Episode 21. Afghanistan: The Transition From The Obama To The Trump Administration. Conversation With General John (Mick) Nicholson & Ambassador Hugo Llorens


General Nicholson and Ambassador Llorens discuss their unity of effort in the field and their partnership in developing the new Afghanistan strategy adopted by the Trump Administration.

Episode Transcript:

Amb. McCarthy: (00:02) Welcome to a conversation in the Academy of Diplomacy podcast series, the General and the Ambassador. Our focus is the partnership between our senior military leaders and our senior diplomats in advancing our national security interests overseas. Our website is the generalandtheambassador.org my name is ambassador Deborah McCarthy and I am the host For this episode. I was able to meet my guests in sunny Florida and we recorded on location. Our conversation today will focus on our military and diplomatic interests in Afghanistan and I'm very pleased to be joined by General Mick Nicholson and ambassador Hugo Llorens. General Nicholson was the commander of both US forces and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2016 to 2018. Ambassador Llorens was in charge of the U.S. Embassy from 2016 to 2017. Gentlemen, you led our military and diplomatic interests in Afghanistan during the transition between the administration of President Obama and the administration of President Trump and we will focus a large part of our conversation on that transition. But before we get to that, I want to go back a bit. General Nicholson, when we first went into Afghanistan after 9/11 what were our military objectives?

Gen. Nicholson: (01:16) Well, President Bush at that time had demanded that the Taliban turn over Al Qaeda. The Taliban refused. We issued them an ultimatum and then we went in there to then go after the Al Qaeda leadership ourselves and in the process remove the Taliban leaders, and we were successful in that.

Amb. McCarthy: (01:31) And we were joined in that effort, in the beginning, by a number of key countries: the UK, other NATO members. Why do they partner with us and what kind of contributions have they made over the years that we have been there?

Gen. Nicholson: (01:45) Ever since 9/11, our allies have stood by us for this entire war and at one point we were up to 50 coalition members. Today we still have 41 who have been there for 17 years. So, they came because it was a NATO led coalition and NATO invoked Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty and under this provision of the treaty an attack on one member is an attack on all. It was, I believe, the only time the alliance has invoked Article Five and NATO came in strong and supported the United States. And they are still there. For the military commander in Afghanistan, he has a NATO chain of command as well as a U.S. chain of command.

Amb. McCarthy: (02:22) Our diplomatic presence did not grow that quickly, because we had closed our embassy, I believe in 1989. Our marines led a special operation in 2001 to open it again and fly the flag. Hugo when you arrive later in 2012/2013 how big was the embassy and what was its primary mission?

Amb. Llorens: (02:42) By the way, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, as you know, he was the man who put that flag up with our marines.

Amb. McCarthy: (02:51) Who has been on our podcast.

Amb. Llorens: (02:51) He was the Chargé [d'Affaires] for a year. He opened up the embassy. When I was there in 2012 and 2013 a little, we were sort of still in the period of the surge. We were in direct combat. We had a hundred thousand US troops. We had 40-45,000 NATO troops. The budget that we had annually, when you combine our military, diplomatic, economic development, and intelligence programs, totaled about $125 billion. When I was there as the Assistant Chief of Mission, I was one of the ambassadors. I was kind of third on the rank order. So it was a gigantic embassy and it was in the surge, but the tail end. We began the transition under the Obama administration to what would become really an Afghan led fight, as it should be, and our role would be more of support on the security side, still, and on the political and the economic side. It was a very different situation in 2012/2013 from when I returned in 2016/2017

Amb. McCarthy: (03:44) And over the years our objectives and our presence have changed. I mean, on the military side, we still conduct operations against terrorist groups under what is called Operation Freedom Sentinel and the bulk of our troops in those and NATO has shifted from combat to training of Afghan national forces, what is called Operation Nato Resolute Support. So Mick, I want to ask you, we started out in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but now there are about 20 terrorist groups in the region. Who are they and what threats do they pose today to the United States and our allies?

Gen. Nicholson: (04:19) We have 21 designated groups in the region out of the total, globally, of, I believe, just over a hundred. So this is the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world. Now in some cases, some of these groups have more numbers elsewhere in the world, but in terms of the number of groups, it's the highest concentration anywhere in the world. So the counter terrorism effort that we conduct on the platform in Afghanistan is essential to keeping pressure on these groups to prevent any attacks on our homeland or those of our allies. The primary groups we're focused on are Al Qaeda and ISIS. But they also have affiliates. So ISIS in the Khorasan, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, are affiliates of these core groups that are located there. And the Taliban provide a medium within which some of these other terrorist groups can thrive and survive. And then the reason they're able to do this is because of the large population in the region, in Afghanistan and Pakistan you have close to 300 million people, a largely uneducated and underemployed population. And then you have a population that, because of these conditions, is susceptible to some of the radical forms of teachings that go on in some of the madrassas in the region. So you have a medium within which recruitment is possible, and then you see members switching allegiances between the groups. So one good example is the Taliban and ISIS. So on one level they're fighting each other and they are going against each other. But in many cases, the members of ISIS actually switched allegiance from the Taliban over to ISIS. So you have Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, again, a designated group. Members haved shifted allegiance to ISIS. Some members of the Taliban have shifted allegiance to ISIS. So our presence there and the presence of our allies keeps pressure on the system so that these groups can't grow even larger and then realize their ambition to attack outside of the region. So our presence here is extremely important. I wanted to pick up on something that Hugo mentioned earlier. Our role has shifted over the years from direct combat and during those years of direct combat allowed us to grow the Afghan security forces to a level where they could take over the fight. This process was called ‘transition’. That occurred in the period that Hugo mentioned and now they are the lead and we are advising assisting them.

Amb. McCarthy: (06:35) Could I ask you one other question about ISIS? Because we're so focused in our media on ISIS and its presence in other parts of the world, and less so in Afghanistan. How did they come to be there?

Gen. Nicholson: (06:46) ISIS Main, in Syria, we're all familiar with that, has about eight affiliates around the world and there's actually a formal application process where these groups apply to ISIS Main to create a caliphate or an extension, a province if you will, in their lingo, elsewhere. So in Afghanistan it's called ISIS Khorasan, Khorasan province. This phrase has significance for that geographical part of the world and the ISIS movement. So members of the Pakistani Taliban applied to ISIS to become an ISIS affiliate and they were granted admission after they met certain criteria and then they receive funding and leadership guidance from Syria, from ISIS Main. And this started in about 2015 and so by the time I arrived in early 2016, and the period when Hugo and I were working together, ISIS was growing this new province, Khorasan, and trying to recruit new members inside Afghanistan.

Amb. McCarthy: (07:43) Hugo, can you talk a little bit about the work of our diplomats, especially on the governance, and on the economic and development sides, because it's good for our listeners to hear what the mission was focused on.

Amb. Llorens: (07:53) Sure. Look, if you're going to walk into Afghanistan just with bullets, we would have failed a long time ago.

Gen. Nicholson: (07:57) Absolutely.

Amb. Llorens: (07:58) You need to be able to build a context. There was no country there. I mean Afghanistan, when we arrived in 2001, was a completely destroyed, shattered country. You know, the Soviet Union, when they invaded, they waged total war on the Afghan people. It was an unlimited war and they absolutely destroyed the country. And then after that, after the Soviet Union collapsed, then you had the period of the Mujahedeen fighting in the civil war and, again, the destruction was terrible. And then the last man standing was the Taliban. So in 1996, the Taliban rolled into Kabul and took over and it became a dark night for the Afghan people. And it was not until the end of 2001 when we and our NATO allies returned, that there was a chance. This country had been sort of in total darkness for several decades. And I just want to mention that we and our allies, and this is a civilian and military activity. We've been able to help the Afghan people get back on their feet, which is, again, a critical component if we're going to have stability in that region and success, and be able to deal with the threats that Mick was talking about. So, just, I'll give you a very brief example, but take the issue of education. Back in 2001 before we arrived, Afghanistan, they are a country of 28 million people, had 600,000 kids in school, kindergarten through university. There were no women. You know, women were not allowed. They were at home. They weren't allowed to study in the public school system. Today there are eight and a half to nine million young people studying in the education system, kindergarten through university, 40% are women. A revolution in education. Health is another example. I just want to emphasize in 2001 there was no health system in Afghanistan. There were some humanitarian doctors, Doctors Without Borders, running around, some minor UN programs. Today, 60% of Afghans are within a 45 minute walk to a health clinic. And what you will see is just the dramatic decline in infant and maternal mortality rates. That's something that is just very dramatic and it gets to the very basic, in terms of the human condition. So I would mention that. And then the last point I'd mention is telecommunications. You know, Afghanistan, next to North Korea, was the most autarchic, isolated country in the world, under this Taliban medieval system that they created. There were several thousand phones in the country, with very little connectivity. Today, there are 22 million phones in Afghanistan. So when Mick and I would be rolling around, some times in rural areas...

Amb. McCarthy: (10:25) I wanted to ask you how you managed to get out and do this, given the security situation.

Amb. Llorens: (10:29) But let me just make that point, when you'd be out there rolling around in a rural area with your security and all that, you'd see a woman completely covered, and underneath that veil you saw a cell phone. So I'll leave it at that. But I just think the point is—we're doing all of that. On the military side it is about empowering the Afghan people, giving them a chance so that they can make it. And if they can make it, then I think we have a chance for success.

Amb. McCarthy: (10:51) And how did you go about deciding who did what on the development side?

Gen. Nicholson: (10:55) This is an unusual circumstance for a Chief of Mission, where you have a large military organization headed by a four-star general in the country. So overt communication was key and respecting each other's lanes and roles was key. And so a lot of this is guided by US policy. So, we have specific responsibilities to the Department of State, Department of Defense, lead in certain areas. But I would say in almost every area, one of us was a lead and the other was in a supporting role. So there was no area that we weren't mutually interested in, and the key here was achieving unity of effort. And so that in my view all comes down to relationships. And so the relationships between the Ambassador and I were, well that relationship was essential. For a couple of reasons. One, to ensure we had a common vision of how we were going to implement US policy. And then also so I could consult with him on how he implemented NATO policy in the region, and then our approaches to the Afghan government. So it was critical that we were on the same page when dealing with so many different actors. We were constantly consulting as we worked through this.

Amb. McCarthy: (11:55) How did you communicate? How did your teams?

Amb. Llorens: (11:57) I mean, look, these are massive organizations. I mean, the general had a very large command, NATO command, then US command. And we had still, when I was there in 2016/2017, I think it was still the largest embassy in the world. I mean we had a staff of 8,500, representing, you know, 18-19 US government agencies. We had the largest development program in the world. A lot of the funding, for example on infrastructure, a lot of it was DoD money and some of the programs were implemented by USAID. Our development specialists and infrastructure people, they worked hand in glove. I mean, these were massive infrastructure projects, road projects and the like. You know, one of the things that we did, I mean, remember we came in, I came in, you know, Mick worked with three Chiefs of Mission, so credit to him. Three different personalities, three management styles.

Amb. McCarthy: (12:45) He saw all styles and personalities.

Amb. Llorens: (12:45) And by the way, I can tell you that his relationship with the other two ambassadors was superb as well. It's a lot due to his talent and his ability to manage, his integrated and personal skills. But look, we were lucky in the sense that we, I came in at the end of 2016, we were in this period of transition, the tail end of the Obama Administration. And we had an opportunity to consult for several months before the new Trump administration and get, kind of, our signals right on how we were going to message back to Washington, to the new national security team, to president Trump and his team on what would be some of the recommendations. And one of the things that Mick and I agreed in long conversations we had, we're talking about December 2016, January 2017, was that no one was talking about going back to what was. You know, surging, and Bringing back massive amounts of US military and redeploying our diplomats all over the country. That we really had had the transition and it was an Afghan lead. But we believed that we could find a way that would be a cost effective way on the diplomatic and development side, and on the military side, but that could be a lot more effective. And again, no criticism of President Obama. President Obama, he devoted a lot of time to Afghanistan, believe me, and he was quite expert. But we felt that there were some things that we could do that could heighten our effectiveness. And so what I would say is that, in many ways, the first piece that came together in that transition was the fact that the field was together. We had a certain agreement on the elements, on the diplomatic, development, intelligence, and in the military sides. As the new team started to come in and picked our brains, I don't think they found very much light [between them], but I don't know your thoughts on that.

Gen. Nicholson: (14:22) No, no, I agree Hugo. I wanted to address one question you asked Deborah, about how we consult. So we had relationships established at all levels between our two organizations. Then we also, Hugo and I, tried to model this partnership through a high level meeting that we would host on an alternating basis in the embassy or in our headquarters with all the senior leaders of the mission and the senior leaders of the military effort. And this was Hugo's initiative, but it was something we immediately fell in on because it was something we had done before. It worked well and we both participated in these sessions under previous commanders. So that was very important. And then by modeling this close relationship between the two of us, it makes it easier for all of our team to engage in that. And that was extremely important. To the point about the transition, this is really a unique opportunity going forward. We each had our consultations, I was picking, myself, through DoD for example, and Hugo through Department of State. But then we also had a combined cable, which under the Chief of Mission's lead, under Hugo's lead, we actually also had a combined position that we articulated.

Amb. McCarthy: (15:20) I see. Ok.

Gen. Nicholson: (15:21) So in the case of the DoD input, in depth conversations with Secretary Mattis, who came over and asked a series of, sort of, first order questions. Now, he of course is very familiar with Afghanistan, having served here while in uniform and having been the CENTCOM commander. But we, again, we started with a baseline of what should our policy be going forward in order to be successful? What should our objectives be and then how should we go about achieving it? And as Hugo said, this didn't involve another "surge", and people wanted to default to that as the answer. And I think unfortunately, over time what we did see, in dealing with Afghanistan from the military side, was a tendency to deal with troop numbers and timelines as two of the key metrics instead of managing by objective. And so one of the things that Hugo and I tried to articulate back up was let's manage by objective and instead of being on a strict timeline, let's go to what we call a conditions basis. So we established policy objectives and then what are the conditions to achieve to get to those. So a conditions basis was one of the key things. With respect to troop numbers, they do matter because they represent capabilities. And so I felt at that time that we had drawn down too deeply and we were unable to actually perform the things we needed to do to achieve the policy objectives, because the numbers were so restrictive. And so I recommended a modest increase in numbers, but again...

Amb. McCarthy: (16:41) Was this to add towards our CT [counterterrorism] capability, and/or the training, or both?

Gen. Nicholson: (16:45) Both, to some extent. To get into the weeds a little bit, CT is not a purely standalone capability. It's dependent upon certain things we call enablers, which will be air power, intelligence, surveillance, logistics, medical, so forth. These other capabilities don't come from our Special Operations Command exclusively. They come from the services writ large, and these numbers we needed to increase in order to enable us to go after these 21 groups and keep the pressure on the enemy. So there needed to be a modest increase in enablers. And then our level of ambition with respect to advising and assisting the Afghan army was at one level, but our capability was at a lower level. So we needed to increase the number of advisors. And so in the military terms, we needed specialized advising units as well. So the Secretary of Defense directed the acceleration of special advisory units, which were created primarily by the Army, but also the other services contributed as well. The Army's contribution was called the Security Force Assistance Brigade and that was accelerated and fielded as part of the new policy. And then we had tailor made contingents of advisors, from the Marine Corps that went back into Helmand, and from the Air Force that went in to help advise and assist the Afghan Air Force. All of this was necessary to adjust our force structure to the policy that we needed. As you mentioned, all of our recommendations were accepted and incorporated into the new policy. So we're very happy about that. One other thing I want to mention was the role of external enablers of the insurgency. So the Taliban could not exist in Afghanistan if they did not have sanctuary and support from inside Pakistan. So this was one of my primary recommendations from a military perspective was that very seldom in military history do you defeat an insurgency when it enjoys external sanctuary and external support. And therefore we had to address this with Pakistan. And so this was endorsed and implemented.

Amb. McCarthy: (18:41) I know that was part of the new strategy, and we suspended, I understand, our security assistance to Pakistan to send them a big signal.

Gen. Nicholson: (18:48) Correct. And the final point I wanted to make was, another critical part of this was we were driving to a negotiated settlement to the end of the war. And so this reconciliation was one of the key components of the new strategy. And, I want to point out that within six months of implementing the strategy, we had peace offers on the table. One, a formal piece offer by the Afghan government, and then also an open letter to the American people by the Taliban, an outline. Within 10 months, we had the first ceasefire. Within 13 months of the policy being announced, Ambassador Khalilzad was active in the region working reconciliation.

Amb. Llorens: (19:25) One of the things that we tried to do early on, and again, it was exactly messaging back to our respective bureaucracies. But first of all, like I said, it was a very intense discussion between Mick and I but also with our teams. In our case, we prepared a, almost a country team plan, but incorporated, I mean this was for secretary Tillerson. It would be copied to the other senior members of the national security team, but it incorporated the views of the commander, what needed to be done on the security side. So here, in what would be a diplomatic dispatch, it had, reflected very much the military security views of the commander, which I completely concurred with on what needed to be done.

Amb. McCarthy: (20:06) That's an important point because it doesn't always happen. Usually they're separate, they're in silos. So the fact that there were elements of both is extremely important.

Amb. Llorens: (20:12) Correct. So we sent a cable, which was an integrated approach that had all of the components—diplomatic, development, intelligence, military. We passed it on, it went back to State, but we copied the others. But also, for example, the General made sure that he conveyed to the Pentagon that he supported that.

Gen. Nicholson: (20:31) Absolutely. Absolutely.

Amb. Llorens: (20:31) The same thing with some of the documentation, we won't get into the specifics, that the General prepared. I let my bosses know at the State Department that I was 100% in agreement, not only what was in my own report, but what was going back directly through the General's own channels.

Gen. Nicholson: (20:46) And vice versa.

Amb. Llorens: (20:48) And I think that was important because again, there were differences in the bureaucracy. You have people trying to get themselves up to speed. You know, in my case, Secretary Tillerson was someone who really did not have the expertise that a Secretary Mattis or a General McMaster, our National Security Advisor at the time, were people who really knew. And it took him time. By the way, he became quite a student of Afghanistan and became a very constructive player. You know that triumvirate, in terms of going to the President, in terms of what needed to be done in a new strategy. But again, it starts a little bit bureaucratically. You want to make sure that paper that comes in, that there was concurrence. And we had that. So when the team started to get on the ground and started to look at Afghanistan, I want to just emphasize again, they found the field where there was no light, what we were recommending, there were no differences between us.

Gen. Nicholson: (21:36) Exactly.

Amb. Llorens: (21:36) And I think that contributed a lot in facilitating a process, that by the way, was complicated by the fact that president Trump, that our president, our elected president, was a skeptic about Afghanistan and about what we were doing there. We've been fighting this war for 16 years, you know, his skepticism, you know, put his national security team through the paces. But I think it was helpful for the team to find that, hey, you know, the general and the ambassador, they're on the same page on what needs to be done.

Gen. Nicholson: (22:06) Absolutely.

Amb. McCarthy: (22:06) Did you find that you had the right tools to message appropriately about the new strategy?

Gen. Nicholson: (22:13) In August of 2017, President Trump announced the policy and in his speech it was quite clear, and he addressed each of the components of the policy. So I'd say that was critically important that the head of state message the policy. So that was key. And then following up on that, there were other key moments where President Trump, Vice President Pence, the Secretaries of Defense and State, all weighed in with key messages at key times. So at the beginning of January of 2018, when we had not seen movement with respect to Pakistan's reduction of enemy sanctuary and support, the President, in a tweet, called this out and announced the suspension of aid. And then by June the money was reprogrammed elsewhere. Vice President Pence and his visit to the theater did the same thing. So I think these key messages, especially with respect to Pakistan were very important. And then engagement, of course behind the scenes in addition to the public messaging was equally important. And so the engagement by the CENTCOM commander with the chief of the army in Pakistan was key. In this context, the alliance was really important as well. And so one of the things that occurred, during the time that Hugo and I were together, was a massive truck bomb that went off on the 31st of May, 2017. I wanted to bring that up because this bomb was directed by the Haqqani Network. And it was focused on the diplomatic missions in Kabul and their objective was to infiltrate this large truck bomb inside the diplomatic enclave, the Green Zone, and detonate it near some of the missions and this would have had an enormously detrimental effect on the support for the mission. And some very brave Afghan police, who are much maligned in the international media, they do their jobs every single day out there across the country. They stopped this truck. They did not allow it to come into the Green Zone. They sacrificed their lives doing this because then the insurgent detonated his truck bomb at the police checkpoint. It killed and wounded over 600 Afghans and destroyed the German embassy to a large extent and damaged eight other diplomatic missions. And at this moment, we saw many of the other nations get involved with respect to Pakistan. The Germans got involved directly bilaterally with Pakistan, and many of the allies. Then it became very apparent what was going on, and we did see different, you know, the level of diplomatic activity increased in terms of messaging the Pakistanis over the way forward. And then I also wanted to highlight at that moment, under Hugo's leadership, the U.S. Embassy played a key role in helping those other missions at a time when they really needed help, and helped to stabilize the situation so that those missions—only one left the country permanently. The rest all stayed in large measure due to the support and encouragement given by our Chief of Mission.

Amb. Llorens: (24:58) When we were in this period of transition, there was a lot of nervousness within the Afghan government. One of the things on the political side that Mick and I worked on was to tell the Afghan government that, look, there is an opportunity here with the change of administration, but there's also a huge risk if the president of the United States, who is a natural skeptic about Afghanistan, views the government is in disarray, they're more concerned about themselves than actually doing good for the country. We're going to be in real trouble. So I think very early on we were able to leverage the president's skepticism in a way that brought President Ghani and the Chief Executive, closer together. This was an example of, sort of, and by the way, this message was communicated by me as the senior diplomat, but equally by Mick as the senior military officer.

Gen. Nicholson: (25:47) Yeah.

Amb. Llorens: (25:47) So again, this was one case where there's no light between us in terms of what we were telling the Afghans. And by the way, the Afghans know us better than we know them. If they sense any light between us, they will drive up gigantic tanks through us.

Amb. McCarthy: (26:02) I wanted to turn back a little bit to Pakistan. We've suspended assistance. Our NATO partners have exerted a lot of pressure on Pakistan. You know the influence that Pakistan has had because it's a safe haven. Is that sufficient?

Gen. Nicholson: (26:16) This topic is a subject that Ambassador Khalilzad is engaged in right now—frequent consultations with the Pakistanis. Our President and Vice President have clearly conveyed our position on this, and it's part of the new policy. It's encouraging that a new Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and General Bajwa, together, the Chief of Army Staff, are saying all the right things in support of the Afghan peace process. And so I believe that we're pursuing that optimistically, but we also have to do it with a real dose of realism about what the past history has been. To be fair, of course, the Pakistanis have suffered heavily from terrorism.

Amb. McCarthy: (26:48) That's true.

Gen. Nicholson: (26:48) They've lost tens of thousands of their own citizens to terrorism. Many of these terrorist groups are focused on Pakistan, not Afghanistan, so they're waging their own war against these terrorists as well. I think the Pakistanis sometimes feel misunderstood, but at the same time, there are elements within the Pakistani government that have continued to enable the Taliban, and so this has to be addressed. And so our policy clearly does that. So we're hopeful that moving forward towards reconciliation that we'll see Pakistan's involvement in bringing this to a peaceful conclusion

Amb. Llorens: (27:19) Right now, in addition to Pakistan, I think Saudi Arabia is in a position to play a very helpful role. Knowing how important Afghanistan has been to the United States since September 11, you know, how difficult a fight it's been for ourselves and our allies in terms of blood and treasure. It's something that the Saudis have not taken sufficiently into account. So although the Saudis project themselves as this great, one of our principal allies in the Middle East, they are in a position to influence the situation. They're in a position to influence Pakistan and they're in a position to influence the Taliban directly, because I think it's important. My view is that, and I'm not talking about Saudi government money.

Amb. McCarthy: (27:56) Haven't they hosted one round of the talks?

Amb. Llorens: (27:58) They were. They were, they were postponed. And it's important that, you know, in addition to the fact that Pakistan provides this sanctuary for the Taliban and in every sense, whether it's rest and recreation for the Taliban as a basing area, as a place where they can get their munitions. But there's also Saudi money that continues to go, and I'm not saying it's government money, but Saudi money, money from Saudi Arabia, from wealthy Saudis, goes to the Taliban. You know, the Saudis can be an enabler in terms of helping us with Pakistan and with the Taliban. And I know that our diplomatic team is very aware of that and I think that's a critical element.

Gen. Nicholson: (28:35) I wanted to pick up on something Hugo said about our messaging because he's absolutely right. We benefited from President Ghani's view and Chief Executive Abdullah's view that the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States was of primary importance to the country. And this was a vast difference from the latter years of President Karzai. And president Karzai's negative view of the U.S. and the country undermined willingness and political support for support to Afghanistan, and in a very damaging way.

Amb. McCarthy: (29:05) It made it hard to negotiate that new agreement.

Gen. Nicholson: (29:08)Made it very difficult. But with President Ghani, from day one, you know, with the signing of the bilateral security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan and his strong emphasis on the primacy of our relationship, really helped us to advocate on their behalf in terms of knowing that we have a strong partner. We have a willing partner. We have a partner in this fight against terrorist groups. They are bearing the brunt of the sacrifice now. They are willing to fight and die for their country. So all of these things, these very legitimate, genuine sentiments from the Afghan's really helped us to make the case on why this is worth the investment.

Amb. McCarthy: (29:42) And the other actors that play a role on the outside, Russia and Iran?

Gen. Nicholson: (29:47) Iran and Russia, during my time there as commander, played increasing roles. And so as we look back now, beginning in 2016 with Russia's engagement in Syria, what we note is an increase in Russian malign activity in Afghanistan, really beginning about this time. And it is interesting. So I think, on one hand, it correlated with the U.S.'s stated intention to draw down and leave under the Obama administration. So, I think, in fairness, we need to point that out. I think this direction of our policy led to some hedging behaviors by the neighbors, to include Pakistan, but also Russia in an increasing role, and Iran to some extent, to ensure that their interests would be covered if the U.S. And NATO left, and whatever was left behind. There was also the increasing tension post-Crimea and Ukraine between Russia and NATO. And so if they could undermine NATO in Afghanistan, this would serve their larger purpose of discrediting the alliance and introducing friction. Third, I think Russia wanted to reassert its leadership and influence in Central Asia with the Central Asian states. And so we saw an increase there. And then the manner in which they've been engaged there has been typical of this pattern we've seen elsewhere. So the level of activity was just below the threshold of something that would drive a strong reaction by the alliance. So we saw low level engagement with provision of arms. We had weapons brought into my headquarters by governors in the north saying, “this was provided by the Russians to insurgents”. Now the weapon of course is an older weapon. It's fully functioning and in good shape, but there's no way that you can prove that this weapon came from a Russian and was given, other than the assertion of the governor. But we had that kind of evidence. Bribery was going on. Influence operations were going on. There were attempts to create their own parallel diplomatic process to that being led by the Afghan government. So, a desire to host peace talks in Moscow. And, so, we've seen many efforts on multiple levels by Russia to regain influence. Now, it's important to remember, as Hugo pointed out, the massive sense of Russia as the one who brought about all these problems in Afghanistan to begin with. So, their presence there in the seventies and eighties, this sheer damage has created a lot of ill will towards Russia in Afghanistan.

Amb. Llorens: (32:13) The work that we did, the whole national security team, at the end of the day, we really were able to get a very integrated strategy that was premised on the region. You know, you couldn't isolate the Afghan problems. It's integral to the South Central Asia region. So it's very important to know that that policy was not just an Afghan policy. It was a Central South Asian policy and it involved our approaches vis-à-vis, certainly Pakistan as the pivotal country there, but also with regards to our relationship with India, as we deal with Afghanistan. The problem of Iran, we have all sorts of difficulties with Iran, but Iran is a country that can have a lot of impact on Afghanistan and, of course, all the neighboring countries, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, an approach towards those countries. So I think it's very important that president Trump's approach really emphasized Afghanistan within the regional context. The president's policy had a regional component, a more robust military component, and then maybe the final thing I would like to mention in our areas, making sure that those social gains that I mentioned at the outset, the education gains, the health gains, were not reversed. One of the things that I think we achieved in the time, and by the way this, we did it together, changing completely the policy orientation on the economic side. The primary economic policy of the Afghan government, and in the period that we came in again, how to leverage a more private sector economic approach that create conditions for sustainable growth. So it's all integrated. And then finally, the corruption piece. We also worked on it on the civilian side, helping the country, the government, create a more meritocratic civil service, trying to control better oversight on the procurement process.

Gen. Nicholson: (33:58) On the corruption side, we looked at two of the areas where we saw the largest amount of corruption in the security sector, within the area of pay to personnel. So there's a problem of ghost soldiers. So there was a name and an identity for a person who didn't exist or wasn't in the ranks and the pay was still flowing to the government and then somebody was pocketing the pay for that individual. So that was one area where we had a lot of corruption. Then the second was in the area of fuel corruption. Where in a desire to turn over contracts to be administered by the Afghans, we had turned over the fuel contracts, which were significant contracts, hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis. And there was an immense amount of corruption going on inside the bidding process that was being run by the Afghans. So President Ghani was very committed to fixing this so he created a national procurement commission, and he pulled it up to his level. And while some were critical of this as a massive exercise in micromanagement, it was actually necessary to get after the corruption in a big way. So he drove the number of contracts from hundreds and hundreds of smaller contracts, where corruption could occur in an unsupervised manner, to a smaller number of larger contracts that were controlled at the national level. And so this process continues to this day for national procurement. He and Chief Executive Abdullah sit on it every week, with our representatives and representatives from the embassy.

Amb. McCarthy: (35:21) How did they get rid of the ghost soldiers?

Gen. Nicholson: (35:22) Okay. So in that case, we went through a process of biometrically enrolling all the soldiers. So verifying that for every soldier who has a bank account, there's a biometric identity associated with that soldier. This was a massive undertaking because the number of troops in the Afghan Army and Police total about 330,000. What we had identified was a gap between the biometric identities and the total number we were paying. So beginning in January 2017 we made the unilateral decision, I informed President Ghani we were suspending pay for anybody for whom we could not identify that they actually exist. We recouped tens of millions of dollars in pay, and then coupled with bringing the fuel contracts back under U.S. contracting command control, so we control the bidding process. We also protected hundreds of millions of dollars from potential corruption in the fuel bidding process. So the biometric enrollment of every soldier and every policeman went on through the period that Hugo and I worked together. This enabled us to have a much more accurate picture of how many soldiers they actually had. The money that we saved on the pay accounts we invested in the creation of additional special forces units. We found that these units had the best accountability and the best performance on the battlefield. So we made a decision to double the number of special forces units, commandos, and special police, and to increase the size of the Afghan Air Force. So by driving down the corruption in these other areas, we were able to help fund the growth in these other areas.

Amb. McCarthy: (36:58) Since the strategy was launched, there've been two offers for peace, two cease fires. We have a new envoy for Afghanistan, Ambassador Khalilzad, who's working on a negotiated settlement. How do you assess the prospects for these talks?

Gen. Nicholson: (37:12) I personally think we're at a period of what we call fighting and talking. So as is characteristic of many of the final stages of any war, as you get closer to the negotiation, each side is trying to increase your leverage at the bargaining table. And so I think what we're saying with the Taliban attacks, and to be clear about the Taliban attacks, they're not gaining new ground. What they're trying to do is inflict casualties and grab headlines, and they're getting headlines. They're getting headlines. To be honest, I think the media tends to accentuate these and not track as closely the successes that the Afghan security forces are having against the Taliban. But this in part is because we've made a deliberate decision not to talk about body counts. The history of using body counts as a metric of success is not a good one and so we deliberately don't do this, but what we do see in the media, of course, there's an overemphasis on body counts, friendly reports, and because we don't talk about enemy body counts, there's no counter narrative to that. I believe what we're seeing, my personal opinion, is the enemy is trying to improve their leverage at the bargaining table by conducting high profile attacks that inflict casualties but don't fundamentally change the situation on the ground. But they're designed to get at the will of the coalition and the will of the Afghan people. Now, what you've seen is a resiliency in the Afghan government in the face of this and what you don't hear about, what isn't reported, are the nightly attacks and frequent attacks that are being done by the Afghan military against the Taliban. What's encouraging to see is there is an international consensus building in support of peace, so, the Russians, although it hasn't been in a helpful way, are actually trying to promote a peace process in their own way. The allies are behind this. The U.S. Led effort under Ambassador Khalilzad is trying to move us to what will be, eventually, an Afghan peace process.

Amb. Llorens: (39:02) One of the fundamental shifts in approach between the Obama administration and the Trump administration was this idea of moving away from a time-spaced approach and again, the flaw there was, ultimately the Taliban could just wait us out. They basically say once they're out the door, then we'll take care of business. And the message being that we will stay as long as it takes, we and our allies, to achieve our objective of a political solution, a reconciliation in Afghanistan. The Taliban understand war. They understand violence. If you're going to have success, if you're going to force them to the table, you sort of need to increase the level of violence on them. You don't press buttons in Afghanistan and things happen, it will take time, but I think we have begun a process, which, I believe, really provides an opportunity for Afghans, who are the ultimate dealmakers.

Gen. Nicholson: (39:51) Right.

Amb. Llorens: (39:52) To sit down at the table and come up with something that genuinely works for Afghanistan, but protects our interests.

Amb. McCarthy: (39:58) Well, the President has said, let's begin to pull back some of our forces in Afghanistan; although it's not an easy process, it takes time. What kind of signals does that send?

Gen. Nicholson: (40:08) I understand no orders were issued.

Amb. McCarthy: (40:10) No orders were issued.

Gen. Nicholson: (40:10) It was discussed in some public messaging that occurred, but there were no orders issued, and again, that's under consideration by the department, working with the White House. I think that the important thing here is the peace process led by Ambassador Zal [Zalmay Khalilzad] is progressing. And as Hugo said, key at this moment is demonstrating our commitment to the peace process going forward. The Afghans want to own this war. They are a willing partner, they just need our help. And so as we look at, from the height of our commitment in Afghanistan, hundreds of billions of dollars, a hundred thousand US troops, we're now down to 15,000 US troops. And can that number come down a little? Perhaps. And perhaps as part of a negotiated settlement, that number would come down. One of the seductive arguments here is to look at the cost of your current commitment, which we can quantify quite specifically, but what we don't know as a cost of failure. So if we were to leave arbitrarily from Afghanistan and there was another attack on the U.S., which we assess, military and intelligence officials, would occur, then what would that cost be to the United States? So comparing the cost of staying to get this to a negotiated settlement versus the cost of failure is an important conversation.

Amb. McCarthy: (41:24) What key lessons should we take away about the need for each side, our diplomatic side, our military side, to get out of it's foxhole so to speak, to get the mission done?

Amb. Llorens: (41:34) When I was asked by Secretary Kerry whether I would come to Afghanistan, I was going to retire out of Sydney, Australia. I had a great tour, that was the real golden handshake for me.

Amb. McCarthy: (41:46) I know you liked that one, I remember that.

Amb. Llorens: (41:46) I had a great time over there. I immediately accepted. To me Afghanistan was so important. I wanted to just focus completely on, and I wanted to have the ability to be as honest as I could be with our senior leadership back in Washington. And Mick is, again, one of our most brilliant military commanders. But one of the things that made it easy to work with him—he's a man of true conviction and principal. So, he was more interested in getting the job done for America than his own career. There are many elements as to why we have such a good relationship, but ultimately he was not going to compromise on being honest with his leaders on what he felt needed to be done. And I think his conviction provided a tremendous amount of leadership and I was kind of a bit of a free agent. So I think that was a key part of our relationship.

Gen. Nicholson: (42:30) What we ask the general and the ambassador to do in Afghanistan is really achieve kind of unity of effort between the two of them. And when I think about the training and education of military leaders to prepare you for this, it's not really a part of our training and education to be quite honest.

Amb. McCarthy: (42:45) It's not really part of ours. We have some.

Gen. Nicholson: (42:45) We are trained to become great tactical leaders on the battlefield, and that's where we should be focused. But then, when you get put in a position like this, that's kind of uncharted territory. What I have learned coming out of that, number one, it comes down to relationships—establishing and leveraging functional, authentic relationships. And so the qualities necessary in a military leader to do their part in this relationship are not the qualities you see on a normal list of military virtues. You know, we talk about physical courage, physical fitness, and certainly we need all of those qualities. But you also need a quality of humility that you don't understand everything that your diplomatic teammate understands, that the Chief of Mission understands after a career in the diplomatic arena. Patience, you know, that outcomes require time. So whether you're working with allies, whether you're working with Afghans, requires patience. Stamina, to be honest, you know, years and years and years of working on these problems, and this is what its going to take to get to the point. So these qualities are essential and need to be developed, and I think in our own training and education of our military leaders coming up, we also recognize there are no more purely military solutions to these problems in the world. The military is but one part of a solution. We're not going to kill our way to victory here. You are going to be part of a whole, and therefore the military leaders have got to understand how they fit into that whole, what their role is, and how they can create an environment where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Amb. McCarthy: (44:18) And our diplomatic leaders, to be effective negotiators, often need the presence and the support of our military, because if the negotiations fail, we have other solutions.

Amb. Llorens: (44:31) Again, the Afghans know us very well and they're very savvy. And If they would pick up any differences, the most subtle, that we might have our policy issues and that would make it more complicated for either of us to do our jobs. So, what we tried to do is we did a weekly lunch, for an hour, and you know that was a human lunch too. I mean we talked about family because it was about our relationship as two people who were in a very stressful environment, and you know, we kind of needed each other as people.

Gen. Nicholson: (45:01) Absolutely

Amb. Llorens: (45:01) So we established a very deep friendship. There was a lot of trust there. I had total trust. We could disagree on something, believe it. We didn't agree on everything, but I wasn't going to find out about it from someone else. I was going to find out from Mick. And the other thing is, our ability to have these monthly meetings where we, as Mick said, we would pick a subject. One of the, either the command or the embassy would have lead, and then they would present and then we would have a discussion for an hour and a half. First of all, it showed all of our people the kind of relationship Mick and I had, how close we were. But then it would allow them to, sort of, interact together. As we got further on, I didn't need to talk to Mick everyday.

Gen. Nicholson: (45:39) Yea, we just knew.

Amb. Llorens: (45:40) And that made it a lot easier., It wasn't like I have to devote a lot of time, sort of like we hit orbit, we knew what we were thinking. I mean if there's a question, then we would call, but we didn't need to speak every day.

Amb. McCarthy: (45:50) Well gentlemen, I commend you on the teamwork that you achieved and I know the teamwork is going to continue as you go into new incarnations and it's been a true pleasure to do this. Not only in warmer climes, not in Washington, but also, in the case of Hugo, with someone who entered the diplomatic service with me, at the tender age of, very young. And we don't need to communicate to know and understand each other either. But thank you for participating in our series, The General and the Ambassador and may your teamwork continue.

Gen. Nicholson: (46:22) Thank you, Deborah.

Amb. Llorens: (46:22) Thank you very much. It was great.