Security in Afghanistan is decaying, says US general as forces leave

Afghan security forces on a road in Kabul on Jan 13, 2021.
Afghan security forces on a road in Kabul on Jan 13, 2021.PHOTO: NYTIMES

KABUL (NYTIMES) - The commander of the United States-led mission in Afghanistan warned on Tuesday (June 29) that the country could be on a path to chaotic civil war as American and other international troops prepare to leave in the coming weeks.

His assessment, in a rare news conference at the headquarters of US and Nato command in Kabul, will likely be one of the last publicly delivered by an American four-star general in Afghanistan, where recent events have included a Taleban offensive that has seized around 100 district centres, left dozens of civilians wounded and killed, and displaced thousands more.

"Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualised if it continues on the trajectory it's on," the commander, General Austin S. Miller, told reporters during the news conference. "That should be a concern for the world."

Speaking from a garden adjacent to the circle of flagpoles that once displayed the flags of the 36 countries that contributed to the US-led Nato mission - now reduced to Turkey, Britain and the United States - Gen Miller said the troop withdrawal was reaching a point where he would soon end his command, which began in September 2018, and in turn, say goodbye to Afghanistan.

"From a military standpoint it's going very well," Gen Miller said of the US withdrawal. He did not offer a timeline for when the withdrawal will be complete.

The Taleban, for the most part, have not attacked US or international forces as they have departed, instead focusing the brunt of the violence on the Afghanistan security forces and the civilians caught in the crossfire.

What US forces remain are spread between Kabul and Bagram Air Base, the sprawling base that was once home to thousands of troops and contractors. Bagram is now the final gateway for moving out what troops and equipment remain in the country.

The Nato headquarters, soon to become part of the US Embassy compound, was quiet on Tuesday. The Georgian guards who had manned its perimeter were gone, replaced by US Embassy security. The interior, a web of protective cement barriers, barracks and offices, felt much like an empty home.

Roughly 650 US troops are expected to remain in the country to provide security for diplomats, US officials said last week.

The US military inches closer to the exit, but it is still providing what support it can to the Afghan security forces - flying jets from the aircraft carrier Eisenhower, recently replaced by the Reagan, over Afghanistan to drop airstrikes on Taliban fighters as Afghan security have found themselves under siege.

US airstrikes, targeting groups of Taleban fighters after their recent offensive in the country's north, have drawn outrage from the Taliban but little else as their fighters continue to take territory daily. The insurgent group has taken dozens of districts in past weeks - sometimes through military means and at others by exploiting local divisions along with mediation with local officials.

Afghan forces have managed to retake several districts, but nothing on the scale of their insurgent foes.

"What we're seeing is the rapid loss of district centres," Gen Miller said, adding that he had passed his advice - to pull security forces back to defend key areas such as big cities - on to Afghan leaders.

This domino effect of falling districts has only served to demoralise the Afghan security forces, who have watched their comrades surrender en masse, forfeiting their vehicles and equipment to an increasingly triumphant Taliban. In recent days, the fighting had reached roughly 97km (60 miles) away from Kabul, the country's capital.

To bolster the depleted government forces, militias - some long on the government's payroll - have gained new prominence, a distinct echo of the civil war in the 1990s when warlords and their fiefs of armed men harassed and taxed residents to the point where the Taliban's rise was welcome in broad areas of the country. Both President Ashraf Ghani and his newly appointed defence minister have made comments that seemed to welcome the resurgence of such groups.

The militias' efficacy on the battlefield is questionable, but the government will continue to back their rise because "it will bleed the Taleban by a thousand cuts", said Mr Ibraheem Bahiss, a consultant with International Crisis Group and independent research analyst.

Mr Abdullah Abdullah, the top Afghan official leading continuing peace talks in Qatar, has been oblique about whether he supported the militias, saying in a recent interview only that they need to be in direct coordination with the security services to avoid any fracturing.

Mr Abdullah, along with Mr Ghani, visited Washington last week to meet with President Joe Biden and lawmakers, with their country's future anything but certain.

While military planners and intelligence analysts have long had differing assessments on Afghanistan's prospects, much as they did in the twilight months of the Soviet war in the country, they have come to a consensus that Ghani's government could fall in as little as six months, according to officials briefed on the intelligence work.