The current focus for US forces in Afghanistan and their NATO partners is the withdrawal of their troops, scheduled to be complete by September 11, then priority will shift to helping Afghan security forces from “over the horizon”, top US military officials said Thursday.
“The Afghan security forces will play the major role in stopping the Taliban and I know we, what we’re seeing unfold is what we expected to unfold – increased pressure,” said US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
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There have been about 80-100 Taliban attacks against Afghan troops every day for the past year, while there has been none against US forces, General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said alongside Austin at a Pentagon briefing.
The US withdrawal is part of a deal signed by the administration of former US President Donald Trump and the Taliban in February 2020 that mandated foreign forces would leave Afghanistan in exchange for security guarantees by the Taliban, and that the group would negotiate with the elected Afghan government.
US officials and the Afghan government have alleged the Taliban have not held up its part of the deal. According to the agreement, the withdrawal was supposed to be complete on May 1. Last month, US President Joe Biden abandoned a conditions-based approach to the conflict and ordered all military forces out by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks on Washington and New York that initiated the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
So far, the US military has closed a base in Helmand province, the equivalent of 60 transport planes have departed the country and 1,300 pieces of equipment will be either destroyed or given to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), Milley said.
On Thursday, Taliban fighters captured a key dam in southern Kandahar province that provides irrigation, power and drinking water, the latest in a series of the group’s attacks, including an offensive in Helmand province, since May 1.
US contractors will also withdraw with the troops, which could hamper the fledgeling Afghan Air Force. Milley said it currently carries out 80-90 percent of all air raids in support of Afghan ground forces. The bulk of maintenance on its planes and helicopters is done by international contractors, and how to continue upkeep without them is “one of the key questions”, Milley said, “that’s going to be dependent on the conditions and security conditions on the ground.”
“The intent is to keep the Afghan Air Force in the air, and to provide them with continuing maintenance,” Milley said.
He also said “dire predictions” of a Taliban win or that Kabul will fall are “not a foregone conclusion”.
Once the withdrawal is complete, the US will continue to support Afghan forces with funding and logistics based outside the country, Austin said.
“We will remain partners with the Afghan government, with the Afghan military, and certainly we hope through our continued support, the Afghan security forces can be effective. They have a pretty significant capability, but it’s going to, we expect that this will be a challenge,” Austin said.