The top US commander in Afghanistan relinquished his position at a ceremony in the capital Kabul on Monday, 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-based 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 has served as America’s top commander in Afghanistan since 2018. He 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.
Gen McKenzie will operate from Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida.
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, Gen Miller remembered the US and Nato troops killed in the nearly 20-year war as well as the thousands of Afghans who lost their lives.
He warned that relentless violence across Afghanistan is making a political settlement increasingly difficult.
The outgoing commander said he has told Taliban officials “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.”
The Afghanistan National Defence 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% of the districts is widely seen as exaggerated.
After Gen 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.
Gen Miller’s departure does not reduce the scope of the US military mission in Afghanistan, since Gen McKenzie will assume the authorities now held by Gen 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 Gen 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% 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 dollars annually to fund Afghanistan’s security forces until 2024.