As the US began turning over military bases to the Afghan security forces Saturday, the top US general warned of the potential for “bad possible outcomes” in Afghanistan, while adding that “the intent of many of the parties is still to have a negotiated settlement.”
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley pointed to an Afghan military that numbers more than 300,000 and “has been leading the fight for quite a few years now” as a crucial element in determining the future of the country as the final US withdrawal officially commences.
“On the one hand you get some really dramatic, bad possible outcomes, and on the other hand you get a military that stays together and a government that stays together,” Milley said. “Which one of these options becomes reality at the end of the day, we frankly don’t know yet and we have to wait and see how things develop over the summer. There’s a lot of variables to this, and it’s not 100% predictable.”
Speaking to a small group of reporters, including from CNN, during a return trip from Hawaii Saturday, Milley said the US provides “some limited intelligence and some limited air strike support,” but the Afghan security forces have operated with increasing independence, even if they still rely heavily on US contractors for support, maintenance, and more.
On Saturday, the US began turning a base over to the Afghan military in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, the site of some of the fiercest fighting against Taliban forces in previous years. This is one of a series of military facilities set to be turned over to Afghan security forces as part of the withdrawal that President Joe Biden announced last month.
One day earlier, the Taliban briefly overran an Afghan army base in southeastern Ghazni province, Defense Ministry deputy spokesman Fawad Aman told CNN, before Afghan forces recaptured it over the weekend.
Meanwhile, the US carried out a precision strike against rockets aimed at Kandahar Airfield following the launch of indirect fire at the site, Col. Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan, said in a tweet. The indirect fire caused no injuries or damage, but US military leaders have vowed to respond forcefully to any targeting of American or coalition forces.
Asked Saturday whether it was possible to glean anything about the rest of the withdrawal from the first few days, Milley said it was too early to tell. Milley portrayed the withdrawal of the final troops as the continuation of a process that has been ongoing for a decade, instead of a detached, isolated decision. The peak of US forces was in 2011, with approximately 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, according to the Congressional Research Service. The strategic drawdown effectively began shortly thereafter, Milley said.
“It’s been a long glidepath as we deliberately handed off functions and responsibilities to the Afghan security forces at the time,” Milley said. “This has been going on for a while. This is just the final phase.”
As the final withdrawal moves forward, Milley addressed the potential of completing the withdrawal before September 11.
“It’s possible,” Milley said. “We have a window really. The September timeframe is a ‘no later than’ time. It’s not a ‘no earlier than’ time. We will conduct operations that are coordinated, synchronized, protect the force, and we’re going to do it in a responsible way. We’ll do that as fast as we can, but we want to do it as fast as it’s responsible, coordinated, synchronized with our allies from NATO.”
On April 21, a spokesman for the German Defense Ministry said the headquarters of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan were considering an earlier withdrawal date, possibly as soon as July 4. Given the emphasis from the Biden administration on “in together, out together” and tight synchronization with NATO allies, it suggests the United States may be examining the possibility of completing the drawdown by mid-summer.
“There’s a range, and there’s variables that will play a factor here, so I don’t want to put precise dates on it,” Milley said, “but the President has given us a window, and we are very confident that we’ll meet those objectives.”
With at most four-and-a-half months until the withdrawal is complete, the US remains focused on pursuing a negotiated end to the fighting, Milley stressed.
“We, the US government, we are still pursuing a negotiated outcome, as it should be. It is not in the interest of the Afghan people, the current Afghan government, or the Taliban for that matter to devolve into this massive civil war, which is one of the outcomes that people talk about. But that’s not in anybody’s interest,” Milley said.
“A responsible end to the conflict in Afghanistan, the best, the optimal way to do this is through a negotiated outcome, and that is still one of the efforts of the US government is to try to broker that between the warring parties.”