In an ominous kickoff to the mission to leave, U.S. forces returned fire over the weekend after rockets hit a key air base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, while America’s top general on Sunday warned of “bad possible outcomes” in the country after all U.S. and NATO troops complete their withdrawal.
The stark comments from Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came just hours after U.S. troops in Afghanistan conducted a precision strike against enemy forces planning fresh attacks on Kandahar. The Pentagon did not explicitly blame the Taliban, but it seems virtually certain that the insurgent group is behind the assault. Taliban officials over the weekend again threatened to attack American forces still in Afghanistan past May 1, the original withdrawal deadline laid out in a deal between former President Donald Trump and the Taliban early in 2020.
President Biden disregarded that date and has ordered the roughly 3,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to leave by September. The withdrawal officially began late last week — U.S., NATO allies and other foreign nations with troops in the country are packing up to leave as well.
While the next few months could be chaotic as the pullout is executed, top Pentagon commanders believe the situation could get much worse once the withdrawal is complete. Many senior U.S. military officials — and a number of retired commanders — reportedly opposed Mr. Biden’s decision to take out all American forces with the Afghan security situation so precarious.
“The Afghan army, do they stay together and remain a cohesive fighting force or do they fall apart? I think there’s a range of scenarios here, a range of outcomes, a range of possibilities,” Gen. Milley told reporters Sunday while flying back to Washington from a military ceremony in Hawaii, The Associated Press reported.
“On the one hand you get some really dramatic, bad possible outcomes. On the other hand, you get a military that stays together and a government that stays together,” he said.
About half of Afghanistan is already under Taliban control, while the U.S.-backed Kabul government has an increasingly shaky hold on the country’s major population centers. The Afghan army has received years of training and funding from the U.S. and NATO, but there are still serious questions about whether the military could long survive without foreign backing.
The weekend brought even more warning signs.
The Taliban on Saturday claimed to have overrun an Afghan military base in Ghazni province in the southeastern part of the country. Afghan officials told Voice of America that the insurgent group had taken control of the base, and a Taliban spokesperson said at least 17 Afghan soldiers had been killed and another 25 taken prisoner.
Those figures were not immediately confirmed by the Afghan government or U.S. officials in the country.
Critics of the Afghan withdrawal fear such incidents will become commonplace after the U.S. and NATO leave. They warn that the Taliban could quickly overpower Afghan security forces and could overrun the nation’s capital, Kabul, where U.S. diplomats will remain after the military pulls out.
Mr. Biden, however, has stuck by his plans for withdrawal, telling a joint session of Congress last week that the “forever war” in Afghanistan was “never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking of nation-building.”
Meanwhile, the Taliban appears to already be making good on its threat to target Americans, after generally refraining following the accord with the Trump administration.
“Kandahar Airfield received ineffective indirect fire this afternoon; no injury to personnel or damage to equipment,” Col. Sonny Leggett, spokesperson for U.S. Forces Afghanistan, tweeted Saturday. “U.S. forces conducted a precision strike this evening, destroying additional rockets aimed at the airfield.”
“A return to violence would be one senseless and tragic. But make no mistake, we have the military means to respond forcefully to any type of attacks against the coalition and the military means to support the Afghan security forces,” said Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.
The Taliban, however, is showing no signs of backing down.
“As withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan by agreed-upon May 1 deadline has passed, this violation in principle has opened the way for [the Taliban] to take every counteraction is deems appropriate against the occupying forces,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said Saturday, according to Afghanistan’s Khaama Press News Agency.
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