In symbolic end to war, US general steps down from command in Afghanistan

KABUL (AFP) - The top US general in Afghanistan relinquished command on Monday (July 12) at an official ceremony in the capital, the latest symbolic gesture bringing America’s longest war nearer to its end.

At a time when the Taleban are making sweeping advances across the country, General Austin “Scott” Miller - the highest-ranked officer on the ground in Afghanistan - handed command to General Kenneth McKenzie, an AFP correspondent at the Kabul ceremony reported.

Gen Miller has been in Afghanistan since 2018, but in May was charged by commander-in-chief President Joe Biden with organising the final withdrawal of US troops, to be completed by the end of August.

Since May, most of the 2,500 American troops remaining at that time have left, and the US has also handed over to Afghan forces Bagram Air Base, from where coalition forces carried out operations against the Taleban and Islamist groups for the past two decades.

About 650 US service members are expected to be stationed in Kabul to guard Washington’s sprawling diplomatic compound, where Monday’s ceremony took place.

Top Afghan officials and military officers attended the ceremony inside the heavily fortified green zone.

While the ceremony may offer some sense of closure for US veterans who served in Afghanistan, it's unclear whether it will succeed in reassuring the Western-backed Afghan government as the Taleban press ground offensives that have given them control of more territory than at any time since the conflict began.

US Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, whose Florida-based Central Command oversees US forces in hot-spots including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, said earlier: "Admittedly, it's going to be very different than it was in the past. I'm not going to minimise that."

"But we're going to support them."

But he also cautioned that the Taleban, in his view, appeared to be seeking "a military solution" to a war that the United States has unsuccessfully tried to end with a peace agreement between the Taleban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government.

He cautioned that provincial capitals were at risk but noted that the US-backed Afghan security forces "are determined to fight very hard for those provincial capitals."

Gen McKenzie will still be able to authorise US air strikes against the Taleban through Aug 31 in support of Mr Ghani's Western-backed government.

But after that, the Marine general said when it came to US strikes in Afghanistan, his focus will shift squarely to counter-terrorism operations against Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group.

Gathering enough intelligence on the ground to prevent another Sept 11-style attack could become increasingly challenging, as America's intelligence network weakens with the US withdrawal and as Afghan troops lose territory.

Democratic Representative Elissa Slotkin, a former senior Pentagon official, said many lawmakers were still looking for answers from the Biden administration about how the US will be able to detect a future al Qaeda plot against the United States.

"I don't need them to tell the entire world what our day-after plan is. But I think it's important that they let us know some of the details on a private basis," Ms Slotkin said.

US officials do not believe the Taleban could be relied upon to prevent Al-Qaeda from again plotting attacks against the United States from Afghan soil.

The United Nations said in a report in January there were as many as 500 Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and that the Taleban maintained a close relationship with the Islamist extremist group.

As he steps down, Gen Miller, 60, has spent longer on the ground than any of the previous generals to command the war.

He had a close call in 2018 when a rogue Afghan bodyguard in Kandahar province opened fire in and killed a powerful Afghan police chief standing near Miller. A US brigadier general was wounded as were other Americans, but Gen Miller emerged unscathed.

After Gen Miller leaves the post, the Pentagon has engineered a transition that will allow a series of generals to carry on with supporting the Afghan security forces, mostly from overseas.

Beyond Gen McKenzie's overwatch from Florida, a Qatar-based brigadier general, Curtis Buzzard, will focus on administering funding support for the Afghan security forces - including aircraft maintenance support.

In Kabul, Navy Rear Admiral Peter Vasely will lead a newly created US Forces Afghanistan-Forward, focusing on protecting the embassy and airport.

Vasely, as a two-star admiral, is higher ranked than usual for a US embassy-based post. But a US defense official added that Afghanistan was a "very unique situation." "There's no comparable diplomatic security situation in the world with what we're going to establish," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Still, what happens next in Afghanistan appears to be increasingly out of America's control.

Biden acknowledged on Thursday that Afghanistan's future was far from certain but said the Afghan people must decide their own fate.

"I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome," he said.

About 2,400 US service members have been killed in America's longest war - and many thousands wounded.