Kabul: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley downplayed the recent battlefield successes by Taliban in Afghanistan, stressing that most of the district centers controlled by the insurgents were seized before the US military began withdrawing and that no provincial capitals have fallen. “There’s 81 district centers that are currently, we think, are underneath Taliban control. That’s out of 419 district centers,” Milley told the House Armed Services Committee. “There’s no provincial capital that is underneath Taliban control, and there’s 34 of those.
“It is true that the Taliban are sniping at and picking off outposts, and they have seized some district centers,” he continued. “Sixty percent of the 81 were seized last year, and the others since the last two months or so. So yes, we’re concerned, we’re watching it, but there’s a 300,000, plus or minus, military force, Afghanistan army and police force, and it is their job to defend their country,” said Milley.
Testifying alongside Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin acknowledged that Taliban “gains have increased most recently” and that “they have made some gains where they have surrounded some of the provincial capitals,” but also pointed back to Milley’s assessment that no provincial capitals have fallen. Austin and Milley told a Senate hearing last week they believe there is a “medium” risk of terrorist groups regaining strength in Afghanistan, saying it could happen in two years.
Meanwhile, the US intelligence community concluded last week that the government of Afghanistan could collapse as soon as six months after the American military withdrawal from the country is completed, according to officials with knowledge of the new assessment.
American intelligence agencies revised their previously more optimistic estimates as the Taliban swept through northern Afghanistan last week, seizing dozens of districts and surrounding major cities. The new assessment of the overall US intelligence community, which hasn’t been previously reported, has now aligned more closely with the analysis that had been generated by the US military, which was reported by The Wall Street Journal.
The military has already withdrawn more than half of its 3,500 troops and its equipment, with the rest due to be out by September 11. On Wednesday, Taliban fighters were battling government troops inside the northern city of Kunduz after occupying the main border crossing with Tajikistan the previous day and reaching the outskirts of northern Afghanistan’s main hub, Mazar-e-Sharif. Tajikistan’s border service said 134 Afghan troops at the crossing were granted refuge while some 100 others were killed or captured by the Taliban.
The White House believes that it spared its troops in Afghanistan from increased violence by initiating their withdrawal from the country, Psaki said. “We have not seen an increase in attacks on our military presence since February 2020 and we also assess that had we not begun to draw down violence would have increased against us as well after May 1 because that was what the Taliban was clearly conveying. So, the status quo in our view was not an option,” Psaki said.
She admitted to “elevated attacks” on Afghan security forces and the country’s government versus a year ago. Psaki, however, refused to comment on media reports that the US intelligence community now estimates that the government of Afghanistan may fall within six months after the US withdrawal.
Despite the Taliban gains, the Pentagon has stressed the withdrawal remains on track toward President Biden’s order to be fully out of Afghanistan by September. “The tasks I believe that we have at hand is to conduct our retrograde in a safe, orderly and responsible fashion. We’ve developed a very detailed plan to do that, and we have accomplished the task according to plan thus far,” Austin said on Wednesday.
Amid the withdrawal and Taliban gains, lawmakers have been increasingly sounding the alarm about the fates of Afghans who helped US troops. Lawmakers have been urging Biden to order an evacuation for those Afghan allies amid delays in processing visas for them to come to the United States. On Wednesday, Austin predicted that at “some point we’ll begin to evacuate some of those people soon,” but deferred to the State Department for further comment.
Milley, meanwhile, stressed that the military has the capability to conduct an evacuation should one be ordered. “We have the military capability to do whatever is directed by the president of the United States with respect to our allies and those that have worked with us,” he said. “And I consider it a moral imperative to take care of those that have served along our side. We are prepared to execute whatever we are directed.”
Guam’s governor recently told US President Joe Biden in a letter that the territory is ready to host Afghans who worked as interpreters or somehow helped US operations over the past 20 years. The US evacuated thousands of South Vietnamese who supported the American mission and were at risk under the communist government in the chaotic, final hours of the Vietnam War.
Despite unusual bipartisan support in Congress, the administration hasn’t agreed to such a move, declining to publicly support something that could undermine security in the country as it unwinds a war that started after the 9/11 attacks. Lawmakers have urged the administration to consider temporarily relocating Afghans who worked for American or NATO forces to a safe overseas location while their US visas are processed. Some have suggested Guam, a US territory that served a similar purpose after the Vietnam War. The Biden administration for now is focusing on accelerating a special visa program for Afghans who helped US operations and pouring resources into relieving the backlog. “We are processing and getting people out at a record pace,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday.
Members of Congress were expected to raise the issue on Friday, when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani comes to Washington to meet with Biden and lawmakers. Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado recently introduced legislation that would nearly double the number of visas available this year, to 8,000, and ease eligibility requirements. But he said congressional action will not be quick enough or sufficient. Even if the legislation passed immediately, the number of visas would fall far short of the estimated 18,000 Afghans waiting to be processed. That figure does not include their spouses and children, who would bring the total to about 70,000 people. And the average wait is more than three years. The process also has been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic, which led the US embassy in Afghanistan to suspend visa interviews.