NATO Forces

General “Van Winkle” Nicholson Ends Nap, Learns War Not Going Well

General Nicholson’s taken over in Afghanistan, and he’s not sure if we can meet that 2017 deadline everyone’s been talking about. Considering how much time he’s spent focusing on the place, he seems a little surprised by how this war is going.

For a man who told the Senate Armed Services Committee in January that “Afghanistan has largely defined my service,” General John W. “Mick” Nicholson Jr. should be less surprised than he is by the current state of the war in Afghanistan. After taking over from General John “But Of Course They Need Air Support” Campbell this year as commander of all NATO and US forces in the graveyard of long-term plans, General Nicholson sat down with Reuters this last week to talk about how they all need to “re-look” the timelines put together before he arrived.

“It wasn’t just the high casualties, which require replacement and retraining. There was also the fact that they had to stop training and fight all year. So this put us behind on our projections in terms of the growth and increasing proficiency of the army and the police.” 

He’s surprised because he just got here, right?

Yeah, but no. Click through on the first link above: the man’s resume is pretty much all Afghanistan all the time.

  • There’s three tours in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2012.
  • From December 2010 to January 2012, he was Deputy Chief of Staff, Operations (Kind of worth the click to see how the haircut’s changed now that he’s The Man.)
  • There there was his time as a brigadier general earlier, he served as a one-star general in the south.
  • 16-months as brigade commander in the east.
  • 14 months at the Pentagon in charge of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell.

So this shouldn’t be all that surprising.

How did this happen?

The 90-day assessment period that Nicholson’s going through is standard practice for a commander at his level. He needs that much time to figure out what’s going on, because when the last commander leaves it’s a long-standing Army tradition to burn all the records, and on, occasion, the headquarters building to the ground.

That’s one theory.

Or the 90-day period gets the US that much closer to its presidential election. During which time the Americans can keep throwing more bombs at the Afghan countryside in a bid to drive the Taliban back long enough for Afghan forces to show that they can hold their own. Which gets things through the summer months, which then means another bi-annual assessment (part of the regular reporting cycle.

Then once the election happens, whoever’s in office will more than likely either a) continue the current troop levels, or b) increase direct support to the Afghan forces. The reason that’s in doubt depends on what kind of shit Daesh gets up to this year. If they pull off something horrific in the heart of the American homeland between now and then, well, kids, suit up, because there would be troops going back to Afghanistan.

Daesh/IS is the new Al Qaeda. And Al Qaeda’s still the old Al Qaeda. And the Americans have a real chance with the Afghans of putting Afghanistan in the win column against the Islamic State. Which means it’s a win for the Afghans. And a nod toward maintaining a long-term presence in Afghanistan as a base of counter-terror operations.

So by raising the caution flag now, General Nicholson buys himself time and some capital which he will attempt to spend by requesting a long-term commitment and/or more troops in the country beginning sometime in 2017. His predecessor threw up the deuces with some kind of request that irked some DC folks on his way out the door, and Nicholson’s going to build on that.

Enlighten us: what happens next year?

See above – if 2016 is like 2015 for Afghan forces, it’s possible that Afghanistan 2017 will look like a lighter version of Afghanistan 2009. Either that, or whatever troops do deploy to Afghanistan will be taking on a larger role that gets a little more hands-on than the current advisory mission.


Also published on Medium.