Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, discussed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan during a news conference with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Wednesday.
“Strategic momentum appears to be, sort of, with the Taliban,” Milley said of the offensive the group, which was launched in early May. “There clearly is a narrative out there that the Taliban are winning. In fact, they are propagating an inevitable victory on their behalf.”
The Taliban are now estimated to control roughly half of Afghanistan’s district centers. The group has previously claimed that it controls up to 80 percent of Afghan districts, but these claims have been denied by the Afghan government and are not taken seriously by international observers.
Despite its inflated claims, however, the group has now been estimated to hold more territory than at any point since the U.S. invasion in October 2001—a discomforting reminder of the limits of U.S. power and the poor track record of Afghan security forces that have operated independently. Milley ominously observed that there was “a possibility of a complete Taliban takeover.”
However, while Milley noted the setbacks that the Afghan National Army had experienced since the onset of the Taliban offensive, he underscored Afghanistan’s capacity to defend their country. The general repeated that that “the strategic momentum seems to be with the Taliban, but the Afghan security forces are consolidating their forces to protect population centers. . . . They are adjusting forces to consolidate forces into the provincial capitals and Kabul. It remains to be seen what will happen. . . . I don't think the endgame is yet written."
Milley underlined that the projected U.S. withdrawal would continue, and all departing U.S. troops would be out of the country by August 31. The withdrawal has been estimated to be 90 percent complete, and Bagram Air Base, the focal point of U.S. involvement in the country, has been returned to Afghan forces. Not all American troops are leaving, however; roughly 650 soldiers are remaining behind to protect the U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul.
The Afghan security forces have an estimated strength of three hundred thousand soldiers, including the nation’s highly effective commando units and the personnel in its troubled air force. U.S. contractors have remained behind to assist the air force continue its mission without direct American support. The number of Taliban fighters is difficult to measure, but the militant group’s strength has tentatively been estimated at sixty thousand or more.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.