Nicholson, 61, the top U.S. military official in Afghanistan for the past 16 months, has become the best-known face of Washington here, working closely with Afghan military and civilian officials, and vocally advocating expanded U.S. military engagement, while the Taliban and other insurgents continue aggressive attacks across the country.
Now, with two U.S. service members killed in the past week, Trump's attack on Nicholson for failing to "win" the 16-year war has stunned Afghan officials and political leaders. They said a clear signal of continued support from Washington is urgently needed to keep the fragile Kabul government on its feet amid an explosion of public unrest and organized opposition from a variety of groups.
"Our biggest immediate worry is the lack of an American strategy," said Omar Daudzai, a former senior Afghan official. "We are facing political turmoil and a security crisis. Neighboring governments are meddling. We need an American commitment to support the defense forces, elections and democratic institutions. America's reputation is at stake in Afghanistan, and if this all goes bad, America will lose its credibility."
Over the past several days, Afghan officials and others here praised Nicholson, saying he inherited a protracted and worsening conflict but has worked closely with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on developing a detailed four-year plan to support Afghan security forces so they can defend the country alone. With no permanent U.S. ambassador here since December, the four-star general's role has also taken on added diplomatic importance.
Observers in Kabul said Nicholson, now on his fourth military tour in the country, has earned wide respect for his hard work and outreach to Afghans of all stripes. Last year, Nicholson told a congressional committee that since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan has largely defined my service."
A U.S. military official here, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Nicholson "is not one to twist in the wind. He is focusing on the mission he was asked to carry out: a strategy to help the Afghans stand on their own feet. This is an Afghan conflict, and everyone knows there is no quick and easy solution. The main thing President Ghani has asked us for is time."
But a variety of Afghans said the new controversy over Nicholson, and further postponement of an announced U.S. policy after months of drift, have aroused concern that Washington may abandon its longtime role as a supporter of Afghan democracy, and possibly even the war effort, at a time of growing domestic unrest and interference by foreign regional powers.
"These delays are not just a matter of bureaucracy. They are a matter of life and death to the Afghan people," said Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. The Taliban insurgents, he said, are trying to "influence the debate in Washington with these new attacks. The longer these delays continue, the more innocent lives will be lost."
Moradian said Trump "has a right to be angry" about the military stalemate, "but he is attacking the wrong target." He said that Nicholson has done "an admirable job of filling the political and diplomatic vacuum" since Trump took office and that he should not be blamed for the failure of policies set by the Obama administration.
Under President Obama's policy, U.S. and NATO forces peaked in 2009 at 140,000 troops, but most of them withdrew in 2014 with the war still hotly contested. Nicholson heads a limited assistance mission of about 8,400 troops that advise and train Afghan forces and provide air combat support.
The plan worked out by Nicholson and Ghani calls for doubling the size of the Afghan special operations forces and bringing in hundreds of U.S. trainers for the recruits, improving the Afghan air force, pairing advisers more closely with Afghan soldiers, reforming military leadership and combating corruption in the defense forces. Ghani has said he wants the military to be totally independent after four years.
But some observers said Trump's sharp criticism of Nicholson at a tense July 19 meeting in the White House may indicate he wants to scrap the entire plan, supported by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, that would include raising the number of U.S. troops by several thousand. According to news reports, the president repeatedly said he wanted to fire the general, leaving senior military and policy aides stunned. There was no indication of what alternatives Trump is considering.
"The president has undermined his own general, and he has also undermined the mission," said a former Afghan security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Nicholson has now lost face in front of Afghans, his NATO counterparts and his officers. What does this tell the troops under his command? How can Afghan leaders accept any commitment he makes when they know he does not carry the full faith and credit of the United States?"
The other missing half of the equation is a U.S. political policy toward Afghanistan, which most experts agree is even more important than deciding how many troops to send or what they would do. Opinions among Afghans are divided on this issue, with some saying Washington needs to do more to strengthen the divided Ghani regime, and others saying it should focus on building institutions rather than supporting individual leaders.
"The blind spot in U.S. policy is not about the troop numbers, it is about uncritically supporting Ghani," said the former security official, noting that the Afghan president's popularity has plummeted as his government faces growing public insecurity and political opposition. "The U.S. should be reexamining its political strategy. It should not be Ghani or bust."
Government officials, however, said that Ghani's goal is to strengthen democratic institutions and reform a corrupt political system, not seek personal endorsements, and that a strong signal of support for those goals from the new administration in Washington is crucial.
"We know that building a secure, stable Afghanistan is our responsibility, but we are also fighting a war against transnational terror, and we can't do it alone," said Nader Nadery, a senior Ghani aide. "It takes time for reforms to show results, and there is a huge wall of people against them. If there can be a clarification of U.S. support, everyone will get the message, the security plan will succeed, and eventually Afghanistan will be a success story for both countries."