Washington: The Pentagon is preparing for possible Taliban attacks on US and coalition forces as they withdraw from Afghanistan, a prospect that complicates the outlook for winding down America’s longest war.
May 1 was the date all US and other foreign forces were to have departed Afghanistan under a February 2020 deal between the Taliban and the Trump administration.
As part of that agreement, the Taliban halted attacks on US troops, and none has been killed since then. But the Taliban said it will consider the United States to be in violation of the agreement for missing the deadline for full withdrawal. Their representatives have been vague about whether they intend to attack starting May 1.
President Joe Biden’s decision to proceed with a final but delayed withdrawal adds a new element of security risk as the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 American troops, along with about 7,000 coalition troops and thousands of contractors, begin departing.
Biden has said all will be gone by Sept 11, the date of the 2001 terrorist attacks that prompted the US to invade Afghanistan in the first place.
“We have to assume that this drawdown will be opposed,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday in explaining why Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin decided to keep an aircraft carrier in the Middle East and to move at least four B-52 bombers and portions of an Army Ranger task force to the region as a precaution.
“It would be irresponsible for us not to assume that this drawdown and forces drawing down — both American and from our NATO allies — could be attacked by the Taliban,” Kirby added.
Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters traveling with him Thursday that the pullout is “complex and not without risk.”
The military typically plans for worst-case scenarios to try to avoid being caught by surprise. The withdrawal from Afghanistan involves ground and air movements of troops, supplies and equipment that could be vulnerable to attack.
For security reasons, withdrawal details are not being made public, but the White House and several defense officials confirmed Thursday that the drawdown has begun.
Defence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive movements, said that in recent days some troops — described as “dozens” — and military equipment have left the country.
The State Department also is taking precautions. On Tuesday, it instructed all embassy personnel in Kabul to depart unless their jobs require them to be in Afghanistan. The order went well beyond the usual curtailment of staffers for security and safety reasons.
Even the most seasoned American analysts of the Afghan conflict are unsure what to expect of the Taliban.
Bruce Riedel, a Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution and former CIA analyst, wrote this week that it’s unclear whether the insurgents will attempt to disrupt the withdrawal, but he says they may escalate the war.
Seth Jones, a counterterrorism and Afghanistan expert as director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Pentagon is wise to prepare for attacks, although he thinks the Taliban is likely to show restraint. (AP)