodology for counterinsurgency here in Afghanistan.
The first is we seek to separate the enemy from the people. And the enemy, as I mentioned before, is broadly defined as anyone who is vying with the government for power or who seeks instability.
And we seek to separate the enemy through a variety of means.

NICHOLSON:

It could involve kinetic operations, killing or capturing the enemy. It could be forcing those elements to flee the country for elsewhere. It could be getting them to reconcile with the government.
There's a significant information ops component to separating the enemy. If we can convince those fighting on the side of the enemy to side with the government, then we've been just as successful as if we'd killed them. I'd argue we've been more successful, because that builds a momentum of its own and helps these people to reconcile after many, many years of civil war.

So, anyway, after we've separated the enemy from the people, step number one, step number two, would be to achieve effects of the population. And what do we seek to do here? Essentially, this comes down to Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
These people have suffered from 30 years of war. Their first need is, first and foremost, security. They need to know that if the government is here that the government's going to stay and we're going to secure them from the enemy. Otherwise, they will be punished by the enemy for their cooperation with us. And that punishment can go all the way up to murder, mutilation, robbery, you name it.
Once they feel secure, then they feel free to express their needs to the government. And these needs are pretty basic. After security, it's food, health, electricity, roads, jobs, things of this nature.

Finally, once we begin that connection with the government, we seek to transform the environment permanently, both tangibly and intangibly -- tangibly in the sense of providing for those basic needs and intangibly in the psychological sense where the people are convinced that the government's the best hope for the future, their buy-in is complete and the enemy is no longer welcome in the area, or, if he has remained, he's slowly squeezed out.

And let me tell you a little bit about these people who we focus on here. They're a pretty impressive bunch. Their life expectancy is less than 43 years. One in five children die before the age of five. Sixteen percent of the mothers die in childbirth, although that's improving somewhat. Eighty percent are illiterate. Sixty percent are unemployed. The public health situation here is worse than a country with an AIDS epidemic.
Yet, in spite of that, these people have a deep faith in God. Their willingness to accept their hardship as the will of God is, frankly, somewhat awe inspiring, and we are daily impressed with the way they can persevere through this hardship.
Dignity and respect is everything to them.

NICHOLSON:

And they want us -- they genuinely want us here and they are genuinely appreciative of us being here.
Why is that? It's because they have seen into the abyss, frankly, after 30 years of war. They have seen it about as bad as it can get and they don't want to go back.
And I think the majority of the people -- when I say "majority," I'm talking 80 to 90 percent -- see us, see this opportunity, with the international community being here, as their best way to turn their fortunes around and have a better future for their children.
So they work with us, and they appreciate our efforts. And all that makes it a very gratifying experience for the American soldiers who are over here, even though they're in their 16th month.

But to achieve these effects you have to be with the people. And that has involved a fundamental shift in the methodology over here from the past. This requires a persistent presence with the people, so in order to achieve that, we have essentially tripled our footprint over the footprint we had when we arrived here 16 months ago. That means we have pushed out groups of soldiers in platoon-sized elements -- as low as platoon-sized elements in bases amongst the villages and towns with the population -- remember, this is a rural-based population, a larger country than Iraq, more people than Iraq, but a rural population.
So in order to be with the people, you have to move out into the rural areas. And in some cases, we have soldiers living at 8,000 or 10,000 feet, on the sides of mountains, in mountain communities only accessible by air.
Interestingly enough, when we move in, the enemy moves out, facilitating that connection even further.

But this presence, this pushing out and being amongst the people, forces the enemy to fight you. What that does is, it leads to an increase in fighting and, to some extent, an increase in casualties. But the difference is, you get greater effects for that fighting.
The fighting spikes as the enemy contests you for the human terrain, and then it goes down somewhat as the enemy is forced to basically either flee or continue to fight you or move elsewhere.

As a result of this, after 16 months -- and this is one of the advantages of the 16-month deployment, folks have focused, I know, a lot on the hardship, and there certainly is some of that. We have been incredibly impressed with the strength of our families and our soldiers in persevering with an unexpected extension.
But what this means is now, going into our second spring in Afghanistan, is in many cases our soldiers have more experience than the enemy fighters they are facing. And as a result, we defeat them soundly every time they show themselves.
We have seen the enemy, therefore, resort to things like suicide bombings and IEDs. These, though, are tactics that don't go over well here with the people. While they may reap some short-term benefit for the enemy, in the long term, these are losing approaches with the Afghan people.
The Afghan people place a high value on respect for human life. And when the enemy murders elders or blows up mullahs, children, innocent civilians as a result of these indiscriminate suicide attacks and IEDs, it doesn't go over well.

NICHOLSON:

We've had numerous (inaudible) issue fatwas against suicide bombing and against these tactics being used by the enemy. So we see a definite shift of the people and their willingness to speak out against these kinds of tactics by the enemy, which is all very encouraging to us.
So it goes well.
We also believe, and I would make the point that, having two brigade combat teams over here was certainly the right thing to do. And we were the right ones to extend to make that a reality. No one had more experience over here.
And, again, even though it was fairly unexpected, we'd had soldiers already back at Fort Drum, some were in Kuwait; they were turned around and everyone was brought back. The extension by four months enabled the unit that's replacing us to retrain for Afghanistan, repack their gear and move out here, and they're arriving now.
So it was the right thing to do and we were the right unit to do the job.

I want to mention one thing. I've noticed in the news recently there's been some coverage of a 4 March incident that occurred here in Nangarhar province in which a Marine special forces unit was attacked by a suicide bomber, and in the ensuing fight a number of civilians were killed.
Today we met with the families of those victims: 19 dead and 50 injured. We made official apologies on the part of the U.S. government and the part of the coalition. And we made what is called a solatia payment, which is essentially a symbol of our sympathy to them. It is not a legal claim per se, but it is a way of expressing our genuine condolences and deep regret over the incident occurring.

And I wanted to share that with you, because this is very important. The people are our center of gravity here, so first and foremost in all that we do we seek to do no harm to the people. So events such as that do set us back with the population, and they have to be addressed very directly and forthrightly with the Afghan people.
And I just wanted to read a part of the statement that I made to the families, so that you have an appreciation of how we interact with the people over here and what this kind of event means.

NICHOLSON:

We -- and I would comment that the response by the people was very positive. Showing them the appropriate respect is culturally significant. And seeing the genuine remorse that we have for incidents such as this is important in terms of keeping them with us.
As I commented to them today, "We came here to help the Afghan people and the Afghan government, not to hurt you. We deeply appreciate the hospitality you've shown us by allowing us to stand beside you and to fight our common enemy together. America has stood by you in the anti-Soviet jihad and we stand by you today. God has blessed us with success and, inshallah, we will continue to see a better life for all Afghans, a life of dignity, honor and opportunity.

"Most American soldiers here have families of their own. When we see Afghan children smiling and waving, we think of our own children, and this brings a smile to our faces and joy to our hearts. We wish for you and your children, just as for our own children, to have a happy and healthy life.
"All life is precious. Our soldiers believe this. The American people believe this.
"When our soldiers see suffering and death, as we do very frequently in this war, we are very sad. When children or other innocent people suffer or die, it breaks our hearts.
"So I stand before you today deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people. We are filled with grief and sadness at the death of any Afghan, but the death and wounding of innocent Afghans at the hand of Americans is a stain on our honor and on the memory of the many Americans who have died defending Afghanistan and the Afghan people.
"This was a terrible, terrible mistake. And my nation grieves with you for your loss and suffering. We humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness," end quote.
I wanted to share that with you to demonstrate how important connections with the people are to us. I know there's many stories in the news about civilian deaths, and I wanted you to hear from a commander in the field how we interact with the people when such a thing occurs.

NICHOLSON:

And, regrettably, it does happen because this is war.
But we go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties, and if they do occur, we go to great lengths to try and make it right with the people who've suffered. Because that is not what American stands for.
They know that. They hold us to a higher standard and they should hold us to a higher standard. And we should hold ourselves to a higher standard, because we are professionals and we can be better than that.
So we work very hard to do no harm to the Afghan people and to deliver those effects that we know will achieve the buy-in by the Afghans to their own government and will help us to win this war on terror.

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