The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said on Wednesday that the Taliban maintains “strategic momentum” in their sweeping attacks in Afghanistan, but their victory is not certain.
Nearly 20 years after the US toppled the Taliban regime in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces, but as a whole, resurgent militants now control nearly half of Afghanistan’s 400 districts Huh.
But they have none of the country’s densely populated main cities, Milley told a news conference.
He said Afghan troops were “strengthening their forces” to protect those major urban centres, with militants putting pressure on nearly half of the country’s provincial capitals.
“They are taking an approach to protect the population, and the majority of the population lives in provincial capitals and the capital city of Kabul,” Milley said.
“The automatic military takeover of the Taliban is not a foregone conclusion.”
The Taliban are moving across Afghanistan, snatching territory, crossing the border and besieging cities.
Their success has tested the morale of the Afghan military, which is already suffering years of shockingly high casualties and, most recently, the decision to leave by US-led international troops.
Although the Afghan army is trained by international forces, and estimates suggest it significantly exceeds the ranks of the Taliban, Milley said winning a war is not just numbers.
“The two most important combat factors are really the will and the leadership. And this is now going to be a test of the will and leadership of the Afghan people, the Afghan security forces and the government of Afghanistan,” he said.
US President Joe Biden has also said that the takeover of the Taliban is “not mandatory.”
But earlier this month he also warned that Afghans should come together against the rebels, and acknowledged it was “highly unlikely” that a unified government would control the entire country.
End game “Not written yet”
Milley’s remarks came hours after the Taliban said on Wednesday that they would fight to defend themselves only on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, but backed down from declaring a formal ceasefire.
In recent years, militants have declared a break in fighting with government forces over Islamic holidays, offering little relief to Afghans who can visit family in relative safety.
Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada said over the weekend that he “strongly supports” a political agreement to end the war with the government in Kabul.
But the radical Islamist movement to capitalize on the final stage of an international withdrawal has left many Afghans in doubt.
President Ashraf Ghani said on Tuesday that the Taliban had proved “they have no will and intention for peace,” with talks between the two warring sides falling short.
More than a dozen diplomatic missions in Kabul this week called for an “immediate end” to the Taliban’s current offensive, saying it was contrary to claims they seek a political settlement to end the conflict.
Afghan citizens, who have been bearing the brunt of the prolonged fighting since 2001, are also watching the Taliban march forward in fear.
If extremists return to any form of power, many – especially women and minorities – stand to lose hard-earned rights and freedoms.
Even if Kabul can stop them, the scenarios facing civilians are likely to be a protracted and bloody civil war and a breakdown along the country’s ethnic lines.
It was the chaos of civil war in the 1990s that helped bring the Taliban to power.
Milley said there was still room for a political solution through talks.
“There is a possibility of a complete takeover of the Taliban or any number of other scenarios – breakdowns, warships, all kinds of other scenarios,” he said.
“We’re monitoring very closely. I don’t think the final game has been written yet.”
(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)