The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan stepped down Monday at a ceremony in the capital of Kabul.
Gen. Scott Miller transferred authority to Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command. McKenzie, also a four-star general, will operate from U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida. He will assume authority to conduct possible airstrikes in defense of Afghan government forces, at least until the U.S. withdrawal concludes by Aug. 31.
The handover took place in the heavily fortified Resolute Support headquarters in the heart of Kabul at a time of rapid territorial gains by Taliban insurgents across Afghanistan.
In a flag-passing ceremony, Miller remembered the U.S. and NATO troops killed in the nearly 20-year war as well as the thousands of Afghans who lost their lives.
He warned that relentless violence across Afghanistan is making a political settlement increasingly difficult. The outgoing commander said he has told Taliban officials “it’s important that the military sides set the conditions for a peaceful and political settlement in Afghanistan. ... But we know that with that violence, it would be very difficult to achieve a political settlement.”
Only a scant force remains after U.S. troops departed the Bagram Air Force Base last week.
The Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces, mostly funded by the United States and NATO, have put up resistance in some parts of the country, but overwhelmingly Afghan government troops appear to have abandoned the fight.
In recent weeks, the Taliban have gained several strategic districts, particularly along the borders with Iran, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
The Taliban control more than one-third of Afghanistan's 421 districts and district centers. A Taliban claim that they control 85 percent of the districts is widely seen as exaggerated.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told Fox News Sunday U.S. officials were watching the situation in Afghanistan with "deep concern."
Kirby said Pentagon officials were working with the Afghan military and encouraging them to defend their country. He emphasized even though the U.S. will not have ground troops in the country, American support for the Afghan people remains a number one priority.
"We are not walking away from this relationship," he said. "We're going to continue to support them from a financial perspective, logistical perspective, and certainly aircraft maintenance."
U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), an Air Force veteran who flew missions in Afghanistan -- called the U.S. pullout "a crushing defeat."
"The Taliban have outlasted the will of the United States," he said. It was not a hot war, really. It was basically a peacekeeping operation and we may have to go back now. It is a crushing defeat and I'm really sad about it, honestly."
During the 20-year war, some 800,000 service members served at least one tour in the country.
About 2,400 U.S. troops died and an additional 21,000 were wounded.
The U.S. military trained more than 300,000 Afghan troops during that period in order to keep the country secure and help them combat the Taliban.