WASHINGTON — Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday that it’s “possible” that the U.S. will have to coordinate with the Taliban on any future counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan against Islamic State militants or others.
The Taliban, said Milley, is a “ruthless” group, and “whether or not they change remains to be seen.” He added, “In war you do what you must in order to reduce risk to mission and force, not what you necessarily want to do.”
Speaking two days after the final U.S. troops left Afghanistan at the close of a turbulent and deadly evacuation of more than 124,000 American citizens, Afghans and others, Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Pentagon reporters that it’s hard to predict the future of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“I would not make any leaps of logic to broader issues,” said Austin.
Both men commanded troops in Afghanistan during the 20-year war and their comments on Wednesday largely focused on tributes to those who served, who died and who were wounded in the conflict and to those who executed the complex airlift over the past three weeks.
With the U.S. involvement in the war over and all American military out of the country, President Joe Biden is grappling with the prospects of a new relationship with the Taliban, the Islamist militant group the U.S. toppled after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in America, and that is now once again in power in Afghanistan.
Biden has tasked Secretary of State Antony Blinken with coordinating with international partners to hold the Taliban to their promise of safe passage for Americans and others who want to leave in the days ahead.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, has described the U.S. relationship with the Taliban during the evacuation as “very pragmatic and very businesslike,” saying they helped secure the airport. But other reports from people in Afghanistan describe shootings, violence and Taliban moves to block desperate Afghans from getting through the gates.
Biden in an address to the nation on Tuesday called the U.S. airlift an “extraordinary success,” though more than 100 Americans and thousands of others were left behind. And he vigorously defended his decision to end America’s longest war and withdraw all U.S. troops by an Aug. 31 deadline.
“I was not going to extend this forever war,” Biden declared from the White House. “And I was not going to extend a forever exit.”
Biden has faced tough questions about the way the U.S. went about leaving Afghanistan — a chaotic evacuation with spasms of violence, including a suicide bombing last week that killed 13 American service members and 169 Afghans.
He is coming under heavy criticism, particularly from Republicans, for his handling of the evacuation. But he said it was inevitable that the final departure from two decades of war, first negotiated with the Taliban for May 1 by former President Donald Trump, would have been difficult, with likely violence, no matter when it was planned and conducted.
“To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask, ‘What is the vital national interest?’” Biden said. He added, “I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan.”
A number of Republicans — and some Democrats — have contended that the U.S. would have been better served maintaining a small military footprint in Afghanistan. Before last week’s suicide attack, the U.S. military had not suffered a combat casualty since February 2020 — around the time the Trump administration brokered its deal with the Taliban to end the war by May of this year.
Biden said breaking the Trump deal would have restarted a shooting war. He said those who favor remaining at war also fail to recognize the weight of deployment, with a scourge of PTSD, financial struggles, divorce and other problems for U.S. troops.
And Biden also pushed back against criticism that he fell short of his pledge to get all Americans out of the country ahead of the U.S. military withdrawal. He said many of the Americans left behind are dual citizens, some with deep family roots that are complicating their ability to leave Afghanistan.
Biden repeated his argument that ending the Afghanistan war was a crucial step for recalibrating American foreign policy toward growing challenges posed by China and Russia — and counterterrorism concerns that pose a more potent threat to the U.S.
In Biden’s view the war could have ended 10 years ago with the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden, whose al-Qaida extremist network planned and executed the 9/11 plot from an Afghanistan sanctuary. Al-Qaida has been vastly diminished, preventing it thus far from again attacking the United States. The president lamented an estimated $2 trillion of taxpayer money that was spent fighting the war.
Congressional committees, whose interest in the war waned over the years, are expected to hold public hearings on what went wrong in the final months of the U.S. withdrawal.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Tuesday described the Biden administration’s handling of the evacuation as “probably the biggest failure in American government on a military stage in my lifetime” and promised that Republicans would press the White House for answers.