By Phil Stewart
KABUL (Reuters) - 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.
Miller will become America's last four-star general on the ground in Afghanistan in a ceremony in Kabul that will come ahead of a formal end to the military mission there on Aug. 31, a date set by President Joe Biden as he looks to extricate American from the two-decade-old war.
While the ceremony may offer some sense of closure for U.S. veterans who served in Afghanistan, it's unclear whether it will succeed in reassuring the Western-backed Afghan government as the Taliban press ground offensives that have given them control of more territory than at any time since the conflict began.
U.S. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, whose Florida-based Central Command oversees U.S. forces in hot-spots including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, flew into Kabul to underscore America's future assistance to Afghan security forces.
"Admittedly, it's going to be very different than it was in the past. I'm not going to minimize that," McKenzie told a small group of reporters. "But we're going to support them."
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 authorise U.S. air strikes 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 counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and that the Taliban maintained a close relationship with the Islamist extremist group.
LONGEST SERVING GENERAL
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 in 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.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Robert Birsel)