Removal of all contractors from Afghanistan is under way, says Pentagon chief

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin responds to media questions during a press briefing at the Pentagon. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Thursday (May 6) the process of removing all contractors from Afghanistan working with the United States was under way as part of President Joe Biden's withdrawal of forces from the country.

The remarks are the clearest indication yet that Biden's April order to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan by Sept 11 extended to US-funded contractors.

Asked whether the Pentagon had issued orders to withdraw not just American troops but also contractors, Austin said: "We're going to responsibly retrograde all of our capabilities that we are responsible for and the contractors fall in that realm as well."

Speaking with reporters, Austin said the contractors could, however, renegotiate their contracts in the future.

As of April, there were nearly 17,000 Pentagon contractors, including about 6,150 Americans, 4,300 Afghans and 6,400 from other countries.

The departure of thousands of contractors, especially those serving the Afghan security forces, has raised concerns among some US officials about the ability of the Afghan government and military to sustain critical functions.

'Not a foregone conclusion'

Austin said the drawdown was going according to plan so far.

But Afghan security forces are locked in daily combat with the Taleban, which has waged war to overthrow the foreign-backed government since it was ousted from power in Kabul in 2001.

In just two days, the Taleban captured a second district in the northern province of Baghlan on Thursday.

The Afghan government says the Taleban have killed and wounded more than 50 troops in attacks in at least 26 provinces during the last 24 hours, while its forces killed dozens of Taleban over the same period.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said there had been sustained levels of violent attacks against Afghan security forces but none against US and coalition forces since May 1.

Milley, in the same news conference, said it was too early to speculate on how Afghanistan would turn out after the withdrawal of US forces given that Afghanistan had a significantly sized military and police force and the Afghan government was still cohesive.

"It is not a foregone conclusion, in my professional military estimate, that the Taleban automatically win and Kabul falls or any of those dire predictions," Milley said.

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