WASHINGTON (AP) – The Taliban appear to have “strategic momentum” in the struggle for control of Afghanistan as they exert increasing pressure on key cities and set the stage for a crucial phase in the coming weeks as American forces retreat conclude, the leading US military officer said on Wednesday.
“This will now be a test of the will and leadership of the Afghan people – the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government,” General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a news conference at the Pentagon.
The Pentagon says the US withdrawal is 95% complete and will be completed by August 31st. And while the Biden administration has pledged to continue providing financial and logistical support to the Afghan armed forces after August, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the focus of U.S. military efforts will be counter terrorist threats, not the Taliban.
Austin, along with Milley, said the US was “keeping an eye on” al-Qaeda, the extremist network whose use of Afghanistan as a haven for planning the September 11, 2001 attacks was the reason why US forces invaded Afghanistan that year 2001 was.
“Our main focus in the future is to ensure that violence and terrorism cannot be exported from Afghanistan to our home country, and this will give us the ability not only to monitor this but also to address it when it comes up,” Austin said and added that in 2020 the Taliban pledged not to provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda in the future.
“We expect them to honor this commitment. If you want legitimacy in the future, I think you have to consider that. That’s one way to earn it, so we’ll see what happens. “He reiterated his view that there is a” medium risk “that al-Qaeda will regain the ability within about two years of the US withdrawal To launch attacks against the west.
“But here, too, there are a number of things that could speed it up or slow it down a little,” he added.
Milley said the Taliban now control about half of the 419 district centers in Afghanistan, and while they do not yet have to capture any of the country’s 34 provincial capitals, they are pressuring about half of them. As the Taliban occupy more territory, Afghan security forces are consolidating their positions in protecting key population centers, including Kabul, he said.
“The Taliban confiscated a significant amount of territory over the course of six, eight, ten months, so the dynamic – it seems – seems to be some sort of strategic dynamic in the Taliban,” Milley said.
Milley said that while the Taliban are trying to create the impression that their victory over the US-backed Kabul government is inevitable, he believes the Afghan military and police have the training and equipment to prevail . He said he would not rule out a negotiated political solution with the Taliban, nor would he rule out “a full takeover by the Taliban”.
“I don’t think the final is still written,” he said.