- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
American military forces who continue to fight — and die — in Afghanistan are about to get a new commander amid a renewed Taliban offensive to take back ground lost during the U.S.-led war.
If confirmed by the Senate, Army Lt. Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson will head to Kabul in coming months to replace Gen. John Campbell, who was scheduled to leave. Nicholson, a veteran of multiple deployments to Afghanistan, is currently commander of NATO’s Allied Land Command in Izmir, Turkey, and served as deputy commanding general for operations in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012. He earlier was the director of the Pentagon’s Afghanistan-Pakistan coordination cell.
It is not known if Campbell is retiring. But when he took command in Afghanistan in August 2014, it was generally assumed that he would see the war to its conclusion and bring the last U.S. and NATO troops home. Things were headed in that direction until the alliance’s combat mission wrapped up at the end of 2014, and with it the shuttering of hundreds of small combat outposts that dotted Taliban strongholds throughout Afghanistan. The Taliban quickly moved to fill the gap, setting off last year’s heavy fighting between Afghan forces and the insurgents.
Afghan troops took a record number of casualties in 2015: about 16,000 soldiers and police were killed or wounded over the course of the year, up from 12,500 in 2014.
As security worsened, some of the 3,000 U.S. special operations and counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan took a more active role in the fighting, resulting in several high-profile mishaps. During street fighting last October with the Taliban in the northern city of Kunduz, U.S. Green Berets called in an airstrike in a botched attempt to hit a building occupied by a group of Taliban fighters. But due to a series of misunderstandings and technical malfunctions, a charity hospital was hit instead; an estimated 42 patients and staff were killed in what Campbell later called “a tragic and avoidable accident caused primarily by human error.”
Campbell has since wrapped up his investigation into the strike, and sent his findings and recommendations for punishment to U.S. Central Command and the Special Operations Command. Decisions as to who will be disciplined, and how, are expected in the coming weeks, according to Defense officials.
In other deadly missions, a Jan. 5 firefight in Helmand province killed Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock and wounded two other Green Berets working with Afghan special forces. Early attempts to rescue the surviving troops failed after one helicopter broke a rotor blade on landing, and another was chased away by Taliban fire. It wasn’t until hours later, after dark, that a rescue mission finally succeeded. And a month earlier, six U.S. troops were killed by a suicide bomber near the Bagram Air Base.
Campbell played a key role in urging President Barack Obama to walk away from plans to withdraw nearly all American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. The current plan, released last year, calls for troop levels to drop to about 5,500 by Dec. 31. But even that plan may change as Afghan forces continue to lose ground to the Taliban.
Even after a $60 billion U.S. investment to train and equip the Afghan Army and police, local forces still “cannot handle the fight alone” without American air support and a special operations help, Campbell told the Senate Armed Services Committee last October.
“It will take time for them to build their human capital” in managing their forces in the field, he said, adding that Afghan troops and their commanders will need international assistance “well beyond this year.” Now that job will fall to another general in a long line of U.S. military commanders who have taken the lead in the 14-year U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Photo Credit: U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Lorie Jewell