The country’s top military officer offered a bleak assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan on Wednesday, saying the Taliban had seized “strategic momentum” against Afghan forces that fell back to prioritize protecting key cities, including Kabul. the capital.
The comments of General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed more and more messages from the ground in Afghanistan. But his sober, almost clinical account of recent Taliban gains made the point clear.
“There is a possibility of a complete takeover by the Taliban, or the possibility of any number of other scenarios,” General Milley said. “I don’t think the endgame has been written yet.”
The Taliban have taken control of more than 210 of Afghanistan’s approximately 420 districts in recent months, General Milley told reporters at a Pentagon news conference. They are also pressuring half of the country’s 34 provincial centers and aiming to isolate Kabul and other major cities, he said.
“The strategic momentum seems to be a bit with the Taliban,” he said. “There is clearly a story that the Taliban are winning. In fact, they are promoting an inevitable victory on their behalf.”
But General Milley, appearing alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III at their first joint press conference since May 6, sought to reassure the Afghan government that the United States would continue to provide humanitarian and security assistance remotely. All US troops have left the country, with the exception of about 650 troops to guard the US embassy and Kabul airport.
Both General Milley and Mr. Austin placed the responsibility for the fate of the country on the Afghans and their leaders, not the Biden administration. Austin said US airstrikes after August 31, the military withdrawal deadline, would be reserved for al-Qaeda and other terrorist targets, not for Taliban fighters attacking Afghan forces.
“This will now be a test of the will and leadership of the Afghan people, the Afghan security forces and the government of Afghanistan,” General Milley said.
In response to the Taliban’s offensives, hundreds of Afghan troops have surrendered, abandoned their US-supplied equipment and fled, sometimes to neighboring countries. The Afghan government’s counter-attacks have had limited success.
General Milley said many other Afghan troops are shying away from protecting larger provincial towns. Violence has abated in recent days with the start of the Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha, he said, but the country could reach a turning point if fighting resumes.