The Pentagon says the turnover of Bagram Airfield to Afghan security forces was a "key milestone" in the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but insisted the U.S. military still has the authority to protect Afghan forces.
The comments from Defense Department spokesman John Kirby on July 2 come amid growing worry about the security situation in Afghanistan, with an uptick in Taliban attacks in some regions.
The head of a Russian-led military alliance that includes several Central Asian nations bordering Afghanistan signaled that Moscow was considering more support for security on the Tajik-Afghan border.
The U.S. military on July 2 vacated Bagram Airfield, a former Soviet base north of Kabul that U.S. forces took over months after the invasion that followed the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The withdrawal moves forward the final pullout that the White House now says will be completed by the end of August.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki says that the United States will continue to provide security systems and humanitarian assistance in the months ahead.
Kirby told reporters that despite the Bagram withdrawal, the U.S. military still has authority to protect Afghan forces.
"Those authorities still exist," Kirby told reporters. He did not give a timeline for when they might end.
President Joe Biden said the troops' departure was on track, but some American forces will still be in Afghanistan in September as part of a "rational drawdown with allies."
The Bagram withdrawal came more than two months ahead of Biden's self-imposed deadline of September 11, the 20th anniversary of the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States that prompted the U.S.-led invasion.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that the exit of all U.S. and NATO forces from Bagram was a "positive step," and called for the "withdrawal of foreign forces from all parts of the country."
Kirby told reporters that an official end to the pullout will not be announced soon because a number of related issues still need to be worked out, including a new U.S. military command structure in Kabul and talks with Turkey on an arrangement for maintaining security at the Kabul airport.
"A safe, orderly drawdown enables us to maintain an ongoing diplomatic presence, support the Afghan people and the government, and prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists that threatens our homeland," Kirby said.
Kirby said that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has approved a new command structure in Afghanistan to transition the U.S. military mission from warfighting to two new objectives -- protecting a continuing U.S. diplomatic presence in Kabul and maintaining liaison with the Afghan military.
Austin's plan calls for the top commander in Afghanistan, Army General Scott Miller, to transfer his combat authorities to the Florida-based head of U.S. Central Command, Marine General Frank McKenzie, before relinquishing his command this month.
Kirby said Miller will remain in command for "a couple of weeks" to prepare for and complete the turnover of his duties to McKenzie and also will be traveling inside and beyond Afghanistan.
The administration is also narrowing options for ensuring the safety of thousands of Afghans whose applications for special visas to immigrate to the United States have yet to be approved. The administration has already said it’s willing to evacuate the Afghans, who worked as interpreters and fulfilled other roles in support of U.S. military, to third countries pending their visa approvals but has yet to determine where.
Bloomberg reported on July 2 that the U.S. State Department had asked the Central Asian nations of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan if they were willing to host Afghans fleeing the country. There was no independent confirmation of that, however.
Russia is watching the security situation in Afghanistan closely, fearing instability in fragile border states like Tajikistan, which already hosts a Russian military base and provides support for border securty.
The chief of the the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance headed by Moscow and encompassing Tajikistan and other Central Asian states, said more needed to be done to help Tajikistan.
"The situation in Afghanistan is worsening. I will not say that it is deteriorating dramatically, no, but, of course, the situation there gives rise to considerable concern," alliance Secretary General Stanislav Zas was quoted by the TASS news agency as saying on July 3.
"There is clear understanding of the need to provide assistance to Tajikistan precisely in ensuring the security of the Tajik-Afghan border," he said.