Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley speaks at a press briefing at the Pentagon on Wednesday. AP
The top US military officer General Mark Milley said on Wednesday that the Taliban appear to have “strategic momentum” in the fight for control of Afghanistan as they put increasing pressure on key cities, but their victory is far from assured.
US Joint Chiefs of Staff further said, “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.”
The stage seemed to be set for a decisive period in the coming weeks as American forces complete their withdrawal.
Nearly 20 years after the US toppled the Taliban regime in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and with the withdrawal of American-led foreign forces all but complete, the resurgent militants now control about half of Afghanistan's roughly 400 districts.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley (right) speaks at a press briefing in Washington. AP
The Pentagon says the US withdrawal is 95% finished and will be completed by Aug. 31. And while the Biden administration has vowed to continue financial assistance and logistical support for Afghan forces after August, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the focus of US military efforts there will be countering terrorist threats, not the Taliban.
Gen. Mark Milley told a Pentagon press conference, "They're taking an approach to protect the population, and most of the population lives in the provincial capitals and capital city of Kabul.
"A Taliban automatic military takeover is not a foregone conclusion."
Speaking alongside Milley, 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,” Austin said, adding that the Taliban pledged in 2020 to not provide a sanctuary for Al Qaeda in the future.
"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.” He reiterated his view that there is a "medium risk” of Al Qaeda regaining within about two years of the US departure the capability to launch attacks against the West.
"But, again, there are a number of things that could happen to speed that up a bit or slow it down,” he added.
Key on the agenda at the two-day virtual conference is the future of NATO’s 9,600-strong support mission in Afghanistan after Trump sidelined allies and struck a deal with the Taliban to pull out troops.
The Biden administration’s surprise announcement of an unconditional troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 appears to strip the Taliban and the Afghan government of considerable leverage and could ramp up pressure on them to reach a peace deal.
President Joe Biden’s newly appointed national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, spoke with his Afghan counterpart Hamdullah Mohib and “made clear the United States’ intention to review” the deal, National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said.
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Holders of valid residency visas who received full vaccination in the UAE and have completed 14 days after receiving the second dose and carrying vaccination certificates approved by the official authorities in the country will be allowed to enter from those countries.
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