US Army Lt. Gen. John "Mick" Nicholson will be the new commander of United States forces in Afghanistan following a quick confirmation vote in the Senate on Thursday.
Nicholson, who has advocated an enduring presence in Afghanistan, is taking over for Gen. John Campbell at a time of great concern over stability and resurgent attacks by the Taliban and al-Qaida, as well as a growing threat from the Islamic State group. The new commander will likely play a key role in determining how many US troops remain in the country, which is again under review by President Barack Obama's administration.
The Afghanistan war - the longest in American history - was officially ended in 2014 and Obama had hoped to withdraw to a small embassy presence, but instead planned to keep 9,800 troops in the country through the end of 2016 to help the Afghan government stabilize itself. Spikes in violence, such as the recent Taliban seizure of Kunduz, and warnings from Campbell that 2016 could see more enemy activity are testing that revised plan.
"Gen. Nicholson's leadership is urgently needed at a time of complex challenges to the security and stability in Afghanistan," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee that vetted the general. "I encourage him to do what is necessary to empower American troops and our allied partners to confront a diverse array of terrorist threats in the region and sustain our hard-fought gains."
McCain and other Republicans have hammered Obama on what they call a "calendar-driven" withdrawal from the country.
"While President Obama made the right decision to keep 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan, he repeated, yet again, the strategic folly of setting a timetable for withdrawal that ignores conditions on the ground, discourages our friends, and gives hope to our enemies," McCain said Thursday during testimony by Campbell on the situation in the country.
Nicholson, 58, has deep experience in Afghanistan and served three tours there between 2006 and 2012. He spent 16 months commanding a brigade in the eastern part of the country and later served as the chief deputy to the commander of US and NATO forces.
His confirmation moved quickly through the Senate, with a hearing almost immediately after his nomination was announced, and his positions on troop presence appears to mesh with GOP lawmakers who want a stronger future commitment.
Nicholson told the Senate during his confirmation hearing last month that he envisions an enduring military presence in Afghanistan similar to the efforts in South Korea and Germany, where large permanent bases have existed for 60 and 70 years.
A similar comparison also was made this month by Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
The pressure for a larger and longer US presence in Afghanistan is coming at what Campbell called a crucial inflection point in the military's 15-year involvement there.
The Afghan army and police are still unable to secure the country without American help, despite more than a decade of effort and billions of dollars spent. Meanwhile, the Taliban is regaining territory across the country. The militant group, which harbored Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 terror attacks, mounted a stunning large-scale assault and seized the provincial capital Kunduz for two weeks in October.
Also last fall, joint US strikes destroyed what was described as a large al-Qaida training camp, a throwback to the earlier days of the war. Thousands of Islamic State fighters also are vying for control of some areas now and raising the specter of a new front in the war against the group in Iraq and Syria.
Campbell, 58, said troops will be needed there for at least five more years. Testifying this week before committees in the House and Senate, he warned of the challenges in keeping the country from being mired in conflict or sliding back into more violence.
"A strategic stalemate without end is not the goal of this campaign," he told House lawmakers Tuesday.