General Austin “Scott” Miller – the highest-ranked officer on the ground – handed command to US-based General Kenneth McKenzie, bringing the longest US war nearer to its end at a time when the Taliban are making sweeping advances across the country.
The top US commander in Afghanistan has relinquished his command at a ceremony in the Afghan capital of Kabul, taking the United States a step closer to ending its 20-year war.
The move came as Taliban insurgents continue to gain territory across the country.
Another four-star general will assume authority from his US post to conduct possible air strikes in defence of Afghan government forces, at least until the US withdrawal concludes by August 31.
General 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" in its waning days to Marine General Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command.
McKenzie will operate from Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida.
Taliban gains continue
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.
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 overwhelmingly Afghan government troops appear to have abandoned the fight.
In recent weeks, the Taliban have gained several strategic districts, particularly along the borders with Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The Taliban control more than one-third of Afghanistan’s 421 districts and district centres.
A Taliban claim that they control 85 percent of the districts is widely seen as exaggerated.
After Miller’s departure, a two-star admiral based at the US Embassy in Kabul will oversee the US military’s role in securing the American diplomatic presence in Kabul, including defending the Kabul airport.
Miller’s departure does not reduce the scope of the US military mission in Afghanistan, since McKenzie will assume the authorities now held by Miller to conduct air strikes in defence 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.
A deal the US struck with the Taliban in February 2020 included a promise from the insurgent movement not to attack US and NATO troops, a commitment it appears they have 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 percent complete.
President Joe Biden has reiterated that the US will remain engaged in Afghanistan with humanitarian assistance.
The US also is committed to spending $4.4 billion annually to fund Afghanistan’s security forces until 2024.