Nicholson replaces Campbell as US, allied commander in Afghanistan
March 2, 2016
KABUL, Afghanistan — Army Gen. John W. “Mick” Nicholson, incoming commander of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, pledged “an enduring relationship” with the country during a change-of-command ceremony Wednesday in Kabul.
He took over from Gen. John F. Campbell, who led the command for 18 months during a transition from combat operations to a much smaller training and advisory mission.
The reshuffle came amid growing concerns about Afghan forces’ ability to protect their country from a strengthening Taliban insurgency and debate over the U.S.-led coalition’s future posture in Afghanistan.
“We are here with you,” Nicholson assured Afghan officials who attended the ceremony along with American and allied officers. “We will never forget why we are here and the importance of this mission.”
“I’m not going to say too much about our enemies today. I will have a lot to say about them in the future,” he said about the Taliban and other insurgents who have launched a series of offensives since the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat forces at the end of 2014. “My short message today is this: I know you. You have brought only hardship and suffering to the Afghan people.”
There was evidence of that hardship Wednesday when Afghan security forces fought off an insurgent attack on the Indian consulate in the eastern city of Jalalabad. A police officer and woman were killed.
Attaullah Khogyani, spokesman for the governor of Nangarhar province, said a suicide attacker donated his explosives in front of the consulate. Four other attackers then opened fire on the building. They were killed in the ensuing exchange, he said.
Nicholson has served three previous tours in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2012, including in Regional Command South, which encompasses Kandahar province, considered the birthplace of the Taliban.
The insurgents have sharply stepped up attacks in recent months, especially in the south. They also achieved a stunning victory in October when they briefly captured the northern city of Kunduz. It was the first major urban center to fall to the insurgents since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.
Kunduz was also where U.S. forces in October mistakenly bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital, killing 42 people and wounding dozens more. The airstrike and the coalition’s failure to anticipate the Taliban’s winter offensive have been heavily criticized by local analysts.
“There is no doubt that this has been a challenging and difficult time in our campaign,” Campbell said Wednesday.
Campbell presided over the transition from a combat mission of 35,000 coalition troops, to an advisory mission known as Resolute Support, drawing down to 13,000 troops, including 9,800 Americans. That number is set to remain constant until at least the end of the year.
More than 100,000 NATO troops were stationed in the country at the height of the coalition’s surge in 2010.
Nicholson’s appointment comes as pressure builds on the U.S. to do more to assist the Afghan forces, who have suffered record casualties since they assumed full responsibility for the country’s security.
Speaking to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his nomination hearing in January, Nicholson signaled an intention to augment U.S. counterterrorism efforts — a mission separate from Resolute Support — and re-evaluate the schedule for further troop reductions.
The change-of-command ceremony marked the start of his fourth tour in the country and followed his posting as commander of NATO’s Allied Land Command in Izmir, Turkey.
He previously served in Afghanistan as deputy chief of staff for Operations from December 2010 to January 2012; deputy commander, Regional Command South from October 2008 to September 2009; and commander of the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team/Task Force Spartan from August 2004 to August 2007.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees forces in Afghanistan and the Middle East, attended the ceremony, as did Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford; Afghanistan’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah; and acting Afghan Defense Minister Masoom Stanekzai.
After the ceremony, Campbell told reporters he planned to retire from the military after 41 years of service.
“Afghanistan continues to be worth the investment of the international community,” he said in his parting message. “The international community is here to stay.”