The United States' top commander in Afghanistan handed over command to a U.S.-based successor on July 12 in another step toward ending the 20-year U.S. military engagement there, as Taliban militants make further territorial gains.
General Austin Scott Miller relinquished command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in a Kabul ceremony to U.S. Central Command (CentCom) head Marine General Frank McKenzie, who will operate from Florida.
McKenzie will oversee possible air strikes to defend Afghan National Defense and Security Forces troops at least until the planned completion of the U.S. withdrawal on August 31.
The symbolic handover comes with the Taliban having captured around one-third of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts since the start of the international military withdrawal on May 1, raising fears that the government in Kabul could collapse.
Militants gains have been particularly strong in northern Afghan areas bordering Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, reportedly prompting an exceptional visit by Taliban representatives to Ashgabat at Turkmenistan's request on July 10.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters were laying siege to the provincial capital of Ghazni in central Afghanistan on July 12, the latest city to be threatened by militants.
"The situation in Ghazni city is very critical...the Taliban use civilian houses as hideouts and fire upon the Afghan security forces, this makes the situation very difficult for the Afghan army to operate against the Taliban," said Hassan Rezayi, a member of Ghazni's provincial council.
U.S. President Joe Biden announced in April that American troops would withdraw by September 11. On July 8, Biden brought forward the deadline saying the pullout will be completed by August 31.
Inter-Afghan negotiations in Qatar between the Taliban and the government have faltered since they began last fall, with little or no progress.
Fighting is also continuing in the southern province of Kandahar, where the Taliban traditionally has had a strong presence, locals said.
"Afghan security forces, including special forces, are fighting the Taliban and trying to push them back," in Kandahar, said Hamidzai Lalay, a former lawmaker who is fighting with armed men against the Taliban in Kandahar.
Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said the situation in Kandahar was "completely under control."
On July 11, the Taliban attacked Taloqan, the capital of Takhar Province, on the border with Tajikistan.
"The enemy's offensive attacks were repelled, and they suffered heavy and unprecedented casualties, as a result of which 55 enemy soldiers were killed and 90 were wounded," said Takhar Governor Abdullah Qarluq.
Qarluq’s claims could not be confirmed.
The Defense Ministry said it conducted air strikes against Taliban positions on the outskirts of Taloqan, claiming it killed more than a dozen militants.
Last week, Taliban fighters entered the capital of the western province of Badghis, seizing police and security facilities and attempting to take over the governor's office before special forces pushed them back.
Meanwhile, in Laskar Gah, in the southern province of Helmand, three people were killed in a roadside bomb explosion on July 12, officials said. All three were members of the same family, officials said.