Multi-Sided Civil Struggle Might Grip Afghanistan, U.S. Common Warns

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KABUL, Afghanistan – The commander of the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan warned Tuesday that the country could be on the way to a chaotic civil war as American and other international forces prepare to withdraw in the coming weeks.

His assessment at a rare press conference at the US and NATO command headquarters in Kabul will likely be one of the last to be made public by a four-star American general in Afghanistan, where recent events include a Taliban offensive that spanned around attacked 100 district centers, wounded and killed dozens of civilians, and displaced thousands more.

“Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized as it continues on its way,” Commandant General Austin S. Miller told reporters during the press conference. “That should concern the world.”

With some intelligence estimates that the Afghan government could fall after a final American withdrawal in six months to two years, General Miller’s comments provided a window into recent tensions between the White House and the Pentagon.

For months, Pentagon leaders advocated some sort of permanent American military presence in Afghanistan, citing counterterrorism concerns and the need to control the Taliban’s advance. President Biden’s answer in April was final: all American forces except an embassy garrison will be gone by September 11th.

From a garden next to the circle of flagpoles that once displayed the flags of the 36 countries that contributed to the US-led NATO mission – now reduced to Turkey, Britain and the United States – General Miller said the troop withdrawal had reached a point where he would soon end his command, which began in September 2018, and again bid farewell to Afghanistan.

“From a military point of view, things are going very well,” said General Miller of the US withdrawal. He did not give a schedule for the completion of the payout. For the most part, the Taliban did not attack any US or international armed forces when they withdrew, but instead concentrated the bulk of the violence on the Afghan security forces and civilians caught in the crossfire.

The remaining US forces are split between Kabul and Bagram Air Force Base, the sprawling base that once housed thousands of troops and contractors. Bagram is now the final gateway for the deportation of the troops and equipment remaining in the country.

It was quiet on Tuesday at NATO headquarters, which will soon be part of the US embassy premises. The Georgian guards who had manned the perimeter had disappeared and were replaced by security from the US embassy. The inside, a network of protective concrete barriers, barracks and offices, felt like an empty home.

Around 650 US soldiers are expected to stay in the country to provide security to diplomats, US officials said last week.

The U.S. military is nearing the exit, but is still doing the best it can to the Afghan security forces – jets from the Eisenhower aircraft carrier, recently replaced by the Reagan, are flying over Afghanistan to air strikes on Taliban fighters, as they do Afghan security has been under siege.

But with much of America’s high-tech communications equipment gone, in at least one case these jets were unable to communicate properly in order to carry out an air strike on Taliban positions and had to relay the attack to an armed drone, a military official said. who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. Currently, much of the air support over Afghanistan has already been moved out of the country.

But what Americans are doing in Afghanistan is becoming less important day by day as their presence in the country and with it their ability to influence what goes on on the battlefield diminishes.

The United States has spent billions of dollars backing Afghan security forces, but it remains unclear whether it will continue to provide air support to those forces after September 11th, the withdrawal of American forces.

The United States currently has “the capacity to assist Afghan security forces in an attack,” General Miller said. “It exists today, and I don’t want to speculate what it will look like in the future.”

US air strikes targeting groups of Taliban fighters following their recent offensive in the north of the country have sparked outrage among the Taliban, but little else as their fighters continue to take territory on a daily basis. The insurgent group has captured dozens of districts in the past few weeks – sometimes by military means, sometimes by exploiting local divisions and mediating with local officials.

The Afghan armed forces have managed to retake several districts, but nothing on the scale of their insurgent enemies.

“What we are seeing is the rapid loss of county centers,” General Miller said, adding that he had passed his advice – to withdraw security forces to defend key areas such as large cities – to Afghan leaders.

This ripple effect of falling districts has only served to demoralize the Afghan security forces, who saw some of their comrades surrender and forfeit their vehicles and equipment to the increasingly triumphant Taliban. In the past few days, the fighting had been around 100 kilometers from Kabul, the capital of the country.

To bolster the exhausted government forces, militias – some of which have long been on the government payroll – have taken on new prominence, a stark echo of the civil war of the 1990s when warlords and their fiefs of armed men molested residents so badly taxed that the Taliban rose was welcome in much of the country. Both President Ashraf Ghani and his newly appointed Defense Minister have made comments that appeared to welcome the resurgence of such groups.

The effectiveness of the militias on the battlefield is questionable, but the government will continue to support their rise because “it will bleed the Taliban a thousand cuts,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, International Crisis Group advisor and independent research analyst.

Biden’s government has pledged to provide financial assistance to Mr. Ghani. That includes $ 266 million in humanitarian aid and $ 3.3 billion in security aid, plus three million doses of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine and oxygen supply.

Still, the message from Mr Biden in his meetings with the Afghan leaders was clear: the US military would go.

NATO and the US military will also continue to support the Afghan security forces with training and logistics from outside the country.

“Afghans will have to decide what they want about their future,” Biden said in the White House. “The senseless violence must stop.”

But an end to the violence is unlikely. The peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban that began in Doha in September have all but stalled, and with the achievements of the insurgents on the battlefield, the Taliban are more and more likely to settle for direct military victory.

Speaking to reporters in Washington hours after General Miller’s statements, Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby diverted questions about the exact timing of the final withdrawal of American forces – officials previously said in early to mid-July – and how the Pentagon and The Biden government would honor the occasion.

Senior Pentagon officials are not expected to visit Afghanistan when the last troops withdraw. And it’s unclear what kind of official homecoming ceremonies – if any – the final returning troops and their commanders, including General Miller, will receive.

“We all, all of us here, are aware of the fact that this war has now been two decades and is coming to an end, and our responsibility to inform you and the American people and us that this war is over will do so,” said Mr. Kirby.

“We will find a way to officially label it,” he added, “and make it clear to the American people at the right time and in an appropriate manner.”

Eric Schmitt reported from Washington.