Is the top general in Afghanistan in too deep?
For Army Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, the war in Afghanistan is deeply personal.
The top commander in charge of President Donald Trump’s revamped strategy to “fight to win” has spent much of the last decade-plus fighting the Taliban and other militant groups, forging deep bonds with Afghan leaders. He has also lost scores of his own troops — sacrifices that at times have made him more reluctant than other commanders to cede territory to the enemy, and deaths he repeatedly cites as a reason to keep fighting.
Story Continued Below
“We will deliver on your sacrifice,” Nicholson recently pledged to troops who have served in America’s longest war and “especially those who’ve been wounded and to the families of our fallen comrades.”
But some of his fellow veterans are looking askance at his bullish predictions of victory in the 16-year-old war — such as his recent statement that the U.S. and its Afghan partners are “turning the corner,” or his pronouncement that the Taliban’s choices are “to reconcile, live in irrelevance or die.” Some worry that he is too invested in the conflict to see it as the quagmire it is.
Some of his predictions also appear to conflict with recent assessments from some U.S. intelligence agencies.
“We have to separate personalities from performance,” said Jason Dempsey, a former combat adviser to Afghan army units who is now at the Center for a New American Security. “There’s nobody who’s going to go crosswise with Nicholson and say this is a screwed-up effort. You can be the world’s greatest commander and still be in charge of a failing effort.”
When asked about Nicholson, Andrew Exum, a former Pentagon official who also served in Afghanistan, added: “I have trouble seeing this generation of officers, many of whom have significant combat experience in Afghanistan, being willing to treat the tremendous human sacrifices that have been made as essentially sunk costs and arrive at a tough decision to assume more risk in Afghanistan.”
All told, more than 2,400 American troops have been killed since the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to topple the Taliban, who were harboring the Al Qaeda terrorists who had attacked New York and Washington.
Trump’s revamped strategy calls for adding nearly 4,000 more U.S. troops, including a special brigade of 1,000 front-line combat advisers, to assist Afghan army units fighting a resurgent Taliban in more remote areas — bringing the total American contingent to nearly 15,000.
That’s still only a small fraction of the U.S. presence during previous periods of the fighting. The U.S. presence peaked at about 100,000 in 2011, when U.S. ground troops were fighting the Taliban directly in many cases, not advising Afghan units as they are now.
The strategy also includes additional attack planes, artillery units, and drones to step up airstrikes against the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the local offshoot of the Islamic State.
“My original instinct was to pull out — and, historically, I like following my instincts,” Trump said last year in announcing the new strategy. He even reportedly threatened to fire Nicholson because he was “losing.”
But he later vowed that the United States and its partners will “fight to win.”
Nicholson, in a recent telephone interview with POLITICO, took on the critics who are frustrated to see the war drag on.
“As difficult as it is to see this war go on for so long, we’re still protecting the country and we’re doing it with a fraction of what we once invested here,” he said, “and we’re doing it with an Afghan army that was created literally from nothing that is now doing the fighting.”
“Yes, it’s been a long time. Yes, it’s been costly,” he added. “But the costs of 9/11 were enormous, and there are people here who harbor those ambitions. … The costs of failure are simply unacceptable. If we were to fail in Afghanistan, if we were to leave Afghanistan, it would embolden jihadis around the world, including those that are already in our own country.
“We’re protecting our homeland. We honor the sacrifice of our fallen by helping the Afghans to deliver on what they sacrificed.”
No one is considered better prepared than Nicholson, 60, whose first of multiple tours to Afghanistan was in 2006, to carry out the new strategy.
“Mick knows Afghanistan better than any other senior Army leader I know,” one of his predecessors, retired Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, one of the ten American generals who have held the job, said of his former subordinate when he took command in Kabul two years ago. “Mick establishes realistic, attainable goals within the time available.”
“There couldn’t be a better person to lead this effort at this particular time,” added Christopher Kolenda, a retired Army colonel who served with Nicholson in Afghanistan and now studies the prospects for an Afghan peace process, says.
The general is also unconstrained by the kind of set timeline from the White House that some of his predecessors say limited their efforts.
“War is a contest of wills,” Nicholson said an extensive interview, arguing that the Obama administration’s far larger troop surge from 2009 to 2011 came up short in part because Obama announced the draw-down of forces ahead of time.
“In the contest of wills, our enemy calculated that we had lost the will to succeed,” Nicholson said. Now, he added, “demonstrating the will to win is the key difference.”
Nevertheless, there are deepening concerns that his devotion to the mission could be blinding him to the harsh realities that it may be beyond the U.S. military’s grasp to help create a stable Afghanistan.
Some cite his earlier experience with the deadly Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, where he first committed troops in 2006 when he was a colonel. Dozens of American soldiers from successive units were killed in a valley that, to some, came to symbolize the futility of American counterinsurgency efforts in such hostile territory.
When U.S. troops pulled out of the Korengal in 2010, Nicholson was back in Afghanistan for a second tour as a brigadier general, and he made his doubts about the withdrawal known.
“Emotionally, he felt that we shouldn’t pull out of the Korengal,” recalled one of his aides at the time, Lt. Col. Robert Stanton. “We had lost a lot of soldiers there and fought very hard there and thought it made sense to be there.”