KABUL - U.S. Army General John "Mick" Nicholson has taken charge of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan as security conditions deteriorate across the war-ravaged nation in the wake of a vicious Taliban-led insurgency.
Nicholson, 58, took over Wednesday from General John Campbell, who oversaw the coalition’s transition in 2014 from combat to the current so-called Resolute Support mission of training and advising Afghan security forces.
"We are here with you," Nicholson told Afghan officials at the ceremony, as he emphasized the mission's importance.
The new commander praised Afghan and international forces for continuing the fight against the Taliban and other extremist groups.
"Yes, we have a tough path in front of us, but with your courage all things are possible," Nicholson added.
He said little about the mission’s enemies, except that they "have brought only hardship and suffering to the Afghan people."
The command change at NATO coalition headquarters in Kabul occurred while the insurgents occupy more territory than at any time since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Additionally, extremists pledging allegiance to the Middle Eastern Islamic State militant group have been trying to expand their influence, particularly in eastern border Afghan regions.
The United Nations says civilian casualties in the 15-year Afghan conflict rose to record levels of more than 11,000 in 2015, with the violence expanding to parts of Afghanistan that previously had been relatively peaceful.
Outgoing commander Campbell used the occasion to urge Taliban insurgents to engage in the political reconciliation process with the Afghan government.
"My message to the Taliban is, again, put down your arms come and talk to Afghanistan be part of the political process."
A suicide attack Wednesday in the eastern city of Jalalabad underscored challenges facing Afghan international forces.
Officials said a suicide bomber blew himself up near the Indian consulate gate in a high-security zone. Shortly after the blast, four gunmen began a half-hour gunfight with Afghan security forces, who ultimately killed the assailants. The attack also killed at least two civilians and a police officer, while wounding another 19 people.