An Army general picked for a senior post in Afghanistan was criticized in a secret military report for his role in the 2007 eviction of a Marine Corps special operations company from that country.
The criticism of Brig. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. is contained in a classified report by a three-officer Court of Inquiry. This year, the court, largely behind closed doors, conducted an investigation into the actions of the company. It concluded the Marines reacted properly when their convoy fired on and killed Afghans after their convoy was attacked by an improvised explosive device.
The finding rebutted Nicholson’s on-the-spot public condemnation of the company. At the time, he led Task Force Spartan in eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, and oversaw the Marine’s day-to-day operations.
HUMAN EVENTS last week submitted questions to Nicholson through Pentagon public affairs. "BG Nicholson hasn’t seen the report and therefore has declined to respond [to] it," Maj. James Cunningham, a spokesman, said Tuesday.
The entire incident has stirred bitter feelings in Marine circles toward the Army and Nicholson in particular. It also put a stain on the Corps’ illustrious battlefield history. The Corps in 2006 established its first special operations command. The company in Afghanistan in 2007 was the Marines’ first special operations unit in history to deploy to a war zone. Its mission ended abruptly in disgrace.
In May, the Corps issued a brief press release announcing the Court of Inquiry findings. Its 100-page report remains classified, but key details were provided to HUMAN EVENTS by a senior military official who asked not to be named.
The report criticized Nicholson, then a colonel, for "inappropriately" sending a March 9, 2007 e-mail to American command headquarters in Bagram, Afghanistan. In the message, Nicholson requested the command evict the Marine company. This is a new twist in the case. At the time, U.S. Central Command said it decided to remove the unit and made no mention of Nicholson’s role.
The court said the March 9 e-mail was inappropriate because Nicholson at the time did not know all the facts surrounding the March 4 convoy attack. It also said he accused the Marine company of conducting a March 9 mission without his approval, when in fact his staff had approved it, the military official told HUMAN EVENTS.
The Court of Inquiry report also said the staff work of Nicholson’s task force was substandard, the source told HUMAN EVENTS.
Nicholson riled the Marine Corps two months after the attack when investigations had not yet been completed. He went before the Pentagon press corps May 8, via a satellite hookup, and read from an address he had made to Afghan families who lost loved ones in the convoy attack.
“So I stand before you today, deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people," Nicholson told them. "We are filled with grief and sadness at the death of any Afghan, but the death and wounding of innocent Afghans at the hand of Americans is a stain on our honor and on the memory of the many Americans who have died defending Afghanistan and the Afghan people. This was a terrible, terrible mistake, and my nation grieves with you for your loss and suffering. We humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness.”
Among those in the Marine Corps taking offense with Nicholson’s condemnation was the commandant, Gen. James T. Conway.
"I think he was premature to apologize, in that there is an investigation ongoing to determine what happened," Conway told reporters. "If the investigation should determine that there are charges that should be levied, then there will be a hearing, perhaps a court-martial, those types of things.
"When you take it to the next step and start making pronouncements about guilt or innocence of the parties involved, to my way of thinking that goes against a sort of tried and true element that says that any serviceman or woman is innocent until proven guilty, and senior military officials don’t talk about those things while they’re under investigation or really undergoing trial."
The Court of Inquiry — two Marine colonels and a lieutenant colonel — convened last January at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
The Marine component at U.S. Central Command, which oversaw the inquiry, released scant details about its work. Neither the classified report nor an official-use-only executive summary was released.
Instead, Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, the Marine component commander, issued a statement May 23 saying the court’s report showed the special operations convoy "acted appropriately and in accordance with the rules of engagement and tactics, techniques and procedures in place at the time in response to a complex attack."
Nicholson is now deputy director for operations at the National Military Command Center inside the Pentagon. He is due to return to Afghanistan as the deputy commander for stabilization for the southern region, a hotbed of Taliban attacks on NATO and Afghan forces.
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