General John Nicholson – Two Years as RS Commander

General John Nicholson - commander Resolute Support Mission Afghanistan

General John Nicholson has completed two years as the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. One is tempted to evaluate his performance as the head guy in the Afghan War for the past couple of years. Of course, any attempt to do this would fall short of an accurate assessment of his performance. There are just too many variables and factors at play that he doesn’t control or influence.

Nicholson took over in March 2016 when General John Campbell departed command. [1] General John Nicholson inherited a difficult situation. U.S. and NATO troops had conducted a significant reduction in force in the few years before he took command. The U.S. went from 100,000 troops in 2011 down to about 9,000 in March 2016. The Regional Commands (RC East, RC South, etc.) headed by two-star generals had been downsized to Train, Advise, and Assist Commands or TAACs headed by one-star generals. Two of the RCs were completely disbanded – replaced by “Advise and Assist Cells” or ACCs that would maintain contact with the Afghan Army corps via cell phone, email, and infrequent “fly to advise” visits.

Decreased Combat Power. When Nicholson arrived there was very little U.S. combat power on the ground – unless you count the U.S. Special Forces teams and NATO SOF units that worked with ANASOC’s Special Operations Kandaks (SOKs) and the Ministry of Interior’s Special Police Units like the CRU-222. Air support – in the form of close air support and ISR – was drastically reduced. The war with ISIS was heating up in Iraq and Syria and resources slowly shifted to the Middle East.

Decreased Advisory Effort. The huge influx of advisor teams that arrived in 2012-2013 under Generals John Allen and Joseph Dunford were largely scaled back. In 2012 and early 2013 there were Security Force Assistance Advisor Teams (SFAATs) located at all levels of the Afghan National Army (ANA) down to kandak (battalion) level. On the police side of the house there were advisor teams working with the Provincial HQs and at district center level. Toward the end of Dunford’s command these SFAATs were drastically reduced (call it the “Obama effect”). By the end of 2014 and extending into 2016 the only permanent advisor teams to the ANA operated at corps and institutional – and even then the 203rd and 215th were ‘uncovered’. Air advisors with Train, Advise, and Assist Command – Air (TAAC-Air) were still flying with their Afghan counterparts – therefore they operated at ‘tactical’ level.

NSOCC-A / SOJTF-A. SOF advisors – both U.S. and Coalition – were also still at the tactical level. The advisory and training package at Camp Commando (formerly Camp Morehead) outside of Kabul had a heavy mix of U.S. and Coalition SOF working with the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command (ANASOC). NATO and other partner nation SOF teams continued to train and work with the elite units of the General Command Police Special Units (GCPSU). However, even SOF downsized considerably in Afghanistan. U.S. SOF withdrew almost completely from the heavy commitment to the Village Stability Operations (VSO) program and the Afghan Local Police (ALP); although it did keep a robust advisory presence at the Ministry of Interior (MoI) to keep the ALP on track. The Police Special Units found at province level lost their training and advising SOF teams as well. The Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A) was downsized to a battalion-sized organization and renamed the Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan (SOFT-A).

Interagency Downsizing. Along with the drastic military cutback of troops by the U.S. and its allies there was a corresponding reduction in State Department, USAID, law enforcement, and other non-military government agency personnel. Interagency organizations and personnel are – as everyone knows – an important cog in the counterinsurgency fight. In COIN, the key areas to attend to include security, governance, and development. Some would add information operations to the mix. We still have our eye on the security aspect but are not paying as much attention to the governance and development areas.

Some Background. The overall effort in the 2015-2016 timeframe – due to the significant drawdown – was to concentrate resources on the two security ministries (MoD and MoI), some of the Afghan training institutions, and the ANA corps (with the exceptions previously mentioned). It was believed by the Resolute Support staff that the “Afghans knew how to fight at the kandak level” but that the security ministries lacked the ability to sustain the force due to a lack of systems and processes at the ministerial, institutional, and corps level. Not everyone believed this; but it was a convenient phrase to utter as the SFAATs were pulled off police districts and provincial hqs and ANA kandaks and brigades.

Was the Afghan army and police good enough to beat the Taliban in 2016? A look at the current security situation tells you “No”. Past reports by SIGAR, DoD (IG, 1230, & 1225), UNAMA, NATO, international organizations, and a host of think-tanks provide the answer to that question. The Taliban have not been beaten. Sure they take losses on the battlefield; U.S. air support causes significant casualties when they mass and Afghan SOF continue to hammer the insurgents during clearing operations. However, if you look at the number of districts that the Taliban ‘control’ or ‘contest’ (you can’t use the unreliable Afghan government estimates or the very rosy projections of RS HQs; go with Long War Journal) you will see that the Taliban have been steadily gaining more ground in the rural countryside.

Contributing Factors at Play in early 2016. Pakistan still supported / supports the Taliban (funding, some training, sanctuaries, etc.). Russia, Iran and other nations continued their meddling to the detriment of the mission. The Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) negotiated by John Kerry was (and still is) dysfunctional. Hamid Karzai continued his sniping on the edges – causing political turmoil where he could. Warlords (power brokers, strongmen, or whatever term you choose – I am thinking Noor, Dostum, Raziq, etc.) eroded the power of the central Afghan government. The Afghan parliament is almost as bad as the U.S. Congress – blocking ministerial appointments and hindering reform efforts. The judicial system is largely non-functional. Corruption, despite the best efforts of the international community, rules Kabul. Old, inept, and incompetent generals within the MoD and MoI hinder the younger Afghan officers best efforts in the field.

So this is what General Nicholson inherited in March 2016. This was not the fault of General Campbell – his predecessor; nor that of Dunford, Allen, or even Petreaus. Certainly Nicholson knows Afghanistan [2] – having spent a few years there already; commanding units in the field as well as spending a year as the operations officer (2 star position) at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). What exactly can you do with 8,400 troops (along with another 3,000 NATO and partner nation troops)? Not that much. Especially when you take into consideration all the factors listed above.

Some Positives. There are some aspects of the past two years that deserve recognition. General John Nicholson seems to have taken on leadership of the Afghan security institutions and the fielded forces as a primary concern. A lot of movement has taken place in this area with the cooperation of President Ghani. Corruption within the army and police – still a huge and some say the biggest problem – appears to be another major concern receiving emphasis from Nicholson and his staff. But I doubt there will be much progress here – this is a generational thing. Nicholson increased the occurrences of the Expeditionary Advisory Platforms or EAPs – an attempt to get advisors, if only on a part-time basis, down to the ANA brigade level. The RCs that were shut down in the 203rd and 215th area of operations received permanent advisory platforms once again. They could not be re-established as TAACs as that would be an acknowledgment of failure (Europe wouldn’t have it); but these two corps did get significant help in the form of Task Force Forge and Task Force Anvil – now known as Task Force Southwest and Task Force Southeast.

Current Initiatives. Some things are going in the right direction. The 4-year plan for the MoD and MoI has some promising components. The Afghan Air Force (AAF) is getting a lot of attention. In addition to the robust air advisory effort the AAF is receiving more A-29 Super Tucanos, UH-60 Blackhawks, MD-530 helicopters, and other aircraft. RS HQs is promoting this increase in the AAF as a ‘game changer’ (Things that make you say “Hmmm”). The Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) are doubling in size – both within the MoD and the MoI. The new National Mission Brigade is one of the examples of this increase in the Afghan SOF units. This special attention to Afghan SOF probably is the result of the success of the ASSF and the fact that 70% of the offensive operations carried out by Afghan security forces are conducted by the ASSF. This noteworthy performance of the ASSF happens while the regular ANA units (there are exceptions, of course) sit in garrison, occupy numerous static checkpoints, or conduct meaningless brigade level ‘clearing operations’ where the intent is ‘telegraphed’ to the Taliban weeks in advance. In 2017 the U.S. took steps to limit the funding going to insurgents by way of the drug trade – hitting drug labs with a lot of airstrikes combined with Afghan ground units doing drug trade interdiction missions. Various estimates on the effectiveness of these operations ranged from very effective to just a slight dent in Taliban finances. Probably most important is the emphasis Nicholson and his staff have placed on developing good leadership within the security forces.

SFABs. Another new development occurring under Nicholson’s watch is the deployment of the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB). This is the brainchild of General Milley – chief of staff for the U.S. Army. Milley served (while a three-star) as the ISAF Joint Command (IJC) commander on Kabul International Airport (KIA) – I can’t bring myself to use the new name of the airport. He saw first-hand the good work that the Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) and SFAATs were doing all over Afghanistan. These initial SFABs – similar to the Advise and Assist Brigades (AABs) deployed in the later stages of the Iraq conflict – were ad hoc advising efforts. Permanent brigades stripped of lower ranking Soldiers (left in garrison stateside) deployed to different regions of Afghanistan to conduct the Security Force Assistance (SFA) mission strongly supported by General Allen and later by General Dunford (he changed it to “Functional SFA”) and General Campbell. The 1st SFAB is currently deploying to Afghanistan and will provide about 36 combat advisor teams with the mission to “Train, Advise, Assist, Accompany, and Enable” (TA3E) at the tactical level – many probably at kandaks. Will this also be a ‘game-changer’? Probably not; we will likely witness an incremental improvement in the combat effectiveness of some ANA kandaks. But it probably will not have significant effect on the overall security situation. Many other factors come into play.

The Report Card? General John Nicholson has done a good job. We will discount his ‘cheerleading efforts’ that provided a rosy (but false) picture of the situation in Afghanistan and how things were improving. Probably all past ISAF / RS commanders have done this – Nicholson and Dunford seemed to be the best in the cheerleading department; while Petraeus, Allen, and Campbell seemed less optimistic. Nicholson did seem to recognize his constraints and the political reality. Working with CENTCOM, DoD, and NATO he and his staff developed a way ahead that outlined how the U.S. and its allies would assist Afghanistan in professionalizing their security institutions and fielded forces and hopefully enable them to ‘overmatch’ (I hate that term) the Taliban on the battlefield. The new plan (already underway, but introduced in the summer of 2017) is politically acceptable – a modest increase in troop levels.

What will be the end result? Over the next few years we will probably see a significant increase in the effectiveness of the Afghan Air Force and the Afghan Special Security Forces; with a slight incremental increase in the effectiveness of the regular ANA. However, while the ASSF will continue to expand their capability to ‘clear’ areas of insurgents, the ANA and police will likely continue to fail to ‘hold’ these areas, and the Afghan government will likely continue to fail to ‘build’ in these areas. However, more important are the factors beyond the control of the General John Nicholson and future RS commanders. The Afghans will continue to have governance problems, the corrupt systems embedded in the security ministries will not go away, the drug trade will still exist, Pakistan will continue to support the Taliban, and the Taliban will not really negotiate for peace while they see themselves winning on the battlefield. So as the end of his tour approaches – how did he do as RS Commander? It isn’t fair to pin the success or failure of the overall effort on one man.  But . . . the Taliban didn’t win yet.

The Future Prospects? The next commander will face the same challenges and constraints that General John Nicholson has faced. Things may or may not get marginally better. Realistically, the Afghans need to sort this thing out. In 18 months (or perhaps two years) we will probably once again say “the Taliban didn’t win yet”.


[1] “Campbell Passes U.S., NATO Colors to Nicholson in Kabul Ceremony”Defense Media Activity, March 2, 2016.

[2] “Army’s Nicholson: Career ‘largely defined’ by Afghanistan”Stars and Stripes, January 27, 2016. Nicholson’s previous deployments in Afghanistan includes time as a brigade commander in 2006, deputy commander of RC South in 2008, and as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations for ISAF in 2011.


General John Nicholson – Biography RS HQs

General John Nicholson – Wikipedia

Edits: (There is always something that needs fixing!)

Added a sentence on the recent air strikes against drug labs in southern Afghanistan.

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