The top American military commander here expressed deep concern Tuesday that the country could slide into civil war and face “very hard times” unless its fractious civilian leadership unites and the haphazard array of armed groups joining the anti-Taliban fight are controlled and made “accountable” for their actions in battle.
The comments by Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, who met with a group of journalists, came as Taliban forces continued their rapid advance across northern provinces and expanded into other rural regions. The insurgents also began circling closer to the capital city. In the past 48 hours, officials and Afghan media reported, Taliban fighters have overrun parts of two provinces just north and south of Kabul, and attacked security posts in a third that hugs the city’s western border.
Miller, who is overseeing the drawdown of U.S. forces here but said he would be replaced in its final stages, described the process as going well “from a military standpoint.” But he acknowledged that the looming departure had damaged the morale of Afghan defense forces, which he said were already stretched thin after months of heavy fighting, often with poor support.
“The security situation is not good,” Miller stated, citing the ongoing loss of territory, casualties and government forces withdrawing, while the Taliban have launched a “countrywide offensive” at the same time that peace talks are supposed to be taking place. “There are a lot of questions about why and how this is happening.”
By some expert estimates, Taliban forces now control as many as 140 of the country’s 370 districts and are active or influential in another 170. Both U.S. and Afghan military officials have given much lower estimates, but more districts continue to fall almost daily, either in violent clashes or peaceful surrenders, according to local officials and Afghan media reports.
In the past week, the Taliban seized two districts in Kapisa and Parwan provinces, both located along the major highway between Kabul and the north, local officials said. Fighters also took over a town in Wardak province that straddles the major highway leading south to Kandahar city. The group released video footage on social media showing its fighters, wearing black turbans, strolling in the town and raising celebratory shouts.
“Their strategy is to surround the city as well as the provincial capitals, pushing closer and closer from all sides until they can stop, just short of entering Kabul, and say they are now ready to talk about peace,” said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence director. He also said the group has targeted other strategic spots to attack, including some along the porous border with Pakistan, some containing mines or dams, and others along rural link roads.
Last week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met with President Biden in Washington as U.S. troops withdraw, a process that Biden announced in April would be completed by Sept. 11. Biden told him that the United States would continue providing financial aid and support to the armed forces but that Afghans would have to “decide their own future.”
The U.S. president gave no indication that the withdrawal period would be extended, despite appeals from some members of Congress and U.S. intelligence reports estimating that the Ghani government could fall within six to 12 months of a completed troop drawdown.
Miller said Tuesday he did not expect any changes in his orders to complete the pullout on schedule, but he stressed that he has “full capacity and authority” to provide armed support to Afghan ground forces, including airstrikes, when ground conditions such as risks to civilians can be assessed. Afghan military commanders have repeatedly said that U.S. air support is crucial to pushing back the Taliban.
The U.S. commander also said that the Afghan Air Force is well trained and equipped to carry out airstrikes and other battlefield missions. But Miller’s assessment of the overall conditions and future scenarios for Afghanistan was notably pessimistic. He said he was especially concerned that the country could spiral into a state of violence that would lead to civil war, and that without proper controls in place, local militia groups now joining the battle could revert to past ethnic rivalries and abusive battlefield behavior.
“A civil war path is visualizable,” he said, warning that if violence escalates and atrocities occur, the country could “devolve” into a chaotic state. Afghanistan endured a similar period after the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the collapse of a postwar coalition government in the 1990s.
Another obstacle to a peaceful settlement of the war, he said, is the persistent discord and political factionalism within the Afghan government and political elite. Ethnic and personal rivalries have led to constant policy changes and turnover in senior military and civilian posts, weakening confidence among civilians and morale in the defense forces.
Miller did not comment directly on the likelihood that the Ghani government could collapse as soon as six months after the U.S. troop withdrawal, but he said it was crucial for government officials and rival political leaders to “unify” as the war intensifies and hopes for peace fade. Otherwise, he said, “I see very tough times ahead.”