The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan stepped down from his post on Monday at a ceremony in Kabul, marking a symbolic end to 20 years of American military involvement in the country.
President Joe Biden said the U.S. withdrawal will be complete by Aug. 31 leaving Afghan forces to battle the resurgent Taliban, who have gained territory across the country.
Gen. Austin ‘Scott’ Miller, who has led U.S. and NATO forces in the country for the past three years, passed command to another four-star general, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command. He will operate from his headquarters in Tampa, Florida.
Miller said: ‘The people of Afghanistan will be in my heart and on my mind for the rest of my life.’
He also added that, ‘Our job now is not to forget,’ those who sacrificed their lives.
U.S. Army Gen. Scott Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, left, hands over his command to Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, right, at a ceremony at Resolute Support headquarters, in Kabul, Afghanistan
Gen. Miller has led U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan for the past three years. The U.S. is a step closer to ending a 20-year military presence that became known as its ‘forever war,’ as Taliban insurgents continue to gain territory across the country.
Miller sat between McKenzie and Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s National Reconciliation Council, right, during the change of leader ceremony
Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers stand guard on a road side check point in Herat, the provincial capital of Herat province neighboring Iran
For his part McKenzie told Afghan forces: ‘You can count on our support in the dangerous and difficult days ahead.’
During his journey to Kabul he told reporters that the Taliban appeared intent on a ‘military victory’ over the Afghan government.
But he said the insurgents would meet greater resistance if it tried to take Kabul, with its sophisticated defenses and greater population than when the Taliban controlled 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,’ he told reporters traveling with him on a military aircraft over the Atlantic, according to the Washington Post.
‘I think the Afghans are determined to fight very hard for those provincial capitals.’
But he said their ultimate aim may be to seek a political settlement with Afghan officials.
The handover was held at the heavily fortified Operation Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul amid more reports of Taliban advances.
Fighters surrounded the central city of Ghazni, officials said on Monday, as insurgents continued their push.
Clashes were also reported in the southern province of Kandahar, a Taliban heartland.
‘Since the past four days, armed Taliban are attacking…Kandahar city from the western direction,’ Hamidzai Lalay, a former member of Parliament who is fighting with militiamen against the Taliban, told Reuters.
‘Afghan security forces, including special forces, are fighting the Taliban and trying to push them back.’
The Taliban and the government have been meeting in Qatar’s capital Doha for peace talks but they have made little progress.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have captured at least 150 of the country’s 400 districts in the past two months.
And last week, they claimed two border crossings – with Iran and Turkmenistan.
Militiamen loyal to Ata Mohammad Noor, chief of Jamiat-e-Islami and a powerful northern warlord, stand guard at their office in Mazar-e-Sharif north of Kabul, Afghanistan
The Taliban claim to be in control of 85 per cent of Afghanistan, including its main border crossing point with Iran at Islam Qala (left) – though observers say the true figure is 30 per cent
In an interview with the German newspaper Bild, a Taliban judge offered a glimpse of what life would be like under Islamist rule.
Gul Rahim, 38, described cutting hands and legs off thieves, issuing permits for women to leave their homes and toppling walls on gay men as a form of execution in his Taliban-controlled district in central Afghanistan.
He added that his aim is to introduce the Sharia punishments across the whole of the country if the Taliban can re-take control once America departs, saying: ‘That was our goal and always will be.’
Their propaganda push has included boasts that they control 85 percent of territory, although Afghan officials say the true figure is much lower and that they have been unable to seize and hold provincial capital.
Even so, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told CNN on Friday: ‘What we have seen is a deteriorating security situation on the ground, no questions about that, that the Taliban continues to take district centers.’
The worsening situation has heaped pressure on Biden for his decision to withdraw. Last week he delivered a defense of his reasoning.
‘Let me ask: How many more, how many thousands more Americans, daughters and sons are you willing to risk?’
‘I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome,’ he said.
Responding to reporters questions after his speech he said he did not believe a Taliban takeover of the country was inevitable.
His administration is still grappling with unresolved questions, such as how to fulfill a promise to relocate thousands of interpreters who worked with American troops.
And will the U.S. continue to provide air support to Afghan troops once the withdrawal is complete?
The administration has said it will carry out airstrikes against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State but will have to base aircraft hours away in the Persian Gulf until it can reach agreements with neighboring countries.