U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Saturday that Afghan leadership is consolidating its forces around key population centers ahead of efforts to retake territory lost to the Taliban while the U.S. was withdrawing most of its troops from the country.
“The first thing to do is to make sure that they can slow the momentum, and then be able to put themselves in the position where they can retake some of the gains that the Taliban, some of the ground that they have lost,” Austin told reporters traveling with him to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska.
Austin said Afghan military leaders are “committed” and capable of stopping Taliban gains.
“They have the capabilities. They have the capacity to make progress and to really begin to blunt some of the Taliban’s advances, but we’ll see what happens,” he said.
Taliban insurgents say they already control 85% of the country, a contested claim. However, since the official start of the withdrawal on May 1, the Taliban has nearly tripled the number of districts it controls, from about 75 to now more than 220 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal.
“Strategic momentum sort of appears to be sort of with the Taliban,” Gen. Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon on Wednesday.
The U.S. military has conducted airstrikes to support Afghan forces over the “last several days,” according to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.
U.S. defense officials say they are still authorized to support the Afghan government with U.S. air strikes against the Taliban through the end of the U.S. troop withdrawal, set for completion on Aug. 31.
After that, though, U.S. strikes in Afghanistan will solely support counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida and Islamic State, according to U.S. Central Command head Gen. Frank McKenzie.