The top U.S. general in Afghanistan stepped down on Monday as Taliban fighters continue to make gains across the war-torn country.
The Biden administration has said the official end date of the U.S. troop withdrawal will be August 31, but Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller’s relinquishing of command is a symbolic end to the troop pullout.
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) chief Gen. Frank McKenzie arrived in Kabul early Monday to assume command of the remaining forces in a “short” transfer of command ceremony that includes a flag handover, a U.S. defense official told VOA.
The withdrawal is “more than 90 percent” complete, according to U.S. Central Command. Most of the American troops and equipment have left, with fewer than 1,000 troops remaining to protect the U.S. embassy and help with securing the international airport in Kabul.
“Yesterday versus today versus tomorrow, there’s no significant difference in terms of the way we are operating in Afghanistan,” the defense official added on Monday.
McKenzie already had authority over American military operations in Afghanistan and several other neighboring nations as head of CENTCOM, and he will continue his oversight from his headquarters in the United States while two-star officer Rear Adm. Peter Vasely helps oversee the mission on the ground.
Miller was the longest-serving senior U.S. military officer of the Afghan war. He served for about three of the nearly 20 years of U.S. military involvement, overseeing the drawdown after the Trump administration’s February 2020 deal with the Taliban and the final withdrawal called for by President Joe Biden in April.
McKenzie will still be able to order U.S. air strikes against the Taliban in support of the Afghan government through the end of August. But after the withdrawal’s completion, U.S. strikes in Afghanistan will solely support counter-terrorism operations against al Qaida and Islamic State, he told VOA in a recent interview.
On Sunday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told the “Fox News Sunday” show the U.S. is “watching with deep concern” as Taliban insurgents take control of more and more territory in Afghanistan while American forces are quickly returning home under President Joe Biden’s withdrawal orders.
“This is the time for [Afghan government troops] to step up and defend their country,” Kirby said. “This is a moment of responsibility.”
Taliban insurgents say they already control 85% of the country, a contested claim. But Kirby did not dispute a Fox News assessment that 13 million Afghans live under Taliban control, 10 million under Afghan government rule and 9 million in contested regions.
Since the official start of the withdrawal on May 1, the Taliban has nearly tripled the number of districts it controls, from about 75 to now more than 210 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal.
U.S. troops first entered the country in 2001 to overrun bases where al-Qaida terrorists trained to launch the September 11 hijacked airliner attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Biden last week staunchly defended the U.S. troop withdrawal, even in the face of Taliban advances.
"We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build," Biden said at the White House. "It's the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country."
He said the U.S. went to Afghanistan to bring former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden through "the gates of hell” and to eliminate al-Qaida's capacity to deal more attacks against the United States.
“We accomplished both of those,” Biden said. “That's why I believe that this is the right decision, and quite frankly overdue."
Ken Bredemeier contributed to this story