US defence chief says Afghanistan withdrawal is 'going according to plan'

Lloyd Austin says the Afghan National Army has performed 'fairly well' against the Taliban

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin expressed confidence on Thursday that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was “going according to plan” and that Afghan forces performed “fairly well” against the Taliban.

Speaking alongside Gen Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr Austin said the US was still on track to fully withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, as announced by President Joe Biden.

"We're going to do just that," he said, adding that the drawdown was “going according to plan".

Mr Austin said that continuing without American support would be a challenge for the Afghan military as it tried to hold off Taliban insurgents.

“We are hopeful that the Afghan Security Forces will play a major role in stopping the Taliban,” he said.

But Mr Austin said Afghan forces had performed only "fairly well" in a recent clash with the Taliban in Helmand province.

He said future US support to Kabul after the withdrawal would include “over-the-horizon logistical support" – meaning assistance from overseas.

Gen Milley said some Afghan troops could be trained in other countries but stressed that continued US support options had not been finalised.

"The key will be the Afghan Air Force," he said, adding that the US embassy in Kabul would remain open.

Gen Milley also cautioned against drawing early conclusions about the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal.

He said the negotiating process was still under way between the government in Kabul and the Taliban, and that a takeover by the militant group was “not a foregone conclusion”.

Gen Milley said the Taliban was focusing its strikes on Afghan forces and that there had been "no attacks" against US troops since Mr Biden announced the withdrawal.

But he said that the "sustained levels of violent attacks" against Afghan forces averaged about 80 a day for the past year.

Gen Milley said the whereabouts of Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri was still unknown.

“If I knew where he was, he would be the first one to know.”

He confirmed that six more B-52 aircraft and 12 fighter bombers had been sent to the region to help with the withdrawal.

The US Air Force on Wednesday announced their arrival at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

On Monday, the US handed over a military base in southern Afghanistan even as Afghan and Taliban fighters clashed in the area.

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