Army Lt. Gen. John "Mick" Nicholson took command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Wednesday, beginning a tour that will require big decisions about future force levels and use of air power for a the mission now in its 15th year.
During a In a change of command ceremony at the American military headquarters in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, Nicholson assumed the top job from Army Gen. John Campbell, who led the mission for the past 19 months and, in December 2014, oversaw helped oversee the end of the "combat mission" known as Operation Enduring Freedom in December 2014.
Nicholson will lead a force of about 10,000 American troops at a time of mounting violence in some parts of the country. The Taliban is resurgent throughout Afghanistan's poppy heartland in the south, and there are signs that an emerging Islamic State faction is taking root in the east. At the same time, there is and renewed scrutiny of President Obama’s timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces.
It is a vastly different situation than the one predicted several years ago by top Pentagon and White House officials, who vowed that the military mission would end in 2017.
"I think that Gen.Nicholson has certainly inherited a mission that has sadly gone wildly off course," said Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan and South Asia expert with the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington.
Nicholson's first major challenge will be reviewing the current drawdown plan that calls for cutting the number of U.S. troops in theater force down to about 5,500 by the end of this year — and before Obama leaves office in January 2017. It's a controversial issue, one that's affected not only by the current security environment in Afghanistan but by also domestic U.S. political sentiment in the U.S., where lawmakers that remain is largely skeptical of the protracted mission that continues five years after a Sspecial Ooperations team hunted down and killed terrorist mastermind the death of Osama bin Laden. 's death.
"The troop-level question has become a hot potato in Washington," Kugelman said. "There clearly is a lot of public opposition in the U.S. to a continued and extended troop presence. But at the same time, there is a realization that to achieve a modicum of stability in Afghanistan, you need to maintain troops."
Nicholson has promised to review "re-look" the current drawdown plan.
"What I would like to do in my first 90 days is … re-look at that, what is necessary, what amount of capability is necessary given the current conditions," he told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing in January. 28.
That sentiment was echoed recently by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, who commanded the Afghanistan war from 2013 to 2014.
"When we looked at this in 2013, we assumed a certain progression, of ministerial capacity, core-level capabilities, the intelligence enterprise, special operations and aviation," Dunford told reporters on Feb. 29.
"And many of the assumptions we made in 2013 didn't obtain," Dunford said. The Afghan forces still have "capability gaps" and "we are looking at that right now," he added.
"I will be prepared to make recommendations to the secretary as to how we can incorporate the lessons learned from 2015 into more effective operations in 2016," Dunford said.
Nicholson is also likely to consider changes that would make the air campaign more aggressive.
"We have not effectively used our air power against the Taliban," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department official and Afghanistan expert with the Middle East Institute in Washington.
The new general's arrival creates an opportunity for adjusting troop levels and the rules of engagement regarding airstrikes, Weinbaum said.
"It's a good time for it to change. A new guy comes in and he's in a position to say 'I've reviewed this and here is my recommendation.'"
Yet any change is likely to be incremental, even after a new commander-in-chief takes over in January. "I don't think there is a lot of latitude for a great deal of change in policy. Some adjustment here, some there, but it is not a campaign issue," Weinbaum said.
As a colonel, Nicholson led Task Force Spartan, his first big assignment in Afghanistan.
Photo Credit: DoD
"And we've got our hands full in Syria and Iraq and that has got to be a factor," Weinbaum said.
Kugelman said the Obama administration is likely to postpone the drawdown, let troop levels remain steady into 2017 and allow the next president make that decision. "I do think there is an expectation that these questions of troop levels will have to wait until we have someone else is occupying the White House."
Nicholson, unlike many of his peers who spent years in Iraq, has focused more on Afghanistan during his career. He has spent more than three years total deployed to Afghanistan, including stints as a brigade commander, as the head of Regional Command-South and as director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell.
His critics — namely a group of Marines whom Nicholson had ejected from the war zone after a deadly battle near the Pakistan border nine years ago — have questioned the general's selection and overall track record in Afghanistan.
Nicholson grew up in a military family with strong political connections. His father, was John "Jack" Nicholson, was an Army one-star general and Vietnam veteran who later served as undersecretary of Veterans Affairs during under President George W. Bush's administration.
Nicholson's uncle, Jim Nicholson, was also a Vietnam veteran who retired as an Army colonel and later served as the chairman of the Republican National Committee at the time Bush was elected. Jim Nicholson later served as secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Other observers say that Nicholson's background is precisely what's needed at such a tenuous moment in the war.
"There is nobody around at this point who has more experience," Weinbaum said. "He doesn’t have to learn on the job in any way. I just expect he is going to focus on air power and continue to focus on how we best use the special forces that we have available to us," Weinbaum said."
In his remarks at Wednesday's change-of-command ceremony, Nicholson acknowledged the "tough path" ahead." Then, speaking briefly in Pashto, he said "let us go forward with courage."
Nicholson grew up in a military family with political connections. His father, John "Jack" Nicholson, was an Army one-star general and Vietnam veteran who later served as undersecretary of Veterans Affairs during President George W. Bush's admin.
Nicholson's uncle, Jim Nicholson, was also a Vietnam veteran who retired as an Army colonel and later served as the chairman of the Republican National Committee at the time Bush was elected. Jim Nicholson later served as secretary of veterans affairs.