But Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced this month that he has selected Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the current commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, as the next chief at Central Command. A commander of Special Operations Command has never before gone on to lead Central Command, but the move is viewed as reasonable considering Votel’s previous success as a commander and how heavily the Pentagon relies right now on Special Operations troops in its military campaign against the Islamic State militant group.
Campbell led the military in Afghanistan through a trying time last year after the crew of an AC-130 gunship shelled a building in the northern province of Kunduz without realizing it was a hospital. Campbell called it a mistake within days. Following a lengthy investigation, he attributed the incident in November to a combination of human errors during the battle and faulty planning. The military has not disclosed whether any of the troops involved will face criminal or administrative charges.
But there is no indication that Campbell has done anything wrong in Carter’s eyes. The defense secretary praised him for his leadership during a news conference at the Pentagon on Thursday, calling him “exceptional.”
“We’ve been really lucky,” Carter said. “We’ve had an unbelievable string of commanders in Afghanistan, of which… Campbell is the latest one.”
Army Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, Campbell’s top spokesman in Afghanistan, told The Washington Post in a phone interview Saturday that the general is leaving his position as part of a normal rotation. Campbell has been deployed for “quite a while,” and it’s a natural time to swap commanders there, the spokesman added.
Shoffner said that Campbell was offered another four-star job by the Obama administration, but respectfully declined. Shoffner wouldn’t say which one, but it’s an indication that Campbell remains in high standing at the Pentagon and the White House.
The open jobs could include chief of U.S. Africa Command, which has headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, and has been under the command of Army Gen. David Rodriguez since April 2013. Based on past practice, the timing is about right for the Pentagon to shift a new commander into that job.
Another possibility might by commanding U.S. European Command, an organization whose profile has been raised following a series of aggressive actions by Russia in the past two years. European Command has been overseen since May 2013 by Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, seemingly also positioning it for a change at the top this year.
The Pentagon has hinted that there might be another job in Campbell’s future. On Wednesday, Carter said in a statement that “there will be more to say about his future in the coming days,” without elaborating.
Whatever the decision, it will need to be made soon. The Senate confirmation vote for Campbell’s presumed replacement in Afghanistan, Army Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, could come as soon as next week, Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday. Once that happens, the Pentagon has a finite period in which Campbell can remain a four-star general and not have an assignment.
This story was originally published Friday and updated Saturday with comments from Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner.