US Army Gen John W “Mick” Nicholson took command on Wednesday of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, inheriting America’s longest war and a vicious Talban-led insurgency.
Nicholson, 58, took over from US Army Gen John F Campbell, who oversaw the end of the international combat mission in 2014 and an escalation in the Taliban’s war against Kabul.
In a ceremony at the headquarters of the US-NATO Resolute Support mission in Kabul, Nicholson thanked NATO representatives for standing by the US after the September 11, 2001 attacks on “the homeland”.
To the “enemy,” he said: “I know you. You have brought only hardship and suffering to the Afghan people.”
Nicholson served in Afghanistan three times between 2006 and 2012. Most recently he was commander of NATO’s Allied Land Command in Izmir, Turkey.
He takes command of around 13,000 international troops, including 9,800 Americans, in Afghanistan. The Resolute Support mandate is focused on training and assisting Afghan forces as they take on the insurgency largely on their own.
Around 3,000 of the US troops are engaged in counter-terrorism operations against the Taliban, Al Qaeda and -following a recent extension of their mandate by President Barack Obama - the Islamic State group, which has a nascent presence in some volatile regions of Afghanistan.
He takes control of the Afghan theatre as the Taliban are seen extending their reach to previously peaceful areas, notably the northern provinces bordering the Central Asian states, and escalating the war in their southern heartland provinces. In recent months, the insurgents have threatened most districts of Helmand, where much of the poppy crop that produces the world’s heroin supply is grown.
Intra-Taliban fighting in Helmand has been taking place over control of the lucrative smuggling routes for men, arms, drugs and minerals, officials have said.
Nicholson returns to Afghanistan as the government of President Ashraf Ghani hopes to kick-start a peace process aimed at bringing the Taliban leadership into a dialogue aimed at ending the war. The endgame is not expected for many months or even years, though Kabul has said it expects its representatives to have face-to-face talks with Taliban figures in the coming weeks.