A United States Pentagon official says “small harassing attacks” by the Taliban in Afghanistan have not had a significant impact on the ongoing US and NATO troop withdrawal from the country.
The statement from Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby came shortly after the US officially began its troop withdrawal on Saturday.
“What we’ve seen are some small harassing attacks over the course of the weekend that have not had any significant impact, certainly not on our people or our resources there and bases,” Kirby told reporters on Monday.
“We’ve seen nothing thus far that has affected the drawdown, or had any significant impact on the mission at hand in Afghanistan,” he said.
President Joe Biden announced on April 13 that all US troops – which at the time numbered as many as 3,500 – will leave Afghanistan by September 11.
Officials soon after announced that the approximately 7,000 troops in the country as part of a NATO coalition would also leave.
Biden has said the US withdrawal would not be “conditions-based”, meaning the pullout is meant to continue regardless of developments on the ground.
In recent weeks, the Taliban has stepped up its attacks against the US-backed Afghan government, raising the prospect of attacks on US forces.
Meanwhile, fighting in the first quarter of 2021 saw 573 Afghan civilians killed and 1,210 wounded, a 29-percent increase from the previous year, according to the United Nations.
Kirby said the US military will maintain its ability to respond to attacks throughout the pullout, telling reporters that General Austin Miller, the US commander in Afghanistan, “certainly has at his disposal response options to make sure that he’s protecting our troops and our people”.
One incident, an attack on a military airfield in Kandahar used by US forces, was previously dismissed by a US spokesman as “ineffective indirect fire” that resulted in no injuries.
On Saturday, as its forces began the withdrawal, the US military launched a “precision strike” against the source of that fire, officials said.
More than 100 Afghan security forces personnel have been killed in recent weeks as fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government forces has raged in the wake of the US announcement.
The fighting has particularly seen an uptick since May 1 – the initial deadline reached between former US President Donald Trump and the Taliban for the US troop withdrawal.
The Taliban has vowed reprisal for Washington’s choice not to meet that date.
As Kirby spoke to reporters on Monday, Afghan security forces were fighting back widescale Taliban attacks in southern Helmand province, Reuters news agency reported.
The attacks included three major offensives and targeted checkpoints around the outskirts of Lashkar Gah.
Afghan security forces launched air strikes and deployed elite commando forces to the area to push back the fighters, but the clashes were continuing on Tuesday, Attaullah Afghan, the head of Helmand’s provincial council, told Reuters.
Hundreds of families had been displaced by the fighting, he added.
‘All that will be gone’
The US withdrawal comes amid wider concerns the Afghan forces are ill-equipped to continue the fight against the Taliban group, which was removed from power after foreign forces invaded nearly 20 years ago but still controls large swaths of the country.
While President Hamid Karzai has said the government is “ready” to continue the fight following the withdrawal, at least one top US military official has questioned whether Afghan forces will be able to hold the territory they currently control.
In April, General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of Central Command which directs forces in Afghanistan, voiced “concern” about Afghan forces no longer having boots-on-the-ground assistance from foreign forces, including for intelligence, firepower, and aircraft support.
“All that will be gone,” he told legislators on the US Senate Committee in April.
On Monday, Kirby also noted that the Pentagon was “well aware” of the risks many Afghans who worked for the US and coalition forces face as the Taliban grows in power and threatens to seize control in Kabul.
He said US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is in talks with other officials “about how we meet our obligations to them.”