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U.S. general tapped to take over in Afghanistan open to keeping more troops, boosting air war

Army Lt. General John W. Nicholson Jr. speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The general nominated to take over as the new top commander of the U.S. war in Afghanistan said on Thursday that security there has deteriorated, and he promised a detailed assessment, within 90 days of taking the job, of how many American troops will be needed.

Army Lt. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., who has been nominated to take over the war and pin on a fourth star, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that if confirmed he will “re-look at” what U.S. military presence is needed. That leaves the window open to keeping more military advisers and Special Operations troops in Afghanistan as part of a generational approach in which Americans troops remain for years to come.

There are currently about 9,800 service members in Afghanistan, with most focused on advising Afghan police and military units and some hunting down members of al-Qaeda and — more recently — the Islamic State militant group. Plans call for Obama to halve that force by the time he leaves office, but he could defer the decision to the next president.

[The U.S. was supposed to leave Afghanistan by 2017. Now it might take decades.]

Nicholson testified on Thursday that he supports basing the number of troops deployed on the conditions on the ground, adding that the calculus “perhaps changed” in 2015 as the Islamic State emerged in the eastern province of Nangahar and a branch of al-Qaeda formed a sprawling training camp in the southern province of Kandahar. Afghan forces and U.S. Special Operations troops combined to destroy the camp in a multi-day operation in October.

“We’re not trying to create a Western-style society here,” Nicholson said. “We’re looking at an adequate level of security to prevent the re-emergence of transnational terrorist threats.”

He later called the efforts by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in 2015 “clear attempts by transnational terrorist organizations to establish sanctuary inside Afghanistan.”

The general, seated before the committee in his dress blues, was broadly praised by members of the committee for his breadth of experience in Afghanistan. He has served there for a combined three and a half years, more than any other U.S. general, said Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). Kirk was allowed to testify in Nicholson’s favor at the outset of the hearing as a military reservist who served with him.

The general is not expected to face a difficult confirmation process. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that he hopes to have the general’s nomination to the Senate floor by next week, and found him “imminently qualified” for the job.

Nicholson is expected to replace Army Gen. John Campbell, who has served as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan since August 2014. The transition will come following a brutal year for Afghan forces. Thousands of security-force members were killed as the United States reduced its number of troops and the Afghan government for the first time was forced to provide security with little to no U.S. air power.

[Meet Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, who has served in Afghanistan more than any other U.S. general]

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) raised the air-power issue on Thursday, noting during the hearing that retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, a former top commander in Afghanistan, and defense analyst Michael O’Hanlon advocated in a recent piece in The Washington Post unleashing more American airstrikes against the Taliban and other militants.

Nicholson said he did not want to insert himself in dialogue started by Campbell and his staff because he wasn’t confirmed, but still signaled support for the measure, citing a request made by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for more air power.

“I agree that we need to address this gap,” the general said.