Nominee for Afghan commander pledges to reassess troop levels

The general tapped to take over the command of troops in Afghanistan promised Thursday to make a recommendation on troop levels after his first 90 days in the role.

“I think after the initial 90 days, I'll have a good sense of where we are building on the experience we have, and of course, if confirmed, sir, the chance to do some more thorough discussions with Gen. [John] Campbell and with the team on the ground,” Lt. Gen. John "Mick" Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on Thursday.

President Obama on Wednesday nominated Nicholson to take over as the commander of U.S. and allied troops when Campbell’s tour of duty ends.

Right now, there are about 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan on a mission of training, advising and assisting Afghan forces and counterterrorism. The number of troops is set to fall to about 5,500 by the end of the year.

But the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, and there are a number of capabilities the Afghan forces still need to develop, Nicholson said. Some of those capabilities include intelligence gathering and air support.

“There are certain capabilities that simply take years and years to develop, and they have not achieved a level of efficiency in those areas,” he said.

Nicholson declined to provide a specific number of troops he thinks is necessary for the mission, saying he needs to be confirmed and assess the situation on the ground.

Senators on the committee indicated they were pleased with Nicholson’s position on troop levels.

“I believe that you are eminently qualified,” Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said at the end of the hearing.

McCain also reiterated his longstanding view that the troop withdrawal should be halted.

“As the security situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, it makes no strategic or military sense to continue the withdrawal of American forces,” he said. “Indeed, our military commanders increasingly realize that preventing the reemergence of terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan will require a long-term partnership with Afghan government and military similar to the U.S. role in South Korea or Colombia.”

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member on the committee, also indicated the drawdown should be adjusted.

“I believe that any recommendations you might make on this front should be given great weight,” he told Nicholson.

McCain said he hopes to bring Nicholson’s nomination to the Senate floor next week.