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Strategies have shifted, but soldier committed to Afghanistan

Archival video from Dec. 2009: Maj. Gen. John Nicholson, the first and only U.S. general in southern Afghanistan, discusses his task: start winning the war.

NBC’s Jim Maceda has worked as an embedded journalist with U.S. soldiers, sailors and marines dozens of times in Afghanistan over the  last 10 years. That close contact with service members led to his series "Far from Home," on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.

The following story about John Nicholson stands above the rest for Maceda. For him, Nicholson has become not only a friend, but a bellwether for the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan.

By Jim Maceda, NBC News Correspondent

I first met John Nicholson, a lanky 50-something Ranger and paratrooper, when he was a colonel and about to command the largest U.S. Army air assault since Vietnam.  The operation was called Mountain Lion. The objective was to clear out the Taliban from the Korengal Valley, a key infiltration route for Taliban insurgents crossing into Afghanistan from safe havens in Pakistan. To do this, he would have five battalions, a massive nighttime helicopter insert and some element of surprise.

When I asked Nicholson how he intended to rid the valley of the Taliban, his answer reflected the swagger of a commander in his first battle in Afghanistan.

“We’re going to kill or capture every single one of them,” he replied flatly.  That was April, 2006. 

After many battles, dozens of losses and hundreds of wounded, the same John Nicholson, now a major general in his third Afghan deployment, said something different about winning the war. “You can kill, capture or force an enemy to flee, but the best way is to get him over to your side,” he said last January.

By 2011, the kinetic bluster of 2006 had morphed into talk of soft power and reconciliation. His shift in tactics reflects the changing war from a conventional air and ground battle, to a counter-terrorism policing operation and then to a full-blown counterinsurgency.

Along the way, Nicholson has ticked-off a number of military firsts.  He led the first U.S. brigade in eastern Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan. He was the first U.S. general to be based in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s heartland. And he helped set up the first series of tiny U.S. outposts, so-called bullet magnets, along insurgent lines near Pakistan that later took names like Restrepo. 

John, or Mick as his friends call him, never lost his commitment.

“We’re not only protecting our homeland and our way of life,” he reflected back in December 2008. “We’re also in a struggle for the future of the Islamic population of the world.  Whether they embrace a moderate or radical form of Islam will be important to my  country, important to my children and worthy of our efforts.”

Archival video from April 2006: U.S. forces and Afghan soldiers are trying to capture and kill thousands of Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents in mountainous eastern Afghanistan. NBC's Jim Maceda is with the troops on this dangerous mission.

A man with a calling
There are reasons why Nicholson sounds like a man who’s found his calling. His Scottish namesake and distant relative, John Nicholson, put down rebellions in India for queen and country more than 150 years ago.

And fate has certainly played an active role in making Nicholson a modern-day warrior: On 9/11, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into his office and killed many of his closest colleagues as it ripped through the Pentagon’s rings.  But Nicholson wasn’t there that day; instead he was moving into a house with his family after a last-minute change of plans.

“And that’s why I’m sitting here today,” he told me sitting outside his headquarters at Kandahar Air Field in late 2009.

Devout, but no Christian soldier, Nicholson doesn't wear his religion like he does his stars. But he does see a higher purpose. 

“I have no doubt this was the will of God looking out for me. He wanted me to serve my country, here in Afghanistan, doing what I do. I’m grateful to have that purpose,” he said in the mountains of Kunar province in the spring of 2006.  Since then, few Americans have served longer, or harder, in Afghanistan. Few know more about the country or how difficult it is to succeed there.

When asked, the three pillars of counter-insurgency roll off Nicholson’s tongue: “First, we separate the enemy from the people; second, we connect the government, and improvements, with the people; thirdly, the people will support their government and reject the enemy.”

He's become more nuanced in the intervening years, especially when it comes to connecting Afghans with good, honest and representative government.  Nicholson’s learned the hard way – he had to deal with a series of Taliban assassinations of Afghan friends and government officials, as well as deeply corrupt presidential elections. 

“Improvements in governance are tough,’’ he admitted last year. “They’re very subjective and it’s hard to get results.”

For a major general who now spends nearly every waking hour plotting the U.S. mission in Afghanistan through 2014, Nicholson lives a spartan existence: two light meals a day, an hour at the gym, four to five hours of sleep and no frills “hooch” at NATO’s headquarters in Kabul he calls home.

Prized possessions
Two of his most prized possessions are always nearby: a battle-scarred Bible he got as a “plebe” at West Point in 1975 and a photo of his two children.  Caroline just graduated from Princeton and John III is a high school junior. Nicholson prefers to talk about their sacrifice,  not his.

“It’s a unique hardship for them,” he said in December 2009, referring to his multiple deployments to a remote and dangerous  place. “They don’t have many friends in the same situation.  But they both understand and support what I’m doing, which doesn’t make it any less difficult.’’

Even more challenging, Nicholson and his wife of 24 years split up after his last deployment. He says the pressures of long – and scary – absences were just too much for the marriage to bear.

I’ve asked Nicholson many times why he keeps going back. “Who else is gonna do it?” he always answers.

But if you push this military professional, you realize it has everything to do with the 41 killed and 350 wounded under his first command back in 2006. “I have a moral obligation to my soldiers who’ve sacrificed so much here to come back and deliver on what they’ve done,” he said almost four years later. 

And despite the drawdown, and the political and the economic pressures back home to end the war, Nicholson still deeply believes the war can be won. “If victory means preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terror, then we are winning. The Afghan security forces are winning. And the Afghan people are winning,” he likes to say.

True, it may be the words and wishes of an eternal optimist. But, if anything, Nicholson is brutally honest. And unless he and other war planners conclude that “we're” losing, it's unlikely we'll see any radical change in the U.S. effort in Afghanistan any time soon.

Click to see the videos in Jim Maceda's series: "Far From Home: The War in Afghanistan"