Biden taps combat-hardened officer to lead Central Command

Lt. Gen. Michael "Erik" Kurilla, commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps, gives a speech at the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) change of command, March 5, 2021, at the division parade field, Fort Campbell, Ky. President Joe Biden has nominated Kurilla to head U.S. Central Command and be promoted to four-star general, according to multiple U.S. officials. (Spc. Andrea Notter/U.S. Army via AP)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A senior Army three-star general with extensive experience in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has been nominated to become the top U.S. commander for the Middle East. 

President Joe Biden has nominated Army Lt. Gen. Erik Kurilla to head U.S. Central Command and be promoted to four-star general, according to multiple U.S. officials.  

If confirmed by the Senate, Kurilla would replace Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, who has led the command for the past three years and is expected to retire.

Kurilla would take over as the Pentagon continues to try and shift its focus to the Indo-Pacific and counter a rising China, and to bolster defenses against Russia in Europe, where Moscow is massing troops near the Ukraine border, fueling fears of an invasion.

The U.S. has withdrawn all forces from Afghanistan and has now formally shifted its role in Iraq from combat to advising and assisting the Iraqi forces. But the U.S. strategy to put more emphasis on China and Russia has been repeatedly stymied by Iran, forcing the Pentagon to maintain a significant troop presence across the Middle East and cultivate strong relations with allies in the region.

In recent weeks, Iranian-backed militia groups have increased the pace of their attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq and Syria. The groups have made it clear they want all U.S. troops out of Iraq, and have vowed to continue attacks until they are gone.

Since Monday there have been at least three attacks on bases that house U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. The attacks included strikes by rockets and armed drones. Two armed drones were shot down Monday as they headed for a facility housing U.S. advisers at the Baghdad airport, and two explosives-laden drones were destroyed as they targeted an Iraqi military base housing American troops in western Anbar province on Tuesday.

Kurilla, who is from Elk River, Minnesota, is currently commander of the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, but previously served as the chief of staff at Central Command, working for McKenzie and, before that, Gen. Joseph Votel.

He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1988, and has served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, commanding conventional and special operations forces. He commanded a Stryker battalion in Iraq in 2004, and was shot and wounded.

He later was commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment, overseeing combat teams deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. He also served as director of operations at the Joint Special Operations Command and was commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.