John Nicholson, the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, says he sees a continuation of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan after President-elect Donald Trump’s administration assumes office next month. Nicholson is adamant that the nominated U.S. defense secretary, retired U.S. Marine Corps James Mattis, known within military circles by the nickname "Mad Dog," is an inspirational leader. He says Mattis’s deep experience in Afghanistan and the region and will provide great leadership.
RFE/RL: What’s your personal assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan, given the fact that you have been in the country for nearly 10 years?
John Nicholson: I have had the privilege to serve in Afghanistan for most of the last 10 years, fighting alongside the Afghan security forces. And I have to say the growth and increasing capability of the Afghan security forces have been a tremendous thing to observe. So, when I first came to Afghanistan in 2006, there were only 30,000 in the Afghan Army, and the police were not trained. Today, we have close to 300,000 forces. And even though we have issues to work on and all armies do, the fact that this force has grown in size that quickly in the midst of our tough campaign is something that frankly most of our armies have never had to do. So it’s very impressive to me to serve alongside and personally observe the growth and competence of these Afghan soldiers and police.
RFE/RL: Are Afghan security and defense forces capable of holding territory beyond 2016?
Nicholson: Absolutely. I mean, despite a very difficult year, what we've seen is that the Taliban were not able to take any cities. And this is because the Afghan security forces held them. And so as we look across the country at the end of this year, we see that roughly two-thirds of the population are in areas that are controlled or heavily influenced by the government.
While the enemy is able to stage attacks in some parts of the country, it can't seize and hold terrain and take it away from the government. So we in fact assess that the Taliban hold less than 10 percent. But they are able to conduct attacks in other quarters of the country.
RFE/RL: Do you expect a major change of policy with the new U.S. administration in regard to Afghanistan? Some observers expect a more isolationist position to guide policy there.
Nicholson: Well, I cannot speak for the new administration. But what I can tell you is that what is being handed off by the current chain of command, and so in my discussions in Washington with the chain of command, they will recommend to the new administration a continuity of policy, continuing our counterterrorism mission. Why? Because we see 20 designated terrorist organizations operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan out of 98 globally designated terrorist organizations.
We've also a coalition of 39 nations that represents a quarter of the world nations in Afghanistan. This is also very important for the United States. So I think we are going to see a strong recommendation to continue this policy, and I believe it's in the vital interest of the United States to continue this policy.
RFE/RL: Do you personally know the defense secretary designate, General Mattis, and his views on Afghanistan?
Nicholson: When I was a colonel in Afghanistan in 2006, General Mattis was a four-star general. I had the opportunity to meet him then. He is a very inspirational leader. I know he inspired me at that time, and while it was a very tough fight in Nangarhar in the east, I have seen from his public statements he is excited about the potential to be the secretary of defense.
I would also say that we have a confirmation process, which he will go through. And of course we don't want to get in front of that. But I think that if he is confirmed we are going to have a secretary of defense with a deep experience in Afghanistan and the region and who will provide great leadership for us going forward.