General from Baltimore County heads up Trump's new Afghanistan war effort

Call it a Smalltimore moment. When Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. met Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger at a spartan military post in Afghanistan last year, they ran through the list: Ravens, Orioles and people they knew in common.

“We just talked local for a while,” Ruppersberger said.

Then they turned to business. Ruppersberger was there to be briefed by Nicholson, a 1975 Gilman School graduate who grew up in the Towson area and is now the top NATO and U.S. military officer in Afghanistan. It’s a role he’s held since early last year, but it took on new prominence this week as President Donald Trump outlined his plans to revamp the nation’s strategy there and send thousands more troops to help.

Nicholson was not available for an interview with The Baltimore Sun, but he told reporters in Kabul this week that some of those forces had begun arriving already and that Trump’s policy of a seemingly open-ended commitment to Afghanistan would ultimately force the Taliban to make a deal.

“With the announcement of this policy, the Taliban cannot win on the battlefield,” he said. “It is time for them to join the peace process.”

Schoolmates of Nicholson’s from Gilman — who knew him as Nick, a moniker that morphed into Mick over the years — say they’re not surprised he’s risen so high in the military. But former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., his football teammate, said he was in many ways a regular student even though, like Nicholson, his father was a West Point graduate who went on to become a brigadier general.

“It wasn’t all about the military or his dad or ‘I'm going to West Point and I want to be a general,’ ” Ehrlich said. “He was a good student, you knew he was going to be successful. … He had his act together at a very early stage.”

Ehrlich said Nicholson wasn’t a big guy on the football field but rather “thin and tough” and “a very strong competitor.”

Alongside achievements on the athletic field, Nicholson’s Gilman yearbook page shows him sporting longish hair and includes shout-outs to rockers Black Sabbath and Mick Jagger. Unusually, he holds degrees from both Georgetown University and West Point, and didn’t receive his first military assignment, with the 82nd Airborne Division, until 1983.

That was in time for the American invasion of Grenada, where he earned a Bronze Star for valor, and began his climb through the military ranks.

Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks — in which he reportedly narrowly avoided being killed when his Pentagon office was destroyed — Nicholson has spent much of his time supporting the Afghan campaign at the Pentagon and NATO or leading troops in the field. He is said to have more experience in the country than any other senior American military officer.

Nicholson told senators during his confirmation hearing last year that the nation’s 16-year war in Afghanistan “has largely defined my service.”

He took command as head of NATO’s Resolute Support mission and American forces in Afghanistan in March 2016, as the Obama administration planned a final few months of fighting before ultimately pulling out in January. But before Nicholson even departed from Washington, it was clear some on Capitol Hill had misgivings about that plan, and he pledged to review troop levels and come back with recommendations.

This February, he told Congress that the fighting had reached a stalemate and that he needed thousands more troops on top of the 10,000 or so Americans already there to carry out his mission.

Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general, said that admission took courage because senior officers are sometimes not willing to be candid when their efforts aren’t going well.

“I give him respect and credit,” Spoehr said.

At one point, it looked as though Nicholson’s command might end early after reports that Trump was upset with his leadership. But Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general who also served in Afghanistan, publicly offered his support for Nicholson. Following Trump’s announcement, Nicholson now appears set to get the additional forces he wanted. Spoehr said the White House will likely give him greater flexibility to shape the mission.

“The authority of the commanding general there is probably increasing,” said Spoehr, now the director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation. “During the final years of the Obama administration, their latitude was restricted."

Yet despite Trump’s prime-time speech and pledge to abandon nation-building, the new strategy appears to be mostly a modified version of the old one. It remains focused on training and aiding the Afghan military, which is doing the front-line fighting against the Taliban, and seeking to prevent al-Qaida and the Islamic State terror groups from using Afghanistan as a base to plot against the United States.

An Afghan television reporter asked Nicholson this week why Afghans should expect anything to be different, but the general sounded upbeat, saying the new plan meant the United States was ready to wait until peace could be achieved, rather than setting a deadline to pull out.

“So this is why I would say to the Afghan people that they can believe this will be different, because we have removed the calendar from the equation,” he said.

Throughout his rise in the military, Nicholson has stayed in touch with old friends from Baltimore, some of whom went to the ceremonies at Fort Bragg, N.C., when he took command of the 82nd Airborne and attended his wedding at West Point in 2013 to security analyst Norine MacDonald. Ehrlich said he’s hosted him at his home in recent years and they have one of those friendships where meeting up even after years feels like picking up right where you left off.

And, according to a report in the Gilman Bulletin, he was a star attraction at the class’s 35th reunion in 2010, where Nicholson outlined a strategy of putting pressure on the Taliban to force them to negotiate that is almost identical to the current plan.

He also took a dig at officers assigned to run the higher-profile campaign in Iraq, deriding them for living in palaces while commanders in Afghanistan made do in tougher conditions, and described coming under fire even as a general.

Yet he was still their old school pal, according to the school magazine: “Nick looks happy and relaxed, evidently digging being dropped back behind Gilman lines.”

iduncan@baltsun.com

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