Army Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, President Barack Obama’s appointee to head the war in Afghanistan, has a bit of a dark asterisk in his career. In a move that raised eyebrows at the time in 2007, Nicholson publicly condemned a group of special operations Marines for allegedly killing civilians, even though an internal report produced by his own staff had concluded they were not responsible.
Nicholson’s nomination and confirmation process was unusually quick, taking place in under a week. GOP Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, rushed through the confirmation hearing Jan. 28, saying that Nicholson’s “leadership is urgently needed,” though McCain neglected to raise any thorny questions about Nicholson’s past treatment of Marines.
Retired Marine Maj. Fred Galvin (ret.) certainly hasn’t forgotten.
In an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation, Galvin, who headed the first Marine special operations unit to enter combat in Afghanistan, recounted the unbelievable nightmare that unfolded following an ambush of his company on March 4, 2007, by insurgents.
What ended up happening is that a suicide attacker triggered a car bomb, and at the same time the device detonated, insurgents fired on Galvin’s convoy from both sides of the street. Miraculously, no Marines died, but about a dozen Afghans were killed after the Marines returned fire.
A storm of allegations swept the media and military alike. The narrative was that the ambush was really a Marine-instigated war crime. Villagers even claimed a pack of drunken Marines had fired into crowds.
Galvin, a sterling Marine hand-selected to take this brand new unit into combat, justifiably contested the claims. His appeals, though, fell on deaf ears.
“When we were involved in this ambush, Nicholson came out, and his Army soldiers did an investigation because they came in immediately after where we were ambushed there, and they were trained military policemen,” Galvin told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The Task Force Spartan report says that the Marines were involved in a complex ambush, and it says they were shot at, blown up by a car bomb, shot at on both sides of the road. He ended up having to investigate his own soldiers’ actions. The military knew that the Army soldiers, not Marines, went in to that crime scene and were interfering with the journalists.”
But of course, that’s not what hit the news waves.Countless headlines implied that the Marines were the ones interfering with the scene, even allegedly threatening to snuff out journalists who refused to delete pictures. In fact, Nicholson’s troops were the ones who intimidated journalists. Nicholson’s own investigating officer, Maj. Robert Urquardt Jr., who was the Battalion Executive Officer of 1st Battalion/32nd Infantry Regiment of Nicholson’s 3rd Brigade/10th Mountain Division, found that Fox Company was involved in a complex ambush and that Nicholson’s Army soldiers, particularly Sgt. Miller, forced media to delete images and leave the area.
Nevertheless, the Marines were expelled from Afghanistan and sent back to the U.S., based on pressure from then-Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.
Not only did Nicholson sit idly by while the press savaged Fox Company, but he also publicly condemned the unit May 8, 2007, in front of the Pentagon Press Corps, right in the middle of an ongoing investigation, despite the fact that Nicholson’s command had already cleared the unit in the aforementioned internal report produced April 9, 2007.
Nicholson also hurriedly issued payments of $2,000 to the families of the dead Afghans, widely viewed at the time as a tacit admission of guilt. Worse yet, part of the solatia payments, according to retired Marine Lt. Col. Steve Morgan, a jury member on the Court of Inquiry, which exonerated Fox Company, ended up in the hands of a terrorist leader. Before Morgan retired, he served as the Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff of Intelligence for Marine Forces Command.
Morgan told The Daily Caller News Foundation that the local provincial reconstruction team, which was under the authority of Nicholson’s Task Force Spartan, had responsibility for vetting the solatia recipients. In particular, one of the payments was made to Haji Lluwani Qumandon. The name ‘Qumandon’ loosely translates to commander, Morgan said.
“When I took his testimony, Lluwani told the court that he had been given that honorific as a result of his leadership of a Mujahideen group during the war against the Soviets,” Morgan told The Daily Caller News Foundation via email. “At the time of his testimony, there was no clear ‘proof’ that Lluwani was a terrorist. However, we just ‘knew’ he was because of his known/suspected affiliation with terror-linked groups (Taliban, al-Qaeda, etc). Lluwani was/is dirty as dirty can be and a slithering snake, but very powerful, bordering on untouchable. The locals were loathe to report on him and we didn’t have the authority to take him off the street, which is nothing unusual in Afghanistan or any other Islamic country.”
Nicholson also profusely apologized for the Marines’ actions at a press conference, calling the incident a “stain on our honor.” Then-commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James T. Conway criticized Nicholson for apologizing.
“I would just as soon that no one at this point, in any chain of command, apologize or talk about ‘terrible, terrible mistakes’ or those types of wrongdoings. I think it’s just premature,” Conway said. However, even Conway stated he was “clearly disappointed in the performance of those Marines.”
“We couldn’t have been crucified any worse in the press, and then he dumps on us from the military,” Galvin said. “Nicholson, he could care less about anyone underneath him.”
Nicholson has never gone back to clear the record, nor has he apologized to any of the Marine Raiders.
Nicholson again slammed the Marines in 2008 during a Court of Inquiry trial in Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, saying, “We’ve never had this kind of tactical performance by a unit before. So my conclusion was that the commander was personally there and the unit performed poorly tactically because one of the standards in the counter-insurgency is ‘do no harm to the people’ and we had done a lot of harm to the people.”
That Court of Inquiry cleared all Marines of any wrongdoing following a three-week trial. It also determined that neither Nicholson nor his staff carefully reviewed the April investigation prior to slamming Marines publicly in May at the Pentagon.
Aside from his treatment of Fox Company, Nicholson also failed to keep troops out of harm’s way during his first tour, which ended in 2007. NBC News reported that his unit suffered the highest number of casualties at that point up to 2007. This amounted to 45 soldiers killed in combat and 350 wounded.
Based on data Galvin compiled from the International Security Assistance Force, Statista, and icasualties.org, the number of U.S. troops killed in action surged by 104 percent, from 155 to 317, during Nicholson’s second tour, which spanned from 2008 to 2009. During Nicholson’s third tour, from 2011 to 2012, insider attacks jumped from 35 deaths in 2011 to 61 deaths in 2012.
Leaders attributed the rise to the Obama administration’s strategy shift to a Train, Advise and Assist mission, which was necessary because President Barack Obama wanted to pull U.S. troops out on a 2014 timetable. However, allowing Afghan Security Forces close proximity to U.S. troops resulted in Taliban infiltration and dead servicemembers.
“Every time this guy puts on a uniform and flies over to Afghanistan, he ends up getting promoted and Americans ended up dying at astronomical rate,” Galvin told TheDCNF.
But war crime allegations from the press and public disparagement from Nicholson continue to ruin the reputations of the Marine Raiders involved in the ambush. On the other hand, Nicholson appears to be doing just fine, picking up his fourth star as part of his new role as commander of Operation Resolute Support in Afghanistan.
Army Public Affairs did not respond to a request for comment on Nicholson’s treatment of Fox Company.
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