KABUL, Afghanistan — The top American general in Afghanistan stepped down on Monday, a symbolic moment as the United States nears the end of its 20-year-old war and Taliban fighters sweep across the country.
At a muted ceremony at U.S. and NATO military headquarters in Kabul, Gen. Austin S. Miller ended his nearly three-year term as commander. His duties will be filled by two officials. Rear Adm. Peter G. Vasely, who recently served as operations director for the Defense Intelligence Agency, will take charge of the security mission at the United States Embassy in Kabul. He will report to Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, who will take over the broader military mission in Afghanistan.
“It’s important for me to say farewell,” said General Miller, who is expected to retire after a 38-year career in the U.S. Army. The ceremony, which lasted less than an hour, was attended by high-ranking Afghan officials, including Abdullah Abdullah, who is leading peace negotiations. “Our job is now just not to forget,” General Miller said.
General McKenzie, who arrived in Kabul on Monday, spoke afterward, assuring those present that the Americans were not abandoning the Afghan people in such dire times.
“It’s not the end of the story,” General McKenzie said. “It’s the end of a chapter.”
Admiral Vasely brings a background in special operations and intelligence missions, and used to be a member of SEAL Team 6, the secretive U.S. Navy unit best known for killing Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda.
The ceremony came on the heels of a Taliban military offensive that has taken swaths of the country, sometimes without firing a shot. The campaign, which has displaced tens of thousands and wounded or killed hundreds of civilians, is a constant indicator of the United States-led mission’s inability to groom an effective Afghan military despite spending billions of dollars on the effort since the U.S. invasion in 2001.
Despite thousands of airstrikes, increased civilian casualties and short-term tactical gains, it is unclear how successful the U.S. military effort was: The final agreement between the insurgent group and the United States in February 2020 clearly favored the Taliban, and the Afghan government was completely cut out of the deal.
The Taliban have seized control of more than 160 of the country’s roughly 400 districts in the last two months, and hundreds of Afghan troops have surrendered, giving up their U.S.-supplied equipment and fleeing, sometimes into neighboring countries. Key provincial cities in both the north and south are under siege, and Afghan government counterattacks have had limited success.
U.S. intelligence assessments, though often wrong, have included dire warnings that the government could collapse, opening the door for the insurgents to take over.
“We’re trying to recover and reorganize,” Hamdullah Mohib, the Afghan national security adviser, told reporters after the ceremony.
Addressing fears that the Taliban could dominate the country by force in the coming months, he was blunt: “There will be no takeover,” he said.
In a desperate bid to hold off the Taliban, the Afghan government has encouraged the rise of local militias, a chilling throwback to the brutal civil war of the 1990s.
“Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if it continues on the trajectory it’s on,” General Miller told reporters during a news conference last month. Though the past 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan could be seen as a civil war, a return to a fractious era of warlords and armed fiefs has long been feared.
President Biden promised an end to the United States’ longest foreign war in April while trying to assure the Afghan government that it was not being abandoned as Taliban forces surged across the country.
For now, the American military mission will continue through Aug. 31, though most troops and equipment have already left. Around 650 soldiers will remain to defend the American Embassy and the country’s airport alongside a contingent of Turkish forces.
There are also around 250 Pentagon contractors still in the country, mostly helping the Afghan Air Force. At the peak, there were 18,000 contractors. Afghan pilots and aircraft crews heavily rely on the foreign support to keep things running, and even now they are stretched to the breaking point as they face the Taliban alone.
But even with a residual force and Afghan officials’ hope that American airstrikes on the Taliban would continue into the future, Mr. Biden made it clear that the U.S. military mission in the country was ending.
“Let me ask those who wanted us to stay: How many more?” Mr. Biden said in remarks in the East Room of the White House on Thursday. “How many thousands more of America’s daughters and sons are you willing to risk? How long would you have them stay?”
The president insisted that the United States had not abandoned the thousands of Afghans who served as interpreters or provided other assistance to the American military and diplomatic missions.
Mr. Biden said evacuations were underway, and he promised those Afghans that there was “a home for you in the United States, if you so choose. We will stand with you, just as you stood with us.”
And on Monday, the American Embassy in Kabul resumed immigrant visa interviews after a lockdown because of the coronavirus.
In a sign of the Pentagon’s growing concern that the deteriorating security situation could hamper efforts to relocate the former Afghan interpreters, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has created a high-level team to coordinate broader military assistance for the State Department, the agency leading the effort.
Until now, the Pentagon’s role has been primarily to identify countries that could support the Afghan visa applicants and their families for a period of months if needed.
But the Defense Department wants to be ready to provide State Department with additional support, such as military transportation, if needed, a senior Pentagon official said. The Pentagon team, which will hold its first meeting on Monday, will be led by Garry Reid, a senior department official.
Though the future is uncertain, peace talks between Taliban and Afghan negotiators continue in Qatar, though infrequently. Last week, Taliban and some Afghan political figures met in Iran’s capital to discuss an end to the conflict, but concluded with little progress, officials said.
The Taliban has carried out a diplomatic blitz in the region, traveling to Russia and Turkmenistan, following the group’s recent advances across the country.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.