As if adhering to a script that had circulated in advance, senators did go through the motions of posing questions. Each in turn thanked Nicholson for his many years of service—to include four tours in Afghanistan—and asked him to pass along their warm regards to the troops. Yet each devoted his or her allotted time to sidestepping core issues.
No one pressed Nicholson as the responsible commander to say when the Afghanistan War might actually end and on what terms. No one dared to suggest that there might be something fundamentally amiss with an armed conflict that drags on inconclusively from one decade to the next. All took care to tiptoe around anything that might imply dissatisfaction with the performance of the U.S. military. On both sides of the witness table, politeness prevailed.
Nicholson’s prepared testimony avoided any reference to “victory” as an expected or even plausible outcome. Characterizing the current situation as stalemated, he assured senators that it was “a stalemate where the equilibrium favors the [Afghan] government.” Yet the balance of Nicholson’s presentation offered little to sustain that vaguely hopeful judgment. Take his own assessment at face value and the equilibrium favors a continuation of the existing stalemate.
The fighting ability of Afghan forces is improving, Nicholson insisted, echoing the judgment of predecessors going back a decade or more. Yet all of the old problems were still there: weak Afghan military leadership, tactical ineptitude, and widespread corruption, to include a persistent problem with “ghost soldiers” who are nominally on the roles but don’t actually exist.