It was only by sheer luck that Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, nominated this week to be the next top commander of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, was not killed on Sept. 11, 2001.
As a strategist for Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, Nicholson, who goes by “Mick,” was working on the northwestern side of the Pentagon that fall. When American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the building, Nicholson’s office was destroyed. Nicholson, though, was not in it: he was out of the building that day moving into a new house.
Few American generals have been as deeply involved in the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan sparked by the attacks that day as Nicholson, a tall, lean officer with bushy silver hair and leathery skin who first saw combat as a young paratroop lieutenant in Grenada.
In all, Nicholson has spent three-and-a-half years deployed in Afghanistan, far more than any of his predecessors when they took the top post in Kabul. Between 16 months as a brigade commander in the country’s mountainous east, a second year as a one-star general in the south, and a third year as the top operations deputy to the four-star U.S. and NATO commander in the Afghan capital, Nicholson also did an intervening tour supervising the Pentagon’s highest-level cell dedicated to the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.
That makes him a wise pick as the next commander of a U.S. military mission that now looks like it may last much longer than the Obama administration hoped until recently, military sources say — although some expected that a Special Operations officer would take the job, given current commander Gen. John Campbell’s heavy reliance on Special Operations teams to buck up brittle Afghan military and police forces in crisis zones.
Nicholson’s military career began at West Point — and almost ended there. Hoping to be a doctor, Nicholson left the military academy for a civilian pre-med program at Georgetown after two years when an option for new lieutenants to go straight to graduate school was eliminated. At Georgetown, though, he changed tracks, dropping his medical ambitions and instead choosing to pursue an infantry commission — by going back to West Point. By the time he graduated in 1982 as the top cadet in his class, Nicholson had spent seven years earning two bachelor’s degrees.
A year and a half out of the academy, Nicholson was recognized with a Bronze Star medal with a “V” device for his valor during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, and he went on to hold such prestigious jobs as aide to the commander of NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia-Herzegovina and military assistant to the secretary of the Army.
“Mick can talk to privates as well as he can talk to general officers. One day he’ll run the Army,” a retired officer who served alongside Nicholson twice said in an interview.
When Nicholson first deployed to Afghanistan in 2006, the Army’s priority was Iraq, and the troops fighting the “forgotten war” were doing so on a shoestring, with few helicopters or surveillance drones. His 3,500-strong U.S. infantry brigade was the only one in the country, and during weekly U.S. Central Command video conferences, the top commander in Iraq often took up the first 50 or 55 minutes of an hour-long session before his counterpart in Kabul spoke.
Nevertheless, Nicholson embraced an ambitious counterinsurgency approach. Collaborating with intelligence agencies to identify where its limited forces could best be used to disrupt the Taliban and gain intelligence about al-Qaeda, Nicholson’s brigade spread out into a network of austere outposts in Afghanistan’s east.
Among the bases his troops established was the notorious Korengal Outpost, which became a magnet for violence and whose disestablishment four years later Nicholson protested through internal military channels. It was important, he argued, that insurgents never be given a break, and that U.S. troops pursue them wherever in Afghanistan they found sanctuary.
“General Nicholson was not reluctant to take risk” in furtherance of that goal, a subordinate from that deployment said in an interview, asking not to be named in order to speak candidly about his former boss. “One time he told me that something I was doing should be a one-platoon operation instead of a two-platoon operation, because if it was a two-platoon operation, the enemy wouldn’t come out to fight and we wouldn’t be able to kill them.”
At the same time, Nicholson embraced what the military called the “non-kinetic” side of counterinsurgency — development, reconstruction and politics. “I never knew anybody who more sincerely wanted to make the Afghan people’s lives better,” said Navy Capt. Samuel Paparo, who worked for Nicholson as head of a provincial reconstruction team. “As a boss, I did not meet him until I got to Afghanistan, and he he bestowed upon me immediate and complete trust, which was very inspiring.”
Nicholson’s career has not been without controversy, however.
In March 2007, a group of Marine Special Operations troops working in Nicholson’s sector was accused of overreacting to an insurgent attack and killing civilians. Days afterward, in an email to more senior commanders, Nicholson requested that the Marine unit be pulled out of Afghanistan, citing both the shooting and what he viewed as deception by the unit’s commander.
Nicholson’s wish was granted — but to some Marines, Nicholson’s request, as well as an apology he delivered to villagers and later read aloud to the press, seemed prejudicial and unfair. Gen. James Conway, then commandant of the Marine Corps, told reporters that Nicholson had been “premature to apologize” before the event had been investigated. The next year, a military court of inquiry that cleared the Marines of wrongdoing agreed, and concluded that Nicholson’s request had been “inappropriate” in its haste.
The incident earned Nicholson the enmity of some Marines, but it did not slow his rise toward the Army’s top ranks. After his first tour in Afghanistan, Nicholson was selected to work in the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon, the communications nerve center for the president, secretary of defense and Joint Chiefs. From 2012 to 2014, he commanded the 82nd Airborne Division, and most recently headed up a three-star NATO headquarters in Turkey — potentially valuable experience as he takes over a job fraught not only with Afghan political considerations but with those of the transatlantic alliance.
Karl Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general who has served as both the senior American military officer in Kabul and the U.S. ambassador there, told Checkpoint that Nicholson’s selection for the job is an astute one. “He’d be a superb commander in any combat zone, and Mick knows Afghanistan better than any other senior Army leader I know,” Eikenberry said.
Wesley Morgan’s book on Afghanistan’s Pech valley is forthcoming from Random House. Follow him on Twitter: @wesleysmorgan.