Top U.S. commander in Afghanistan steps down even as Taliban surges
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan relinquished his command at a ceremony in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Monday, taking the United States a step closer to ending its 20-year war there. The move came as Taliban insurgents continue to gain territory across the country.
Another four-star general will assume authority from his U.S.-based post to conduct possible airstrikes in defense of Afghan government forces, at least until the U.S. withdrawal concludes by Aug. 31.
Gen. Scott Miller, who has served as America’s top commander in Afghanistan since 2018, handed over command of what has become known as America’s “forever war,” now in its waning days, to Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command. McKenzie will operate from Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla.
The handover took place in the heavily fortified Resolute Support headquarters in the heart of Kabul, at a time of rapid territorial gains by Taliban insurgents across Afghanistan.
In a flag-passing ceremony, Miller remembered the U.S. and NATO troops killed in two decades of war as well as the thousands of Afghans who lost their lives.
He warned that relentless violence across Afghanistan was making a political settlement increasingly difficult. The outgoing commander said he had told Taliban officials that “it’s important that the military sides set the conditions for a peaceful and political settlement in Afghanistan. ... But we know that, with that violence, it would be very difficult to achieve a political settlement.”
A ride-along with the Afghan Air Force
The Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces, mostly funded by the United States and NATO, have put up resistance in some parts of the country, but Afghan government troops appear overwhelmingly to have abandoned the fight.
In recent weeks, the Taliban has gained several strategic districts, particularly along the borders with Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, who attended the handover, said the U.S. and NATO withdrawal was leaving a vacuum that stranded Afghanistan’s security forces on the battlefield without renewed supplies, including food and ammunition.
In comments after the ceremony, Mohib said the greatest impact of the withdrawal was a lack of aircraft to resupply troops. Currently, the government is regrouping to retake strategic areas and defend its cities against Taliban advances.
As U.S. forces pull out from Afghanistan, the Taliban is in the ascendant — and threatening to retake the city that was its former spiritual capital.
The Taliban controls more than one-third of Afghanistan’s 421 districts and district centers. A Taliban claim that it controls 85% of the districts is widely seen as exaggerated.
After Miller’s departure, a two-star admiral based at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul will oversee the U.S. military’s role in securing the American diplomatic presence in Kabul, including defending the Kabul airport.
Miller’s departure does not further reduce the scope of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, since McKenzie will assume the authorities now held by Miller to conduct airstrikes in defense of Afghan government forces under certain circumstances.
The conditions under which such strikes might be used are not clear, nor is it known for how long McKenzie will keep the strike authority.
U.S. defense of its Afghanistan pullout is based on a conviction that education and development gains are irreversible. But reality is very different.
A deal that the U.S. struck with the Taliban in February 2020 included a promise from the insurgent movement not to attack U.S. and NATO troops, a commitment that it appears the group has largely kept.
While Washington is not saying how many troops remain in Afghanistan, a CENTCOM statement more than a week ago said the withdrawal was 90% complete.
President Biden has reiterated that the U.S. will remain engaged in Afghanistan with humanitarian assistance. The U.S. also is committed to spending $4.4 billion annually to fund Afghanistan’s security forces until 2024.
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