The Pentagon has just tapped Army Lt. Gen. John Nicholson to be the new commander of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, an important move given increased volatility in the region.
If his nomination is approved by the Senate, Nicholson is set to take over for Army Gen. John Campbell, who has only led the forces since the middle of 2014. He would receive a promotion to a four-star general. Nicholson will move from his current role as commander of Allied Land Command at NATO. At least four of his assignments in the past have focused closely on Afghanistan. At the press conference, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook borrowed a quote from Defense Secretary Ash Carter, saying that Nicholson had put Afghanistan on a “better path.”
This new assignment comes as an alternative to the position of head of U.S. Africa Command. Several weeks ago, he declined that offer.
There are currently 9,800 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan. Their primary duty is to train Afghan troops and occasionally conduct counter-terror operations.
The shift in command comes just as the Taliban and al-Qaida have stepped up their presence in Afghanistan, threatening a repeat of the drawdown in Iraq. When U.S. forces left in 2011, it took just a few years before the Iraqi military collapsed and gave way to the Islamic State.
Currently, the Taliban is making major gains, concentrating on the Helmand Province, which is now on the ropes. The Afghan military is tired and has a high desertion rate. The Islamic State has established a strong, local affiliate and al-Qaida, too, only recently in November suffered the loss of the biggest training camp seen in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war 14 years ago.
Although President Barack Obama’s goal was to pull out of the country, military commanders have reevaluated drawdown plans. Instead, military planners are strongly considering stationing troops in the region for decades, following the South Korea model, in which tens of thousands of troops remained for decades. Obama relented on the drawdown plan in October after Campbell’s urging not to remove all troops by the end of 2016. Rather, the number of troops will only sink to 5,500 by the end of 2016. It’s possible that military officials will make an outright request for Obama to keep all 9,800 troops in Afghanistan at least until January 2017, which is when Obama vacates his office.
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