By Phil Stewart
KABUL (Reuters) – US general leading the war in Afghanistan, Austin Miller, will step down from command on Monday, US officials say, in a symbolic end to America’s longest conflict, even as Taliban insurgents gain momentum.
Miller will become the last four-star U.S. general on the ground in Afghanistan at a ceremony in Kabul ahead of the formal end of the military mission there on Aug. 31, a date set by President Joe Biden as he searches liberate the Americans. of the war of two decades.
While the ceremony may offer a sense of closure for American veterans who served in Afghanistan, it is unclear whether it will succeed in reassuring the Western-backed Afghan government as the Taliban press ground offensives that have given them control of more territory than at any time since. then. the conflict began.
US Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, whose Florida-based Central Command oversees US forces in hotspots like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, flew to Kabul to underscore future US assistance to Afghan security forces.
“It’s true that it’s going to be very different than it was in the past. I’m not going to minimize that,” McKenzie told a small group of reporters. “But we are going to support them.”
But he also warned that the Taliban, in his opinion, appeared to be seeking “a military solution” to a war that the United States has tried unsuccessfully to end with a peace agreement between the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
He warned that provincial capitals were at risk, but noted that US-backed Afghan security forces “are determined to fight very hard for those provincial capitals.”
Even after Miller resigns, McKenzie will still be able to authorize US airstrikes against the Taliban until Aug. 31 in support of Ghani’s Western-backed government.
But after that, the Marine Corps general said in regards to the US attacks in Afghanistan, his focus will shift directly to counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Gathering enough intelligence on the ground to prevent another 9/11-style attack could become an increasing challenge, as the US intelligence network weakens with the US withdrawal and Afghan troops lose territory.
Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former senior Pentagon official, said many lawmakers were still seeking answers from the Biden administration on how the United States will be able to spot a future al Qaeda plot against the United States.
“I don’t need you to tell the whole world what our plan is for the next day. But I think it’s important that you let us know some of the details privately,” said Slotkin.
US officials do not believe the Taliban can be trusted to prevent al Qaeda from re-planning attacks on the United States from Afghan soil.
The United Nations said in a January report that there were up to 500 al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and that the Taliban had a close relationship with the extremist Islamist group.
GENERAL LONGER SERVICE
When he retires, the 60-year-old Miller has spent more time on the ground than any of the previous generals to command the war.
He had a close call in 2018 when a rebel Afghan bodyguard in Kandahar province opened fire and killed a powerful Afghan police chief who was close to Miller. An American brigadier general was wounded like other Americans, but Miller was unharmed.
After Miller leaves office, the Pentagon has designed a transition that will allow a number of generals to continue to support the Afghan security forces, primarily from abroad.
Beyond McKenzie’s supervision from Florida, Qatar-based Brigadier General Curtis Buzzard will focus on managing financial support for Afghan security forces, including aircraft maintenance support.
In Kabul, Navy Rear Admiral Peter Vasely will lead the newly created US Forces Afghanistan-Forward, which will focus on protecting the embassy and the airport.
Vasely, as a two-star admiral, is ranked higher than usual for a position at the US embassy, but a US defense official added that Afghanistan was a “very unique situation.”
“There is no comparable diplomatic security situation in the world with what we are going to establish,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, what happens next in Afghanistan appears to be increasingly out of the control of the United States.
Biden acknowledged Thursday that Afghanistan’s future was far from secure, but said the Afghan people must decide their own destiny.
“I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan without a reasonable expectation of achieving a different result,” he said.
Approximately 2,400 US servicemen have died in America’s longest war and many thousands have been injured.