Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Looking at the ‘Nicholson plan’: A bid to tilt the Afghan war in the government’s favour

Kate Clark 17 min

The United States is reviewing its military strategy towards Afghanistan, as part of an overall strategic review. Nothing is certain until President Trump makes a final decision, but proposals, drawn up with the Afghan government, are circulating. We already know what the commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, would like to see: a focus on support to the Afghan special forces and air force, reform of the defence and interior ministries and a few thousand more NATO soldiers. Kate Clark concludes that this is basically a plan for maintaining the status quo, albeit with an eye to trying to shift the balance of fighting in favour of the Afghan government.

A key aspect of the proposals being put forward by General Nicholson and President Ghani is reform of the Ministry of Interior and the police force, a subject which will be looked at in detail in a second dispatch.

By the end of last year, the US was supposed to be down to minimal troop numbers in Afghanistan, fewer than 1000, enough just to guard the Kabul embassy. When President Barack Obama announced, on 27 May 2014, that “America’s combat mission” would be over by the end of that year, he laid out plans for the phased drawdown of residual US troops. His plan envisaged the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), after having received two years of NATO/US support (2014-2016) and with continued external funding, to be able to hold their own on the battlefield. (1)

Subsequently, however, in October 2015, Obama was forced to slow the planned reductions of US troops and then, in June 2016, to increase the authority of the US commander in Afghanistan to order offensive military action. From that time, the US commander could order offensive strikes not just against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, but also the Taleban, and not just for reasons of “counterterrorism” but also for “strategic effects.” For example, if he believed US firepower could prevent a town or city falling to the Taleban, a senior officer told AAN, he could now order air strikes. Although, US air strikes in Afghanistan had not ever ceased, the change in the commander’s authorities did result in an increase in their use.

Obama was forced to abandon his hoped-for, orderly, phased withdrawal of troops because of events on the ground. After the transition to a largely non-combat international military mission and full Afghan responsibility for security at the end of 2014, the Taleban proved to be stronger than hoped for and the ANSF weaker. The withdrawal of international air cover also meant the Taleban could mass in ways that had previously been suicidal, and they could launch ground offensives, including against urban population centres.

Various assessments of who controls how much territory and how much has been lost to the Taleban in the last two years have been made (see a 2015 assessment by AAN, and the quarterly assessments by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, SIGAR including its most recent here). (2) There have also been disputes not only over figures, but what ‘control’ means, as well as assertions that loss of government territory is partly deliberate withdrawals to ‘areas of more strategic importance’. Regardless of all this, the trend is clear – and not good: the government has been steadily losing territory since the end of 2014. According to the latest SIGAR report, the government now controls or ‘influences’ about 60 per cent of the country’s districts, where 65 per cent of the population live. Meanwhile, it says, 11 per cent of districts, where 34 per cent of the population live, are controlled or influenced by the insurgents, and 29 per cent of districts, where 25 per cent of the population, live are contested. (3)

The US’ direct intervention in the war has proved critical at particular junctures. For example, on the night of 29/30 September 2015, after the Taleban had captured Kunduz city, US and Afghan special forces defended Kunduz airport against a concerted Taleban attempt to overrun it. The capture of the airport would have meant the loss of the last government supply route to the city, making its re-capture far more difficult. Air strikes in Badakhshan that summer also broke the Taleban advance there. There were similar instances in 2016; after the Taleban took parts of the outskirts of Lashkargah in Helmand on 13 October 2016, US air strikes were ordered to support Afghan commandos deployed to the city and Lashkargar was held (although there was still fighting just outside and in nearby Nad Ali).

Despite the occasional importance of the US stepping into the war, its combat role is now, in reality, tiny. In terms of who is fighting in Afghanistan, this is an Afghan-versus-Afghan war. (4) In terms of support, however, both sides remain reliant on external backers. The Taleban would not survive in their current form or at their current strength without Pakistani backing and, most importantly, sanctuary. The ANSF also get strong external backing, most importantly funding and military hardware. (5)

It is worth noting that research on insurgencies globally has shown that to be successful, they need a measure of internal support and external sanctuary, whereas “a government with chronic legitimacy problems, and [one] that cannot seize and retain key territory from the insurgency, has a very low probability of winning.” The government and the US could argue that the Afghan state has ‘only lost’ peripheral territory and not key population centres, although some centres (Kunduz, Lashkargar, Maimana, and Tirin Kot) have been menaced by the insurgency. Even if that is the case, the general recognition remains that the government cannot win this war militarily, and neither can the Taleban. The conflict will continue unless one side loses its external backing or there is a negotiated end to the conflict.

US-Afghan views and proposals

Unlike the Karzai years, when US strategies could be drafted in opposition to, or with only the grudging acceptance of the Afghan government, President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah, as well as key figures like National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar, have been in close consultation with US officials and officers and the plans have been developed together. Ghani recently told Time magazine:

Input has been two-fold [ie from the US and Afghanistan]. We prepared a four year plan. It was completely driven by me, and by my colleagues, our national security council has agreed on it. Then we shared it … We have been very lucky. It’s probably very rare in history to have so many top [US] security officials be the friends of Afghanistan…. [W]e know people who know us intimately. The conversation has been enormously productive.

Ghani’s is a very different view of the war than Karzai’s when he was in office. The impression Karzai often gave in the later years of his presidency – and still gives – was of the US military oppressing Afghans, with him as bystander, a champion of the Afghan people and critic of the foreigners. Ghani and Abdullah have taken a different tack; Ghani has explicitly said the government ‘owns’ the war and the narrative of the leadership is very much about the ANSF protecting the people, with international support. (6)

US thinking still very much matters in this equation, however. It is the donor with the biggest pockets, providing seven-ninths of the funding to the ANSF. Since January 2015, it is also the only international military still authorised to carry out combat operations in Afghanistan. (The US has a ‘can-be-combat’ counter-terrorism  Freedom’s Sentinel mission. NATO has a non-combat Resolute Support Mission which the US is also the major contributor to. For detail, see here.)

The emerging American view of the war ­– from those on the ground – was seen first in the testimony given by the commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, to Congress on 9 February 2017 (read a transcript of the 90 minute hearing here). The ‘positive trends’ he cited were few and far between. They included, for example, the reduced time it was taking the ANSF to recapture district and population centres from the Taleban (a drop from weeks in 2015 to days in 2016) and the fact that the Taleban had been prevented “from achieving any of their major objectives.” He assessed the war as “a stalemate where the equilibrium favors the government.”

It is hard to see how this can be so, given that the government has been steadily losing territory. Moreover, for local populations that stalemate is itself deadly; it is civilians’ land that is being fought over. Last year saw the highest number of civilian casualties in any year since UNAMA started systematically documenting them in 2009 and half a million people fleeing their homes to become internally displaced. The loss of lands also prevents economic recovery and erodes services in the countryside, among them some of the most celebrated achievements of the past 16 years such as in schooling and health (for example see AAN analyses here and here).

Nicholson blamed the continuing strong showing of the Taleban on “external enablement” by Pakistan: “[T]he primary factor that will enable our success is the elimination of external sanctuary and support to the insurgents.” He called for a “holistic response” to Pakistan, but without going into more details. However, Nicholson also spoke about the need for reforms in the ANSF with some strong words: “poor leadership, tactics, and training, as well as corruption… undermines combat effectiveness.” He proposed concentrating on what works in the ANSF, those parts that have “offensive capability” and which, in his view, could “break the stalemate in Afghanistan.”

This means the Afghan special forces (in both the army and police) and air force. Both suffer from less corruption, have merit-based appointments, good leadership, good morale and esprit de corps. They have also benefited from better training, weapons and close mentoring from US and other counterparts. Both are under pressure from over-deployment as they are used to compensate for the lack of fighting capability, not only offensive, but also defensive, in the rest of the Afghan National Army (ANA). Nicholson has proposed expanding both, with the special forces growing to become a corps. Both he and President Ghani have said the need for reform of the ministries of defence and especially interior (which is more corrupt) is pressing.

Nicholson also proposed increasing the number of NATO troops, ie for the non-combat Resolute Support mission, by a few thousand. This has now been progressed to NATO formally asking members and allies for more soldiers. Australia, Norway and the UK have responded affirmatively while Germany – just before an election campaign – reacted reluctantly. At present, NATO advisors, apart from those dealing with special forces, are largely in corps headquarters. “[T]hese additional forces,” said Nicholson, “would enable us to thicken our advisory effort across the Afghan ministries and do more advising below the corps level.” (7)

As to the aims of all these proposals, Nicholson listed them as follows:

the destruction of Al Qaeda Afghanistan, the destruction of Islamic State in Afghanistan, helping the Afghans extend their control to at least 80 per cent of the population, working closely with the Pakistanis to eliminate or reduce sanctuary for the Taliban, Haqqani, and other groups inside Pakistan, and then working with the Afghans and the international community for an Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process.

Much has been made of the proposal to increase foreign troop levels, with talk of Nicholson’s plans being a significant shift in US policy: a move away from drawing down (Obama) to, if approved, increasing troops (Trump). The Washington Post said the proposals represented “a major shift in strategy in Afghanistan that would effectively put the United States back on a war footing with the Taliban.” The Voice of America said it would “mark a dramatic shift in America’s longest war.” The proposed deployment has been described in the US press as a “mini-surge” (and even a “massive troop surge”). Both seem an exaggeration.

In reality, the increase in international troops would be marginal, relative to the Afghan government forces (350,000) and to both the current international force (three to five thousand added to 11,000) and previous levels (at the height of the ‘surge’ there were more than 100,000 American soldiers and 30,000 from other countries in Afghanistan, all deployed in a combat mission). (For a good graphic illustration of the relative numbers, see this graph from NPR.) Also, it appears this is an expansion of the NATO non-combat Resolute Support mission, which looks more like a tweaking of the mission inherited from Obama by Trump, than a significant change.

Fundamentally, these plans aim at maintaining the status quo of the war with a tilt in power towards the government, rather than the current tilt towards the Taleban. The thinking is that improving government forces’ strength on the battlefield – by improving the capability of the ANSF – and weakening the Taleban – by finding ways to pressure or persuade Pakistan to reduce its support to the insurgents – will tip the balance of the conflict in favour of Kabul. Even then, however, the aim is not to win the war, but to get to a point where the Taleban want to negotiate.

The strategy is familiar, resembling the thinking behind Obama’s surge of 2009 to 2012. During the surge, the aim was to boost the numbers of US and foreign forces so that they could go on the offensive and capture territory, while hoping the government would reform itself enough to hold onto it. This time the aim is to get the ANSF fighting better so they can capture and hold territory. Both times, the aim was not to win the war, but to put the Taleban on the back foot, and to force the movement to recognise it cannot win the war and it would be better to negotiate. (8)

Ways to break the stalemate

Nicholson’s thinking proposes two ways to shift the balance of the war so that the government controls more territory and more of the population. One is to reduce or eliminate external support for the Taleban. The other is to strengthen the ANSF. One could add a third – peace talks – but Nicholson’s proposal actually puts off negotiations until some time in the future.

Many Afghans (and others) believe that if only the US could force the Pakistanis to stop backing the Taleban, the war would be finished. Such a break in support can destroy a rebellion. See, for example, the crushing of the Iranian-backed Iraqi Kurdish insurgency in 1975 after Iraq made a deal with Iran, known as the ‘Algiers Accord’. (Iran stopped supporting the Kurdish rebels, but only after Iraq agreed to a humiliating climb-down on border claims, so this was achieved at great cost to Baghdad.)

In the case of Pakistan, nothing tried yet has achieved much traction at all. Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons has shielded it from some pressure, as has the risk (akin to the risk that keeps international support coming to Kabul) that if US cut support to Islamabad, a worse, more chaotic and more extreme country could result. Also importantly in this equation, the US needs to keep roads and air space open through Pakistan for its military supplies. Its dependency on this route is far less, now that its troop levels are so much lower, but it is still there. In other words, the US does not have a free hand in how it deals with Pakistan.

Much could still be done to put more pressure on Pakistan – see for instance this piece from Chris Kolenda for a list of suggestions. (9) However, Kolenda also points out the limitations of any pressure: “Pakistan seems resilient to the kinds of sanctions the United States has been willing to impose. Even under the aggressive U.S. sanctions regime
of the 1990s, Pakistan managed to support insurgencies
 in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and [Indian] Punjab, while developing a nuclear arsenal.”

The other factor which could change the balance of the war would be better-working Afghan ministries of defence (MoD) and interior (MoI). Corruption is endemic in the MoI and present, although more limited, in the MoD. As the next dispatch in this mini-series will outline, it includes crooked contracts, selling fuel and pocketing the salaries of ghost soldiers and police and, for parts of the MoI, involvement in racketeering and the drugs industry. It is difficult to imagine the ANSF doing much better on the battlefield, no matter how much training or advice they get, as long as many of the military leaders see their jobs as a means to make money. Nor can high morale be expected from those who are in the thick of it, facing the Taleban on the battlefield, if they believe their leaders are concerned mainly with filling their pockets.

This is a war, as Ghani himself pointed out in an interview with AAN in 2014 in which the elites do not suffer and certainly are not involved in the fighting, and economic motivations drive much of the recruitment to the lower ranks:

The cost of the war is being borne by the poor. Badakhshan, Takhar, Parwan and Nangrahar are paying the highest casualties of this war. So it is not a north and south issue… It is predominantly poor men who are finding outlet either in joining the national army or the national police or migrating illegally to neighbouring countries and abroad. We need to appreciate the cost of blood. We need to understand that there’s a cost of war. For our political-economic elite, the war was cost free because the massive international presence made it cost free. Now, with the BSA [the Bilateral Security Agreement NATO], it becomes our conflict. We’re the lead and [we have the] responsibility

Expecting soldiers and police to stand and fight – and die – in those circumstances­ will always be difficult, especially when they are fighting fellow Afghans.

The same accusation of using the war for financial gain could, of course, be made against the ‘Taleban elites’ who sit in Pakistan directing young men to fight, while, for example, making money out of the opium trade. There are some indications of unhappiness among Taleban commanders with their leadership on those grounds, but morale still appears higher among the insurgents. This may be partly a consequence of the many years when Karzai distanced the Afghan state from the conflict, even though Afghan forces were always involved in it. In doing so, he ceded the narrative space to the Taleban who have persistently tried to claim the moral and religious high ground.

Trump to make up his mind

It had been thought that President Trump would want to decide ‘what to do in Afghanistan’ ahead of a NATO heads of state meeting on 25 May 2017. This is looking less likely, particularly given recent distractions for him in Washington and the fact that he does not necessarily do what previous president have done, including sticking to expected time-tables and constraints. But however long Trump’s decision takes, his overall options are limited. They could be listed as four: deploy significant numbers of US troops again to try to break the deadlock; withdraw US forces and support; keep the troops there, with a small increase in numbers; or keep the troops there without such an increase.

The first option – a surge – has been tried and it failed. Some, apparently from within the DC establishment have suggested sending 50,000 more troops to Afghanistan, but it is difficult to imagine any appetite for this, in Washington or other troop contributing capitals, or indeed, in Afghanistan itself. Ghani has pointed out: “There is no global appetite, there is no Afghan appetite, for a resumption of that scale of presence.”

A second option for Trump would be withdrawing support to Kabul, with the US (and others) ‘cutting their losses and running’. He did suggest this in tweets before he became president:

Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis [sic] we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.


It is time to get out of Afghanistan. We are building roads and schools for people that hate us. It is not in our national interests.

If the last two years are anything to go by, withdrawal of all international soldiers would lead to increased territorial losses for the government. A withdrawal of funding, however, would be catastrophic, given Kabul’s dependency on US money. The last time such funding ended, in 1992 when post-Soviet Russia stopped transferring money to the government of Dr Najibullah, the Afghan state collapsed, which triggered a particularly brutal civil war. In the 1990s, after such a collapse, it was possible for the world to forget about Afghanistan and its suffering. In 2017, should a similar scenario take place, the chaos and violence would not be confined to Afghanistan, given the attractions of the country to internationally-minded jihadists.

This is why withdrawing support to Kabul government is a ‘nuclear option’. It is also why, however unpleasant the US-Afghan relationship becomes – and it was very unpleasant in the later Karzai years – or how egregious elements of the state and Afghan elites are, it has been unthinkable for the US to walk away from Afghanistan and the state created by the 2001 intervention. All that means that, even for Trump, it is likely that only the two other two options will seem viable.

Between these two choices – keeping the number of troops the same, or increasing them a little – it appears that Nicholson has calculated that extra troops are needed and will be enough to act as ‘force multipliers’, enabling the ANSF to fight better and re-capture and hold territory, if there is also reform of the MoD and MoI. Whether any strategy will be enough to, as Nicholson puts it, break the stalemate or, possibly more accurately, reverse the government’s losses is another matter.

War, not peace

The Nicholson plan once again puts off efforts to find a negotiated end to the conflict – as happened in 2009 when Obama decided to order the surge (and when prospects of a peace process were far better). There are people with interesting ideas on how to hasten the search for peace: see this on “insurgent peace-making,” for example, how a “third-party actor” could facilitate a peace process and how a regional diplomatic strategy could be developed (here and here). However, there has been little of substance from either the US or Afghan government. (10)

The Nicholson plan may be a better option than either deploying large numbers of international soldiers to Afghanistan again, or withdrawing support. Yet after almost four decades of war in Afghanistan and 16 years of the present phase of the conflict, a plan which basically aims at maintaining the status quo of continuing conflict, and of not letting the other side win, is a distressing prospect. Moreover, even the modest aim of enabling the government to get more of the upper hand seems ambitious. It is difficult to see what elements of the proposals could actually break the stalemate: getting Pakistan to change its policy towards the Taleban and getting the leadership of the ANSF to reform its behaviour seem equally unlikely, going on past experience.

No-one in power has put any real effort into finding a negotiated end to the war, apart from Ashraf Ghani’s genuine but short-lived and probably ill-conceived attempt to get Pakistan to back peace talks with the Taleban (see AAN analysis here). This foundered on Islamabad’s unwillingness to cooperate. Prioritising peace would take more courage, determination and imagination than fighting the war, but for the moment, it is strategies for fighting which are under discussion. War, yet again, appears to be the default activity for Afghanistan.

Edited by Borhan Osman and Thomas Ruttig


(1) Obama said:

I’ve made it clear that we’re open to cooperating with Afghans on two narrow missions after 2014: training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda. … At the beginning of 2015, we will have approximately 9,800 U.S. servicemembers in different parts of the country, together with our NATO allies and other partners. By the end of 2015, we will have reduced that presence by roughly half, and we will have consolidated our troops in Kabul and on Bagram Airfield. One year later, by the end of 2016, our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we’ve done in Iraq.

 (2) After SIGAR published its assessment of the situation as of November 2016 (when it said the government controlled 83 and influenced 150 districts, the Taleban controlled nine districts and influenced 32, and 133 districts were “contested”), the Taleban issued their own assessment. On 26 March 2017, they claimed to fully control 34 districts, to contest 167 more, to maintain a significant presence in 52 districts, a minimal presence in a further six and no presence in 89.

(3) SIGAR quotes Resolute Support which assesses the districts’ status according to five indicators of stability: governance, security, infrastructure, economy, and communications. See the table on page 96 of SIGAR’s April 2016 Quarterly Report.

(4) From January to November 2016 (according to SIGAR quoting Afghan government figures), 6,785 ANSF members were killed and 11,777 wounded. In the last six months of 2016, seven US military personnel were killed and 43 wounded, a huge decrease, particularly from the surge years when the numbers of US troops killed each year were in the hundreds. UNAMA does not break down figures in terms of nationality, but the overwhelming majority of civilians killed (3498) and injured (7920) in 2016 were also Afghan. There are no good statistics for insurgent casualties.

(5) Annual funding for the ANSF is as follows: US, $4.5 billion a year, $1 billion from all other countries, half a billion dollars from Afghanistan. At the July 2016 NATO conference in Warsaw 30 countries agreed to extend their financial commitment to support the ANSF at near or current levels through to 2020.

(6) From President Ghani’s address to NATO Ambassadors: “We now own the war, and we are not asking for that to change. The transition to our control was carried out successfully. There should be no reversal. We do not want NATO troops returning to combat.”

(7) At his testimony, the following exchange took place:

General Nicholson: Mr. Chairman, I have adequate resourcing in my counterterrorism mission. In my train, advise, and assist mission, however, we have a shortfall of
 few thousand, and this is in the NATO train, advise, asist mission. So this can come from the U.S. and its 

Senator Reed: At this juncture, you are operating at the corps level?

General Nicholson: That is correct, Senator.

Senator Reed: With some exceptions? Are there any exceptions?

General Nicholson: Senator, in the last summer, since we gained the new authorities in June, we began developing what we called expeditionary advising packages, which we would push down below the corps level. Now, this was something we put together based on the authorities and it proved quite successful last year. But we would like to be able to advise below the corps level. This is something that NATO has agreed to in our guidance. It is strictly a question of manning at this point.

Senator Reed: So that you would be able to, essentially, have more of these teams below the corps level, at the battalion level, but not down at the individual company platoon level certainly. 

General Nicholson: Sir, it would most likely be at the brigade level, but we think that would be adequate for what we need to do. We have identified the requirement and 
th esire to advise below the corps level. So these additional forces would enable us to thicken our advisory effort across the Afghan ministries and do more advising below the corps level.

(8) The surge, which was initiated in Obama’s first term in office, was aimed, in the words of the Associated Press at: “…beating back the Taliban to give the Afghan government and its security forces the time and space to take hold. The key goal was to ensure that the Taliban did not regain a foothold in the country that could allow it once again to become a safe haven for terror groups. And there was hope that Taliban members would be willing to come to the peace table.”

(9) Kolenda says “graduated penalties” against Pakistan (and others, as necessary) for “the use of or neglect towards militant groups that threaten its neighbors” could include “suspending major non-NATO ally status, designation as a state impeding counter-terrorism efforts, suspension of security assistance, targeted actions against specific individuals and organizations for supporting militant groups, discouraging future IMF bailouts, and designation as state sponsor of terrorism.” His proposals come very much in the context of a “focused engagement” towards all actors in Afghanistan and the region.

(10) This, for example, was how Ghani recently described prospects for peace talks, referring to the highly dysfunctional High Peace Council as the agent of any negotiations:

There are a lot of honest brokers, or attempted honest brokers, that want to bring peace. We are not closing the door. But when we get to formal open discussions, that’s when we have the breakthrough. And that’s our insistence. It’s not going to be under the table. It’s going to be through the Afghan Peace Council (a government panel tasked with negotiating an end to the conflict) [presumably the High Peace Council] and through a properly constituted delegation, along the lines that we did it in Murree [the Pakistani hill resort where an earlier round of peace talks were held].