Kabul: Pentagon officials are watching the Taliban’s sweeping advances in Afghanistan “with deep concern” and are encouraging its Afghan partners to “step up” and defend their country amid the pullout of US forces, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said on Sunday.
Kirby told Fox News that the Pentagon was “not unmindful” of the situation. “We’re certainly watching with deep concern the deteriorating security situation and the violence, which is of course way too high, and the advances and the momentum that the Taliban seems to have right now,” he said.
Kirby said officials are monitoring the Taliban’s movements in the country and working with the Afghan military “to encourage them to use the capacity and the capability that we know they have, and we know that they know how to defend their country.” He said Afghanistan’s capacity and capabilities included a “very capable” Air Force and “very sophisticated” special forces that can help defend the country from the Taliban resurgence. “This is a time for them to step up and to do exactly that,” Kirby said of their Afghan partners.
With U.S. Central Command estimating that more than 90% of the withdrawal process is complete, Kirby said that even though U.S. troops won’t be supporting Afghanistan on the ground, the U.S. will continue to support the country and its people. “We are not walking away from this relationship,” Kirby said. “We’re going to continue to support them from a financial perspective, logistical perspective and certainly aircraft maintenance.”
Meanwhile, General Sir Nick Carter, the chief of the UK defense staff has said it is “too early to suggest” that Afghanistan is “going to go to tell in a handcart”. He claimed that there were “reports from some of the rural areas that the Taliban have taken over that they’re actually allowing girls to go to school” and said it was “too early to say what will happen”.
“You know, it’s got a burgeoning civil society, it’s got a media that is remarkable in many ways. And of course, they’ve got an education system now. And actually, the Taliban recognize that. So again, I think we’re very quick to suggest this is going to go to hell in a handcart. It’s too early to suggest that.”
However, Republican Adam Kinzinger, an Air Force veteran who flew missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, told NBC that he agreed with media characterizations that the U.S. and allied pullout from the country after a 20-year deployment as a “crushing defeat” at the hands of the Taliban insurgency.
He also added that the US troops may soon have to return to Afghanistan as the security situation deteriorates. Noting that the US military is still stationed in former hot spots such as Kosovo, Kinzinger criticized the drive by former President Donald Trump and President Biden to pull out the roughly 3,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, saying there was no sign the Taliban were breaking ties with Al-Qaeda or fulfilling other promises made in the February 2020 deal that set the timetable for the American withdrawal.
But Senator Jack Reed, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, defended Biden’s withdrawal decision on the same program, saying the original mission to “degrade and disrupt” Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was largely accomplished. He noted the Biden administration’s pledge to continue to support Kabul and the Afghan security forces even after the last American troops are gone. “This is not a closure, it’s a transition,” said Reed. “I think the president made a difficult, but the best of many poor choices,” he added.
Reed also said that he believes Kabul will hold against the Taliban’s advances. “I think Kabul will hold. The question is, can it hold long enough to create a political solution between the sides? What is — what you’ve seen is the encroachment of the Taliban, most of that has been without military action, most of that has been essentially going in and persuading or paying off the local leadership and, and they’ve been preparing for that for many, many months.”
Also, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday warned the “devil is in the details” on the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. In an interview on Fox News, Pompeo said the Biden administration may have moved too quickly. “It seems to me maybe they moved out faster. That’s all fine but the devil is in the details. You have to get this right.” “It’s how you do it,” he added. “How you execute and how you implement our global counter terrorism and after … will make [the] difference whether this ends up being something President [Joe] Biden can say he did it well.”
Meanwhile, with the US. and coalition combat troops all but gone from Afghanistan, Western officials are preparing to face down terrorist threats with the promise of “over-the-horizon” capabilities that may be ill-suited to the danger that groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State currently pose. US officials, both publicly and privately, insist both terror groups are a shadow of their former selves. Al-Qaeda, they say, commands maybe several hundred fighters across Afghanistan, while the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate, IS-Khorasan, has slightly more.
And while IS-Khorasan has claimed responsibility for several high-profile attacks, especially in urban areas, intelligence and humanitarian officials say that both groups are unlikely to do anything that would make them an easy target for U.S. bombers or drones flying into Afghanistan from afar. “Al-Qaeda, probably for the foreseeable future, is probably going to tie its fortunes very closely with the Taliban,” one Western counterterrorism official told VOA.
“They’re going to want to reassure the Taliban that they’re not going to embarrass them,” the official added, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive intelligence matters. “They’re going to want to keep Afghanistan a place from which they can recruit, train.”
IS-Khorasan, which no longer holds territory in Afghanistan, as it once did, has also been laying the foundation for a revival. “IS-Khorasan is not done and is an organization that still has the potential to gain in strength in spite of the recent difficulties that it’s faced,” the counterterrorism official said. “You can see certain circumstances in which IS-Khorasan could grow stronger, may attract additional fighters, and may gain additional freedom of action.” Observers in the region warn that IS-Khorasan has also begun looking beyond Afghanistan itself and is attempting to gain footholds in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and parts of Tajikistan.
One humanitarian official in Central Asia, who asked that their name be withheld due to fears they could be targeted, told VOA that the focus was on “more quality and less numbers.” “They are building local infrastructure for the recruitment, logistics, economic support, economic infrastructure to support that,” the official said. “At the moment, they have a need to recruit more IT-savvy guys, rather than just a regular soldier who’s ready to become a suicide bomber.” Such concerns are being echoed by both U.S. and Central Asian officials.
A Pentagon report issued this past April called the expansion of IS-Khorasan “a top concern” for Afghanistan’s neighbors, adding that the terror group was “creating the potential for destabilization.” U.S. intelligence likewise believes there is reason to worry, given that IS-Khorasan “has historically attracted some of its recruits from Central Asian countries,” according to one official who asked not to be identified in order to discuss intelligence matters. Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the United States, Javlon Vakhabov, confirmed to VOA that his country remains “very interested” in working with Washington to strengthen border security, with an eye toward stemming the spread of IS-Khorasan.
“We have always been concerned about such recruitments,” Vakhabov said. “They have devastative multiplicative influence not only to the recruited but also to his/her families and children.” Other Central Asian officials also have been talking with the U.S. about securing their borders as the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan comes to an end, with the foreign ministers of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan engaging in meetings at the State Department and the Pentagon earlier this month.