Top US general says Taliban appear to have ‘strategic momentum’

Pentagon says US withdrawal is 95 per cent finished and will be completed by August 31

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley brief reporters at the Pentagon. Reuters
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The Taliban appear to have “strategic momentum” in the fight for control of Afghanistan as they put increasing pressure on key cities, the top US military officer said on Wednesday.

It sets the stage for a decisive period in the coming weeks as American forces complete their withdrawal.

“This is going to be a test now of the will and leadership of the Afghan people – the Afghan security forces and the government of Afghanistan,” said Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Pentagon says the US withdrawal is 95 per cent finished and will be completed by August 31.

The Biden administration has vowed to continue financial assistance and logistical support for Afghan forces after August, but Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the focus of US military efforts there will be countering terrorist threats, not the Taliban.

Afghan security officials inspect the scene of a roadside bomb blast that killed six civilians on the outskirts of Jalalabad. EPA

Speaking alongside Gen Milley, Mr Austin said the US will “keep an eye on” Al Qaeda, the extremist network whose use of Afghanistan as a haven for planning the 9/11 attacks on the United States was the reason US forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

“Our major focus going forward is to make sure that violence, terrorism, cannot be exported from Afghanistan to our homeland, and so we’ll maintain the capability to be able to not only observe that but also address that if it does emerge,” Mr Austin said. The Taliban pledged in 2020 to not provide a sanctuary for Al Qaeda, he said.

“We expect for them to meet that commitment. If they want legitimacy going forward, I think that’s something they’ll have to consider. That’s one way to earn it, so we’ll see what happens.”

Mr Austin repeated his view that there was a “medium risk” of Al Qaeda regaining the capability to launch attacks against the West within about two years of the US departure.

“But, again, there are a number of things that could happen to speed that up a bit or slow it down,” he said.

Gen Milley said the Taliban now control about half of the 419 district centres in Afghanistan, and while they have yet to capture any of the country’s 34 provincial capitals, they are pressuring about half of them. As the Taliban seize more territory, the Afghan security forces are consolidating their positions to protect key population centres, including Kabul, he said.

“A significant amount of territory has been seized over the course of six, eight, 10 months by the Taliban, so momentum appears to be – strategic momentum appears to be – sort of with the Taliban,” Gen Milley said.

He said that although the Taliban were attempting to create the impression that their victory over the US-backed Kabul government was inevitable, he believed the Afghan military and police had the training and equipment to prevail. He said he would not rule out a negotiated political settlement with the Taliban, nor would he exclude “a complete Taliban takeover”.

“I don’t think the end game is yet written,” he said.

Updated: July 22, 2021, 12:06 PM