The Taliban believe they can win the war in Afghanistan militarily, the Pentagon’s top spokesperson said Monday as the United States marked a major milestone in its withdrawal from Afghanistan with the departure of the last in-country commander of U.S. troops.
“It is clear from what they are doing that they have governance designs, certainly, of a national scale,” Pentagon press secretary John KirbyJohn KirbyOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — The Quad confab Top nuclear policy appointee removed from Pentagon post: report Pentagon 'aware' of reports Wisconsin military base's struggle to feed, heat Afghan refugees MORE said about the Taliban at a press briefing Monday. “It is clear from what they are doing that they believe there is a military solution to the end of this conflict.”
"They clearly have governance designs of a national character because you can see it in the districts that they are trying to challenge and/or have occupied," he added.
Kirby’s comments come after Gen. Scott Miller, who has commanded U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan since 2018, earlier Monday handed over command of any remaining U.S. operations in Afghanistan to U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie, who will oversee the end of the withdrawal from his headquarters in Florida.
While the Biden administration has said the withdrawal will officially conclude Aug. 31, Miller’s departure marked a symbolic end to America’s longest war.
“This ceremony marks an important milestone in the transition of our involvement in Afghanistan, but it’s not the end of the story. It’s rather the end of a chapter,” McKenzie said at a change-of-command ceremony in Kabul.
"You can count on our support in the dangerous and difficult days ahead. We will be with you," he added.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is nearing its end even as the Taliban rack up battlefield successes.
As of Monday, the Taliban controlled 212 districts and contested another 116, while the government controlled 70, according to a tracker maintained by Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Amid the Taliban gains, President BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE last week forcefully defended the withdrawal, rejecting assessments that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is “inevitable.”
On Monday, even as he said the Taliban believe they can win militarily, Kirby similarly rejected the idea that a Taliban victory is “inevitable” and stressed that U.S. officials “continue to believe that the most sustainable, the most responsible end and solution to this war is a political one, one through negotiated diplomacy.”
Kirby also insisted that Miller had and McKenzie now has the authority to call in airstrikes to assist Afghan forces battling the Taliban.
“It would be wrong to report that there's been no support to Afghan forces in the field during this drawdown,” Kirby said.
But Kirby declined to provide a specific example of U.S. forces conducting airstrikes in support of Afghan forces since the withdrawal started.
“What we're trying to do is protect our options going forward to make sure that the rest of this drawdown can be safe and orderly, and so we are being — I'll just say it — we're being fairly miserly about the kind of operational information we're putting out there,” Kirby said. “I know that's an adjustment from how over the last 20 years we've talked about this war and our involvement in it, but this is a delicate time.”
McKenzie told reporters traveling with him over the weekend that U.S. forces had conducted one strike against the Taliban in recent days, but that the ability to strike is limited because of a lack of U.S. personnel on the ground and intelligence to identify whether a strike would cause civilian casualties, according to The Washington Post.
McKenzie’s new role will have four focuses, Kirby said: protecting the U.S. diplomatic mission, securing the Kabul airport to enable the diplomatic mission, continuing to provide “appropriate advice and assistance” to Afghan forces, and supporting U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
In addition to McKenzie, Rear Adm. Peter Vasely will lead the troops protecting the U.S. Embassy, a mission the Pentagon has dubbed U.S. Forces Afghanistan Forward.
Kirby declined to “speculate about a specific future presence” at the airport past the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline, citing ongoing talks with Turkey, which has offered to take the lead in securing the Kabul airport.
Kirby also declined to “speculate” about what McKenzie’s authorities will be to call in airstrikes against the Taliban past Aug. 31.