Top US general downplays Taliban battlefield gains

Top US general downplays Taliban battlefield gains
© Greg Nash

The top general in the U.S. military on Wednesday downplayed recent battlefield successes by the Taliban in Afghanistan, stressing that most of the district centers controlled by the insurgents were seized before the U.S. military began withdrawing and that no provincial capitals have fallen.

“There's 81 district centers that are currently, we think, are underneath Taliban control. That's out of 419 district centers,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyAustin misses an opportunity in Singapore but scores big in Philippines Overnight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it Watchdog warns US will repeat mistakes of Afghanistan MORE told the House Armed Services Committee. “There's no provincial capital that is underneath Taliban control, and there’s 34 of those.

“It is true that the Taliban are sniping at and picking off outposts, etc., and they have seized some district centers,” he continued. “Sixty percent of the 81 were seized last year, and the others since the last two months or so. So, yes, we're concerned, we're watching it, but there's a 300,000, plus or minus, military force, Afghanistan army and police force, and it is their job to defend their country.”

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Testifying alongside Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response One officer dead after violent incident outside Pentagon Austin misses an opportunity in Singapore but scores big in Philippines MORE acknowledged that Taliban “gains have increased most recently” and that “they have made some gains where they have surrounded some of the provincial capitals” but also pointed back to Milley’s assessment that no provincial capitals have fallen.

The pair’s comments come amid Taliban battlefield gains as the U.S. military fully withdraws from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years, including winning control of a key district in northern Kunduz province this week. Taliban forces have also this week been besieging Mazar-e-Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh.

Austin and Milley told a Senate hearing last week they believe there is a “medium” risk of terrorist groups regaining strength in Afghanistan, saying it could happen in two years.

Despite the Taliban gains, the Pentagon has stressed the withdrawal remains on track toward President BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries FDA aims to give full approval to Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day: report Overnight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response MORE’s order to be fully out of Afghanistan by September.

“The tasks I believe that we have at hand is to conduct our retrograde in a safe, orderly and responsible fashion. We've developed a very detailed plan to do that, and we have accomplished the task according to plan thus far,” Austin said Wednesday.

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Amid the withdrawal and Taliban gains, lawmakers have been increasingly sounding the alarm about the fates of Afghans who helped U.S. troops. Lawmakers have been urging Biden to order an evacuation for those Afghan allies amid delays in processing visas for them to come to the United States.

On Wednesday, Austin predicted that at “some point we'll begin to evacuate some of those people soon” but deferred to the State Department for further comment.

Milley, meanwhile, stressed that the military has the capability to conduct an evacuation should one be ordered.

“We have the military capability to do whatever is directed by the president of the United States with respect to our allies and those that have worked with us,” he said. “And I consider it a moral imperative to take care of those that have served along our side. We are prepared to execute whatever we are directed.”