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Top U.S. commander in Afghanistan steps down, marking a symbolic end to 20 years of war

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/12/2021 Dan Lamothe
Gen. Austin "Scott” Miller speaks Monday during an official handover ceremony in Kabul. © Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images Gen. Austin "Scott” Miller speaks Monday during an official handover ceremony in Kabul.

KABUL — 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.

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Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, who leads U.S. Central Command, has assumed Miller’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.


Video: In symbolic end to war, U.S. general steps down from Afghanistan command (Reuters)

“I think, certainly, the provincial capitals are at risk, and we’ll see how that shakes out over the next few weeks,” McKenzie told reporters aboard 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.

a man wearing a hat: Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, attends Monday's ceremony in Kabul. © Ahmad Seir/AP Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, attends Monday's ceremony in Kabul. Afghan government could fall within six months of U.S. military withdrawal, new intelligence assessment says

The rapid disintegration of security amid the withdrawal has put both Biden and the Afghan government on the defensive.

Last week, Biden said in remarks at the White House that he and his advisers anticipated problems but that focusing on them has been used for years as a rationale to extend the military mission while U.S. troops remained in harm’s way.

“Let me ask: How many more — how many thousands more Americans, daughters and sons — are you willing to risk?” Biden said. “I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”

On Monday, Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, sought to reassure fellow Afghans. In remarks to reporters after the U.S. military ceremony, Mohib said that recent incidents in which the Afghan government could not resupply its soldiers fighting the Taliban were “unfortunate.”

“The problem was being able to reach them,” Mohib said. “Our air assets were not enough to reach every place throughout the country. So we’ve been working on strategizing where we need to defend the most, and reaching them.”

Mohib said the U.S. withdrawal has left some vacuums, and that Afghan forces are trying to fill them.

McKenzie said the United States is “no longer in the business” of carrying out military logistics for the Afghans. “We’re not going to be there at the lower levels to do it for them,” he added. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Biden administration not planning airstrikes against Taliban after withdrawal a group of people walking down the street: Local men on the outskirts of Herat province have taken up arms to support Afghan security forces in their fight against Taliban. © Jalil Ahmad/Reuters Local men on the outskirts of Herat province have taken up arms to support Afghan security forces in their fight against Taliban.

The war’s costs have been staggering. About 2,400 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan, with an additional 20,000 wounded, according to Pentagon statistics. Nearly 800,000 service members have rotated through Afghanistan on assignment at least once, with nearly 30,000 of them deploying at least five times each, according to Pentagon data provided to The Washington Post.

Some 47,245 civilians, 66,000 Afghan soldiers and police, and 51,000 opposition fighters also have been killed, according to a study released by Brown University this year.

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.”

Ezzatullah Mehrdad in Kabul and Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.

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