White House nominates Erik Kurilla for new head of Centcom

Lt Gen Kurilla will receive fourth star and is set to succeed Gen Frank McKenzie in overseeing US military operations in Middle East

The nomination for Lt Gen Erik Kurilla was sent to the Senate on Wednesday, congressional records show. AP
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President Joe Biden has nominated US Army Lt Gen Erik Kurilla to lead Central Command (Centcom) and oversee US military operations in the Middle East.

The nomination for Lt Gen Kurilla to become a full, four-star general was sent to the Senate on Wednesday, congressional records show.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin officially announced the nomination on Friday in a press release.

If confirmed by the Senate, Lt Gen Kurilla would succeed Gen Frank McKenzie, who has led Centcom — one of the 11 unified combatant commands of the Department of Defence — since 2019 and whose term expires on April 1.

Gen McKenzie was also given the task of overseeing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Lt Gen Kurilla has been the commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg since 2019. He previously served as chief of staff at Centcom and has a combat record in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

While in Iraq in 2014 and 2015, Lt Gen Kurilla was a Stryker battalion commander with the 25th Infantry Division and “was shot three times but continued to fire back at insurgents while directing his troops”, The Military Times reported.

He is familiar with counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism issues in the region, and served between 2015 and 2016 as deputy director for special operations and counterterrorism at the Joint Staff at the Pentagon.

Bilal Saab, senior fellow and founding director of the Defence and Security Programme at the Middle East Institute, described Lt Gen Kurilla as highly respected in his field.

“From the people who have worked closely with him, the consensus is that this is a very [James] Mattis-like individual — factual, succinct, methodical, thorough and driven. He’s well liked and respected by his colleagues,” Mr Saab, a former defence official himself, told The National.

Former Pentagon chief Mr Mattis is known for his direct approach and commitment to US goals in the Middle East. He resigned in 2018 after objecting to former president Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan.

Mr Saab also highlighted Lt Gen Kurilla’s record in military targeting and trying to avoid civilian casualties.

“He is a targeting guru, which is important for reducing civilian casualties, especially given the challenges we’ve faced in this area,” he said.

Gen McKenzie in September was forced to backtrack after media outlets showed a strike in Kabul that supposedly hit extremists but actually killed 10 civilians.

Asked if the nomination would impact the Biden administration’s policy of switching focus to China and Russia from the Middle East, Mr Saab said those decisions do not traditionally depend on the Centcom chief.

“No Centcom commander sets policy; they do set the tone and [Lt] Gen Kurilla will do just that, given his personality.”

Updated: January 07, 2022, 10:26 PM