In Symbolic End to War, U.S. General to Step Down From Command in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan (Reuters) -
An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at the check post at Mahipar, on the Jalalabad-Kabul highway, Afghanistan, July 8. (Reuters/Mohammad Ismail)

The U.S. general leading the war in Afghanistan, Austin Miller, will relinquish command on Monday, U.S. officials say, in a symbolic end to America’s longest conflict even as Taliban insurgents gain momentum.

But he also cautioned that the Taliban, 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 Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

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

Even after Miller steps down, McKenzie will still be able to authorize U.S. airstrikes against the Taliban through Aug. 31 in support of Ghani’s Western-backed government.

But after that, the Marine general said, when it came to U.S. strikes in Afghanistan, his focus will shift squarely to counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida and Islamic State.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. will be able to detect a future al-Qaida 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,” Slotkin said.

U.S. officials do not believe the Taliban could be relied upon to prevent al-Qaida 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-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan and that the Taliban maintained a close relationship with the Islamist extremist group.

As he steps down, 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 and killed a powerful Afghan police chief standing near Miller. A U.S. brigadier general was wounded as were other Americans but Miller emerged unscathed.

After 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 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 U.S. Forces Afghanistan-Forward, focusing on protecting the embassy and airport.

Vasely, as a two-star admiral, is higher ranked than usual for a U.S. embassy-based post. But a U.S. 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 U.S. service members have been killed in America’s longest war – and many thousands wounded.