Kabul: General Scott Miller, who has commanded US and NATO troops in Afghanistan since 2018, earlier Monday handed over command of any remaining US operations in Afghanistan to US Central Command chief General Frank McKenzie, who will oversee the end of the withdrawal from his headquarters in Florida, and listed out his out priorities for the region.
While the Biden administration has said the withdrawal will officially conclude August 31, Miller’s departure marked a symbolic end to America’s longest war amid surging Taliban violence. “This ceremony marks an important milestone in the transition of our involvement in Afghanistan, but it’s not the end of the story. It’s rather the end of a chapter,” McKenzie had said at a change-of-command ceremony in Kabul.
In fact, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby insisted that Miller had and McKenzie now has the authority to call in airstrikes to assist Afghan forces battling the Taliban. “It would be wrong to report that there’s been no support to Afghan forces in the field during this drawdown,” Kirby said. But Kirby declined to provide a specific example of U.S. forces conducting airstrikes in support of Afghan forces since the withdrawal started. “What we’re trying to do is protect our options going forward to make sure that the rest of this drawdown can be safe and orderly, and so we are being — I’ll just say it — we’re being fairly miserly about the kind of operational information we’re putting out there,” Kirby said. “I know that’s an adjustment from how over the last 20 years we’ve talked about this war and our involvement in it, but this is a delicate time.”
McKenzie told reporters traveling with him over the weekend that U.S. forces had conducted one strike against the Taliban in recent days, but that the ability to strike is limited because of a lack of U.S. personnel on the ground and intelligence to identify whether a strike would cause civilian casualties, according to The Washington Post.
Mckenzie also said he will remain focused on four things, with the first being to protect U.S. diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. He will also look to enable the safe operation of the airport in Kabul. He will continue to provide appropriate advice and assistance to Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. Finally, he will support counterterrorism efforts.
In addition to McKenzie, Rear Adm. Peter Vasely will lead the troops protecting the U.S. Embassy, a mission the Pentagon has dubbed U.S. Forces Afghanistan Forward. Miller spoke after transitioning command over to McKenzie. “It is important that the military sides set the conditions for a peaceful political settlement in Afghanistan,” he said. “We can all see the violence that is taking place across the country. But we know that with that violence, what is difficult to achieve is that settlement. What I tell the Taliban is they are responsible, too. The violence that is going on is against the will of the Afghan people. It needs to stop.”
Due to the security issues, long-term security at the airport, following the U.S. departure from Afghanistan, is of importance and will be handled by Turkey. Discussions between the U.S. and Turkey about what that will look like are ongoing and have been “productive,” Kirby said. “We are still in discussions with the Turks about what security at the airport is going to look like,” he said. “We’re grateful for their willingness to lead this effort. … As President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan said, we’re still hammering out the scope of what that is. And then when we get that all solidified, we’ll be able to talk in more detail.” “We certainly welcome Turkey’s constructive role when it comes to the withdrawal, and the broader safety and security situation in Afghanistan,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price also said. He further welcomed Ankara’s “support for the diplomatic process” in Afghanistan.
The U.S. and other nations have diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. Ensuring that Hamid Karzai International Airport remains open and secure is critical to the successful operations of those diplomatic missions. “The president has made it very clear we’re going to maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul,” Kirby said. “We know that in order to do that, you have to have adequate security at the airport. We are very aware of the need for adequate security at the airport, so as to protect our diplomats and the work that they need to do in Afghanistan.”
However, the Taliban on Monday reiterated its demand that Turkey’s military forces leave Afghanistan along with NATO and US forces departing the country this summer and said that Turkish forces would be considered an occupying force and the group would “act against” them if they do not withdraw with the rest of NATO’s troops, which are set to leave the country by the end of August.
But, Kirby rejected the idea that a Taliban victory is “inevitable” and stressed that U.S. officials “continue to believe that the most sustainable, the most responsible end and solution to this war is a political one, one through negotiated diplomacy.” The Taliban believe that they can win the war in Afghanistan militarily, the Pentagon’s top spokesperson said on Monday. “It is clear from what they are doing that they believe there is a military solution to the end of this conflict. They clearly have governance designs of a national character because you can see it in the districts that they are trying to challenge and/or have occupied,” he added.
Following the transition, McKenzie met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. President Ghani met with the US delegation, led by McKenzie, at the Presidential Palace, on Monday afternoon, and discussed the new chapter and cooperation of the US with the ANDSF, including the Afghan Air Force (AAF), within the new chapter of relations.
Also, in an interview with Sputnik Afghanistan, a spokesperson of the Taliban Political Office spoke of the Taliban’s vision for the future government of Afghanistan and what actions could be expected from their organization. Suhail Shaheen, a member of Negotiations Team of the Taliban and Political Office spokesman for International Media, said that after the start of the Intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, both negotiating teams agreed on the procedural issues of the talks and approved them. “Then, both sides proposed their agendas and agreed on the general points of the negotiations. And now we are negotiating the points on which agreement has been reached,” he added.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Monday that moving the US troops from Afghanistan to other Central Asian countries will not address security concerns in the region. So far, no country neighboring Afghanistan has announced its consent to allow the deployment of the US military, Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow following a meeting with his Sudanese counterpart Mariam al-Mahdi.
“I do not think that the appearance of new US military facilities in Central Asia will contribute to the security interests in the region,” Lavrov said. Lavrov recalled that Pakistan and Uzbekistan have publicly stated that they have no plans to provide the US with military bases. As for other bordering states, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Collective Security State Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military bloc, Lavrov added. Under the treaty, they are obliged to get approval of the other signatories for the presence of foreign military forces on their territory, and no CSTO member has requested such approval, the minister said.
“Apart from the obligations under the CSTO, there are purely pragmatic considerations, given that the American leadership in the Pentagon states that they would like to position their military facilities around Afghanistan in order to strike at it if necessary. I do not think that it is in anyone’s interests to become a hostage of such a US policy, becoming a target for a retaliatory strike,” he said. The minister also questioned the goals of the US presence, asking what Washington hoped to achieve with a small presence outside Afghanistan since it had failed to bring about changes with up to 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan at the time.
Meanwhile, Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) Dr. Abdullah Abdullah also met with U.S. CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth F. McKenzie and appreciated U.S.’s continued assistance to the ANDSF.
Abdullah also appreciated former Resolute Support Commander General Scott Miller’s efforts and hoped that the change in responsibility in this phase of new chapter in bilateral relations and cooperation will strengthen and expand joint cooperation between the two country’s security forces. Abdullah spokes about the latest developments and progress in the peace process, reaffirmed Afghan people’s will to achieve a just and lasting peace, warning that no force can impose its will on the Afghan people, and the Taliban should learn from history and seize this opportunity for achieving peace.
General McKenzie assured that the U.S. will continue its joint cooperation with Afghanistan, provide assistance and consultation to the ANDSF, and support the counterterrorism efforts. McKenzie emphasized that Afghanistan’s problem has no military solution and the only proper solution is negotiations, instead of war and violence.