By Dan Lamothe
The top U.S. general in Afghanistan stepped down on Monday, marking a symbolic end to 20 years of American military involvement here as an ascendant Taliban threatens to topple the central government.
Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, who has overseen the war effort for nearly three years, relinquished his responsibilities in a small ceremony at the U.S. military’s headquarters inside Kabul’s heavily fortified Green Zone.
“Our job now is just not to forget,” Miller said in brief remarks, citing sacrifices by Americans, Afghans and other allies. “With the families that have lost people across this conflict, it will be important to know that someone remembers, that someone cares, and that we’re able to talk about it in the future.”
Hours later, Miller departed in a Black Hawk helicopter. It thumped away over a constellation of diplomatic compounds and security checkpoints, his first step on a journey home that is expected to include a stop in Washington where he will meet with President Biden and senior Pentagon leaders, said two U.S. officials familiar with the matter. Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.
Monday’s ceremony came three months after Biden announced he was ending the U.S. military’s mission begun in the aftermath of 9/11, leaving behind a force of about 600 troops to protect the U.S. Embassy and international airport a few miles away. Biden said last week that the American withdrawal will end formally on Aug. 31, but effectively it is complete now, with Miller’s departure one of only a few pieces that had been remaining, defense officials said.
Miller departs Afghanistan as the war’s longest-serving senior U.S.officer. A former commander of the elite Delta Force, he oversaw a tumultuous period that included the Trump administration’s 2020 deal with the Taliban that set the stage for withdrawal and the final call by Biden to remove all troops.
Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, who leads U.S. Central Command, has assumedMiller’s responsibilities. He attended Monday’s ceremony after flying overnight from his headquarters in Tampa and is expected to oversee the remaining security mission from there, with a two-star Navy SEAL, Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, leading the troops at the embassy and airport.
McKenzie acknowledged the ongoing bloodshed and promised that the United States would continue to provide financial and technical assistance from afar.
“You can count on our support in the dangerous and difficult days ahead,” McKenzie said. “We will be with you.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Monday refused to discuss any recent airstrikes carried out by the United States in support of Afghan forces under Taliban threat, citing operational security during the drawdown.
McKenzie told reporters traveling with him over the weekend that the U.S. military had launched one strike at the Taliban in recent days while the Afghan air force had conducted 14. He added that, while for now the U.S. military retains the ability to attack the Taliban, doing so is limited by a lack of intelligence and U.S. personnel on the ground who would help identify whether an airstrike may cause “collateral damage,” a military term for civilian casualties.
“It’s a very high standard for us,” the general said.
Before the ceremony, McKenzie told reporters that he believes the Taliban is pursuing a “military victory” over the Afghan government, citing its recent battlefield victories. But he predicted the militants will encounter significant resistance in Kabul, noting how much larger and more complex the city of 6 million people and its defenses are now than when the Taliban ruled it in the 1990s.
“I think, certainly, the provincial capitals are at risk, and we’ll see how that shakes out over the next few weeks,” McKenzie told reportersaboard a military aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean. “I think the Afghans are determined to fight very hard for those provincial capitals.”
In a separate interview after Monday’s ceremony, McKenzie said that while he believes the Taliban has presented its battlefield gains on social media in an attempt to persuade people its rise is inevitable, he doubts it is true.
“It is not prescribed in stone that the Taliban are going to win,” McKenzie said.
The rapid disintegration of security amid the withdrawal has put both Biden and the Afghan government on the defensive.
Numerous unresolved questions about the American withdrawal have not been fully addressed yet. They include a promise to evacuate thousands of interpreters who worked alongside U.S. troops and now are fearful of being targeted by the Taliban.
The Biden administration also plans to continue carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as needed. However, without access to bases there, the military is expected to fly from installations several hours away in the Persian Gulf, putting strains on what U.S. troops can do. Administration officials are seeking new agreements with neighboring countries from which to carry out the strikes, but to date no deals have been announced.
The military’s departure from Afghanistan, along with the deterioration of security throughout the country, also is expected to degrade the United States’ ability to monitor events on the ground.
McKenzie said that most of the information the U.S. military gets about the Taliban comes from Afghan forces, and that in areas where the Taliban has seized control, it will be more difficult to understand changes as they occur.
“That’s just a fact we’re going to have to recognize,” McKenzie said. “My knowledge of what’s going on in Afghanistan is not nearly what it was 180 days ago.” ( Washington Post )