Gen. John Nicholson commands 13,000 US and international forces
The general's fate is being discussed in Trump administration circles
General John Nicholson, a highly respected four-star Army general with 35 years experience may be in the White House’s political crosshairs and become the first high-ranking military officer President Donald Trump decides to fire.
CNN has spoken to more than half a dozen currently serving military and civilian defense officials who say the fate of Nicholson as the commander of some 13,000 US and international forces in Afghanistan is being discussed in administration circles.
Officials emphasize that no decision has been made to replace Nicholson.
Because he is a serving officer, Nicholson could be removed with a simple announcement that he is being replaced with another commander. If the decision is taken, it’s not known if he would agree to retire or demand to be fired as General David McKiernan did when Defense Secretary Robert Gates replaced him in 2009 as the Obama administration adopted a new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
The thrust of White House criticism of Nicholson appears be that he has been unable to win the war in Afghanistan. While Nicholson is respected, he has also caused some irritation in senior defense circles. His public comments seeking more troops have been seen by some as getting ahead of a White House decision.
Nicholson also made a very public pledge to defeat and eliminate the local Afghan branch of ISIS known as ISIS-K, promising to do so by the end of 2017. To that end he authorized the use of the MOAB bomb, the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the US arsenal, a decision that made headlines while inviting some to wonder whether Nicholson considered the political impact such a decision might have. He also caused consternation inside the Pentagon by unilaterally changing policy on how the public is notified of troops killed in action in Afghanistan.
One official told CNN “it’s just personalizing the President’s frustration,” by singling out Nicholson. White House adviser Sebastian Gorka says the President “absolutely” has confidence in General Nicholson. The Pentagon was less effusive, with spokesperson Dana White issuing a statement saying simply, “Secretary Mattis has confidence in General Nicholson’s leadership.”
It’s widely believed Defense Secretary James Mattis and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, support Nicholson staying in his role over a public firing of a respected general who has spent much of the last 15 years on repeated combat tours in Afghanistan commanding large numbers of troops in the field.
The White House meeting also took place before retired General John Kelly was appointed to be the President’s chief of staff. It’s not clear to what extent Kelly may be willing to protect Nicholson.
But the calendar may provide a less dramatic solution if the White House wants to remove Nicholson.
Nicholson took command in March 2016 for a tour of duty that typically does not last longer than two years. But several recent commanders have served shorter tours for a variety of reasons. Typically the Pentagon would start looking for a replacement candidate to recommend to the President months in advance for a senior job like Afghanistan.
This could all lead to Nicholson still being replaced in the coming weeks or months pending what might be a controversial confirmation process for a new commander. Some military officials believe the current national security adviser, Lt. General H.R. McMaster, could be a likely replacement. McMaster is a three-star general but would still have to face Senate confirmation.
Officials familiar with the White House meeting say Trump looks at the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and sees success. But when it comes to Afghanistan, he doesn’t see a winning effort. Mattis has also said the US is not winning in Afghanistan and Trump is looking for a strategy he can be assured will lead to a win.
The chatter about Nicholson, who also has strong relationships on Capitol Hill, sparked an immediate reaction from Arizona Sen. John McCain seeking to defend Nicholson.
“He has earned the trust and admiration of those he has served with. And he has earned my full confidence,” the Republican chairman of the armed services committee said.
McCain has been publicly critical of the Pentagon, Mattis and the White House for not settling on a new strategy for Afghanistan.
“Six months ago, General Nicholson testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and warned that the United States was not winning the war in Afghanistan,” McCain said in a statement Thursday. “The reason for this failure is a lack of successful policy and strategic guidance from Washington over many years, which has continued in the first several months of this new administration. Our commanders-in-chief, not our commanders in the field, are responsible for this failure.”
Mattis had promised McCain a strategy for Afghanistan by mid-July, but missed that deadline when the administration could not agree on what to do next. Multiple officials say the options still being discussed range from a complete withdrawal to adding to the 8,400 US troops already there. Nicholson has advocated for adding a few thousand US troops specifically in order to “buy time” for the Afghan forces to be better trained and look after their own security, one official close to him told CNN.
McMaster has backed sending more troops, so if that option becomes the approved strategy it might bolster the case to send him to Afghanistan, several officials say.