General John Nicholson is the longest-serving top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, he weighed in on the various aspects of the struggle in a country where peace and stability has so far evaded the U.S.-led international effort.
RFE/RL: You previously said that Russia is supporting the Taliban and even arming the group. Is there any evidence?
John Nicholson: We're seeing small-scale support being rendered to the Taliban. I've had weapons delivered to my headquarters from governors in the north who said that this was provided by the Russians to the Taliban. Of course, this is difficult to establish with great certainty. The main thing is that we have a shared interest with Russia in Afghanistan. We both shared an interest in countering the terrorists who threaten our country, threaten Russia, and threaten Central Asia.
We have a shared interest in defeating Daesh (ISIS), we have a shared interest in counternarcotics, we have a shared interest in peace and stability in Afghanistan. And what we hope to do is to be able to work with Russia and all of the nations in the region to achieve these outcomes in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Due to this covert assistance to the Taliban, there are some concerns that Afghanistan might turn into another Syria. How do you react to such concerns?
Nicholson: Yes, certainly we don't want to see that happen. The good news is that here in Brussels today all of the nations in the alliance are strongly in support of Afghanistan and expressed their continued support and their resolve to stay with Afghanistan. I think all the nations here are encouraged by [Afghan] President [Ashraf] Ghani's peace offer and all endorsed it and believe we’re entering a period where a dialogue is beginning and peace is possible. And indeed this would require continued pressure, it would require military pressure on the battlefield, it would require diplomatic pressure within the region, it requires social pressure which we're seeing from Afghan people themselves in support of peace. But the big difference is that you have a steadfast international commitment led by NATO and Afghanistan and we've our resolve to stay with the Afghan people and help them achieve peace.
RFE/RL: More than seven months ago, U.S. President Donald said Pakistan has harbored terrorist groups. Is Pakistan an ally or an adversary?
Nicholson: President Trump's comments are very clear, and as you know as of January 1 he suspended assistance to Pakistan. You've heard similar statements by [U.S.] Vice President [Mike] Pence, by [U.S. Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis, by all of the senior leaders of the United States’ government. So our government’s been quite clear about what our request is from Pakistan. We hope that we can work with Pakistan to bring about peace in Afghanistan. And we are trying to do that in frequent communications with the government of Pakistan.
It was very encouraging to see [Pakistani] Prime Minister [Shahid Khaqan] Abbasi visit Kabul and that was the second meeting between [Afghan] President [Ashraf] Ghani and Prime Minister Abbasi, so we are hopeful that we'll see cooperation with Pakistan to bring about peace. Yes the Taliban are still operating out of Pakistan, and this recent announcement came from Pakistan so this speaks for itself. It's clear what's happening. Again, we want to see delivery on this expressed desire for peace. We think that peace is for the benefit of Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. That's what the Afghan people want and deserve after so many years of war.
RFE/RL: It was recently reported that China is going to equip a mountain brigade in the northeastern province of Badakhshan because Beijing fears the presence of Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement’s (ETIM) fighters in some pockets of Badakhshan. How do you react to that?
Nicholson: The Taliban in this area of Afghanistan have hosted ETIM fighters. So this again shows the fact the Taliban are a danger to all, not just to Afghans, because they host other terrorist groups to include Al-Qaeda in the past, ETIM, Lashkar-e Taiba, etc. So the Taliban's affiliation with these terrorist groups is the problem. And so share the concern of nations in the region, China, Russia, Central Asia about the spillover of terrorism from Afghanistan.
We are committed to defeating these terrorists so that they do not pose a threat. And we believe that the Afghan military, especially the special forces and the air force, and their growing capacity, are going to be the ones to help protect the neighborhood from these terrorists. We will stand with them. We'll be alongside them every step of the way to help them grow their capability and defeat these terrorists so they don't pose a threat to the region.
RFE/RL: And lastly, you’re the longest-serving commander of the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan. How do you see NATO’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan?
Nicholson: I see the long-term commitment as steady and solid. Just coming from a meeting of the foreign ministers, it was very encouraging to me to hear strong statements of support for Afghanistan. The reason for these strong statements is a belief in the Afghan people. The Afghan people want peace, the Afghan people have fought hard for peace, the Afghan people are strongly supported by all of the nations of NATO going forward. And it was very encouraging to me as the commander to see the strong statements of support. And with respect to the opportunity to serve in Afghanistan.
It's been a tremendous honor to command these forces for this time from all of the allied nations, but especially to work alongside our Afghan colleagues. We also always remember that we are guests in Afghanistan, and we have tremendous gratitude and respect for the Afghan people and the Afghan culture; we want the Afghan people to know that we are with them. We're going to see this through.